What makes us deserve a reward? Is it our effort? Many people try hard for years and fail. 33% of small businesses fail in the first ten years of operation. Do all those people deserve a slice of the economic pie because of their efforts? What about all the failed actors and artists and writers who ended up doing other jobs? At some point everyone tries to do something that doesn’t work out right. Trying and failing is part of being a human. One reward for failure is knowledge. We know more about ourselves and about the task at hand. We can better approach it next time. Perhaps we find out something about our motivations. Do I really want to own an ice cream shop on Balliol Avenue? Do people deserve an economic reward for effort? I’ll try not to be negative here, but the answer is no.
There are two important reasons for this. First of all, if it were possible to reward conscientious effort (which it isn’t), doing so would reward people for trying at anything, regardless of how good the result was. This undermines the main reason why incentives exist in a capitalist system. Now, contrary to what your economics professor will tell you, incentives are not there to reward effort and make people try hard. It turns out most people try hard at things for a lot of other reasons – they want to compete with their colleagues, they want to help their colleagues, they feel like they are achieving something, the alternative is really boring, when they’re lazy people treat them like arseholes, they have some lingering sense of public-spiritedness, or whatever. If you don’t believe me about this think about your time at university. Most of you will have a hobby or two along with your course – maybe it’s a society you’re involved in or some personal project at home – and a lot of you also have jobs. My question to you is this; do you work harder at your job, or your coursework, or your hobby? Almost all of us put our hobby first, then our coursework, and the job is something we just have to slog through to pay the bills, and most of the time when we’re we’re supposed to be concentrating on some task we’re thinking about Monster Much or whatever it is young people are interested in these days.
My point is, the job is the thing you are paid to do, and often you are paid more when you try harder, but it’s usually the thing you put the least effort into. You don’t put nearly as much effort into your job as your pokemon collection because unlike your job the pokemon collection actually means something to you. If at this stage in the article you’re someone who actually cares about your job and is screaming at me through your monitor, then the chances are it’s not because of the money you get from it. You probably really like your co-workers, or whatever it is you have to do. That or I’m just wrong. Anyway money matters, but not nearly as much as economists would like you to believe.
My point about financial incentives is that they don’t make you try hard. What they do is make you do something that is useful, and there is often a big difference. The coffee shop doesn’t care if you try to be a good waiter, they care if you are a good waiter. Some people will do a good job with effort, some will do a good job without it, and those who do badly will hopefully be offered work elsewhere. That’s the way capitalism works.
So what happens if the system starts rewarding effort? If we ignore the fact that this is practically impossible to do, it’s a terrible idea. Conscientious, well-meaning, hard working people fail all the time. It’s a part of life. I fail. You fail. Even Barack Obama gets some things wrong. It’s part of being a human being. If we think about how much effort is put into things that don’t work out, and compare it to how much effort that turns into success, the success looks almost insignificant. If the economic system started rewarding every single attempt at success that didn’t work out, there would be nothing left to reward success with.
Now I don’t want this to make people to think I’m some kind of miserable libertarian individualist who wants everyone to be exactly the same as me. I also have an important important positive message for you here. The truth is, failing doesn’t matter. No-one cares if you screw up. I’ve written so many half-plays and plot outlines that came to nothing I’ve stopped counting. But that doesn’t doesn’t mean anything to anyone. I don’t have to show other people my efforts if I don’t want to. Out of these failures come a few successes, and they wipe all the failures away. Think of your favourite idol. Whoever they are, they weren’t always what you admire them for. At some point they were just an ordinary boy or girl. They probably were pretty useless at whatever you admire them for at some point, even if it was only when they were a child. (Have you heard the sonatas Mozart wrote when he was five? Utter bollocks!). You don’t blame them for all those failures, because they don’t matter. What matters are the things you admire them for.
This doesn’t mean I’m some kind of Nietzsche-inspired superman theorist either. Success isn’t just about greatness. Some of the most enduring feelings of success come from the smallest of things. Today I had pasta with my brother and there was just enough pasta left in the packet to feed both of us without having to open another one. That’s a pretty big win in my book. The point is that we’re all a mixture of success and failure and that’s fine.
So, back to the problems with rewarding effort. There’s a moral problem with rewarding effort as well as a variety of practical ones. That’s not to say that effort is not intrinsically valuable. Of course effort matters. That’s where the phrase “at least I tried” comes from. If someone really tries their hardest, and that includes looking back, searching for answers, and if necessary asking for help, then they’ve done all they can. But we shouldn’t reward effort with money for the same reason we don’t reward it with anything else. If I want to go out with a girl and I write her poems and make her cakes and tell her the best jokes ever conceived in history, build a spaceship, fly her to the moon and then we literally play among the stars, but she just doesn’t like me, she won’t say, “Well you tried hard so I’ll go out with you”. In the end, it’s up to her to decide what she wants and needs. If I don’t fulfil that I can’t make myself deserve it by trying hard. People try at things all the time. Effort only really means anything to the person who makes it.
Again, I don’t want this to sound like negativity. My point is, you don’t need to worry about not succeeding. Everybody does nothing but not succeed until eventually they do succeed. And we shouldn’t give up on trying just because trying isn’t enough to deserve a reward. Unless we’re lucky, effort is the only thing we can do which gives us any chance of eventually getting a reward. And failure brings a lot of positives too, like knowledge, and …err… well, not much else. So much for avoiding negativity. Happy Christmas!