Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) claimed there are no facts only interpretations. In his view there was no objective fact about what has value in itself – culture consisted of beliefs developed to perpetuate a particular power structure. The system, if followed by the majority of the people, supports the interests of the dominant class. For Nietzsche power, strength and dominance, and control are of the highest value. Morality that supports ideas such as equality, and virtues like humility and pity, he claimed, were artificial boundaries that constrain the strong from reaching their full potential.
It is generally accepted what made civilization possible was the invention of agriculture, but more fundamentally than agriculture were ethics. For only through ethics is it possible for large groups of people to live together. Agriculture was clearly necessary to support a large sedentary population, but there would have been no significant grouping of co-operative people to invent agriculture if they did not have a unifying, objectively valid code to begin with. Fundamental ethical principles include concern for the well-being of others and an obligation to bring about good in all our actions. We have an obligation to respect the autonomy of others, which includes respecting the decisions made by other people concerning their lives. We have an obligation to prevent harm to others, or at least don’t increase the risk of harm to others. In public life we have an obligation to treat all people equally, and fairly, refusing to take unfair advantage of them. These principles are applied equally to all people, with no distinction between strong and weak, and are what we expect of one another without needing to articulate the expectation or formalize it in any way.
Nietzsche, in contrast, viewed the imposition of the will of the strong over the weak as an inevitable consequence of nature. Nietzschean behaviour is not predicated on the good and the bad, but only on the strong and the weak. The strong seek their self-interest without inhibition of conscience, while the weak have no means of resistance. Nietzschean political culture is clearly bad by being unethical. There are economic consequences of the unethical exercise of authority. Societies where the strong behave unethically can be shown to be inefficient and the cost of these inefficiencies is born exclusively by the weak.1
The two sources of inefficiency in the Nietzschean society are (1) that the weak are not working (no work, lack of transportation to jobs, etc.); (2) that resources are diverted from productive activity when the strong attempt to appropriate. The greater the likelihood for the weak to be productive (make more money); the greater the likelihood the strong will spend resources in appropriation. The corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) develops model bills such as No Rights at Work bill (promoted under the guise of creating jobs and job security) and bills attacking prevailing wage, minimum wage and living wage laws (that support a wage suppression agenda). Americans for Prosperity, funded by the Koch brothers, supports ALEC, as well as pushes other anti-worker, pro-business agenda by supporting union-busting activities such as concession bargaining. These activities benefit global corporations and billionaires, not the workers or the weak.
In a Nietzschean society people who do not work (or who do not work consistently) are not parasites encouraged to be lazy by misplaced benevolence, but merely the weak confronting the strong. Poverty becomes institutionalized – poorer schools, poorer transport, and the weak are left behind in their own cities. Because the strong are unaffected by the inefficiencies of the economic system, they have no personal incentive to implement a program to correct the source of the inefficiencies, and a policy dialogue aimed at reforms cannot expected to be effective.
Interactions between the strong and the weak are repeated over time. With repeated encounters the weak announce they are prepared to work, but they will never work again if their output is ever appropriated. However, the threat of the weak that the appropriation (the action) will trigger indefinite withdrawal of their productive effort is an empty one. 1 The utility of the strong is to maximize their value (profits) by such actions as moving manufacturing plants. When strong unions got good wages for the workers in Detroit, the car manufacturers moved the industry to states with weaker unions and lower wages. Detroit and the suburbs are now a tale of two cities – one city with such things as excellent schools, rapid response security and efficient transportation, and the other city, Detroit, at the opposite extreme with terrible schools, high crime and third-rate services.
Democracy is inconsistent with the Nietzschean principle that the strong are destined by nature to do as they wish to the weak. In the face of perceived political change, the strong have an interest in the rule of law and the assurance of the rights of ownership. The interest in the rights of ownership is more pressing for the strong than for the weak. A democracy favors or provides an opportunity for the re-distribution of the property of the strong. The strong expend resources to secure a plutocracy (government by the wealthy) to ensure their vulnerability to appropriation by the weak through voting by the majority is countered.
The tax base is more extensive when the weak are productive and provide taxable income. In an efficient system both the strong and the weak are productive. In this model, the strong gain by having the weak share in the financing of public expenditures. This arrangement is only effective in changing the behavior of the strong provided the strong place sufficient weight on long term benefits – the strong have an interest in circumstances where the weak are consistently productive. However, the corporation’s imperative for short-term profits and providing managers maximum compensation creates an obstacle to this alternative. In fact, to ensure this model works in depressed economies the strong call for opportunistic cuts in corporate taxes with corresponding reduction in government programs.
Karl Marx (1818-1883) observed societies with poverty and inequality, and, in response, developed a theory based on exploitation and class antagonism. Marx proposed the solution of collectivization of property. His thought is not the comprehensive system evolved by some of his followers under the name of dialectical materialism. The very dialectical nature of his approach meant that it was usually tentative and open-ended. Marx sought to end exploitation, but the system that sought to apply his ideas gave rise to its own version of exploitation of the weak by the strong.1
Nietzsche explains how social constructs of guilt and conscience work to control us by burning moral values into memory. He says we must let go of these inscribed memories to be liberated from obstructions that inhibit intensity. Because the weak alone bear the cost of inefficiency, the strong have no incentive to introduce efficiency enhancing change to break the cycle of poverty, and society remains under the rule of the strong, and not the rule of the law. Without interventions many unemployed and under employed workers will either endure sustained periods out of work or drop out of the labor market entirely leading to permanent skills erosion. The consequence of the prolonged recession for workers in manufacturing related industry is long-term unemployment. Consequently, one finds broad poverty in the midst of selective and privileged plenty.
Nietzsche believed that true genius is innate and never acquired – one is born superior which determined social rank. This Nietzschean hierarchy is none other than a meritocracy – a system of success based on persons luckiest in health and genetic endowment, luckiest in social and economic resources. Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 describes the development of a meritocracy in the US – a ‘new upper class’ that still hews to traditional American values of industriousness and intact families, and a ‘new lower class’ in which hard work and marriage are, fatally, no longer the norm. Murray’s new upper class is smart, marry within itself, and flourish as a self-sustaining upper class. In the US, lower-income Americans have a higher incidence of a range of diseases. Lower income Americans are much more likely – risk ratio of 2.52 – to die from cardiovascular disease than highest income Americans (US Department of Health and Human Services 1998). There are three main ways in which low income contributes to cardiovascular disease. Low income is associated with material depravation during early life and adult, excessive psychological stress, and the adoption of health threatening coping behaviours. Each of these serves as a pathway from low income to cardiovascular disease – the leading cause of mortality among Canadian and US citizens.2
Nietzsche’s philosophy is pessimistic – life is disappointing and that for every satisfaction that occurs there are many more negative experiences. Neitzschean behavior yields pessimistic conclusions about economic progress. Over the last couple of years we have been told to get used to the new normal. The new normal is characterized by slow economic growth and what some call a ‘natural’ rate of unemployment that is higher than in the past. This is creating a chronic under class that years of entitlements have not significantly reduced. The pessimism is consistent with the growing inequality between the rich and the poor following the economic debacle of 2008 – the consequence of Wall Street bankers manipulating the system and almost tanking the economy. Five years later the overall economy has still not recovered and remains a dysfunctional system in which the burden of insecurity is borne by the weak.
Accountability is the key requirement of good governance. Accountability is about the obligation to answer for one’s actions. In addition to being responsible for one’s actions, one may be required to explain them to others. A government is accountable to those who will be affected by its decisions or actions. Central to the principle of accountability is information sharing and transparency, which should be promoted by governance structures. Accountability cannot be enforced without transparency and the rule of law. Triggering these characteristics of good governance requires the recognition of the role of ethics in governance. The lack of good decision-making accountability and transparency of corporations puts us on track for becoming a Nietzschean society.
1Hillman, Arye L Poverty, Inequality, and Unethical Behavior of the Strong. IMF Working Paper, International Monetary Fund, 2000. http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/wp/2000/wp00187.pd
2 Raphael, Denis and E. Sarah Farrell. Beyond Medicine and Lifestyle: Addressing the Societal Determinants of Cardiovascular Disease in North America. Leadership in health Services 15/4 (2002).