On the Emperor’s New Clothes

The class orientation of past regimes was public and open. The monarchy, the church, and the nobility ran matters for their own interest. In the last half of the 19th century during the first era of globalization the new rich were unrepresented in governing councils. However, during the second era of globalization, in the 21st century wealthy citizens have made their interests and presence felt – elected governments act on the basis of their interests. The rationality used to support the global corporations is the emperor’s new clothes for the laissez-faire economic system of small government and minimal regulation which first of all looks after its own welfare.1

The emperor was vain and his only worry in life was a healthy economy and good jobs for everyone. He loved to show off his success to the people.

Word of the emperor’s refined habits spread over his kingdom and beyond. Two weaver’s who heard of the emperor’s egoism decided to take advantage of it. They introduced themselves to the palace with a scheme in mind. The chief of the guards heard the weaver’s strange story and sent for the court chamberlain. The chamberlain notified the prime minister, who ran to the Emperor and disclosed the incredible news. The Emperor’s curiosity got the better of him and he decided to see the two weavers.

“We are two very good weavers and after many years of research we have invented an extraordinary process to weave an economic ideology so light and fine that it looks invisible. It is built around individualism (the belief that one’s place in the societal hierarchy – their occupational class, income and wealth, and power and prestige as well as the placement such as health and disease status – comes through one’s own efforts), and the right to make free choices which feeds consumer capitalism. As a matter of fact, it is invisible to anyone who is too stupid and incompetent to appreciate its quality.”

“Besides the consequences of this ideology being invisible, your Highness, this material being created will ensure ongoing economic growth.” The emperor agreed to reduce taxes and reduce government regulations in exchange for their promise to begin working on the idea immediately.

“Just tell us what you need to make it work and we’ll give it to you.” The two spinners asked for change from progressive to regressive taxes and then pretended to begin working. The Emperor thought he had modified his policies quite well: in addition to getting a new ideology to support job growth, he would discover which of his subjects were ignorant and incompetent. A few days later, he called the old and wise prime minister, who was considered by everyone as a man with common sense.

“Go and see how the work is proceeding,” the Emperor told him, “and come back to let me know.”

The prime minister was welcomed by the two spinners.

“We’re almost finished, but there is a need for a lot more money. Here, Excellency! Admire the clever ideas!” The old man bent over the document which described relying on a system to harness the selfishness of people and direct it to the public good, thus freeing itself from the need to depend unrealistically upon the uncertain moral virtues of its participants. He felt cold sweat on his forehead.

“I can’t see how this provides equal opportunities for all,” he thought. “If I see nothing, that means I’m stupid! Or, worse, incompetent!” If the prime minister admitted that he didn’t see anything, he would be discharged from his office.

“What a marvelous theory,” he said then. “I’ll certainly tell the Emperor.” The two spinners rubbed their hands gleefully. They had almost made it. More money was freed up to make the project work – the prime minister justified the reduction in the size of social safety nets, decreasing the eligibility for benefits, and reducing the absolute level of these benefits.

Finally, the Emperor received the announcement that the two spinners had come to take all the measurements needed to develop his new ideology.

“Come in,” the Emperor ordered. Even as they bowed, the two spinners pretended to be holding a large document.

“Here it is your Highness, the result of our labour,” the spinners said. “We have worked night and day but, at last, the most beautiful economic ideology in the world is ready for you. Look at the ideas and see how fine they are.” Of course the Emperor did not see any principles to back the theory – he observed that the decreased taxes and government services resulted in more money for the wealthy and served to both increase the incidence of poverty and  sustain people in poverty rather than lifting them out. He panicked and felt like fainting. But luckily the throne was right behind him and he sat down. But when he realized that no one could know that he did not see the new ideology providing equal opportunities, he felt better. Nobody could find out he was stupid and incompetent. And the Emperor didn’t know that everybody else around him thought and did the very same thing.

The farce continued as the two spinners had foreseen it. They identified other measures – the two identified how to trigger cuts to government programs cycling real or perceived crisis in tax revenues with ongoing tax cuts.

“Your Highness, you’ll have to try on your new ideas about controlling the welfare state.” The two spinners explained: “Markets are the best and most efficient allocators of resources in production and distribution; (2) societies are composed of individuals who have the ability to control their own destiny through their own decisions; (3) competition is the major market vehicle for innovations – there is little need for entitlements.” The Emperor was embarrassed but since none of his bystanders were, he felt relieved.

“Yes, this is a beautiful ideology and it looks very good to me,” the Emperor said trying to look comfortable. “You’ve done a fine job.”

“Your Majesty,” the prime minister said, “we have a request for you. The people have found out about this extraordinary ideology and they are anxious to see details behind it.” The Emperor was doubtful about showing the trickle down economic theory to the people, but then he abandoned his fears. After all, no one would consider it deficient except the ignorant and the incompetent.

“All right,” he said. “I will grant the people this privilege.” He summoned his carriage and the ceremonial parade was formed. A group of dignitaries walked at the very front of the procession and anxiously scrutinized the faces of the people in the street. All the people had gathered in the main square, pushing and shoving to get a better look. An applause welcomed the regal procession. Everyone wanted to know how stupid or incompetent his or her neighbor was but, as the Emperor passed, a strange murmur rose from the crowd.

Everyone said, loud enough for the others to hear: “Look at the Emperor’s new ideology. It’s beautiful!

“What a marvelous outline!”

“And the fonts! The packaging of that beautiful theory! I have never seen anything like it in my life!” They all tried to conceal their disappointment at not being able to see anything of substance, and since nobody was willing to admit his own stupidity and incompetence, they all behaved as the two spinners had predicted.

A concerned citizen, however, who had no vested interest and could only see things as his eyes showed them to him, went up to the procession.

“The naked truth is that this economic system supports the growing income gap and inequality between the wealthy and the poor,” he said.

“Fool!” the writer for the conservative think tank reprimanded, running after him, he cried, “Don’t talk nonsense!” and quickly emailed an article for the ‘Analysis and Comment’ section of the newspaper describing inequality as a complex factor not easily understood – everything is fine. But the concerned citizen’s remark, which had been heard by the bystanders, was repeated over and over again until everyone cried:

“The gentleman is right! The naked truth is that this economic system supports the growing income gap and inequality between the wealthy and the poor! It’s true!”

The Emperor realized that the people were right but could not admit to that. He thought it better to continue the procession under the illusion that anyone who couldn’t understand the theory was either stupid or incompetent. And he stood stiffly by his position, while off to one side a wealthy citizen looked on and smiled knowingly.

Kierkegaard Revisited: Proceedings from the Conference Kierkegaard and the Meaning of Meaning It. Ed. Niels Jorgen Cappelorn and Jon Stewart (1997) p 150.

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