I oppose merit pay for teachers in part because no system – certainly not multiple choice tests, principals’ judgments, or peer review – can be fair. But I have, as well, a deeper, more fundamental objection. I have never understood why one worker should be paid more than another.
Surely, from our human perspective, since every individual is of unique and incalculable value, every person’s work shift, contributed toward the common store of goods and services, is an equal depletion of the worker’s time on earth. Why should one be compensated more than another? In this highly socialized society with the division of labor at such a height that a single product requires the contribution of thousands of workers we all must do some part to provide what we all consume.
A critic may object that such a system would fly in the face of human nature and enable mediocrity in the workplace. This claim assumes the culturally-bound assumption that people are all greedy and motivated primarily by the ambition to climb atop their fellow-citizens. This is clearly not the case. For over nine-tenths of human history, our species has survived through “primitive communism.” Palaeolithic people shared whatever they caught or found with the entire group, including aged, ill, and handicapped individuals. The means of production (that is, nature itself) was communally owned. Any advantage that accrued to particularly productive individuals was symbolic: admission to an elite society, the right to wear prestigious ornaments, and the like.
Even today many groups would find economic stratification ugly and immoral. Guatemalan peasants who do better than their neighbors will donate the excess to finance a fiesta (very like the potlatches of the old Northwest Coast). In the developed world Japanese and in Norwegians limit salary disparities; display of wealth is thought in poor taste. Far from being universal, American greed is exceptional.
Furthermore, even in the heart of Babylon many Americans currently ignore the powerful ideological brainwashing that declares money to be the sole end of life. Have not we all known people whose work and home life is ordered not by cash but by values such as family, art, politics, charity, religion, or love of knowledge?
As a matter of fact, far from distributing appropriate rewards, the current hierarchy rewards idleness at the expense of truly useful labor? Experience has taught me that salary and status are inversely related to productivity. Production workers in an auto plant are active throughout the shift doing the work of producing cars, while white collar employee invariably loaf a significant percentage of the day. Office work is often concerned with symbolic manipulation -- letters, reports, and meetings – many of which have no effect whatever. In the educational setting every schoolteacher is on stage constantly -- discerning, inventing, strategizing, and problem-solving – whereas every principal I have ever observed sought distractions to soothe the otiose hours. University professors do the research which is the unique role of higher education, while the administrators are rather like the custodians, necessary perhaps to maintain the operation, but in a decidedly supportive position, yet who receives the bigger checks? The same relation applies downward as upward. University adjuncts work harder and are paid less than regular faculty. During my brief spell in private industry, a textbook publisher, the work was done by editorial assistants while those in corner offices seemed to dream away the day. Head librarians gaze at Publisher’s Weekly while their underlings do the work of the institution. The administrative assistant is of most useful and least paid in the office. Big shots get endless perks and golden parachutes while the lowest paid workers do without any benefits at all and no thought of severance.
Similarly, alienated and demanding work like physical labor or industrial production is little-rewarded, while engaging, satisfying work such as a physician’s gets the gold. Closer to the top of the capitalist food chain, the owner lives on profit, extracted from his employees’ surplus value, the wealth that they create but do not receive in pay. What the IRS calls “unearned income” is quite simply that; though they are coddled by the taxman, those who get dividends, interest, and rent are drones indeed, producing nothing whatsoever. Yet they are well-rewarded for their uselessness. In the affluent suburb of my childhood, my mother ruefully commented, “No one gets rich from income, they get rich from investments.” Meanwhile our clothes are made and our produce tended by people working in semi-feudal positions.
The very most creative work is done by the low-paid (poets, artists, professors, scientists doing pure research). Einstein was on no payroll for his early work developing Relativity nor was Eliot when he wrote The Wasteland. It maligns our species to claim that people will only work to get ahead of their neighbors.
Perhaps a half-century ago, it became possible for everyone in the world to live in abundance while cutting work hours dramatically. Already two percent of American farmers raise surpluses for all the rest of us. Factory output could be the same. The fact is that without waste we would need work only a brief time every day, freeing ourselves for the unalienated pursuit of individual interests. Instead people starve for lack, not of food, but of money. People fight wars over resources when plenty is available to all.
Even in this utopian vision, there would doubtless be a few odd ducks who would resent economic democracy. Should someone feel the itch to have more than others, that person might work longer hours, sacrificing time for the sake of a number in a bank account. I suspect his associates would consider him no worse than slightly neurotic, but at any rate harmless. He would, at least, be unable to suck the life from others and despoil the planet as those of similar tastes do today.