Despise, Denounce, but Exploit

As a kid, I wanted to be a martyr.

Not, like, John the Baptist style – my head can stay right where it is, thanks Salome – just to the extent of suffering righteously for a cause. A combination of my religious upbringing, middle class guilt, and a slightly overindexed empathy quotient was the origin of this wish.

I saw problems all over the world: poverty in developing countries, homeless people on the streets, epidemics, war, famine, suffering and sorrow everywhere. Fires were burning my brothers and sisters all over the globe, and my strongest instinct was to help by plunging in and letting my singed flesh bear witness.

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As with so many stories from my younger days: great instinct, terrible implement plan.

The self-immolation reflex is particularly common among a certain breed of liberal thinkers. It’s a twisted view on duty: I know that there is this terrible aspect of an institution I believe in, and I wish for a world where that wasn’t the case, so I will act as though everything were already fantastic, in the hopes that this will somehow help to bring it about. I’ll send my child to a public school even though I know that public schools are in a terrible state. I’ll sort my recycling even though I know that everything goes into the same waste disposal centre in the end.

There’s certainly a laudable aspect to this. Fighting a losing battle on principle is classic epic ballad material. But mostly it’s a sucker’s game, designed to keep you in the realm of winning symbolic victories rather than real, meaningful, system-changing victories.

Look at Warren Buffett. I truly believe that he sincerely wishes that the loopholes in the tax code would be closed, even though this would end up costing him money. But in the meantime, does he pay the amount of tax he thinks that he ought to pay? Hell no! He pays just what he owes, and finds as many ways to minimise his tax bill as the next billionaire does.

As he should.

Or Ryan Holiday. His book Trust Me, I’m Lying, about the dark arts of PR in the age of the internet, makes quite clear how despicable he finds the manipulative practices he outlines. But each chapter is about some shady play that he himself applied to great effect. He knows the system is broken and corrupt, and he wrote the book to tell the world – but he’ll continue making the most of his skills in playing the dirty game.

As he should.

Or finally, take the Epsilon Theory blog. Ben and Rusty’s articles were the inspiration for this post (here’s a good example). They rage, rage against markets and institutions such as the Fed being turned into political tools, and about what they (following Yeats) term the ‘widening gyre’ of societal polarisation. They make no secret of their contempt for the perpetrators of these trends, and yell from the rooftops how much destruction they are causing. But in the next breath, they then go on to explain how they plan to ride these waves to make money.

As they should.

Because all of these people know the secret: the most compelling proponents of reform are those who are successful members of the system. Complaints from those who have been burned by the fire too often seem like the sour grapes accusations of a sore loser. Plus, winners have resources and power to use as a megaphone, whereas losers are marginalised by definition.

Despise, denounce, but exploit.