Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Incentive to Mediocrity

In my last post, I argued that greatness is increasingly unlikely to occur when society rewards talent so lavishly in its embryonic state. I would like to examine the issue from another perspective: is there, in fact, an incentive in modern life to be mediocre?

Throughout most of history, luxury was exceedingly rare, and only those at the pinnacle of power (think kings, dukes and the like) could harness sufficient economic resources to have it. This changed with the industrial revolution to some degree, but the real shift came with the advent of electricity and broadcast technology, which allowed for the first time most people to consume entertainment regularly. The advent of commercial air travel then allowed the non-elite to consume experiences (going to a beach in the winter, seeing exotic places or great art) with some regularity. After this, you no longer had to be a king to receive the best society has to offer, just moderatly wealthy: the top 1% of US households bring in more than $350,000 a year, which will pay for a very nice home, luxurious travel, and a damned big television.

So the incentives, perhaps, start to change for people. Is it worth it to kill yourself for your art, your science, your political platform, if you can achieve recognition and wealth without going quite that far? For those without genius-level talent, a great effort is necessary just to get to that elite level, and they will work extremely hard if they want all the perks of modern life. But the most gifted can achieve great success without supreme exertion: these are the people who 'make it look easy.'

I admit there is no proof to back up my idle theorizing, but the nature of modern luxury seems to offer at least a partial explanation for why society has produced so few truly great individuals in the post-WWII era.

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