Nothing Fails Like Success?


Resentment Against Achievement: Understanding the Assault upon Ability, by Robert Sheaffer, Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 198 pages, $19.95

Recent years have seen a spate of books on social decline. Allan Bloom pointed to moral relativism as a source of cultural decay. Robert Bellah and company fretted over decadent individualism. Paul Kennedy cautioned about the long-run effects of military spending imbalances.

A sleeper companion to these much-touted books is a somewhat less ambitious but duly intriguing and original contribution by a mathematician and Silicon Valley software developer named Robert Sheaffer. In Resentment Against Achievement Sheaffer presents a quirkily interesting alternative thesis to explain why nation-states go into eclipse.

"Throughout recorded human history, the ebb and flow of the love of achievement—and the resentment against its success—have been major forces behind the rise and fall of civilizations," Sheaffer writes. "While a civilization is in ascendance (which is to say, when the morality of achievement has the upper hand), people tend to derive their cultural and social ideals from the class above them.…But if and when resentment-morality gains the upper hand, civilization enters a slow decline.…lower-class values begin to spread upward." "If the achievers," he argues, "begin to identify more strongly with the complaints of these losers than with the accomplishments of people like themselves, they will become paralyzed by guilt, and the future will look bleak."

Sheaffer doesn't tie his argument closely to contemporary American events, but many readers will recall the last month of the recent presidential campaign, when Michael Dukakis discovered resentment politics. The smug "experts" who take scientific polls show me trailing, said Dukakis, and "the rich are already popping the champagne corks in their penthouses." But come election day, he warned, the righteous masses will deal a blow to these highfliers.

This mix, which the media called "populism," was absolutely classic resentment rhetoric—attacking the twin demons of financial success and intellectual achievement. And Dukakis wielded it as a potent weapon, sharply closing the gap on George Bush.

But resentment and revenge, Sheaffer says, are ultimately fruitless impulses. Successful societies, he argues, are those in which the less successful aim to imitate, rather than pull down, the high achievers.

Sheaffer reinterprets a wide range of social phenomena—from the causes of poverty to Soviet-American relations to environmentalism to rock music—in terms of resentment against achievement. "Poverty," he says, "is not 'caused' or created: it is the default condition of the human race, the absence of advanced economic development.…It is wealth that must be 'caused.'" His definition for the latter term is concise: "In a capitalist, free society, wealth is the consequence of a lifetime of commitments honored." Achievers tend to assume, Sheaffer states, that people who fail "were never offered a chance for success. The notion that the poor are simply living in accordance with their lower-class values never occurs to achievers."

Sheaffer argues against equality. "If all must be equal, then why should anyone ever strive to succeed? And if no one strives to succeed, then what becomes of civilization?"

He makes the case that the two main institutional reflections of achiever-resentment today are socialism (obviously) and (less obviously) Christian morality. He presents some trenchant criticism of Christianity's celebration of wretchedness ("Blessed are the poor") and hostility toward achievement (harder for a rich man to enter heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle).

Unfortunately, he mixes this with cartoonishly crude caricatures of religious belief. Sheaffer's religion is all miracles and fanaticism, a virtual synonym for ignorance and lassitude. Just one example of the inadequacy of such a characterization is Sheaffer's own citation of Fyodor Dostoevsky as a great achieving genius, overlooking the fact that Dostoevsky's writing is entirely suffused with his profound religiosity.

Not only here but elsewhere, Sheaffer has a tendency toward overassertion. He draws few distinctions between forms and grades of achievement. For him, achievement is essentially interchangeable with income level. Noneconomic successes and accomplishments (like, say, raising happy children) do not merit his consideration. Nor do situations in which income fails to represent real value. Obviously, the fact that Joyce Brothers and Jackie Collins sell 200 times as many copies of their books as does Robert Sheaffer doesn't mean their work is 200 times more valuable. The relative incomes of rock stars and engineering instructors are not faithful reflections of their achievements and contributions to society. And I would argue that there is even some basis for resentment in such instances.

It doesn't seem fair to reduce all objections to existing reward structures to "childish complaints emanating from adult bodies." (Sheaffer believes the roots of achiever-resentment lie in childhood chafings against adult control.) By failing to differentiate more carefully and acknowledge occasional distortions in our existing approximation of meritocracy, he weakens what is in the main a compelling thesis.

Moreover, a close examination of achievement really ought to grapple with some hard cases. What if a high-achievement ethic leads individuals to abandon their children, spouses, friendships? How are we to temper moneymaking when it threatens cultural heritage, historical treasures, or community ethics? (A very successful developer recently tried to build a nice shopping center in the midst of a Manassas battlefield, site of thousands of solemn American deaths.) Surely not every community verdict against "achievement" springs from resentment.

And I am not sure that Sheaffer accurately identifies the locus of achievement resentment. He points to "proletarian values" and the lower classes. Yet resentment, particularly as an ideological force, may be even more deeply rooted among certain of our highest-achieving classes—such as professors, artists, bureaucrats, and others who feel underappreciated in an individual-achievement society.

Karl Marx bent the term proletarian to describe industrial workers who lived exclusively by their labor. In the modern context, workers who get out of bed every day for hourly wages are not powerfully resentful. They are generally more interested in becoming J.R. Ewing than in sacking his estate. History shows that that proletariat is not the revolutionary class.

The original Roman meaning of proletariat was the nonpossessing, basically nonworking, class (heavily dependent upon the public dole) that served the state only by producing offspring (proles). That group, to which today's urban underclass is in many ways analogous, is indeed a resentful, and dangerous, class. But history again shows that unless it acts in concert with members of upper classes, this faction cannot seriously threaten societal productivity and order.

I therefore look toward alienated parties within the achievement classes themselves as the primary promulgators, apologizers, and transmitters of any resentment ethic that has force sufficient to impair social functioning. Resentment may be a primitive impulse of vulgar origins, but it flourishes only when it is fed and sustained from above. It is a pity that Sheaffer didn't turn his spotlight on upper-class achievers themselves and examine how some of them lose contact with the values and principles by which they attained their own success and society's prosperity.

Just the same, there is much to counterbalance the soft spots in this book. Its clear, brave, and timely message will engage anyone concerned with individual excellence and cultural achievement.

Karl Zinsmeister is a Washington, D.C.–based writer and adjunct research associate at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.