When my children and I play games, we often have very different objectives. My son, for example, plays to win no matter what the game. My daughter and I, however, have different criteria. If we’re playing Go Fish for Art, for example, we care as much about collecting the paintings we love as winning the game. (I consider I’ve won if I get the Marc Chagall books, even if I come in last.) When we play Life, we try to add lots of children to our cars, especially by landing on the “twins” square.
Real life can be like the game. If you’re having children, for example, you’re not playing to “win.” And that is my first point. Most of us don’t. For most of us, money is an unfortunate necessity that we hope to get out of the way so that we can forget about it; so that we can focus on what we find meaningful. And the world depends on people like us.
A successful civilization allows its citizens to forsake the single-minded, competitive pursuit of stockpiling resources in order to educate the young; care for the old and infirm; respond to emergencies; expand our knowledge of ourselves and the universe; and bring meaning to our lives. Civilization facilitates the move from Darwinian struggle to meaningful work. It also takes care of those who keep our streets clean, etc.
When the game of life changes, however; when these pursuits no longer give us a decent living, or when we become beholden to those who only play to win, then we’re all in trouble. And something like that has been happening over the course of the last 30 years. Our economy is primarily rewarding those who play to win and the rest of us are more and more beholden to them.
When we try to talk about it, however, some accuse us of wanting to punish success. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just that not all of us define success according to the game, the rules of which assign value in terms of money. If we measured success in terms of service, however, many of us would beat out today’s biggest winners of the game. It’s that kind of success, whose icons are Maria Montessori, Florence Nightingale, Jonas Salk and Albert Einstein rather than Jamie Diamond, that is getting punished and that we want to reward.
And this brings me to another way in which real life is like a game. It’s that the moves of a player only make sense within the game being played; they only create value within it. There is no reason to hit a tennis ball on one side of a painted line or the other, for example, apart from the rules designating “in” and “out.” If you didn’t know them, you’d think the players crazy. And so it is with life. We play a game whose rules create value, but often the value only holds within the context of the game. Outside it, we look crazy.
Consider the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot, Ken Langone. I like his store. It’s a great place to buy paint and door frames if you’re redoing a room. But no matter what led to Home Depot’s rise to the top (greater efficiency, better marketing), Mr. Langone’s billions are only partly due to that service. Part of the billions have to do with the rules of the game — especially the fact that he can mass market, something the hardworking and ingenious Florence Nightingales can’t do (there’s no product). So Langone should certainly be rewarded. But is his contribution to society worth 35,714 Maria Montessoris or Albert Einsteins? That’s just crazy.
And even though I like Home Depot, I won’t be returning. The reason is because Langone doesn’t understand this. He takes himself too seriously; so much so that he has threatened Pope Francis by suggesting that he might withhold charitable funding from the church if the pope doesn’t get his act together and change his tune. So the hardware man presumes to instruct the pope on the gospel and craft his message.
And that brings me to my final point. Money, property and ownership are forms of power — the very power that civilization was meant to tame. After all, Langone can’t threaten the pope because he knows more about the gospel or is closer to Jesus, but rather because he has the money. Without civilization to curb such power, might makes right and money buys God’s word and everything else.
Mary Barker teaches political science at Syracuse University’s study abroad program in Madrid, Spain, and at the Universidad Pontificia Comillas. She is currently on leave to conduct research and is teaching at Salt Lake Community College.