It’s a comforting illusion to believe that world is just, and people get what they deserve. But are you keeping yourself small in the name of comfort?
The more time I spend in this game, and the more people I meet trying to get their financial lives in order, the more surprised I am by some of the ideas that are out there.
The one that really baffles me is the idea that if you just keep your head-down, slog away at your job for 50 years and pay your taxes, there will be some sort of golden-casket reward waiting for you at the end of the rainbow.
This is what I call a ‘watermark’ idea. It’s not there on the surface. If you asked most people if they believed that a good, obedient life would win them rewards either here or in the hereafter, most people would say that they didn’t believe that.
But hold them up to the light, measure them by their actions and not just their words, and you can see the imprinting of this idea at their core.
There is a profoundly widespread idea that ‘good things happen to good people’. That at some great cosmic level, there is some sort of Robin Hood type deity, redistributing wealth and happiness away from the arrogant and deceitful, in favour of the humble and good.
We might call it Karma (though everything I know about Karma I learnt from Woman’s Day, so I wouldn’t be surprised to find out it actually has totally different meaning in Indian philosophy.)
Or ‘people get what’s coming to them’.
That if you’re a selfish, lying bastard who embezzles money from orphanages to invest in African gold mines, you’ll get your “just deserts”.
But if you’re righteous in action, humble in ambition, modest in dress and considerate in your comments on social media, the world will look after you.
“What goes around, comes around.”
It’s an idea that stuffs our language, and fills our fairy stories. The Christmas Grinch gets his come-uppance. Cinderella gets her prince.
And I guess I used to believe it too. That somewhere, somehow, there was an ‘order’ to things. Good deeds were rewarded. Bad deeds were punished.
But that’s not how it is, is it?
The world is a scarier place than even the darkest forests of our fairy tales. Injustices perpetuate over centuries. Ruling cliques entrench themselves for generations. They grow old, fat and happy on the bones and the blood of their peasants. The Sydney Swans win premierships and as far as we can tell there are no consequences.
If the books are ever balanced, it doesn’t happen here.
And it would be fine if it was a belief that only played out in fairy stories. But you see it all the time.
And it was one of the big challenges when I staked my financial future on being an entrepreneur and a property investor.
For my parents and my family, it was too far outside the box. Why take on all that risk? Just keep your head down, pay your taxes, and things will work out.
— Unless I can see that in writing I’m not taking the chance, Mum. Besides, 50 quiet years of wage-slavery isn’t quite the life I’ve got planned.
The younger Jon used to get angry about it. I thought maybe it was some vast government conspiracy to keep us small. Maybe subliminal messages in television and chemicals in the cereal were keeping us compliant and quiet – disposable cogs in a soulless, forest-destroying, baby-eating money machine.
But then I realised that governments are incompetent. Most couldn’t organise a root in a brothel with an international aid budget at their disposal.
So I started wondering if this was just another one of these crazy things that we do to ourselves.
Turns out I’m not the only one. Psychologist call it the Just-World Fallacy – the unevidenced belief that justice is the order of the world.
And it’s a bias. People who hold this view tend to see the world through that lens. If something good or bad happens to someone, it’s because they deserve it. It’s because something in their character or essential worthiness created that result.
There were some important studies in the sixties that showed people performing puzzles and seemingly getting electro-shocked when they didn’t do well. People rated different aspects of the puzzle-solving characters. Those that got more shocks were seen much more negatively – not just on puzzle solving ability (obviously), but on character, intelligence, and looks – even virtue.
The same thing happened when one of the puzzlers was randomly awarded a large sum of money. People were told that the prize was randomly awarded, but never the less, they thought the winner was more virtuous, better looking, more intelligent, more charismatic….
People needed to believe that there was an order to things. They needed to believe that the people being punished or rewarded deserved it. Presented with evidence that rewards were just random, they just refused to believe it.
Personally, I think as an idea it’s a comforting sedative. If there is a god of justice, then the world isn’t really the horrifying free-for-all it appears to be. If there is justice, then we don’t really, truly have to face how scary the world is, or how alone we really are.
And we don’t have to take risks either. We don’t have to pit our skills against the cut and thrust of modern commerce. We don’t have to research, take educated gambles, lose…
All we have to do is just do what we’re told, and don’t rock the boat. The golden watch of divine balance will be waiting for us at retirement.
The just world fallacy is another reason why we need to steel ourselves to the challenge of manifesting our own financial futures. It isn’t easy.
The reality is that no ones going to save you. No one even cares.