Value is difficult to define because it depends on context. Instrumental value is the value that something or someone can achieve or attain. It is derivative by nature, and can fluctuate based on the desirability of the outcome. The instrumental value of a can of beans, for instance, changes based on how hungry you are. Intrinsic value, on the other hand, is the inherent worth of something through its sheer existence. It does not fluctuate, nor does it need to achieve or attain anything to garner that value.
Instrumental value is how we apply the term in economics. The market dictates the cost of goods and services and we can exchange our money for something of equivalent value. A one-dollar bill may buy you that can of beans, but that requires us to extract instrumental value from that dollar. By itself, it is just a small piece of green paper. The can of beans, on the other hand, has more intrinsic value. It consists of caloric energy, sugars, carbohydrates, all of which are essential properties and require no exchange to be valuable.
So what kind of value do we place on people in the US in 2021? I’d like to believe we value individuals intrinsically, that they don’t have to earn it. But that is not the reality. Instead our social institutions and cultural norms reflect our emphasis on instrumental value. We value what can be extracted from or earned by individuals.
Some examples. Veterans would be treated better if we valued their service. Employers would raise wages—and consumers would fit the bill—if we valued labor. A college degree would not plunge you into debt if we valued education. The Affordable Care Act wouldn’t be continually under attack if we valued physical health. The elderly would not suffer disproportionate loneliness if we valued mental health. School shootings would not occur if we valued children over guns. Customers would wear a mask if we valued essential workers. Black people wouldn’t be incarcerated at a rate four times higher than white people if black lives mattered. The LGBTQ+ community would not be constantly battling in the Supreme Court if we valued civil rights. Wages would not be stagnant if we valued ‘hard work’. Childcare would be factored into our GDP if we valued families. The death penalty would not subsist if we valued the sanctity of life. Poverty would not exist if we valued human dignity.
In each case (and there are many more), the institution is broken. The value is not placed on individuals, rather it is ascribed to the output they produce. We do not intrinsically value ‘hard work’, only the instrumental value we decide your type of work is worth. We will gripe when restaurant prices increase, but not mind that the person making our food needs a second job to afford rent. We thank veterans for their service and wish moms a Happy Mother’s Day, but our socioeconomic system values veterans and working mothers them less than, say, accountants and lawyers. Instrumental value is derived from a societal judgment about what matters, and I believe we have a value misalignment in our incentive structure.
This is not an attack on capitalism, democracy, or meritocracy. It is an observation on the contradiction of our American rhetoric, leaving us two options to attain consistency. The first is easy: match the message to reality. Proceed with business as usual—but stop pretending we value each other intrinsically. Continue an economy where CEOs benefit from a pandemic while their employees suffer. Write more tax codes that give Jeff Bezos a $4,000 child tax credit. Treat job-seekers as ungrateful for wanting better wages. Create voting laws that disproportionately impact people of color. Ban teaching critical race theory in schools. If we choose this path, we simply need to change our words to match our actions. I am not encouraging this, but at least we will be consistent.
The second option is much more challenging: match reality to the message. There are countless considerations: a universal basic income, climate change coalitions, free community college, minimum wage increases, reparations, a negative income tax, an ultra-millionaire tax, hazard pay for pandemic essential workers. But there are also ways to demonstrate we value people intrinsically without financial investment. We can change our mindset by making Juneteenth a Federal Holiday, applying Title IX protections to LGBTQ+ students, and not calling poverty a choice.
It sounds pie-in-the-sky to think that reshaping our value system could fix our norms and institutions. These policies and programs are far from perfect. But humans are not perfect, so why would our solutions be? If, however, we strive to form a more perfect Union, we should ascribe value to people for who they are, not just for what they do. I’m pulling for option 2.
Colin Gabler is a writer at heart.