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Doing whatever it takes

By Mirko Bagaric - posted Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Don’t condemn Marion - cheating is part of our culture.

Cheating in order to get an edge is not confined to Olympic athletes. Millions of Australians have done it at some point in their lives. That’s why we should be slow to utterly condemn US sprinter Marion Jones who has admitted to taking performance enhancing drugs leading up to her gold winning performances at the Sydney Olympics.

In theory, we all want to live in a meritocracy, whereby people succeed or fail purely based on their capacity to perform the task at hand. Thus, we want the most (naturally) talented and hard-working athlete to finish first, the brightest students to get into the best courses, the best business ideas to succeed and the most dedicated and resourceful person to get the important job.


Yet, in practice many people spend much of their resources trying to get ahead by means of anything other than their ability. And what’s more, in the community this conduct is widely sanctioned.

The practice I am referring to is in polite terms called networking. It involves hanging around and pretending to like people you have no interest in. In more realistic terms it’s called “sucking-up”. The reason it is done is singular: in order to get beyond one’s station in life.

We hate cheats because they distort the proper operation of a merit based system. For the market of benefits and burdens to operate most efficiently and fairly the spoils should go to the individual who best can excel at the relevant activity. Cheats, of the Marion Jones (and before her, Ben Johnson) type, betray this ideal by forging beyond their ability.

Networkers do precisely the same thing. They beat people with greater ability to the prize for the sole reason that they had the temerity to source out a person who had some influence over the allocation of the relevant resource, whether it be a job, educational place or business contract.

Regrettably this is stock-in-trade behaviour for many Australians. Part of the reason that many parents send their kids to top (expensive) schools is so that they can get to know future industry heavyweights and the only reason that some people pay hundreds of dollars to meet politicians is in the hope that it will give them an edge - of course, in the non-competitive sense.

There is no wriggle room for the pathological social climbers to justify their conduct on any basis other than cheating. Let’s suppose that studies established that networking had absolutely no effectiveness in conferring an advantage. How many people and businesses would still engage in the practice? About zero.


This response admittedly involves a degree of speculation, but we can take a fair degree of confidence in it from the absence of social workers, public school teachers, trolley boys (and girls) and philosophers gracing the inside of corporate boxes - no matter how sparking their personalities. In the end, networking occurs because people believe that the sucking up will confer a benefit to them.

Networking is nothing more than an attempt to gain an advantage on the basis of criteria which has nothing to do with the merits of the relevant activity. It is reprehensible for the same reason as drug cheating Olympians.

Of course, drug taking is illegal whereas networking is permissible. However, this merely highlights the disunity that often exists between law and morality.

Many people attempt to justify their networking activities on the basis that it is so commonplace that they must engage it in order to merely keep pace with the competition - which no doubt is the main reason that Marion Jones took drugs.

At least Marion Jones has apologised for her conduct. Unfortunately, I sense that networkers are far less corrigible - it is hard to learn anything when you spend much of your time sucking up.

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About the Author

Mirko Bagaric, BA LLB(Hons) LLM PhD (Monash), is a Croatian born Australian based author and lawyer who writes on law and moral and political philosophy. He is dean of law at Swinburne University and author of Australian Human Rights Law.

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