Economic decisions, such as whether to hire someone or buy something, frequently depend on information we do not have and cannot get. How able is the potential employee? How hard working? How honest? How much will you enjoy that this computer game or that novel?
One imperfect solution to this problem is the use of proxies. The fact that the man you are considering hiring has a college degree does not prove that he is either able or hard working, but it is evidence that he was at least sufficiently able and sufficiently hard working to make it through four years of college. That may be why many employers require a college degree in potential hires even if it is in a subject that has nothing to do with what they are being hired for. After an author has written one successful novel he has an easier time finding both a publisher and readers for the next, since both publishers and readers use the quality of the first book as a proxy for the quality of the second.
This story is about the misuse of a proxy. On average, people who are cannot read or write are less able than people who can. If all you know about someone is that he is illiterate, that is a reason not to hire him. But that is not all that the vicar and the churchwardens know about their verger. The fact that he has done his job competently for many years is better evidence of how he will do it in the future than his inability to read. Insofar as being illiterate makes him less qualified for the job he must have other characteristics that more than outweigh that one. The vicar is using an almost irrelevant proxy instead of the more relevant information available to him. Just how irrelevant it is becomes clear when Albert Edward, having lost his job as verger, converts himself into a successful entrepreneur.
Seen from a different angle, the story is about what the rational actor of economic theory maximizes. A common misunderstanding of economics is to see its subject as money, its assumption that individuals act to make as much money as possible. The actual assumption is that individuals have objectives and act to achieve them. Making more money is a good thing, but not the only good thing. The end of the story demonstrates that Albert Edward can make much more money as an entrepreneur than as a verger, but there is no implication that he was making a mistake by choosing to remain a verger until forced out by the vicar. That position gave him what he wanted–an adequate income and a role in life that he enjoyed.
The story is also about the English class system. The vicar and the churchwardens are upper class, the verger servant class. The vicar assumes that his status makes him competent to make decisions for the verger. The verger does not make that mistake–having been ordered by his class superiors to learn to read and write he politely declines. He understands the vicar and the churchwardens better than they understand him, knows that he is doing a better job at being a verger, “in that state of life in which it 'as pleased a merciful providence to place me,” than the vicar is doing of being a vicar. His success as an entrepreneur is evidence that his self-evaluation was correct–in 1936, when the story was published, thirty thousand pounds was a lot of money. Adjusting for inflation, it was the equivalent of about two million pounds or two and a half million dollars today.
A contrast to Maugham’s account of the vicar getting his role in the class system wrong is provided by two works by Kipling, a short story and a poem, about people getting it right. To Kipling the class system is not a hierarchy of ability but a division of labor. The gentry have their role, which includes pushing their tenants into bringing their sick child to a doctor. The tenants have their role, which includes pushing the gentry into making the right decisions in matters that fall under the tenant’s expertise.
The story, “An Habitation Enforced,” is about a wealthy American couple who have bought an estate in England and gradually realize, as they slip into the role of English gentry, that some of the decisions about the estate will be and should be made by the tenants who are their nominal inferiors.
A footbridge is to be rebuilt:
"An' I've nothin' to say against larch--IF you want to make a temp'ry job of it. I ain't 'ere to tell you what isn't so, sir; an' you can't say I ever come creepin' up on you, or tryin' to lead you further in than you set out--"
A year ago George would have danced with impatience. Now he scraped a little mud off his old gaiters with his spud, and waited.
"All I say is that you can put up larch and make a temp'ry job of it; and by the time the young master's married it'll have to be done again. Now, I've brought down a couple of as sweet six-by-eight oak timbers as we've ever drawed. You put 'em in an' it's off your mind or good an' all. T'other way--I don't say it ain't right, I'm only just sayin' what I think--but t'other way, he'll no sooner be married than we'll lave it all to do again. You've no call to regard my words, but you can't get out of that."
"No," said George after a pause; "I've been realising that for some time. Make it oak then; we can't get out of it."
“The Land” makes the same point in a succession of vignettes in each of which the decision of how to deal with the land is made not by the nominal owner, Roman, Dane, Norman, or modern, but by Hobden, a local who, unlike the owner, knows what needs doing.
"Hob, what about that River-bit ?" I turn to him again,
With Fabricius and Ogier and William of Warenne.
"Hev it jest as you've a mind to, but"—and here he takes command.
For whoever pays the taxes old Mus' Hobden owns the land.