Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby begins with the observation, "‘In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.‘ Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’" But most rich and successful people don’t heed that advice. As E. B. White said, 'Luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self- made men.' I saw a book titled ‘If you are so smart, why aren’t you rich?’ The immediate response that occurred to me was, ‘If you are so rich, why aren’t you smart?’
The thought patterns of humans living their day-to-day existence are continually affected by what goes on around them, and the consequent actions they take are continually affecting whatever is around them. A common rhetoric these days among the privileged is the myth of meritocracy. It is the idea that those who work hard and play by the rules deserve to rise as far as their talents and dreams will take them. Successful people don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. The economist Paul Samuelson once said, “Never underestimate the willingness of a man to believe flattering things about himself.”
How important is luck? People who amass great fortunes are almost always extremely talented and hardworking. But, countless others have those same qualities yet never earn much. In recent years, social scientists have discovered that chance events play a much larger role in important life outcomes than most people once imagined. When successful people are oblivious to their own advantages they are often similarly oblivious to other people’s disadvantages. The result is a lack of empathy toward those who are struggling making them reluctant to support the kinds of public investments without which everyone becomes less likely to succeed.
For Darwin it was impossible to reconcile the cruelty of nature with a loving God. Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene doesn’t present a cheery view of nature either with its focus on the instrumental role genes play in the evolution of life. Are you counting on nature to make the world a better place? It is impossible, they thought. The problem here is with pushing the analogy between nature, genes and cultural elements too far. Folk ideas of Darwinian evolution and The Selfish Gene have given the idea of meritocracy the status of a natural law. So much so that Margaret Thatcher once said that poverty is a ‘personality defect’.
The term meritocracy was coined in 1958 by the British sociologist Michael Young in The Rise of the Meritocracy. He argued that encouraging successful people to self-aggrandizingly attribute their success solely to their own efforts and abilities would actually make things worse, on balance. In a 2001 article, he noted that although it makes good sense to appoint people to jobs on their merit, “It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.”
Some think success is all about “choices” and “personal responsibility.” Yes, those are real, but it’s so much more complicated than that. Luck acts in subtle ways, causing many of those same people to resist explanations that invoke luck. Your genes and your environment largely determine how smart you are. How does it make sense for you to claim moral credit for them? You didn’t choose your parents, nor did you have much control over the environment in which you were raised.
The birth order among siblings, which is as close to a pure chance result as any we can imagine, often plays a decisive role. There is also the scientific finding that your development depends on your grandmother's nutrition. And, of course, plenty of accidents determine where you have reached in life. People with a lot of talent and an inclination to work hard are extremely fortunate. As George Elliot writes in Middlemarch, ‘. . . chance has an empire which reduces choice to a fool's illusion’.
Those who insist that luck played no role in their own success are almost surely claiming more than their due. Meritocracy would require equality in conditions to access work or career which simply does not exist. Measures of merit are hard to disentangle from economic advantage. In 'What About Me?', Paul Verhaeghe writes, 'The principle of a capitalist meritocracy founders on the inheritance of wealth: those who inherit capital stay at the top of the ladder; those who inherit debt remain at the bottom.'
There are traces of meritocratic principles in most philosophical systems. What all these traditional systems have in common, though, is the notion that the merit relevant to governing include moral and civic virtue. For the past few decades, new technologies and market institutions have been providing growing leverage for the talents of the ablest individuals. This has resulted in the spread and intensification of what the economists Philip Cook and Robert Frank have called winner-take-all markets. This means that we are looking at a future in which chance events will become still more important.
The meritocratic ideal is emphasised becase we tend to overestimate the effect of a brilliant individual on a team's success, and to underestimate the importance of the collective effort. The more we think of ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the harder it is to learn gratitude and humility, sentiments that enable us to care for the common good. Among the winners, it generates hubris; among the losers, humiliation and resentment. The meritocratic ideal is not a remedy for inequality; it is a justification of inequality.
Emphasing the importance of luck isn’t the same as saying that most winners win only because they’re lucky. In highly competitive arenas, most would not have even been realistic contenders had they not been both extremely able and hardworking. Society as a whole can mould those environments in significant ways. We are thus the lucky beneficiaries of decades of investment by those who came before us. In a speech to Princeton graduates in 2012, Michael Lewis says:
In a general sort of way you have been appointed the leader of the group. Your appointment may not be entirely arbitrary. But you must sense its arbitrary aspect: you are the lucky few. Lucky in your parents, lucky in your country, lucky that a place like Princeton exists that can take in lucky people, introduce them to other lucky people, and increase their chances of becoming even luckier. Lucky that you live in the richest society the world has ever seen, in a time when no one actually expects you to sacrifice your interests to anything.
In a social context, the consequences are worrying. The middle class is disappearing, making way for a small group at the top and a large underclass at the bottom. The top group looks down on the underclass, believing that the latter only has itself to blame if it ends up in the gutter. Its ‘fault’ lies in a lack of effort and talent. But the underclass feel powerless to remedy their situation. It doesn’t take much for feelings of humiliation and despair to be transformed into violence.
Just as in the 19th century, people conveniently tend to forget the important role that pure chance plays, as well as the social effects of ethnicity, caste, class, age, ill-health, adversity, and gender. A paper reality is being created that has less and less to do with actual reality. The reward structure common in entertainment and sports - where thousands compete for a handful of big prizes at the top - has now become common in other sectors of the economy.