Questioning the merit of the lucky, lucky rich
by David Atkins
I'm increasingly convinced that talking about luck is the key to destroying the right-wing rhetorical enterprise. Digby touched on this significantly several days ago, but I think it's important to reiterate the point. Regular readers may recall my review of Chris Hayes' extraordinary book Twilight of the Elites back in June:
Through Hayes' lens, liberalism for much of the last half century has been about opening the meritocracy up to all segments of the population without discrimination based on intrinsic ephemera such as race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. This has meant a full embrace of the same pseudo-meritocratic impulse that has led to the renaissance of Objectivism on the right and the dominance of neoliberalism on the left.And again, here's David Frum on what he calls with admiration the destabilizing idea in Barack Obama's much discussed "you didn't build that" speech:
If Hayes is right, what has been missing from much of leftist discourse isn't just economic inequality or the struggles of working families. What's missing is discussion of luck.
After all, what could be more iconoclastic to the edifice of the neoliberal and conservative systems? Declaring the Masters of the Universe incompetent is a given. Calling them evil is commonplace and mostly worth a chuckle. Using words such as heartless, bumbling, uncaring, greedy, inept, callous, and self-serving barely makes a dent.
But to call Lloyd Blankfein "lucky", or to say that Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg were simply "fortunate"--that's something altogether different. That's revolutionary. It cuts against the dominant discourse of the institutional left and right to reorient the entire social contract. It challenges not only the ethic of equality of opportunity, but also the legitimacy of much of the inequality of outcomes.
Hard work is still a key to success, of course. But what has been lost in modern culture is that many fail to achieve traditional measures of success despite high intelligence and hard work, while many "succeed" despite constant failure. Social connections are a huge factor. Most of our governing elites come from Ivy League universities, despite the fact that a huge number of very bright and highly competent people never attended an Ivy League institution. And then there's just being in the right place at the right time: how many Internet millionaires would have succeeded just as well had they been born in a pre-Internet world? How successful would Michael Jordan have been, had he been born in a country where soccer was the dominant sport?
Hard work is one factor in success, but it pales in comparison to good connections, family privilege, and dumb luck.
That idea is extremely threatening to the meritocratic status quo.
Obama's second idea is that success is to a great extent random, a matter of luck. You think you succeeded because you were smart or hard-working? Listen—a lot of smart and hard-working people don't succeed.Indeed. While some will shudder that the Republicans have managed to call into question the very idea of the social contract, I think it's a wonderful thing that the Left is no longer simply arguing for equitable access to the meritocracy. Many of our leaders have begun questioning the very premise of the system that has given such outsized rewards to the lucky, lucky few.
This second idea is not original to the president, obviously. In fact, Friedrich Hayek often made a similar point, suggesting that a big part of capitalism's PR problems originated in the fact that markets did not distribute their rewards according to ordinary ideas of moral deservingness. Yet it's also true that we badly want to believe that success is earned and is deserved. A universe that distributes its rewards randomly is a frightening place—and even worse is the suspicion that success is often seized precisely by the undeserving...
President Obama's stray sentences however point to a bolder conclusion. If it's not brains or work that account for success, what is it? The answer must be … luck. Not maybe entirely luck, but luck to a great degree. By definition, however, luck is amoral. Nobody can deserve luck, otherwise he wouldn't be lucky. To the extent success is due to luck, success is undeserved—and to the extend that success is undeserved, the successful have no very strong claim to the proceeds of their success. Whereas Warren suggests that the wealthy should be taxed to repay tangible benefits they have personally received, Obama is indicating a possibility that the wealthy should be taxed … because their wealth is to a great extent an accident of fate.
It's about time.