A very significant component of success – one that may even be more determinative than hard work – is luck. This is true, even if the advantaged have worked hard to maximize the benefits of that luck. By luck, I mostly mean circumstances of birth and natural talents and abilities (which might well include the propensity to work hard).
Why do the disadvantaged tolerate this situation? The American myth of self-reliance. No matter the vagaries of fortune, we consistently find that Americans at all levels believe in some variant of the Horatio Alger myth – the classic American rags to riches success story – despite strong empirical evidence that belies it.
Pointer from Mark Thoma.
On the other hand, James Otteson writes,
Human beings are capable of being worthy to be free. Human beings become noble, and, I would even suggest, beautiful, by the vigorous use of their faculties and they become dignified when their lives are their own…
This conception of moral agency allows one to be one’s own person, and to stand, or fall, on one’s own individual initiative, without having to beg for personal favors, without having to grovel at the knees of a king or flatter a lord or satisfy the pleasure of the Regulatory Czar. It grants people the freedom to go where their own abilities and initiative–not someone else’s mercy or condescension–can take them. Yet with that freedom comes responsibility for one’s actions. If you succeed, then you reap the benefits–and no one begrudges you your success because it means you have done well both for yourself and for others. If you fail, however, then you may pay the cost and (one hopes) learn from the experience.
…Contrary to widespread opinion, failure is not something that public policy should attempt to eliminate…failure, and experiencing the consequences attendant on having made decisions that led to failure, is an indispensible [sic] part of moral agency.
Those quotes are from Otteson’s recent book, The End of Socialism.
My sense is that these two authors talk past one another. Otteson’s rhetoric emphasizes personal decisions as the determinant of individual success. For Mitchell, it is the opposite–even a “propensity to work hard” is a matter of luck.
I find myself unwilling to accept either extreme. I am inclined to think that Otteson makes the scope of individual moral agency seem too large, and Mitchell makes that scope seem too small. However, I have yet to finish Otteson’s book or to start Mitchell’s.
Coincidentally, Charles Murray writes,
deeper personal qualities account for what we call political polarization, but that one specific dimension—our respective attitudes toward personal responsibility—accounts for a huge proportion of the polarization all by itself.
Read the whole piece.