Very interesting article by Robin Hanson:
How much does merit contribute to success? A rosy view is that success is mostly due to merit, while a dark view is that success is mostly not due to merit, but instead due to what we see as illicit factors, such as luck, looks, wit, wealth, race, gender, politics, etc.
Over a lifetime people gain data on the relation between success and merit. And one data point stands out most in their minds: the relation between their own success and merit. Since most people see themselves as being pretty meritorious, the sign of this data point depends mostly on their personal success. Successful people see a rosy view, that success and merit are strongly related. Unsuccessful people see a dark view, that success and merit are only weakly related…
And then James Joyner puts his two cents in:
…While lots of very successful people will acknowledge that luck played a large role in their success, most will point to the real merit that got them to where they are. They worked harder, were more persistent, delayed gratification, and otherwise behaved more admirably than their peers who were less successful. And, for the most part, they will be right on those scores while overlooking the extent to which luck also factored in.
Of course, defining “merit” and “success” will be controversial here, with reasonable and intelligent people disagreeing, sometimes quite broadly, as to what they mean. Several of Hanson’s commenters, for example, treat possession of extreme talent, even “genius,” as evidence of merit when it’s just as easily dismissed as luck. It’s not obvious why being extremely smart is any less a matter of happenstance than being pleasingly tall or attractive…
I don’t know – perhaps I haven’t met as many successful people as others have, but I don’t see many successful people acknowledging that luck played a role in their rise. And by “luck” I mean any particular factor which was outside of the individuals control – and this includes who your parents are, what sort of people you meet, etc. Most people I’ve met who have had the easy route to the top appear convinced that they really merited it all. To take the most egregious recent example, I get the distinct impression that Obama believes he’s President based upon his meritorious actions…even though I can’t think of any he’s done, other than being a good father to his daughters, which is a very meritorious thing, indeed, but hardly something to set him apart and raise him to the most powerful office in the world.
Of course, politics tends to bring out the worst in people. Those who aspire to high office are already defective just in having the desire for high office (it takes a bit of arrogance to really think oneself to be best qualified to be President – seriously, in a nation of 300+ million people, there are 10,000 people better qualified than even the most qualified person who ever got the job); unless such a person really trains themselves to humility, they will wind up going very bad…either hopelessly corrupt, hopelessly arrogant, or a miserable combination of the two. But what of other areas?
Well, you tell me. When the Gulf oil spill occurred, did anyone come to the conclusion that BP CEO Tony Hayward was the best possible person to be CEO of BP? That he really knew the business of drilling for oil inside and out and could quickly and easily grasp the nature of the problem and necessary actions to solve it? Face it; he as just the typical result of the corporate career ladder. Looking at his bio in Wikipedia, it says that he came to the notice of a former head of BP and was rocketed up the corporate ladder as a result of that…in other words, the big boss took a liking to the guy and raised him up. Now, Hayward did have to do some work to obtain the notice of the big boss, but it wasn’t like he’s the guy who made a particular oil well work, or found the new oil field, or developed the new technology for oil extraction. In fact, it is my view that those who actually do things are far less likely to come to the notice of a big boss in the corporate world – because those who are doing things are too busy to waste time on conferences where the big boss will be in attendance. In other words, corporations are kinda set up to ensure that those who want to shine in corporate headquarters rise to man corporate headquarters. Such people may be bright; they may even be hard working – but they are not in any sense of the word those who most merit corporate leadership.
Don’t get me wrong here. No matter what, I am firmly convinced – by the experience of life – that anyone who is willing to genuinely work hard and sacrifice person comfort will rise. Merit does have its rewards – at the bare minimum (but it is very important), it gives a person the peace of soul which comes with the knowledge of honest effort, even if there’s no material reward for it. But further than that, most of the time people who really merit things obtain them…if you’ve really worked hard your whole life and stinted yourself and thought of others first, you are going to be respected, loved and probably have at least enough resources to get by. But let us not make a mistake and, noting that honest effort is rewarded, leap to the absurd conclusion that those who are most-rewarded got all it via honest effort. The world doesn’t work like that.
The world doesn’t work like that because the world is run by human beings – Fallen, sinful human beings who will, often as not, get it wrong. It is just part of human nature to see ourselves as special and good and thus presume (if successful) that we entirely earned it or to presume (if failures) that some scoundrel must have done us in. The universe really does have as many centers as there are people: each one of us being the center of our own universe, and all things are seen in relation to that. Of course, that is also a false vision: we are not the center. God is; those who see that and most diligently put that into practice are those most at peace with the world. But you don’t see them in corporate board rooms, the White House or even in starring roles in popular culture. Most people who do best at understanding that God is at the center are out doing really hard work for no material reward whatsoever. Most of us aren’t like that and won’t be like that – we’ll be prey ever and anon to see ourselves at the center, and wonder who was the scoundrel who did us in (it is actually worse for those who have a great deal – they start to think they are really special because, of course, they wouldn’t have been able to get all that without being special, right? I’d rather be a poor conspiracy theorist than a rich nitwit who thinks he really got it all on his own and owes nobody anything).
While success is no proof of merit, I’ll say that failure is definite proof of lack of merit. How so? While one can be successful partially or largely out of luck, one can only be a failure if you really work at it. No matter how bad or good your circumstances, the only way things are going to get worse in general for you is if you fail to do the right thing. Born in a crack den or born in a palace, if you don’t make the right choices you will wind up worse off than your circumstances warranted. And, also, born in a crack den or born in a palace, if you do the right thing then you’ll be better off. Of course, it is often times difficult to make the right choice and one can argue that the person born in the crack den is more limited in options. This is true, as far as it goes; and one will place less personal blame on the failures of the poor person than on the rich – but, still, it holds true: whatever your circumstances, your actions will determine your fate.
There is a passage in Hamlet that says it all for me:
‘Tis well: I’ll have thee speak out the rest soon.
Good my lord, will you see the players well
bestowed? Do you hear, let them be well used; for
they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the
time: after your death you were better have a bad
epitaph than their ill report while you live.
My lord, I will use them according to their desert.
God’s bodykins, man, much better: use every man
after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping?
None of us will ever fully merit all good things we may have, and none of us will ever be 100% responsible for the mistakes we make. We are all of us failures, to a certain extent. If you seek to treat each man as he deserves, then all you are really doing is treating each man as you, with your extremely limited point of view, thinks he should be treated. Treat each man better than you reckon, and you’ll be on firmer ground. You may, at times, provide unearned reward, but at all times you’ll be acknowledging your own limitations and will be doing honor to yourself. Never be too impressed by those on top, as they probably don’t merit all they have; never scorn anyone on the bottom, as they may merit more than they have.