Does Merit Lead to Success?

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.

11 thoughts on “Does Merit Lead to Success?

  1. Cluster November 9, 2014 / 10:10 am

    Success is not purely defined by monetary or professional status.I believe someone who lives their life in service of their family and others, absent of drugs, and in the path of Christ leads a very successful life regardless of their income bracket.

    And luck most always plays a role in someone’s success. Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, and you never know when or how that opportunity will present itself. Sometimes you just have to be in the right spot at the right time – and that’s luck.

  2. Retired Spook November 9, 2014 / 3:33 pm

    There’s an old saying that often applies to successful people: “the harder I work, the luckier I get.”

    • Cluster November 9, 2014 / 3:50 pm

      My grandfather always used that line.

    • M. Noonan November 10, 2014 / 12:53 am

      True – but I think our liberals have half a point. Of course, their fundamental failure is that they don’t apply their half-point to themselves…thinking themselves richly deserving, while other successful people are just lucky and/or scam artists. If anyone is getting ahead on luck and scams, it is liberals…but it is a lot of people in the larger corporations, as well. This is not a call to hammer those who have obtained, but a call for us to think about just how we want to organize society.

      I’m Distributist – which, make no mistake about it, makes me firmly anti-capitalist, as much as anti-socialist – because I do think we’ve gone very far off track. We’ll always have people who luck out in the lottery of life. We’ll always have people who game the system for their personal benefit. But I think that over the last 100 years we’ve really weighted things so that those lucky in the lottery or willing to scam have far to great an advantage. Think about it – what has George Soros or Warren Buffet ever made? And the are held up as heroes – meanwhile, the Koch brothers, who do actually organize the production of useful goods, are vilified. But at least Soros and Buffet started out poor, or at least not rich – we then go over to people like Al Gore who are fabulously wealthy but who also won the life-lottery (face it, without Gore having a Senator for a dad, we probably never would have heard of him – he’d be a pinhead liberal professor at some college) – Gore is also held to be heroic…while someone who owns a mining company is a hideous polluter of the environment who must be stopped.

      Hard work and persistence will always get a person ahead – but I think we’ve got a system where hard work and persistence (and honesty!) are punished. You can still get ahead, but you won’t get as far ahead as those who won the lottery and/or game the system.

      • Retired Spook November 10, 2014 / 10:07 am

        I’m Distributist – which, make no mistake about it, makes me firmly anti-capitalist

        Anti-capitalist or anti-corporatist? There’s a difference.

      • M. Noonan November 10, 2014 / 1:38 pm


        I guess it really does depend on how one looks at it – the Dutch were capitalist, but got a lot of their investment funds by what amounted to piracy against Spain. The English became capitalist after Henry VIII stole the property of the Church and handed it over to his cronies. French capitalism was given its main impetus by the revolutionaries stealing the property of the Church and handing it over to themselves.

        It is one thing, entirely, to work hard and build up wealth, quite another to obtain wealth by inheritance or chicanery and then use it to buy more influence, which leads to more wealth. The former is Distributism – the latter is, well, you define it. I don’t like it – and while I can’t stop it (human nature being what it is), I do wish to redress the balance and ensure, as far as possible, that those who obtain wealth by hard work have an advantage over those who have wealth by any other means.

        The problem is when we get the marriage of Big Wealth and Big Government – almost as soon as the United States developed very rich men (late 19th century), these rich men started to call on the power of government to protect them from competition, or the results of their own economic folly (the Federal Reserve was created for no other purpose than to save banks from bad investments; we, the people, didn’t need it – things were fine with gold-backed currency as the prices of goods continually dropped while our wages continually rose). We can remain wedded to a theory or we can look things over and figure out where we want to act. You and I are fully aware that GM should no longer exist; neither should Goldman Sachs. They should have been destroyed by the stupid actions of those who ran both organizations – and yet they live. Is that capitalism? If it is, then it has to go.

      • Amazona November 10, 2014 / 11:22 am

        I don’t think the Church is really anti-capitalist. That would be an interesting stance for the holder of vast amounts of capital.

        Distributism can be, when one chooses to ignore the socialist/communist aspect of it, a lovely Utopian dream. Like socialism and communism, it might even work—-on a very small scale, and practiced by people who have CHOSEN to live this way, are dedicated to it and willing to follow its precepts. But the proof is in the pudding and there is ample proof that capitalism, even with its flaws and the ease with which it can be corrupted, has done more to advance the quality of life for humanity than any of these idealistic, abstract, wistful, if-only projections of how some people think other people should live.

        It has also made it possible for the Church, and other organizations, to help millions and millions of people. If the Church were to take off her socialist blinders and stop trying to act as if she is really preaching salvation instead of political dogma, I think she could be far more effective in actually helping people. I know that I, personally, find myself dismissing everything the Pope says these days, because I simply do not believe his position as the spiritual leader of HIS church gives him the slightest authority in anything beyond that sphere.

      • M. Noonan November 10, 2014 / 1:41 pm


        There are no socialist elements in Distributism. Distributism is anti-socalist. Indeed, it is a Distributist belief that capitalism leads to socialism as Big Corporation seeks to protect itself from people who have no property by providing crumbs in the form of social security and welfare.

        Property – that is the thing. Who owns it? How much productive property is in the hands of the American people – either directly or at least through ownership of stock? Not much – and its getting to be less and less. If you want to know why the electoral floor for the Democrat party is 44% of the vote or so, look no further than the fact that a majority of Americas don’t own property. If we want conservatism to rule this nation, then we need to do all we can to get 51%+ of the American people owning productive property.

      • Amazona November 10, 2014 / 11:47 am

        Mark, the advantages of birth have always been there and always will be. I wonder if you know of any political system other than the original political system of our nation which has done much, if anything, to offset that accident of birth by offering equal opportunity to all.

        Yes, I know, we have allowed this system to be corrupted. A great example of this is education. The public education which was supposed to provide this equal opportunity has been degraded so far that for a few decades now the only people who could get a good education have been the financially elite and a few intellectually elite who could get scholarships. But even this is self-correcting, as the “better” schools have also become so degraded that the quality of their teaching is diluted by the political indoctrination which has become their primary focus, and now we are seeing the pendulum swing back to citizen-controlled schools providing real education and diminishing regard for the elite schools which used to have so much status. Without capitalism, there would be no way to accomplish this reaction to the erosion of the quality of education in this country, because there would be no citizens with the means to pay for the charter schools and private schools.

        I know a lot of trust-fund babies, people who grew up in wealth, and the interesting thing is that I can’t think of one of them who has actually done anything with this alleged advantage, other than live a very comfortable and even luxurious life. While there are some who have parlayed their initial advantages into financial success, such as Donald Trump and Bill Gates, most do not. Most financial success stories in this country are those of people who used their God-given talents and ambition in a country which allowed them to develop these traits and achieve their own successes.

        This is a big country, with many millions of people, and it is a mistake to focus on the relatively few whose successes can be attributed to “unfair advantage”.

        I once worked with a man who had three or four lavish homes, including a mountain ranch near Crested Butte, Colorado. He flew around in a private plane, and had all the accoutrements of wealth. He started off poor, with a limited education, but he had the “unfair advantage” of a family friend who owned a big cattle feedlot and needed someone to, for lack of any better phrase, shovel s**t. He borrowed enough money, against his cleanup contract, to buy some old beat up equipment, and he hauled thousands of tons of manure away from the feedlots. He composted it and sold it to landscape companies, and this was the foundation of his financial empire. His family knew the guy who had the cows,

        If we start focusing on what is and what is not an “unfair advantage” related to money inherited, family connections, or anything else, we are missing the point. Instead of complaining about the wealth these people have amassed, we should appreciate the fact that they live in a country which gives them the freedom to amass it. And we should take into account the fact that this man, thanks to a family connection which did give him an advantage over someone else who might have wanted to haul that manure away, also provided for a large family of his own and those of many employees by giving them jobs. He bought things that were made by people who were paid to make them. He paid a LOT in taxes, which were used to provide all sorts of benefits to people he never even met. An analysis of the spreading impact of his money, where and how he spent it, would give quite an interesting picture of the effects of what someone who lost out on the chance to clean out those feedlots might have termed an “unfair advantage”.

        As for resenting the fact that it was only political clout not earned but simply assumed when someone has been born into a politically powerful family, well, nothing is ever going to change that. At least not until we shift our focus away from Identity Politics and issues and start to force our candidates to run on their visions of and commitments to certain specific models of government. If we were to do that, we would undermine a lot of the inherited support of political dynasties like the Kennedys, the Gores and the Udalls.

      • Amazona November 10, 2014 / 2:43 pm

        “….it is a Distributist belief that capitalism leads to socialism as Big Corporation seeks to protect itself from people who have no property by providing crumbs in the form of social security and welfare. ”

        Sorry, but this sounds a lot like the “It’s the tree branches waving around that make the wind blow”.

        Capitalism is an economic model, made possible and productive within the political model of our Constitution, under which people have the freedom to engage in open commerce using their own property, or capital. Socialism is a political model in which the government controls economics by redistributing the property, or capital, of others, to gain and hold political power.

        If you run everything through an anti-corporation filter, you can find whatever you are looking for. I can’t say I have heard the argument that it is capitalism that creates socialism because it allows one element of capitalism—-that of Big Corporations—–to redistribute the property, or capital, of others to protect itself. But it sure has echoes of other attacks on the free market system, and it does ignore the role of government in this redistribution, as well as the fact that this redistribution benefits those in political power much more than it does those in those scary “Big Corporations”.

        Big Corporations depend on labor. Labor is defined as workers. Workers are people who provide labor or services in exchange for money. If you hand out money and/or what money is used to buy, you cut back on your labor force, which means cutting your production, which means cutting your profit.

        The only reason we HAVE “Big Corporations” is because this country was allowed to function under a political model which made capitalism possible. And I contend that socialism is the enemy of capitalism on any level, big or small, because it removes the incentive to work and punishes success and profit.

        I am also baffled by what kind of “protection” these Big Corporations need or get by the compulsory redistribution of their profits.


      • M. Noonan November 11, 2014 / 1:40 pm

        Ah, but we’ve seen what Big Corporation does – calls upon Big Government to protect it. The Federal Reserve is NOTHING more than an organization designed to protect big banks (not small banks, at all!) from their own stupid mistakes. The GM bail out is another typical example of how Big Corporation and Big Government are two sides of the same coin.

        Capitalism, as such, allows for the rise of Big Corporation, which in turn fuels the rise of Big Government – by two means:

        1. By having fewer people being property owners, you get an ever larger constituency which will believe that it is right and good to vote the wealth of others’ into their pockets.

        2. By the use of government power to protect Big Corporation from smaller and more efficient companies (why on earth do we still have only a Big Three in auto makers? Why don’t we have a dozen small and mid-sized auto makers? Because the Big Three work with government to create an onerous tax and regulatory climate which inhibits small and mid-sized market entrants).

        What we are are free markets and as many small and mid-sized economic operators as possible; with a preference for family and individually owned operations, spliced with a series of economic cooperatives.

        It is my firm belief that once we take away the tax and regulatory environment we have today, all the large banks and corporations will swiftly fold – they are no good. Staffed with people who don’t even know their own business, making products which are substandard; they are doomed to fail once the capitalist system is dismantled and a Distributist system becomes predominant.

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