OpEdge Redux: Praise and Blame is Harder to Assess than You Think

While OpEdge is on a two-week hiatus, we are running some of the more evergreen columns from past years. This blog entry originally appeared November 10, 2009.

Whenever Congress talks of raising taxes on the wealthy, as in the current House bill on healthcare reform, people complain that it isn’t fair for the government to take a greater percentage of wealth from people who are successful.  Inherent in these statements is the belief that at least in the U.S., if you earned it, it’s because you deserved it: you worked harder or came up with a smarter idea.

In any free market society, all values over time reduce to the lowest common denominator of free exchange, and that’s money.  And that goes for success as well.  In the U.S., we learn that to seek money is one of the greatest goods and that those who have more money or earn more money deserve to be praised and do not deserve to be punished through higher taxes.

I would assert that for virtually all people who have or have earned large sums of money, factors other than personal virtues, including the infrastructure of the society in which you live, are more responsible for your success than anything you do yourself.  My argument of course is that if you didn’t contribute that much to your own wealth, then to take more of it away from you to help people who weren’t so lucky is a proper role of government.  Maybe my own brand of weirdness deforms my perceptions, but I think that to most people, redistribution of wealth from the lucky to the unlucky sounds a whole lot better than redistribution from the wealthy to the poor.

But first I have to prove that most of success is luck and therefore deserving of no great praise or reward.  In doing so, I’m going to simplify (but hopefully not distort) the ideas that Daniel N. Robinson, a philosopher who teaches at Georgetown, expressed in Praise and Blame: Moral Realism and Its Application.

Here’s my short version of Robinson: There is more luck than individual effort in all success.  For example (and I’m sure I’m deviating from Robinson is some of what I list), here are some types of luck that contribute more to success than hard work:

  • Mental or physical talent with which one is born that some would call god-given. If you have it, you will be able to do something naturally that most others have to struggle to learn.  No matter how hard others work, they will have trouble keeping up with the talented person.  But keep in mind that there is less real talent, or genius, around than most people think.  My point is if it’s god-given, you did nothing to obtain it.  Even if you work hard to hone that talent, someone with less talent could work just as hard.  Wouldn’t he or she be just as deserving of praise, and reward?
  • Social-economic standing of your family: Over the 200+ year history of the United States there has been very little social mobility—which means people moving up or down from the class in which they were born—and recent studies show that there is less mobility today than ever before.  Rich families can pay for lessons, send kids to specialty camps, pay for private tutors and educational consultants, contribute sums to prestigious schools, call friends of friends of friends to introduce children to influential people in their chosen careers and finance business or artistic ventures.   Middle class families can do some of these things and poor families very few, if any.
  • Family’s Emotional Situation: The individual has no say in whether he ends up in a loving, stable family or in a family of drug addicts.
  • Secular conditions, referring to the social and economic conditions of the era: Imagine turning 20 in 1950 when the economy started booming and there was a dearth of qualified engineers? Or in 1970 when you could draw a low draft number and end up in Viet Nam? Or living in L.A. in the 30s when it was rapidly growing into the entertainment capital of the world? Would you rather be an African-American today or in 1850?  Would you rather be an astigmatic math genius during the days of hunting big game or today?
  • The value society puts on your talent: Bankers, attorneys, neurosurgeons, professional athletes, business owners—all these people get paid more than high school teachers, players in classical symphony orchestras and plumbers, who may work as hard and be just as talented in their field. That’s called the luck of the draw.  A plumber could work just as hard as an investment banker does and make far less money.  Does that make you less praiseworthy than the banker?
  • Just plain old “luck” luck, such as the luck to be in an intersection 10 seconds before or after an accident or for your professor to bring you onto his long-term research team.

Robinson also spends pages demonstrating that those whom we blame—the bad guys—aren’t all that bad.  I recommend getting a copy of Praise and Blame, but be forewarned, Robinson writes in a precise, but tortuous prose that considers every aspect and condition of the topic of the sentence, engages in complicated thought experiments and references the thoughts of other philosophers on the topic.  It’s a hard read, but worth it.

If you want real-world proof that luck has as much to do with success as personal attributes such as hard work, select any profession and spend a week collecting the names of those under 30 who have been quoted in mainstream news media.  Then check their backgrounds and see how many are children of prominent people in that or another profession, or went to a prestigious college or come from an upper middle class or wealthy background.

I don’t want to demean successful people.  For one thing, it would be hypocritical of me, since I strive for success and enjoy the measure that I have achieved.  Yes, successful people often work hard.  Yes, they deserve to be singled out.  It’s okay to have winners and losers.

But we shouldn’t forget that so much of success is a matter of multiple kinds of luck, and in a real sense, society bestows success on successful people.  So when the government wants to tax rich (successful) people to make sure that nobody dies or suffers because of a lack of access to proper health care, then people with money should embrace the idea of giving back a small part of what society and that irrational chaotic force called luck have given us.

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