Last weekend Yves Smith posted a story of a family that was down on their luck and struggling with high credit card bills, including plenty of fees. Yesterday she posted a follow-up. Apparently the story triggered a wave of vindictive snobbery from commenters. Here’s one example:
“Sounds like someone doesn’t know how to manage their money. I would bet they are making car payments and eat fast food at least 3 times a week. Probably have cable T.V. and deluxe cell phone plans. They probably get a new car like every two years. What happened to her reenlistment bonuses?”
Here is Yves’s response:
“I think quite a few readers owe her an apology. But I am also sure those readers are so locked into their Calvinist mindset that they will find some basis for criticizing this family. Some people seem constitutionally unable to admit that success and prosperity are not the result of hard work alone.”
First, I want to agree completely. There is the obvious fact that a person’s income as an adult is highly correlated with his or her parents’ income. (There was a recent debate about why in the blogosphere, but as far as I know no one contesting that this was the case.) But beyond that, we all owe a tremendous amount of whatever fortune we have to luck, pure and simple. Where would Bill Gates be if IBM hadn’t decided to outsource development of the operating system for the first IBM PC? Rich, no doubt, but $50 billion rich? I have worked hard at enough things, and failed at enough things, and succeeded at few enough things, to know how much luck is involved.
Second, I want to go beyond that to another point that seems obvious to me, but that some will probably find controversial. Even if differences in outcomes were entirely due to differences in abilities and effort (which they’re not) — would that make it OK? I think most people would say that it’s fine for smart people to make more money than other people. But why? Why are smart people any more deserving than anyone else? It’s true that in many jobs being smart can make you more productive and valuable, and as a result for many high-paying jobs being at least somewhat smart is a prerequisite. But the fact that a capitalist economy functions this way doesn’t make it morally right that the “winners of the genetic lottery” (a phrase I picked up from some basketball announcer talking about Tony Parker) have better outcomes than the losers.
Surely at least people who work hard deserve to do well. In the hierarchy of American moral virtues, hard work must be right at the top. But I’m not convinced of that, either. The ability to work hard is something that you either inherit from your parents or that you develop in your early childhood as a function of the environment around you. Either way, whether or not you have it is as much a matter of luck as is your IQ. Again, it’s obvious that working hard increases your productivity and therefore the wages you will be paid, all other things being equal. A small part of that differential seems “deserved,” since you are forgoing leisure for work. But the differential goes far beyond that. For example, doctors don’t just make more money than other people to compensate them for studying hard in school and working 36-hour shifts in residency; studying hard and 36-hour shifts are hurdles to clear in order to become a doctor and make a lot of money (if you’re a specialist, that is — some people do go through all the work and then make comparatively little).
Take me, for example. I’m smart and hard-working. I don’t know if it’s because of my genes, or because my parents brought me up right. But whatever the cause, I didn’t do anything to become smart or hard-working. And that’s the reason why I was able to go to good schools, get a good first job, and make more money than the average person, at least for a few years there (before quitting to go to law school). When I was young and frankly immature, being smart gave me a sense of entitlement. Now I just feel sort of lucky (“sort of” because I’ve learned that there are many more important traits than intelligence).
I’m willing to acknowledge that morality simply isn’t a factor when it comes to compensation. Seen from a utilitarian perspective, whether hard-working people deserve more than other people is a distraction. The key issue is that to maximize output in a more or less free market system, it has to be that way, since labor is supposed to be paid its marginal product. But there are still two implications of realizing that everything — even your initial endowments — is a matter of chance, not something you deserve.
The first is that you shouldn’t look down on other people (1) because their parents weren’t as rich as yours, or (2) because they aren’t as smart as you, or even (3) because they don’t work as hard as you. I think most people agree with (1); I think you should agree with (2) and (3), too.
The second is that the moral argument should be on the side of redistribution. I am willing to listen to utilitarian arguments against redistribution (e.g., high marginal tax rates reduce the incentive to work, blah blah blah blah blah); I may not agree with them, but they are a plausible position. However, I have little patience for the idea that rich people deserve what they have because they worked for it. It’s just a question of how far back you are willing to acknowledge that chance enters the equation. If you are willing to acknowledge that chance determines who you are to begin with, then it becomes obvious (to me at least) that public policy cannot simply seek to level the playing field, because that will just endorse a system that produces good outcomes for the lucky (the smart and hard-working) and bad outcomes for the unlucky. Instead, fairness dictates that policy should attempt to improve outcomes for the unlucky, even if that requires hurting outcomes for the lucky. But given that society is controlled by the lucky, I’m not holding my breath.
Update: I want to respond to a comment below by Markel. He accuses me of slipping meritocracy in through the back door with the assumption that income is correlated with intelligence and work effort. I think he’s right. The point I wanted to make is that even if income is correlated with intelligence and work effort, that isn’t necessarily a good thing. I think he’s saying that the premise itself may be wrong, and I agree it’s not something we should assume without support. I wanted to assume it in the rhetorical sense, as in “even if we assume …” I shouldn’t have implied that it is a matter of fact.
By James Kwak