The Importance of Being Lucky
22/06/2013 6 Comments
We have been taught that meritocratic institutions and societies are fair. Putting aside the reality that no system, including our own, is really entirely meritocratic, meritocracies may be fairer and more efficient than some alternatives. But fair in an absolute sense? Think about it. A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate–these are the folks who reap the largest rewards.
Ben Bernanke, 02/06/2013
This is an excerpt from a speech that Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, gave earlier this month. How fantastically refreshing it is to hear someone, who holds such a senior position in global economic policy-making, expressing an opinion like this. As Bernanke notes, “We have been taught that meritocratic institutions and societies are fair.” We have and nowhere can this be the case more than in the UK in the past three years. Let’s recap on why the government thinks that the poor and vulnerable are where they are today:
Don’t get a job. Sign on. Don’t even need to produce a CV when you do sign on. Get housing benefit. Get a flat. And then don’t ever get a job or you’ll lose a load of housing benefit. David Cameron
…out of work for years, playing computer games all day, living out a fantasy because he hates real life… David Cameron
…it pays not to work. That you are owed something for nothing. David Cameron
…fairness is also about being fair to the person who leaves home every morning to go out to work and sees their neighbour still asleep, living a life on benefits. George Osborne
The Conservative position has long been that those who are doing well have earned it and those who are doing badly have not. The rich are strivers (well done, have a tax cut) and the poor are skivers (must try harder, have a benefits cut). The government perpetuates this myth in order to represent a complicated problem as a simple case of an unfairness in our society, which thankfully they are on hand to address.
Both I and the government agree that things as they stand are not “fair” and we both see unfairness in the way that wealth is distributed. We do though, have opposite views on the direction that this unfairness takes. The government believes that policy has been punishing the rich and rewarding the poor. I believe that policy has had the opposite effect and is a direct cause of the growing gap between rich and poor.
So why do we have such different views? The government’s view assumes that it is a simple problem of incentives. Make being poor less attractive by cutting benefits and being rich more attractive by cutting the top rate of income tax and the problem will resolve itself. The problem with this view is that it assumes that poor people have chosen to be poor. I would like to propose that another factor be included when trying to understand why some people are better off than others. I want to talk about luck.
Like it or not, we are not all born equal. From the moment the sperm fuses with the ovum, a person’s genetic make-up is determined forever. That genetic make-up will have a huge effect on that person’s intelligence, social skills and health. The genes that we are born with, I would argue are entirely down to luck. George Osborne might argue that the sperm that make rich people are striver-sperm. Hardworking sperm who want to “get on”. Not like those other sperm who sit around doing nothing in their teste all day. I don’t buy that though. Before a person is even born, a huge factor in how lucky they might be in life has already been set.
And when that person pops out into the world, the role of luck doesn’t diminish one bit. Those of my generation probably all read the Roald Dahl book, Matilda – a story of a loving, caring, genius child who was born to parents who were the opposite of all of those things. That was just a book though and the social environment in which a child is lucky or unlucky enough to be raised does undoubtedly have a huge bearing on the opportunities they will have in future life.
David Cameron and George Osborne are themselves good examples of being lucky. They were lucky enough to be born into families who were fantastically wealthy and well-educated and who were able to send them to the most prestigious educational institutions in the country. But in spite of this they seem utterly unable to appreciate how luck affects the citizens in the society over which they preside.
I was lucky too. I wasn’t born into a rich family and didn’t go to a posh school but I was lucky in that I was born healthy and with genes that made me want to learn things. Furthermore, I was lucky that my parents had an interest in appeasing my appetite for learning. As an infant I was fascinated by magnets. My mum bought number fridge magnets and every morning the front of our fridge would display new sums for me to do. Before I’d even got to school I’d picked up a lot of maths and being good at maths ultimately got me into university, got me a job out of university, allowed me to be good at the job and allowed me to continue doing something that I’ve (mostly) enjoyed ever since. It would be very convenient for me to believe that this happened purely through my striving. It wasn’t though. If I am honest, I was just lucky.
A government who does nothing to acknowledge the role that luck plays in society will only make things worse. After all, the luckiest are likely to be born into the already lucky families and the unluckiest into the already unlucky ones. If a government did nothing then social polarisation would surely continue. What we have now though is even worse. If you accept that luck plays a major part in this, our current government’s rhetoric around rewarding strivers and punishing skivers actually means further rewarding the lucky and further punishing the unlucky.
I’m not suggesting that the notion of striving is a futile one, I don’t believe it is at all. I do however suggest that if you reduce a complex social problem into a simple debate of “strivers vs skivers” without accepting that we are not all dealt the same cards, it will lead you to implement entirely the wrong policies. The reality is that if you introduce policies that disproportionately benefit the advantaged at the cost of the disadvantaged, the advantaged will become more advantaged and the disadvantaged will be come more disadvantaged.
It really is that stark and any government who actively pushes things in such a direction must be extraordinarily detached from reality.
Unless of course, it was exactly what they were aiming for.