Why meritocracy is a dangerous myth 

“If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get that on your own,” President Obama declared four years ago at a campaign rally in Virginia. “If you’re successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.”

Obama was pilloried for this statement. For conservatives, it was sacrilege, an offense against the individualist ethic. It’s a treasured mythology in America, this belief that hard work and a touch of grit is all one needs to succeed.

Reality is more complicated than that, however. Talent and drive can take you a long way, but it’s often not enough. Luck, as it happens, is every bit as important. Being born to the right parents helps too.

Robert H. Frank is a professor of economics at Cornell University and the author of a new book, Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy. The thesis of Success and Luck is quite simple: Luck is far more important to success in this life than we imagine.

How we think about this fact hinges in large part on our political ideology. Conservatives and libertarians have a narrative about success, which prioritizes hard work and skill. Liberals have an alternative narrative about success, which prioritizes structural constraints and privilege.

Neither one is entirely right, but it does seem that liberals are closer to the truth. Or at least that’s the case Frank makes in Success and Luck.

I spoke with Frank about his book and about the role of luck in human life. Our conversation, edited for clarity and concision, follows.

Sean Illing

The idea of a meritocracy is a pleasant abstraction, but does it actually square with the reality of human life?

Robert H. Frank

I was reluctant to use the subtitle that the book carries. When the editor proposed it, I was initially pushing back on the idea, in part because it gives a misleading impression about where I see the locus of the problem.

Markets are not perfectly meritocratic — that’s true. But by any standard it’s clear that they’re more meritocratic now than ever before in the past. Privilege always matters, but it mattered more in previous eras. Most of the people who emerge as big winners today do tend to be talented and hard-working, so there’s at least a semblance of meritocracy.

What’s also true is that being hard-working and talented are by no means sufficient to get you into the winner’s circle. Luck matters a great deal.

Sean Illing

Subtitle aside, you do say in the book that “the rhetoric of meritocracy has caused enormous harm.” Why is that?

Robert H. Frank

It’s true that people who succeed on a grand scale tend to believe they did it all by themselves. That belief is harmful because it kindles a much stronger sense of entitlement among people who hold it. They think that whatever dollars came their way are theirs to keep. If the government tries to tax it, they regard it as theft.

Believing that all the good fortune that came your way was “earned” in the traditional sense is a very difficult claim to sustain once you look at how the competitions unfold and the role chance events play in all our lives.

Sean Illing

It really matters, ethically speaking, if we have no control over the most important determinants of our lives. We don’t choose our parents or our genes or our environment or the quality of our minds, and yet these factors are as crucial as any in terms of deciding our lot in life.

Robert H. Frank

I don’t dive deeply into this issue in the book, but I do mention it in passing. Even if you think you succeeded purely on the basis of talent and effort, where do you think you got your talent? Where do you think that inclination to work hard comes from? These are things determined by genes and upbringing, in some unknown proportion, and it’s quite ludicrous to claim moral credit for them.

Sean Illing

I see this refusal to acknowledge the role of luck as toxic to both our ethical intuitions and our policy discourse. It’s much easier, for example, to dismiss a social safety net if you’re convinced that success is merely a product of skill.

Robert H. Frank

Yes, and I think it encourages the view that if you don’t succeed, it’s because you’re deficient in some way. The life narratives that we unpack make it very clear that a lot of people have bad outcomes in life purely as a result of factors beyond their control. They worked hard and they were talented, but shit happens, and reality is complicated.

The denial of this can be terribly harmful.

Sean Illing

Why is it so hard for us to look at these facts with clear eyes?

Robert H. Frank

The cynical view is that the people who have succeeded are just trying to reinforce their claim to the bounty they’ve captured. But you don’t need to go there. A plausible interpretation is that it’s just a consequence of normal human cognition: You try to build your life story from ingredients that you can summon in memory. The people who succeed often worked hard, and that’s easy to remember.

What they don’t remember are all those seemingly inconsequential events that changed the trajectory of their lives: a committed teacher who steered them out of trouble, an early promotion thanks to a friend or family connection, the luxury of a second chance. Those sorts of things are rare, but they’re important and often life-altering. They are also, importantly, not a product of our conscious effort. They happened to us, you might say.

Sean Illing

Privilege has a way of blinding the privileged. People born into good fortune can’t appreciate how much of their success stems from the care and attention and resources they received at every stage of their development. A smarter person born into less fortunate circumstances has a much steeper hill to climb, but acknowledging this fact upends so many of our ideological fantasies.

Robert H. Frank

I mentioned a study in the book that is quite chilling on this point. It found that kids from lower-income families who scored in the top quartile on math tests in the eighth grade were less likely to graduate from college than students who scored in the bottom quartile in math but happened to be born into homes in which their parents were in the top third of income distribution.

This is a very troubling statistic, and it says quite a lot about why and how people succeed in this country.

Professor Robert H. Frank.

Sean Illing

Part of the problem is that reality is complicated, as you said. Our brains like to reduce things to binaries, but that’s almost always a simplistic distortion. How do you criticize the idea of meritocratic individualism while allowing space for the role of choice and hard work?

Robert H. Frank

I speculate briefly in the book about why it is that people seem so keen to deny the fact that chance plays any role in these outcomes. If you’re giving advice to your kids, it’s probably good to encourage them to think of themselves as the captains of their fate. You want them to believe that they can work hard and succeed on account of that hard work. Even if it’s untrue, it’s easy to see why we need to believe these things, and therefore why we persist in believing them.

My view is that there’s still room to include in this conversation the notion that chance events play a role and that you shouldn’t assume that it’s entirely to your credit if you do make it big.

Sean Illing

You note in the book that roughly half of the variance in incomes across persons worldwide is explained by two factors: country of residence and the income distribution within that country. How do you account for the income disparities in this country?

Robert H. Frank

Obviously, the income of one’s parents and the place of birth matter a great deal. But the other variables are also explained by things that are external to you. As I mentioned earlier, intelligence and drive and energy are critical in virtually every environment, including our own, and these are exogenous factors. This is more or less what I mean by luck.

Sean Illing

You cite a revealing statistic in the book, which is that the correlation between parents’ income and children’s income in America is the same as the correlation between parents’ height and their children’s height. If true, that’s awfully instructive.

Robert H. Frank

Yes, this affirms my point that these things we’re not entitled to claim moral credit for are the driving forces behind success. We don’t do anything to deserve the parents we get. These are accidents of birth.

Sean Illing

What do conservatives least understand about the role of luck in success?

Robert H. Frank

Cornell sends me out to talk to alumni groups, and many of them are in conservative areas. Once you sit down and talk with these people, it’s clear that they realize the role of luck in people’s lives. But it’s hard to get them to think dispassionately about this subject. They still revolt when they hear Obama’s “you didn’t build that” speech, even though it’s quite obviously true. They still get angry when you tell them that they’re lucky. What they hear is, “You don’t deserve your success.”

But if you ask them to think of a moment or two in their lives when they were extremely lucky, they have no problem recalling examples. Then they’re thinking of this question in a completely different way. So it’s better not to demonize people for the natural tendency they have to overestimate their own agency and instead look for ways to help them recognize the point in other ways.

Sean Illing

What do liberals least understand about the role of agency in success?

Robert H. Frank

I don’t think liberals in general believe that hard work and talent don’t matter, or that the choices you make along the way don’t matter. I suppose it’s a question of degree. There’s a tendency to believe that the people who earn the really high incomes could have been anyone, given the right circumstances.

But if you really look at the histories of the people who win big in most domains, you find that they tend not to be ordinary people and are often extraordinary. At the same time, it’s also true that there are lots of extraordinary people who don’t make it, and it’s for reasons over which they had little or no control.

Sean Illing

No matter how we look at it, then, successful people are lucky — lucky in their birth, lucky in their community, lucky in their proximity to other lucky people. So how do we tell this story in a way that aligns with our basic moral intuitions?

Robert H. Frank

You’re probably not going to succeed if you don’t get really good at something people care about, and getting good at something people care about typically takes a lot of work and effort. So we don’t want to encourage the belief that you should just wait it out and hope lightning strikes. Instead, we should tell people to try to deserve whatever it is that they want. That doesn’t mean you’ll get it, but you’re almost certainly not going to get it if you don’t deserve it.

Sean Illing

Your book ends with some policy proposals that you believe would help us bolster the environments that allow all of us succeed without demanding painful sacrifices from anyone, including those at the top. What are those policies?

Robert H. Frank

We really need to make the investments that explain why the environment here is different from the one I saw in Nepal as a Peace Corps volunteer, where you could be as talented and hard-working as anyone and still have virtually no chance of succeeding. Here, at least, it was always true that if you work hard and are good, you may not be a spectacular success, but you’d most likely prosper to a reasonable degree.

My concern is that we’re cutting back on the investments that made this statement true. I’m from a family that didn’t have much money, but I managed to graduate from Georgia Tech with no debt. Nobody like me could do that today. You graduate from college with $30,000 or $40,000 in debt, and you begin your career with the miracle of compound interest working against you.

The kids who come from poor families are now more disadvantaged than I was when I was a kid. Schools are being cut. Extracurricular activities, particularly in music and the arts, are being phased out, or there’s now a fee to participate and low-income families can’t afford it. So we have to make investments that lead to greater opportunities for the unlucky, as it were.

The point I try to make in the book is that we could pay for those things by taxing the people at the top more heavily than we do now, and those people wouldn’t feel any pain as a result of doing it because it would impact everyone in their income bracket equally. This is something most people do not realize.

If you’re a top earner, you can always buy what you need. The question is can you buy what you want? Can you buy that penthouse apartment with a view of Central Park or whatever it is? To get those things, it’s purely an auction process. Other rich people also want these things, and the high bidders end up with them. But if everyone’s taxes increase in the same way, what we bring to the bidding process is left completely unaffected in relative terms.

So rich people could pay more taxes and scarcely feel it, but nobody thinks about it that way.

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