Reason’s blog has a post up on a poll taken of Americans’ beliefs about what it takes to be successful. The typical divisions between conservatives and liberals come up, with the latter thinking luck has more to do with success than conservatives, who predictably take the boot-strap side. What is dubbed “Pure Independents” leans toward the luck side of the debate. This is all to show how these underlying beliefs inform views on the role of the state in intervening and helping the less lucky (or lazy) get on in life.
I guess I’m in the minority, because my laissez faire orientation notwithstanding, I think luck indeed has more to do with success than hard work (especially if what you’re aiming for is an elite socioeconomic status). Structural forces reign, but include genetic predisposition in addition to global economic shifts. The statistical likelihood of having X life outcome given a certain Y background, or the ability to conclude Y background given X life outcome, is often so overwhelming that it seems laughable to think one can will oneself into success on matters of great consequence. Of course, someone reading such a study about the likely life outcome of a background that fits the reader’s own can take conscious action to alter their future, but the likelihood even here of such a reader being college educated and of above average intelligence is probably, well, far greater than .00.
Those against state intervention should cease with the hard-work talk, and instead tout the ability of markets to experiment and correct for error relative to state supported initiatives, and how this benefits both the lucky and unlucky. This won’t satisfy radical levelers most concerned about economic rather than political equality, but I wonder how many of those types actually exist. This is a less romantic (read: folk economic) narrative, however, and will probably only work within a certain milieu, e.g. the community of political philosophers that inform the policy wonk elite. At the layperson level – the level the Reason poll was working on – the perpetuation of myths may be necessary, in which case Horatio Alger isn’t such a putz after all, and Virginia Postrel is super insightful.