The rhetoric of meritocracy appears to have camouflaged the extent to which success and failure often hinge decisively on events completely beyond any individual’s control.
“Luck,” E.B. White once impishly observed, “is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men.” Today, the widespread faith in the meritocratic ideal has pushed that taboo well beyond the circles of the successful. Most people in modern democracies cling almost religiously to the belief that merit, and merit alone, leads to success.
But how important is luck? Few questions more reliably divide conservatives from liberals. As conservatives correctly observe, people who amass great fortunes are almost always extremely talented and hard working. But as liberals also rightly note, countless others have those same qualities yet never earn much, or even see much of a rise in their station or status.
In societies that celebrate meritocratic individualism, saying that top earners, celebrities, and assorted other winners may have enjoyed a bit of luck apparently verges on telling them that they don’t really belong on top, that they aren’t who they think they are. The rhetoric of meritocracy appears to have camouflaged the extent to which success and failure often hinge decisively on events completely beyond any individual’s control.
There are, of course, many people who are quick to acknowledge good fortune’s role in their success. Evidence suggests that those people are much more likely than others to contribute to their community and to support the kinds of public investments that created and maintained the environments that made their own success possible. They’re also substantially happier than others, and their gratitude itself appears to steer additional material prosperity their way.