Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Accident Of Birth (Or The Case For Progressive Policies)

You probably don’t deserve what you have. Neither do I.

Despite what we like to tell ourselves about meritocracy, the greatest predictors of a person’s lot in life are things completely out of their control: where they were born and their genetic inheritance.

Let’s take my life as an example. I was born a white male into a middle class educated family in New York City with above average intelligence (at least according to standardized tests). From the day I was born a relatively prosperous life was almost guaranteed; it was laid out for me on a red carpet. All I had to do was go through the motions—elementary school, high school, college, career. At the same time there are tens of millions just as able as I, who were born in other parts of the world, who live their lives in squalor and misery for no other reason than the injustice of random fate.

None of this is to suggest that there aren’t exceptions to the rule; there are some privileged kids who experience tough times, and there are some who rise from poor upbringings to great success. (Even these individuals were likely hampered or helped by their genetic predispositions.)

My point is not to portray the world as a deterministic product of class and genetics; it is not. Individual choice and action are essential and societies must provide incentives for people to strive.

However, the fact that individual fortune is so much a product of things beyond a person’s control presents the greatest argument in favor of progressive government policies. The philosopher John Rawls long ago noted that if we had no idea where we were going to be born and with what attributes, the types of redistributive policies that we would favor would be much different than the ones that we currently employ.

As always, for all redistributive systems, the “devil is in the details”. Many utopian schemes (such as communism) can easily backfire and make life worse off for nearly everyone.

But the notion that individual merit alone should be the basis for society’s rewards should be laid to rest once and for all. Let us reserve praise for those who take their gifts and use them to do extraordinary things, and to those whose gifts and opportunities have been limited and yet against all odds have managed to succeed.

The rest of us deserve little praise or blame.

P.S. An article on the new "Gilded Age" in today's NYT shows how the basic points outlined above are still not universally understood.

Jason Scorse

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