Do I Deserve the Things I Have?
I have a reasonable grasp of Spanish and can hold conversations of a respectable degree. On occasion even quite serious conversations. I do this, in part, because my brain is built and structured in a way that’s amenable to linguistic knowledge: I easily pick up phrases, nuances, pronunciation, and grammar structures. More importantly, I find it enjoyable and rewarding to do so.
But I would never have acquired any Spanish had I not
- lived in a time and a place where immense productivity, international trade, and technological advancements allowed me to do other things than eke out a near-subsistence living in southern Scandinavia — the plight of my ancestors for fourteen generations (probably more, but that’s how far we can trace it).
- Actually and deliberately, put myself in a position where I learned, i.e. go to countries where Spanish is spoken. And, in extension, take classes and repeat vocabulary and practice grammar.
When we talk about “deserve this,” “earn that” or Barack Obama’s infamous “you didn’t build that” comment, we look at (1). When ruthless libertarians and individualists object that they earned their spoils fair and square, they look at (2).
There is no meritocracy, says everyone from radical activists to charter schools to Harvard philosophy professors. In that case, nobody deserves anything — and I’m gladly looking forward to the forcible redistribution of everything from limbs, flexibility, strengths, sex, and life-span in addition to income, as all of these things are as or more unequal than the indicators we usually care about. It’s not clear to me that they’re less important.
When I recently re-read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outlier, some of my perspective shifted from (2) to (1). Yes, perhaps chance has a little more role. A lot of success stories are chance occurrences where the world suddenly up-valued the skills you possessed or the services you were supplying. That’s nobody’s hard-earned “gain”; you didn’t work for that to happen; “You didn’t build that!”
But then again, you did work for it. You did do the work. Most things are not pure windfalls that just drop like manna from heaven.
It was always a strange debate between those who say they earned their positions fair and square through hard work — and those who said that even the ability, desire, or discipline to work was a chance genetic occurrence that you didn’t deserve. A tiny accidental advantage spiralling into great gaps between rich and poor, successful and miserable, healthy and unhealthy, fit and unfit.
Like the elite hockey players in Gladwell’s story, overwhelmingly born in January and February — that slight physical advantage over their peers born later in the year, made them slightly better hockey players. As such, they got even more practice sessions, coaching, and ice time, reaching their 10,000 hours much sooner.
But it’s also weird. Only a tiny sliver of those born in January become great hockey players.
Nobody controls the outcome of the lottery, but few propose that the winner doesn’t deserve the spoils. (S)he didn’t work for it — beyond the microscopic task of buying a ticket (and thus voluntarily agreeing to the game) — but still nobody things the winner is under an obligation to share.
It took me ten years to become a decent writer — and even now, I have much to learn. It took me years to develop the habits of sitting down in silence, to read actively and widely, to take notes that wouldn’t come in handy until years later. I spent years writing blogs for nobody but myself, only to discover a voice and a flow capable of supporting my life.
I spent years digging into monetary issues, macroeconomics, financial markets of the past, reading books methodically, and across many different fields. Even now, earning my living as a professional writer and editor, I resort to dictionaries, thesauruses, and style guides on a daily basis. I learn something every day.
Regardless of the benefits entailed on me by biology, Lady Fortuna, or caring and loving parents, I did those things. Could anybody in my situation have done those things? Perhaps. But do I really not deserve the spoils of what I did, Mr. Sandel and the rest of you?
I know very well that n=1 is not an argument for or against anything, but since “family structures and backgrounds” always pop up as some kind of inescapable determinant, here’s the opposite of a mea culpa (mea innocentia…?):
- Neither of my parents went to university, yet I hold a degree from one of the most prestigious institutions in the world. (The wokeness is making it somewhat less prestigious as of late…)
- While my strict but supportive parents helped me with school work, after, say, fifth grade, they couldn’t help me with English homework anymore. Past seventh or eighth grade, they couldn’t assist much with the quality of coursework even in Swedish. While my dad — who worked in industrial production — definitely assisted with physics homework and my mum — who speaks German and works for a German company — occasionally helped with German grammar, I have very little benefit from any of those fields today (or ever). Did those minor advantages eventually spiral into larger and larger advantages? Maybe — but plenty of people had it that well (and much better) without pursuing the path I did or doing what I do.
- I score in the 95th percentile in GRE verbal (92nd in analytical writing) — in what’s not my mother tongue — not because I went on some advanced writing prep resort or my parents forced me to read, write, and practice vocabulary all day, but because I routinely look up, add, and practice thousands of unfamiliar words. Because I, as my wonderful canvas painting informs me, “darling, you need to read better books” — before cheekily adding, “your brain is screaming for attention.” I do follow the advise my former self has set up for me.
- As for family structure, as that’s supposed to matter, they divorced when I was young — as far as I could tell, peacefully, amicably, and like responsible grown-ups. Two of my grandparents died before I was a teenager, a third just after my twenty-first birthday. It’s not clear to me that this family background is what Sandel and others would call “privileged” or “established” or entail on me an “unfair advantage.”
Still, I did those things. Perhaps, as Michael Huemer discusses at length in his writing, the counterfactuals “if not for x, you couldn’t have done it” apply, or perhaps they were all a stroke of good luck and coincidence — but someone needs to claim the windfall. It might as well be me — at least on the off-chance that I deserve some of the credit.
I find Russ Roberts persuasive on this. Even if we don’t deserve the goodies we have, there isn’t much we can do about it that would benefit those that were allegedly left behind: Efforts to radically equalise income have negative repercussions — sometimes so negative that they negate the benefit that even the poor(est) members of society might theoretically gain.
“much if not all of my material success comes from things I had no part in — who my parents were, the rise of the internet, the importance of economists these days and so on.”
After thinking about it long and hard, Roberts come to a similar conclusion: perhaps he doesn’t deserve what he has, but
“it does not follow that we want the government to have that money for the purposes of spending it as politicians see fit. […] Even though I do not deserve what I have, it is far from clear that increasing the size of government revenue by raising tax rates dramatically will lead to a better world even if I thought giving poor people money would improve their lives. We are likely to get a bunch of other stuff that we will not particularly like.”
At best, appeals to “fairness” and “you don’t deserve that” amounts to shrugging your shoulders. In some small sense, perhaps not. But neither does anyone else, so until you’ve come up with a better way for why you deserve the outcomes (fruit, spoils, goodies) of the particular combination of [my labour and pure luck] that accounts for the outcome, I’ll keep the goodies. Enjoy.