Kevin Horrigan at the Post-Dispatch has an op-ed piece on the flaw in believing that anyone is self-made. I may memorize it. You should at least read it. It begins:
It was suggested here a week ago that opposition to federal health care reform was a lot like people inside the lifeboat using their oars to whack people who are still flailing in the water.
The wisdom of that suggestion was challenged by several correspondents, one of whom wrote that “we in the lifeboat have spent our working lives to ensure the lifeboat is in good repair with oars and lifejackets. The people you weep for live their lives like a slo-mo trainwreck. They would swamp the lifeboat and not even lift a finger to work the oars.”
I’m sure it comforts people in the lifeboat to think that somehow they deserve to be there and other people don’t. But let’s face it: The biggest part of why some of us are in the lifeboat and others aren’t is just sheer luck.
Warren Buffett, the famously folksy, incredibly rich guy, has a phrase for this. He says he won the “ovarian lottery,” being born in the United States in 1930, when the odds were 50-to-1 against.
Horrigan, too, won pretty big in the lottery by being born a white male in the U.S. of parents who stressed a work ethic. He had those and a few other such lucky breaks. But lots of people work hard and don’t get very far.
Scientists, as Malcolm Gladwell discusses in his 2008 book “Outliers,” increasingly have concluded that achievement has less to do with talent than it does with opportunity.
Many people, Gladwell notes, don’t want to believe this. When Jeb Bush was running for governor of Florida two years before his brother ran for president, he – grandson of two wealthy bankers, one of whom later became a U.S. senator, and son of a president of the United States – often referred to himself as a ‘self-made man.”
Furthermore, Gladwell writes, extraordinary achievement – on the order of Bill Gates or the Beatles – requires not only high levels of innate talent but also extraordinary opportunity that permits you access to the tools for whatever it is you want to get good at and enough time to put in 10,000 hours of practice.
To get really, really good at almost anything takes talent plus 10,000 hours of practice. Who’s got time for that unless he’s really lucky?
Buffett’s “ovarian lottery” and Gladwell’s opportunity rule both can be seen as corollaries to the work of John Rawls, an American political philosopher and author of the 1971 book “A Theory of Justice.”
You can test a vastly simplified version of Rawls’ theories at home, like a parlor game. Get a few gross of ping-pong balls, label them with a variety of demographic factors, put them in a hopper and invite a whole bunch of people over, liberals as well as conservatives. (My experience is that conservatives tend to bring tastier food, so invite a lot of them).
Tell them that the object of the game is to create rules for a society that they themselves would have to live in. But here’s the trick: Everyone starts from what Rawls called the “original position” behind a “veil of ignorance.”
“[N]o one knows his place in society, his social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength and the like,” Rawls wrote. “I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conception of the good or their special psychological propensities.”
Horrigan explains the game in some detail with a view to showing that where we land in life is a matter of chance. Much as I appreciate Horrigan for dispelling the myth that any successful person got to the top by himself, I feel his argument could be tweaked. All of us know that there’ve been times when we could have done more, used our talents better. Do we get to write off those failures as predestination and the lottery? Because if we do, those who believe that personal responsibility explains everything can simply dismiss us as fatalists.
So I’d have to leave a little bit of room in there for saying that some ne’er-do-wells just plain blow their opportunities. But I’d also point out that most of the people flailing in that ocean without health care aren’t of that sort. I wrote recently:
I was talking to Brigit in the vet’s office this week. I had her as a student twenty plus years ago. She’s worked for that vet for twenty years, I guess. She’s unfailingly pleasant and competent–a good worker. But she’s got it hard. The vet keeps her hours just under forty a week, so that she has no health care. She works two jobs, and has trouble paying the bills.
Brigit was as likeable a student as I ever knew, but under 100 on the IQ chart. Which brings us back to Rawls’ theory and his game. She didn’t get the choicest ping pong balls. Now maybe she could handle her finances better, for all I know. But that vet wouldn’t want to do without people like her. She contributes. And she deserves a seat in the boat. She’d be glad to take an oar.