Features, Genetics, recent, Social Science

Genes, Environment, and Luck: What We Can and Cannot Control

Social justice activists have issued a challenge to “check your white privilege.” Inasmuch as I oppose the inherent racism ingrained in such expressions of Identity Politics, my initial replies were of a snarky nature, such as “It’s doing just fine, thank you.” But as I engaged the task more seriously it wasn’t my “white privilege” that I discovered so much as it was my good fortune. This led to my November 2017 column in Scientific American, in which I enumerated a few of the ways that luck has favored many people (myself included) that led to their success, much of which was not “earned” in the purist sense that conservatives conceive of it, in which the successful merited it and the unsuccessful deserved it. The deeper I looked into the matter of how lives turn out, in fact, the more I realized how much is out of our control.

Let’s begin with a question: Why do some people succeed in life while others fail? Is it because they are naturally smarter and harder working, or is it because they were raised to be ambitious and disciplined, or could it be that they were simply lucky along the way and got all the good breaks? For centuries, philosophers, theologians, scholars, and ordinary people have speculated on these and related questions, for example, why there are class differences between people, why some people seem to have more power, wealth, and privilege than others, and what’s the best way to structure political and economic systems in order to create a fair and just society in the teeth of such obvious inequalities of natural ability, drive, and chance.

As with so many issues today, these are not ideological-free questions. Conservatives, for example, tend to embrace a Just World Theory of how lives turn out: If you are rich and successful, it is because you are hard working, intelligent, creative, risk-taking, and justly rewarded with happiness for your discipline and self-control; if you are poor, it is because you are lazy, ignorant, unimaginative, risk-averse and duly punished with unhappiness for your lack of will power and self-persuasion. In other words, for conservatives, the world is already just, so any injustices are the result of the natural order of things, which should be left well alone. People get what they deserve, so a just society is one in which there are equal opportunities for natural inequalities to form, so let the chips fall where they may.

By contrast, liberals tend to hold an Unjust World Theory of how lives turn out: If you are successful, it is because you were fortunate to be born in a stable family that inculcated into you the virtues that produce behaviors that translate into hard work, creativity, and risk-taking, and you were nourished along the way by people who enabled your success, or at forks in the career road were nudged down the right path by well-connected friends or family; for those people who did not have the good fortune to have been born into wealth, stable families, nurturing communities, and safe environments, we have a moral obligation to alter society in a manner to level the playing field and to allow all members of our community or society to flourish to the best of their natural talents.

These differences in how conservatives and liberals see the world very much determines their attitudes toward social policies that effects how lives turn out for the citizens of a society. Believing that the world is already just, conservatives emphasize institutions and traditions, faith and family, nation and creed, and they want to maintain the order and stability of the present structure of society even at the cost of those at the bottom falling through the cracks. Believing that the world is unjust, liberals question authority, celebrate diversity, often flout faith and tradition, and they want change and justice even at the risk of political and economic disorder. 

One’s vision of human nature also determines how one approaches the subject of how lives turn out. Conservatives, for example, tend to see human nature as constrained while liberals see it as unconstrained (in Thomas Sowell’s configuration in his book A Conflict of Visions), and these differences account for the different positions people hold on a number of seemingly unrelated social issues, such as immigration, health care, welfare, taxes, criminal justice reform, police, and war.

If human nature is constrained by our biology, the narrative goes, then there isn’t much anyone can do to change people’s lives, short of locking up the criminals and disciplining the downtrodden. If human nature is unconstrained, the narrative continues, then social inequalities are primarily the result of bad or broken families, inadequate healthcare and education, or repugnant social policies that must be changed. “In the unconstrained vision, there are no intractable reasons for social evils and therefore no reason why they cannot be solved, with sufficient moral commitment,” Sowell explains. “But in the constrained vision, whatever artifices or strategies restrain or ameliorate inherent human evils will themselves have costs, some in the form of other social ills created by these civilizing institutions, so that all that is possible is a prudent trade-off.”

Which of these theories of human nature you believe to be true will largely shape which solutions to changing how lives turn out will be most effective, such as the size of the government, the amount of taxation, immigration, healthcare, environment, crime, the constitution, trade, and others.

In my 2011 book The Believing Brain, I sought a non-political perspective and presented evidence for a “Realistic Vision” that human nature is relatively constrained by our heredity and biology, along with the constraints from our families, communities, culture, and society. How lives turn out very much depends on both heredity and environment, genes and culture, our evolutionary history and our life trajectory, and how they all interact. People are not blank slates so malleable and responsive to social programs that governments can engineer their lives into a great society of its design, yet we are not so biologically programmed that there is nothing for anyone to do to help those who cannot help themselves.

A “Realistic Vision” of human nature recognizes the importance of family, custom, law, and traditional institutions for social harmony, as well as the need for strict moral education through parents, family, friends, and community. We are born with a dual human nature of competing motives: selfish and selfless, competitive and cooperative, greedy and generous, and so we need rules and guidelines and encouragement to do the right thing. A “Realistic Vision” also recognizes that people vary widely both physically and intellectually—in good part because of natural inherited differences—so the goal must always be to create environments and societies that are truly fair and just where those who can help themselves can rise (or fall) to their natural levels, and those who cannot help themselves can get the help they need.

In addition to the role of chance in how lives turn out, there is the related concept of contingency, or an unpredictable sequence of antecedent states, which is slightly different from how we usually think of chance as randomness. Contingency may be contrasted with necessity, which is in the domain of natural law. In a model I developed in the 1990s to explain how history unfolds—the Model of Contingent-Necessity1—I defined contingency as: a conjuncture of events occurring without design; and necessity as: constraining circumstances compelling a certain course of action.

Contingencies are the sometimes small, apparently insignificant, and usually unexpected events of life—the kingdom hangs in the balance awaiting the horseshoe nail. Necessities are the large and powerful laws of nature and trends of history—once the kingdom has tipped far enough toward collapse the arrival of 100,000 horseshoe nails will not save it. The past is composed of both contingencies and necessities. Therefore, it is useful to combine the two into one term that expresses this interrelationship—contingent-necessity—taken to mean: A conjuncture of events compelling a certain course of action by constraining prior conditions. In other words, we are not free to do just anything we like because there are constraining prior conditions compelling our future actions, but neither are we completely determined by everything that came before since there is an element of self-aware volition in human lives—we can become aware of our genes, environment, and luck and tweak the variables going forward to initiate a different life outcome within the walls of our unique channels. What follows are some of the many ways that both contingency and necessity influences how lives turn out.

*  *  *

At a campaign rally in Roanoke, Virginia before the 2012 election, President Barack Obama hinted at the role of the environment and society in helping shape the outcome of lives:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the internet so that all the companies could make money off the internet.2

Although Obama was making a larger point about the power of collective action, conservative heads exploded at the central sentiment. “I did build that!” is an understandable rejoinder to which I can relate. I research my books, edit my magazine, teach my courses, and write my articles for journals and my monthly columns for Scientific American. If I don’t make them happen nobody else will. But then I started thinking as a social scientist on the role of chance and contingency in how lives turn out. It’s a sobering experience to realize just how many variables are out of our control.

There is, of course, the luck of being born at all. The ratio of the number of people who could have been born to those who actually were born is incalculably large—trillions to one. Then there is the luck of being born in a country with a stable political system, a sound economy, and a solid infrastructure, rather than, say, in lower caste India, war-torn Syria, or anarchic Somalia. If you were unlucky enough to be born in one of those countries, you can hardly be blamed for a life outcome of poverty and destitution, and if you managed to get out of such a horrific environment there’s a good chance that in addition to being intelligent, creative, and a high-risk taker, you probably had some help along the way.

As well, there is the luck of having loving and nurturing parents who raised you in a safe neighborhood and healthy environment, provided you with a high quality K–12 education, and who instilled in you the values of personal responsibility. If your family was also financially successful that’s an added bonus because one of the best predictors of someone’s earning power is that of their parents. If you were unlucky enough to be raised in an impoverished home by a single parent in an unsafe neighborhood with subpar schools, you can hardly be blamed for not waltzing your way into Harvard followed by a six-figure corporate salary with country-club privileges. If you did manage to pull yourself up by your bootstraps into such a privileged world out of such an impoverished environment, there’s a good chance that in addition to being intelligent, creative, and a high-risk taker, you had help along the way.

Then there’s the luck of attending a college where you happened upon good or inspiring professors or mentors who guided you to your calling, along with a strong peer cohort to challenge and support you, followed by finding a high-paying job or a fulfilling career. If you were unlucky enough to have never been mentored by nurturing educators, did not befriend smart and ambitious peers in your age range in school, could not land a high-paying job out of school, and never found your calling in life that could be converted into a lucrative career, the fault is not entirely in your stars; it is, in fact, more prudently found in your background, including and especially the constraining prior conditions, both biological and environmental.

Let’s not overlook the luck of being born at a time in history when your particular aptitudes and passions fit that of the zeitgeist. Would Google’s co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin be among the richest and most successful people in the world were they born in 1873 instead of 1973? Both are brilliant and hard working, so they would probably have been successful in any century, but at the equivalent of $35 billion each? It seems unlikely. If you had the misfortune to have the talents and interests in a subject for which your society has next to no interest, you can hardly be blamed for that. That’s contingency.

Today’s most popular personality trait theory is what is known as the Five Factor Model, or the Big Five, given in the acronym OCEAN: (1) openness to experience (fantasy, feelings, values), (2) conscientiousness (competence, order, dutifulness), (3) extroversion (gregariousness, assertiveness, excitement seeking), (4) agreeableness (trust, altruism, modesty), and (5) neuroticism (anxiety, anger, depression). Decades of research on the Big Five by behavior geneticists leads to the unmistakable conclusion that these personality traits are at least 50 percent heritable, so although this leaves much room for environment and volition (50 percent room in fact), the luck of the genetic draw also plays an undeniable role in temperament, which itself shapes life outcomes.

In these and many other ways do chance and contingency shape how lives turn out. But by now you must surely be asking, “What about intelligence and hard work?” As with personality traits, behavior geneticists tell us that at least half of intelligence is heritable, as is having a personality that is high in openness to experience, conscientiousness, need of achievement, and risk-taking, all factors that shape success. The non-genetic components of aptitude, scrupulousness, and ambition matter too, of course, but most of those environmental and cultural variables were provided by others or circumstances not of your making. If you wake up in the morning full of vim and vigor, bounding out the door and into the world to take your shot, you didn’t choose to be that way.

By contrast, and as a test of sorts, there are the counter examples of über-smart, creative, hard working people who never prosper. If genes and environment are everything (or nearly so), then why do so many people with good genes and lugubrious environments fail (or at least fail to succeed, if only living mediocre lives)? We cannot simply employ the hindsight bias by taking only successful people and looking to see what they did to become successful, and then back-engineer those traits, package them into a program (or self-help book!), and dispense it into the world for consumers to imbibe and prosper. That’s not how science works. I call this the “biography bias,” evident in the reception of Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography of Steve Jobs. Want to be the next Steve Jobs and create the next Apple Computers? Drop out of college and start a business with your buddy in the garage of your parents’ home. How many people have followed the Jobs model and failed? Who knows? No one writes books about them. But venture capitalists (VC) have data on the probability of a garage start-up becoming the “next big thing,” and here the survivor bias is of a different sort. David Cowan, a VC at Bessemer Venture Partners in Menlo Park, California (and a good friend), told me in an email:

For garage-dwelling entrepreneurs to crack the 1 percent wealth threshold in America, their path almost always involves raising venture capital and then getting their startup to an Initial Public Offering (IPO) or a large acquisition by another company. If their garage is situated in Silicon Valley they might get to pitch as many as 15 VCs, but VCs hear 200 pitches for every one we fund, so perhaps 1 in 13 startups get VC, and still they face long odds from there. According to figures that the National Venture Capital Association diligently collects through primary research and publishes on their web site, last year was somewhat typical in that 1,334 startups got funded but only 13 percent as many achieved an IPO (81 last year) or an acquisition large enough to warrant a public disclosure of the price (95 last year). So for every wealthy startup founder, there are 100 other entrepreneurs who end up with only a cluttered garage.5

Consider the plethora of business books readily available in airport bookstalls that feature the most successful companies. In the 2001 book Good to Great (over four million copies sold), for example, the author Jim Collins culled 11 companies out of 1,435 whose stock beat the market average over a 40-year time span, and then searched for shared characteristics among them that he believed accounted for their success. Instead, as the Pomona College economist Gary Smith explained in his 2014 book, Standard Deviations (Overlook), Collins should have started with a list of companies at the beginning of the test period, then employ a set of criteria to predict which 11 companies should do better than average. To do otherwise—to summarize the characteristics of the companies that did best after the fact—is not prediction; it’s postdiction. In fact, as Smith goes on to show, from 2001–12, the stock of six of Collins’ 11 “great” companies did worse than the overall stock market, meaning that this system of post hoc analysis is fundamentally flawed. Smith finds a similar problem with the 1982 book In Search of Excellence (over three million copies sold) in which the authors Tom Peters and Robert Waterman identified eight common attributes of 43 “excellent” companies. Since then, of the 35 companies with publicly traded stocks, 20 have done worse than the market average.6

*  *  *

There are, as well, additional factors that determine life outcomes over and above genes, environment, and chance. Here I must briefly engage with the contentious issue of free will and determinism, and consider the role of volition in any evaluation of life outcomes. In brief, I believe I have worked out how one can accept the fact that we live in a determined universe without that assumption precluding us from making volitional choices and thus retaining personal responsibility and moral accountability for our actions. Here are my four compatibilist workarounds: (1) modular mind—even though a brain consists of many neural networks in which one network may make a choice that another network finds about later, they are all still operating in a single brain; (2) free won’t—vetoing competing impulses and choosing one thought or action over another); (3) choice as part of the causal net—wherein our volitional acts are part of the determined universe but are still our choices; (4) degrees of moral freedom—a range of choice options varying by degrees of complexity and the number of intervening variables.

Underlying these four factors is a fifth, deeper layer of self-awareness, and awareness of the influencing factors that shape how your life turns out. How? Knowing your strengths and weaknesses and selecting paths more likely to result in the desired effect, you can become aware of the internal and external influencing variables on your life, and self-aware of how you respond to them, and then make adjustments accordingly, however restrictive the degrees of freedom may be. I realize that this will not satisfy determinism purists, but then I contend that they don’t act like determinists anyway, given that the illusion they think free will is, is so powerful that—like placebos—it can effects life outcomes.

In the end, if the cosmic dice rolled in your favor, how should you feel? Modest pride in one’s hard work is no vice, but boastful arrogance at one’s good fortune is no virtue. Cultivate gratitude. What if you’ve been unlucky in life? There is consolation in the fact that studies show in the long run what’s important is not success so much as living a meaningful life, which is the result of having family and friends, setting long-range goals, meeting challenges with courage and conviction and, as Polonius advised (Hamlet Act 1, scene 3): “this above all: to thine own self be true.”


Michael Shermer is publisher of Skeptic magazine and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. Follow him on Twitter@michaelshermer


1 “The Chaos of History: On a Chaotic Model that Represents the Role of Contingency and Necessity in Historical Sequences.” Nonlinear Science. Vol. 2, No. 4. 1993: 1-13; “Exorcising Laplace’s Demon: Chaos and Antichaos, History and Metahistory.” Invited paper for History and Theory. Wesleyan University. Vol. 34, No. 1. 1995. 59-83; “The Crooked Timber of History: History is Complex and Often Chaotic. Can We Use This to Better Understand the Past?” Complexity, Vol. 2, No.6. July/August 1997: 23-29.

2 https://bit.ly/2APhuaC

3 Sulloway, Frank J. 1996. Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives. New York: Vintage Books, 73.

4 Sulloway, Frank J. 1990. “Orthodoxy and Innovation in Science: The Influence of Birth Order in a Multivariate Context.” Paper presented at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, New Orleans, LA, February 16.

5 Personal correspondence, June 7, 2014.

Smith, Gary. 2014. Standard Deviations: Flawed Assumptions, Tortured Data, and Other Ways to Lie with Statistics. New York: Overlook Press.


  1. Pingback: Dumb Pride – Urinal Monologues

  2. Bubblecar says

    There’s a neglected but obvious consideration we have to be aware of when assigning “success” or “failure” to lives as outlined here: what the individual is actually trying to do. For example, I don’t regard myself as a failure because I haven’t become a millionaire, since becoming a millionaire was never seriously on my “to do” list. I’m not much interested in money beyond what I perceive as my need for it, and that has (so far) been satisfied long before reaching that level of income. Many talented and thoughtful people pursue their work and life – and measure their self-esteem – in line with goals and values that are very different from those focused on wealth and celebrity.

    It’s also a mistake to assume that “successful people” are necessarily rewarded with happiness and contentment. The lives of the rich and famous are sometimes miserable in the extreme. “Risk taking” may reward an individual with shed loads of money, but also a chaotic life of chronic stress that ends in suicide. And there are many stories of people whose lives have been steered into all the stereotyped trappings of success – including the conservative ones of a seemingly stable home and family life, community esteem, abundant wealth etc – who actually envy the greater freedom of people living more “marginal” lives of their own choosing.

    This last consideration is important. People stuck in unhappy life circumstances that they haven’t chosen should not be equated with people living mostly happy lives largely of their own choice, no matter how that life compares with conventional prescriptions of what we “should” aspire to. There are vast numbers of not-very-wealthy people who will never be famous, who nonetheless regard their lives as successful and who wouldn’t want to swap with the lives of those in the celebrity pages for one moment.

    • Risk takers don’t always succeed either.
      Happiness is a vague term, and fortunately due to “necessity being the mother of invention,” it’s really people who think something is missing that tend to produce novel solutions, sometime to problems others hadn’t even thought were problems.
      Progress can be good, but it can also have adverse side effects.
      Were Hitler and Trump and Kim successful for reaching the top job in their respective countries?
      Is Bezos better than all others because he’s richest and started a very successful company?
      Are priests/et al and missionaries all losers for being relatively poor?

      • I don’t think he was implying that risk takers always succeed. But he was saying that, by and large, the people who reap the biggest rewards tend to be risk takers. It’s quite likely that, on balance, risk taking is bad, since many risk takers walk away with the biggest losses, and only a few walk away with the biggest wins.

  3. Jose says

    I liked this article but there are very much parts of a person’s life where criticism is very valid. I used to have a friend who made more money than me just out of college. I lived at home with my parents to pay off loans and save up as much as possible while he had to pay rent. He was making more money than me that he should still have had more money left over than what his rent cost when compared to my own financial situation. He seems to have spent it all and whenever we talked he seemed to convey a sense that he was facing money problems. He used it as an excuse to not hang out or to say why his life was so miserable outside of work.

    I lived a simple yet content life throughout college to try and avoid as much debt as possible and worked part time while in college. Growing up in the great recession was not the most fun but thankfully I graduated more recently that the economy had recovered a lot. I’ve managed to save up enough money to afford a very large down payment on a house but would rather save up more and be able to buy a house outright in a nice neighborhood. My friend is still struggling along and after recent conversations has revealed his jealousy.

    I tried to help him as much as I could and even helped him with his work a few times. He still earns more money than me but doesn’t seem able to hold onto what he gets. I have no idea where it goes or what he is spending it on. Each month I can find I have internal contentment though and I see he has what seems like a hole in his life.

    I’m not poor and work as an engineer. He works as an engineer as well but just for a better paying position. There is a gap in our happiness though and I didn’t notice that brought resentment into the mix. He knew my parents and secretly told them how he felt they were enabling me and coddling me too much by allowing me to live rent free and seemingly without consequences. I now pay rent to my family but overall my life hasn’t really changed. I can still find happiness in the smallest of activities. My former friend seems to have ostracized himself from his local community. I thought he was a good person and still hope he can change to become a good and happy person but I cannot put myself in a position to be burned again.

    He still lives what I would see as a good life and has made strides in a better direction by losing weight and maintaining a good job. I wish he didn’t look at me and see something to envy and tear down though. I stopped talking with him after I found out what he thought of me and how he acted without thinking I’d find out. Desire and excessive comparisons seems to be what made him unhappy. I hope he finds what truly makes him happy as I will never be a part of his life again.

    • Happiness is overrated. It’s the pursuit that’s of interest to most progress.
      Wonder if Shermer thinks Robin Williams was a success or not? Was he happy or not?

  4. It strikes me that an awful lot of the things mentioned as luck above aren’t luck at all. Things like the country and the parents you were born to are no more random than the fact that we’re all born on a planet capable of supporting life – the necessary materials are not available anywhere else.

    Similarly, the college you are accepted to is very much a function of which ones you chose to apply to, and what your qualifications are like. Depending on the school system, the same may also apply to earlier schooling.

    At this rate, it pretty much boils down to “I’m lucky I’m not somebody else”, and at that point it sounds pretty similar to “I deserved my success” to me…

    • Erwin says

      I’m not sure i am following you with regards to the point you make about the country you were born in. It is true that we are all born on the same planet. The conditions on that planet, however, are very much dependable on the location one finds himself. you cannot possibly mean to say it is a personal feat of accomplishment to be born in a particular place in the world. And if it is not that, what else is it than random chance?

      Similarly, with regards to college acceptance, there are so many factors out of your own hands. Although it is obvious that you have more influence on getting into the college of your choice than on which sperm cell wins the race and fertilizes the egg that ultimately grows into the person you are now, there is still so much that is not in your own hands. Thousands of high school kids apply for the same colleges every year. Most of them are more then qualified. Still they are at the mercy of the application process; the mood of the interviewer on the particular time they are interviewed, specific acceptance criteria set by the school of their choosing, and numerous other events out of the applicant’s control.

      and finally, i do not understand how you come to the conclusion that “I’m lucky I’m not somebody else” equals “I deserved my success”. To me those two statements do not sound similar at all

      • @Erwin: Given the fact that we exist, it must be the case that the planet where we exist is hospitable – we couldn’t exist on an inhospitable one. It is therefore nonsense to say we were lucky not to have been born on Pluto. Similarly, given that you exist, your parents must be your current parents – any two other people having sex would have produced somebody else. I am arguing that neither luck nor personal accomplishment play a role in these things because there is only one possible option anyway. It’s like playing a lottery where you win exactly 1 dollar regardless of which ticket you’ve drawn. Nobody would think themselves lucky to have won that dollar in this situation.

        As regards your examples of luck in college applications, of course you’re right that luck plays a role. I merely pointed out that the luck we are subject to there is not nearly on the scale the article was suggesting.

        Regarding the final item: I understood the article to say that either your success is down to luck or it is down to your own efforts. With the reasoning above I pretty much collapsed “down to luck” to “I’m lucky I’m not somebody else” (barring smaller incidents, as you say), which is nonsense – if you were somebody else there would be no you who could possibly be or feel lucky. Since the first option is nonsense, and there are only two options presented, “down to your own efforts” is the only one that is left.

        • Erwin says

          @ X: Thanks for your reply. To be clear, i am not trying to say it is lucky we are born on this particular planet instead of another. The human race only exists on the planet earth therefor it is definitely not a coincedence that you are I are born here, sorry if my previous comment led you to that conclusion.

          If I understand you correctly, your argument is that given that a certain individual can only be the result of one set of parents, arguing that the situation for a child would have been different had it been born anywhere else does not mean anything. After all, this particular child could never have been born anywhere else than from it’s own parents.
          Altough i think i agree with you I am not sure whether this is relevant to the points made in the article. I don’t think that the writer necesarrily means that the same exact child is born in different circumstances, but rather the simple fact that a child with similar character traits and similar potential born in a first world country has a much better starting position in the world than a child born in one of the less developed countries mentioned in the article.
          Neither one of these kids had anything to say in this matter of course, they did drew a sort of imaginary lottery ticket as you described it. I wouldn’t, however, describe the payouts of this lottery to be the same for both children, not even close. The chance for the child in the first world country to fulfil it’s potential is much greater (although not guaranteed of course, much more factors at play here) than for the child in the less developed country.

          • @Erwin: I really just drew the parallel with the world we live in because most people who read Quillette will be familiar with and understand that reasoning.

            Also, I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as luck. As you say, a lot of children don’t fulfil their potential because of dumb bad luck like being born during a famine or some such. I just said that the influence of luck was greatly exaggerated in the article, since it attributes to luck a lot of things that either couldn’t be different (conditional on you being born), such as your parents and such parts of your environment as they have control over (which is usually a fair amount – your parents pick a place to live, people they associate with, and the stuff you get to play with as a child according to who they are), or are significantly influenced by your own actions (such as college choice). There just isn’t a lot of space for randomness in selecting environment-child combinations (i.e. it’s rare for two people from widely different backgrounds to be similar enough to be considered exchangeable, especially if you only start evaluating backgrounds after they’ve finished their education)

    • Marsell Holley says

      I have to strongly disagree. Tbh I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “Things like the country and the parents you were born to are no more random than the fact that we’re all born on a planet capable of supporting life”. It sounds like you’re saying these things are able to be controlled by the individual it effects, which of course is completely wrong. They are completely random for the offspring and are pure luck.

  5. Carthorse says

    I would posit that
    “There is consolation in the fact that studies show in the long run what’s important is not success so much as living a meaningful life, which is the result of having family and friends, setting long-range goals, meeting challenges with courage and conviction and, as Polonius advised (Hamlet Act 1, scene 3): “this above all: to thine own self be true.””
    is arguably the most important part of this entire article, and even go so far as to assert that the pursuit of what is meaningful in one’s life is the very definition of success and happiness.

    • Claire's Landing Strip says

      It only goes so far, though. I used to love the Dolly Parton song “Coat of Many Colors,” wherein she decides that being poor is palatable as long as you’re not poor in your heart and mind — and you can most certainly ascribe this to someone who has their basic needs met — not hungry — perhaps a patchwork coat, but a coat, nonetheless. But the song, later, seemed like so much bullshit. You can’t tell someone who is suffering to change their mindset to see it some other way, like “oh just decide to live a meaningful life.” There is a measure of privilege in that statement — to have it applied to you, without being utterly ridiculous.

      • Most people for most of humanity have been poor. Were they all unhappy losers?
        You are free to compare people based on any set of metrics you like, but many of them are subjective, and many people/actions/inventions/wealth are tied to both good and troubling aspects.

  6. DeplorableDude says

    Since when did your parent working hard and passing along the knowledge that hard work and education is important become luck?

    • Andrew says

      It’s luck from the perspective of the child who receives that benefit.

      • Aylwin says

        DeplorableDude, Andrew … And the fact that someone is hardworking is also luck; the child is lucky to be born of a hard working parent, and the parent is lucky to be constituted as hard working.

        • Luck is a weird term for all situational realities. Most thoughts of luck come from the idea of random chance. Your genes are not random, nor is you place of birth, nor whether parents are hard working, nor whether the child too is hardworking (anybody with siblings intuitively knows children don’t all match each other or their parents).
          Sometimes a hard life leads to great innovations and accomplishment despite it, creating a fighting spirit where they overcome. Sometimes an easy life leads to drug abuse or sloth, or even lets you reach the highest political position without signs of grace, humility, significant accomplishments, kindness or pursuit of knowledge.

  7. E. Olson says

    The big difference between “conservatives” (aka Right) and “liberals” (aka Left) is not what the author contends, but in what the two side prescribe for “fixing” unfairness. I think virtually everyone admits that life outcomes are to a large degree a matter of luck, and that some people are luckier than others to be born in a prosperous safe country/community, with a loving and prosperous family, and with gifts of athletic and/or cognitive talents, pleasant personality, and good looks, etc. that give them more opportunity to succeed. What follows are the key differences between Right and Left, as only the Right believes everyone is personally responsible for making the most of what they were given whether their “gifts” were small or large, while the Left believes those born without much luck are victims and puts almost total responsibility for this “unfairness” on society rather than the individual. This difference leads the Right to have a very different perspective than the Left in what they think is most effective ways to help those born less lucky, because only the Right looks at what works and what is possible. For example, the Left wants open borders to solve world poverty, while the Right believes such policies will not help anyone because importing 5 billion poor people to the US or Europe, would overwhelm and destroy the social and economic systems that have made the US and Europe relatively wealthy, productive, free, and tolerant. Similarly the Left wants government to massively redistribute money from the wealthy (lucky) to the poor (unlucky) to make everyone more equal, while the Right believes massive confiscation of earned wealth from the “lucky” will reduce their incentives to use their “God given” gifts to study hard, innovate, start new businesses, invest, or work hard in the manner that generates wealth and jobs for all citizens. The Right also tends to believe that giving “unearned” money to the “unlucky” will not solve their problems and may make them worse by funding drug addiction, overeating, gambling and other vices that are most often associated with the “unlucky”. Although the Right will acknowledge that they were lucky to have supportive parents, high IQ, and strong worth ethic, they also believe that no government program can hope to replace the positive effects of good parents, high IQ, or strong work ethic for those born without them.

    Given the billions spent on Great Society type programs, increasingly progressive taxation, affirmative action, and foreign aid over the past 50+ years, the continued inequities would suggest the Right is right.

    • Vincent says

      It seems to me that dividing the political perspectives of everyone in the entire world into “the Right” and “the Left” is a bit of a false dichotomy. Although I don’t agree with everything the author said, I think he did a decent job of moving beyond this dichotomy after setting it up. I believe that the author was contending that we should move beyond this dichotomous way of viewing political philosophy rather than fretting the details of how the dichotomy is structured. Of course, viewing political philosophy as two distinct and immutable ideologies better serves your argument that one is good while the other is bad…

      • E. Olson says

        No – it isn’t about good and bad, it is about what works and what doesn’t work. There is no evidence that Leftist “fairness” and “fixing the unequal distribution of luck” policies work, and in fact more evidence that they make most problems worse.

        • Anon55344 says

          ” There is no evidence that Leftist “fairness” and “fixing the unequal distribution of luck” policies work, ” Define “work”.

          “and in fact more evidence that they make most problems worse.” Which problems are those that are made worse?

          • @Anon55344
            I agree. History is clear on that. Even when some outcomes are seemingly good something on the other end of the balance suffers in silence.

            What gets me is the notion that those who are winners in life’s lottery – born white, to good parents, in a developed western nation, access to education and have good genes, intelligence and strong work ethic are somehow undeserving and therefore should be made to feel guilty.


            To those who have a problem with my fortune I ask: What would you have me do??? Sure I can check my ‘white privilege’ – but what good does that do you? I had nothing – zero – to do with your lottery outcome. How about I just live my life and you worry about you.

          • Which problems? The increase in single parent families for a start. Welfare increased incentives for mothers and fathers to be less responsible as the state can step. Public housing & rent control shrink the open market for low income housing. Easy student loans and mortgages caused the costs of both to vastly increase.

          • ccscientist says

            annon55344: To take an example from Thomas Sowell, before the great society welfare, black communities had the same marriage rate and even employment rate (though at lower wage) as whites, and low crime. Giving billions in freebies did not work.

        • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

          @E. Olson

          This kind of doctrinal binary is unworthy of you sir. The most prosperous societies history has ever known were a blend of socialism and capitalism. My mother received a free education courtesy of the state, and she put it to good use. Should the American government really have let 1/4 of the population starve to death in the ’30s? From the ’30s thru the ’70s much of the ‘socialist’ public spending of the government was very responsible and benefited everyone.

      • Stephanie says

        Vincent, it is not a false dichotomy. There are personality factors that determine which side of the dividing line you fall on, stark differences of outlook on how to handle problems, as E Olsen explained to well.

        The author exaggerated the positions of both Left and Right in order to be perceived as transcending them with facts. I don’t know a single person on the Right who believes the country or family you were born in doesn’t make a huge difference: quite the contrary, they are exceedingly proud of their countries exactly because of the opportunities they offer. And the Right is constantly talking about how to make stronger families, not because it has nothing to do with a child’s success, but because it has a huge impact.

        It’s fashionable to talk about false dichotomies and espouse the notion neither side is ever right or wrong, but it’s simply not very useful.

    • Anon55344 says

      You are wrong about what the Right and Left believe and what the Right and Left think government should do.
      The author is correct in that the Right believes you are personally responsible for all of your outcomes in life. The Left believes luck plays a role.

      “the Right to have a very different perspective than the Left in what they think is most effective ways to help those born less lucky, because only the Right looks at what works and what is possible.” Your statement is wrong. When you take a look at what works, you will find the Right has not funded what works. What works is providing universal education, universal basic health care (but not universal specialty care), good infrastructure, adequately funded courts, and a strong social safety net when people have to change jobs (but not a strong social safety net to lay around the house playing video games).
      Government providing for those functions will produce high GDP growth and social mobility.

      “Given the billions spent on Great Society type programs, increasingly progressive taxation, affirmative action, and foreign aid over the past 50+ years, the continued inequities would suggest the Right is right.” This statement is completely and totally wrong. I cannot emphasize how wrong your statement is. It is wrong, wrong, wrong, and not in harmony with history.
      Compared to other countries which have better social outcomes the USA spends little on Great Society programs. The USA should be spending more on Great Society-type programs (less on direct transfer payments and more on job support payments). The USA has had DECREASED progressive taxation over the past 35 years. (Are you rich and want to pay 0% on your income? Invest in a business near the Mall of America in Minnesota). Foreign aid is an insignificant amount of the federal budget.

      • E. Olson says

        Since the advent of the Great Society Programs in the 1960s, lower class families have disintegrated (particularly blacks) and single parent households have proliferated. Almost all children living in poverty today are single parent households. Lower class participation in the labor force (particularly blacks) has been declining, youth employment has also been increasing (even more so in “socialist” Europe), while the population on disability has been increasing despite the fact that jobs involving hard physical labor have been declining. In fact, the official poverty rates have barely moved at all since the 1960s – although it can be argued that figures are purposely manipulated by poverty program administrators who never actually poverty to decline because it would mean they might lose their cushy jobs. You are really wrong about taxes – as the US has the most progressive tax rates in the developed world thanks to Republicans who enacted Earned Income Tax Credits and increased deductions to eliminate income taxes for the bottom 50% of the US population. You might read some of the books by Thomas Sowell to get educated on these issue, and the link below has a nice summary of the harm done by foreign aid:


        • E. Olson says

          correction: should read “youth employment has been decreasing”

      • @Anon55344
        You are on fire!

        You are also steeped in nanny state theology. The Great Society is an unmitigated disaster – especially for urban black people. Even they know it as they stand largely trapped by it.

        Have you ever read anything by Thomas Sowell? The man is national treasure who has been ignored by the left for 50 years. He can explain what life was like for black families before the Great Society economic policies fixed everything. Hint – it was better…

    • Ray Andrews says

      @E. Olson

      In my view it is the Center that is right. Notwithstanding that there is truth in what you say, absolutely dog-eat-dog societies are not nice places to live. Certain claims from the plutocracy that every penny they have has been earned are not quite true. Sober social programs can have huge benefits. The Right says that it doesn’t matter how brutal the poverty of the majority of mankind may be, all that matters is that their yachts get bigger every year — the Free Market is always right. I say that the Free Market does not exist and that whatever markets we may have should be designed to benefit the greatest number of people.

      But Musk has earned his billions and I hope he gets richer. There is no counting the numbers of loosers who need a kick in the ass more than they need more welfare. The Center understands this.

      • E. Olson says

        Ray – I never has said anything about “dog eat dog” societies or that there should be zero safety net. What I do believe is that all government programs should be given sunset deadlines that cause them to expire unless a non-interested 3rd party demonstrates the program’s effectiveness in achieving its goals AND that further work is necessary and desirable. If welfare programs don’t actually help people get out of poverty, or create negative side effects (such as an increase in single mothers or out-of-control student debt), then such programs should be terminated. I also believe the private sector is almost always going to be more innovative and effective in solving social problems if the government gets out of the way. Local churches, civic groups, and other charities are much more likely to know the people of their local community and therefore more accurately determine if someone such as your mother has good work habits and enough intelligence to benefit from educational charity/welfare and consequently get through school with skills that lead to employment and a better life, versus a welfare bureaucrat who gets paid more for having more “clients” and therefore also gives education money to people without the skills or intelligence to do well in school. Local churches, civic groups, and other charities are also much less likely to rely on unionized employees who demand high wages and gold plated pensions and can’t be fired for poor performance, and therefore be much more cost effective. Thus the public sector “solution” should always be in the last resort when private efforts fail, and must always be evaluated for effectiveness.

        • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

          @E. Olson

          “I never has said anything about “dog eat dog” societies”

          I’m never sure about the propriety of taking a person’s point of view to it’s extreme for the purposes of contrast. No sir, I don’t suppose that you did say that, but others do. I find your views reasonable, if perhaps somewhat too far to the Right. Indeed every social measure must be continually tested for its efficacy. Indeed there is such a thing as the welfare trap.

          “Local churches, civic groups, and other charities are much more likely …”

          Yes, and sometimes they are even funded by the government who realize that these groups can do a better job. The Sally Ann takes government contracts all the time.

          “unionized employees who demand high wages and gold plated pensions and can’t be fired for poor performance”

          This can be exaggerated. I have no problem with workers having pensions, in fact I’d say it should be the rule. I have such a pension, which gives me the luxury of having a roof over my head. And I was fired for poor performance (tho the case against me was fixed).
          In my view government workers should be well paid, but also have the highest standards of performance incumbent on them.

  8. C. Satwell says

    I want to hear more about how lugubrious environments can help me succeed. Haven’t done too well in the current one.

    • Walter says

      I thought this piece was excellent, but it needed one more round of proofreading.

    • Nick says

      Hit the antonym button instead of the synonym button on dictionary.com. Oh well, just another example of how luck affects success (or failure).

  9. I don’t like this essay and it would take too long to really explain why in depth. All I can say is it has a really simplistic take on what so called “conservatives” believe about what are the main causes of personal success in life. My general rebutal though is that many people have won the gene lottery and led awful unproductive or unhappy lives.

  10. It is frustrating to see people continue to phrase the conservative argument as one of having “deserved” their wealth or poverty. No one doubts that luck (including one’s genes and the environment in which one is raised) plays a huge role in success and failure; the question is to what extent it is right to take from the successful to give to the less successful. Few would argue against helping the needy, but there is a large distance between not letting people starve and “spreading the wealth around,” as Obama put it to Joe the plumber.

    Liberals think that poor people are poor because they are systematically put at a disadvantage by society and that anyone who has money has gotten it by exploiting the poor; therefore, it only makes sense in their world view to take from those who have and give to those who have not. Conservatives think that individuals are autonomous, and if you make money, whether as a performer such as an actor or athlete or as an industrialist, and whether you earned it by simple hard work or because you were born smart or even if you just got lucky, it’s your money. Government should not be doing social engineering on the premise that your wealth was built on someone else’s poverty; we live in a free society, and so long as you are not guilty of criminal acts you are assumed to have obtained your money through the free choices of others (who buy your product). Giving money to people who end up in bad economic situations (unemployed, single parents, etc.) does create a moral hazard, but the greater hazard is creating the presumption that poor people deserve money because they are oppressed, and that if we only give them more money to overcome their oppression, their lives will necessarily improve.

    • Jack B. Nimble says

      @Derek C.

      “……..Liberals think that poor people are poor because they are systematically put at a disadvantage by society and that anyone who has money has gotten it by exploiting the poor; therefore, it only makes sense in their world view to take from those who have and give to those who have not….”

      I don’t think that “….poor people are poor because they are systematically put at a disadvantage by society….” Does that mean I’m not a liberal??

      Look, conditions like poverty have multiple, not-mutually-exclusive explanations:

      Bad luck
      Suboptimal environmental factors
      Suboptimal genetic factors
      Societal influences not accounted for above (e.g., de jure and de facto discrimination)
      Plus all the multi-way interactions among the above

      Also, exploitation is not a rich vs. poor struggle. Even the wealthy can be exploited–see, e.g., Bernie Madoff.

      The real problem with the wealthy getting wealthier is that they can buy excessive political influence and subvert normal democratic processes. That’s the reason why capital gains in the US are taxed at ridiculously low rates compared to earned income; even billionaires pay 20% tax on their capital gains. Politicians of both parties care more for the wealthy few than for those in the middle class.

      • E. Olson says

        Capital gains are taxed at a lower rate because the money has already been taxed multiple times. First, capital gains are the result of investments that come from savings left over from earned income, which is taxed as ordinary income. Second, capital gains are taxed by inflation, because if my investment doubles in value in 10 years that the CPI has also doubled, my post-inflation net gain is zero, but I still need to pay capital gains tax on the investment “income”. Third, the capital gain is typically based on the earnings derived from the investment, which are reduced by corporate income taxes. Study after study show that high taxes on capital gains do nothing but reduce the quantity and quality of private investments, which slows economic growth and hurts everyone including the tax collectors.

        • Jack B. Nimble says

          @E. Olson

          Your arguments are–to use a technical term–bullshit.

          First, inflation affects all taxpayers, not just those with capital gains. And in the US, exemptions and deductions have been indexed to inflation to prevent ‘bracket creep.’ I’m not sure about indexing in the 2018 tax law, however.

          Second, your other arguments are based on the idea of aftertax income. It is true that capital gains and losses are declared after taxes and other business expenses have been paid. But many corporations in the US pay an effective tax rate of zero because of tax loopholes. And there are many other examples of aftertax income being taxed a second time. I pay my household expenses out of aftertax income, and many of those transactions incur a sales tax or tax surcharge. The same ‘double taxation’ hits many other middle class families–why don’t we get a break? Also, the entity paying corporate tax and the person paying income tax on capital gains are two different taxpayers with completely different laws governing credits, deductible expenses, etc. It makes no sense to consider them one individual for tax purposes, unless the goal is to screw over the middle class.

          • ga gamba says

            But many corporations in the US pay an effective tax rate of zero because of tax loopholes.

            When I read a statement like this I think to myself, “This person has been reading bumper stickers.”

            Of the S&P 500 for tax year 2015, twenty-seven profitable corporations paid no federal income tax. That’s 5.4% of the S&P 500. Is that many, some, or few? I suppose one’s outlook will determine that.

            Now, why did these 27 pay no tax? This is the important question. “Loopholes!” OK, but if these loopholes exist, why did the other 473 corporations fail to use them to eliminate their income tax also? I presume they hire talented professionals to manage their books, study tax law, etc. They may even lobby elected representatives. These are the 500 largest companies in the US, after all.

            Several of these companies are real-estate investment trusts. The tax burden shifts from the company to the shareholders. So, the treasury gets paid, but from a different source.

            Many of the 27 companies were allowed to offset tax due with valuation allowances resulting from losses in past years. This benefit dissipates over time, presuming the companies remain profitable. This “loophole” is a temporary one.

            Then there are “US” companies headquartered abroad. The US company was taken over by an overseas buyer and it become a subsidiary. They still pay tax on the income earned in the US, though there are ways to minimise this, but income earned elsewhere, say in Canada or Ireland are no longer subject to US tax. This was an enticing option when the US corporate income tax was the highest in the OECD, but since Trump lowered it to a rate competitive with OECD states such as Sweden, it’s less attractive. That said, the frequency of companies being inverted through this process is uncommon – fewer than 100 since the 1980s.

            Of course, all the above is federal income tax. Corporations still have to pay tax on their real estate as well as VAT/sales tax on their purchases of computers, vehicles, paper, pens, etc. That said, some local governments entice corporations with tax holidays and other subsidies. But this is a local government issue (and problem) and not of the fed’s.

            And there are many other examples of aftertax income being taxed a second time. I pay my household expenses out of aftertax income, and many of those transactions incur a sales tax or tax surcharge. The same ‘double taxation’ hits many other middle class families–why don’t we get a break?

            This is not the legal definition of double taxation. All income earners are subject to income tax, but the rates and deductions allow many to pay no tax – about 45% of households do not pay federal income tax, though they pay other taxes. If you are property owner you pay real estate tax. If you receive capital gains from the sale of stock or real estate you pay capital gains tax. You pay petrol tax if you are a vehicle owner. And you pay VAT/sales tax.

            These taxes are applicable to all, barring diplomats who are tax-exempt in the host country when posted overseas. (You are given an ID to flash at shops to remove the VAT from purchases, for example.) Now, there are ways to minimize tax, such as reinvesting capital gains. One may also invest in tax-free municipal bonds – there are a few catches though. For home-value assessment, if the homeowner does not grant full access to the property including the interior, the assessor will automatically assign the highest assessed value possible for that type of property.

            Minimising tax, also called avoiding tax, is perfectly legitimate and lawful. It’s evading tax that’s unlawful. I find some people (not you) conflate avoiding tax for evading tax. This is a mistake.

            If you really want to reduce your tax burden, elect officials who pledge to do so. Better yet, implement a flat-tax regime that eliminates all loopholes, set asides, subsidies, and any other preferences. Implement Freedman’s negative income tax for those earning x, such as 50% above the poverty line, and sack the bureaucrats administering many of the benefits programmes.

          • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

            @Jack B. Nimble

            His arguments were not bullshit, however, as you show, they may not have been quite fair. But the problem of layered taxation is very real. If you worked everything back to raw materials it is probably true that ‘everything’ is taxed a dozen times over. How to sort that out and decide what is truly proper?

          • Jack B. Nimble says

            @ga gamba

            Your argument about tax inversions supports the point I was making–corporations and investors enjoy tax advantages unavailable to the middle class.

            Some corporations [e.g., Medtronic, Johnson Controls] ‘inverted’ to Ireland, where the effective corporate tax rate is 2.5%, according to the US Bureau of Economic Analysis.
            Link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tax_inversion

            How could the US ‘compete’ with that, unless it dropped its corporate tax rate to zero?

            Corporations and investors will almost always seek to reduce their tax burden. There’s nothing immoral about that, but it does mean that other taxpayers have to carry more of the burden or else critical needs will go unfunded.

            The more important point in all of this is that corporations and investors benefit from infrastructure (seaports, airports, highways, bridges, public utilities, public hospitals, etc.) and services (police and fire protection) that our tax dollars pay for. Without those services and infrastructure, corporations and investors would have to build their own infrastructure or else scale back their operations. So they should pay it back to society in hefty taxes and fees, and not try to free-ride on the rest of us.

            Oh, and your last paragraph? That’s nothing but bumper slogans.

          • ga gamba says


            The more important point in all of this is that corporations and investors benefit from infrastructure (seaports, airports, highways, bridges, public utilities, public hospitals, etc.) and services (police and fire protection) that our tax dollars pay for.

            Just about everything you mentioned is a local service or facility paid for by a variety of local taxes and fees – wasn’t your initial complaint about corporations not paying income tax? As I wrote previously, corporations pay real-estate tax, fuel tax, VAT, severance tax, etc., most of these go to the local coffers.

            Even the majority of the tab for massive projects such as airports is picked up by local authorities who sell bonds, auction concession rights, and charge fees to both the airlines and passengers. The last major airport built in the US is Denver’s (DIA). Financing for DIA included about $508 million from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in grants and facilities and equipment funds, and about $3.8 billion in bonds sold to the public. The FAA picked up about 13% of the cost.

            The FAA. A-ha, the federal government!

            Not so quick there. The majority of the FAA’s budget comes from Aviation Trust Fund, which is funded by… not the income tax payer. The FAA says it receives revenues principally from a variety of excise taxes paid by users of the national airspace system. The excise taxes are imposed on domestic passenger tickets, domestic flight segments, and international passenger arrivals and departures, and on purchases of air travel miles for frequent flyer and similar programs. In addition, taxes are imposed on air cargo waybills and aviation fuel purchases. The largest source of excise tax revenues are related to transportation of passengers. The Trust Fund provided about 91.5 per cent of the funding for the FAA’s Operations account in FY 2017 and provided about 86.7 per cent of the funding for the Operations account in FY 2018.

            Appears the FAA is primarily funded by those who use the airports, airlines, and airspace.

            What about sea ports? Let’s look at the America’s busiest, the Port of Houston. In 2017 it had expenses of $299,049,000 and its revenues were $393,235,000. Hmmm… the port is self sufficient and self financing. Made a tidy profit too. I suppose it’ll use some of that for upgrades, expansion, etc.

            Appears the Port Authority of Houston is funded by those who ship cargo to and from it.

            Same too with the roads. Again, local taxes and fees on vehicles, fuel, road use, etc. The federal government also collects tax on petrol and diesel which it uses to fund the Highway Trust Fund and the Mass Transit Fund.

            America’s largest public utility is the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. In 2014 it had profit of $388m. The city has a longstanding policy of transferring 8 percent of the LADWP’s revenue to the general fund to help balance the city’s budget. The payment has routinely been about $250 million for years, and it gave the city $253m in 2014.

            Now, if you know of the ways corporations are able to evade paying fuel tax, airport use fees, road tolls, cargo terminal fees, electricity and water fees, and airline passenger tax, and thereby force the 55% of individuals who pay federal income tax to cover their activities, I’d be keen to learn it.

            Of course, it would be terrific that the 5% (have we resolved whether that’s many or few?) of the S&P 500 that didn’t pay federal income tax in 2015 did so, but as my previous comment addressed, they were able to write off businesses losses from previous years. And to be fair, individuals, many of whom are middle class, are able to write off their investment and business losses and even carry that over to subsequent years. There are 27 million businesses in the US, and not all of them are profitable nor are all their owners the upper class.

            Some corporations [e.g., Medtronic, Johnson Controls] ‘inverted’ to Ireland, where the effective corporate tax rate is 2.5%, according to the US Bureau of Economic Analysis.
            Link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tax_inversion

            How could the US ‘compete’ with that, unless it dropped its corporate tax rate to zero?

            Yes, how could the US compete with that? Look at all the US corporations relocating to Ireland as I type my comment. In 96 hours they’ll all be gone. Oh wait, that hasn’t happened and won’t. But Ireland’s 2.5% tax rate is so enticing. Why hasn’t everyone fled the US? Explain that to me, Jack. Did the US drop its corporate rate rate to zero to retain all the companies? No. Still, if it were do so, perhaps all the companies in Ireland and elsewhere would relocate to the US. Imagine the job growth, salary increases, improvements in non-pay benefits offered, and personal income tax paid to the federal treasury. The states would stand to gain as well by receiving more real-estate tax as well as other taxes. Alas, I may only dream. Just as almost all corporations remain in the US, even when the tax rate was amongst the highest in the OECD, the same would occur for corporations in Germany, France, and elsewhere.

            Inversion is uncommonly rare. As I stated in my previous comment, fewer than 100 corporations have done so since the 1980s, which was almost four decades ago. Two or three per annum, on average.

            Face facts, Jack. You over-egged your initial comment. That’s the risk of deriving one’s understanding of economy from bumper stickers. At least add placard declarations to the mix too.

            BTW, capital spending, which includes infrastructure – about $415b per annum – is roughly 5% of the total local, state, and federal budget. Seventy-five percent of it is covered by state and local authorities.

          • Jack B. Nimble says

            @ga gamba

            “……..Just about everything you mentioned is a local service or facility paid for by a variety of local taxes and fees – wasn’t your initial complaint about corporations not paying income tax?….”

            In the US, the ongoing partial federal govt. shutdown, although not related to taxation, has made clear the number of services that the US provides to industry, paid for by taxpayers: food inspection, Coast Guard services, transportation security and air traffic control, etc.

            Corporations also pay state income tax, but the state I live in is so generous in giving out refundable tax credits and rebates that the net income tax paid by corporations collectively is negative–the state loses money to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars annually. There is even a market where corporations can buy and sell tax credits among themselves. If that doesn’t convince you that corporations are gaming the tax systems in the US by using lawyers, lobbyists and tax accountants, nothing will.

            “……Yes, how could the US compete with that? Look at all the US corporations relocating to Ireland as I type my comment. In 96 hours they’ll all be gone. Oh wait, that hasn’t happened and won’t…….”

            If you had taken time to read the article I linked to, you would understand why some US companies have inverted but most haven’t:

            “….To make a tax inversion work, the corporation must also be able to relocate profit streams to the new location. This either requires intellectual property …… and/or existing debt financing (relocation via “earnings stripping”). This limits inversions to either the IP-heavy industries of life sciences, financials, technology and businesses with patents and licenses, or industries with leveraged assets like oil & gas.

            Stronger “substance” rules (the “SBA test”) in the 2004 Act (the foreign target had to be 25% of US corporation) made inversions harder for large US technology corporations (Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft etc. use Irish “multinational tax schemes” which act like a quasi-inversions), and life sciences came to dominate post-2004 inversions. Pfizer’s attempted 2016 merger with Irish-based Allergan (after failed 2014 takeover of UK-based Astra Zeneca), the largest inversion in history, was blocked by the Obama administration with further rule tightening, and upheld by the Trump administration….”

    • Vincent says

      @Derek Croxton

      I think it’s funny that you said it’s frustrating to see the conservative argument mischaracterized and then you present a mischaracterization of traditional liberal arguments. Don’t complain about strawmen when you construct your own.

      • Fair enough. I presented one liberal view, obviously not the views of all liberals. It is, however, a prominent view especially among the most vocal. I do not hear conservatives saying that the poor deserve to be poor, although perhaps you can point me to some examples.

    • Anon55344 says

      “Government should not be doing social engineering on the premise that your wealth was built on someone else’s poverty; we live in a free society, and so long as you are not guilty of criminal acts you are assumed to have obtained your money through the free choices of others (who buy your product). ”

      You are assuming what is legal is also moral.
      Slavery was legal and some people made lots of legal money from slavery.
      CEOs have found legal ways to pay themselves millions. But if you look at the Security and Exchange Commission rules you will wonder if the rules (although currently legal) are moral.

      • ga gamba says

        That’s some interesting equivalency: slavers and CEOs.

        Hollywood actors, network news readers, and sports figures have found ways to get paid millions too. Dislike the CEOs if you choose, but certainly running GM or Virgin Airlines is more difficult, time consuming, and stressful than pretending to be Margaret Thatcher and Iron Man or reading words on a teleprompter for 30 minutes five nights a week.

        Ultimately, if the owners of the corporations, i.e. the shareholders, elect a board that then pays a CEO millions that’s the owners’ concern. It’s their money (over)paying the CEOs. Displeased by the board’s hiring decisions and compensation awarded? Elect new board members. Same holds for the owners of film studios, network media, and sports teams who allow large sums to be paid to the talent.

        • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

          @ga gamba

          “that’s the owners’ concern”

          But their are laws governing such matters are their not? What should those laws be? The Market fundamentalists tend to talk as if corporate governance was like gravity — unalterable and unavoidable — but that is not the case. All corporate and commercial matters take place under the supervision of some legal framework which is, to be honest, always arbitrary and based on some normative framework. There is no a priori reason why these frameworks might not be modified. It is simply a lie that there is any such thing as The Free Market, The Market is always regulated in some way. The plutocrats like to pretend that regulations that favor them, and which they pay the government to enact, are somehow ‘natural’, but they are not.

          • ga gamba says

            Is there a law that regulates Meryl Streep’s pay? How about Connor McDavid’s?

            CEO compensation is regulated for disclosures, the treatment of tax on executive compensation, and there are pay limits and disclosures requirements for government contractors. Regulated industries such as utilities have limits placed on executive pay because the company has been awarded a privileged position by the government in the form of monopoly/duopoly where competition is restricted if not eliminated. But is Howard Schultz’s pay capped by law in some way? Not that I know of. Starbucks has many competitors, so Schultz isn’t running a protected company. Not only does it have to compete with other coffee chains and independents, and also competes with traditional fast-food and fast-casual restaurants that have expanded into the cafe sector. Starbucks also competes with bean roasters on the markets’ shelves. Further, it competes in the franchise sector too where there are plenty of franchise options for an investor.

            No major economy has a direct earnings (salary) limit, and the one country that I know of that does is Cuba, where salaries are capped at $20 per month.

            Now, I’m highly amenable to hire a high-quality CEO at a lower wage than paid to the existing American CEO if s/he is willing to accept so freely. Swedish CEOs are presently a good value, and social democratic Sweden doesn’t cap salaries (nor does it have a minimum wage). Would a Swede jump at the chance to increase his/her pay over what s/he earns presently as well as reduce his/her income tax by working in the States? I think so. If a few Swedes prove themselves in the US, more boards will then consider other Swedes which may drive down US CEO compensation. There’s an interesting wrinkle though. If a Swedish woman is hired to replace a US male, and she is paid less then her predecessor, then the feminists howl with indignation and the media enjoy savaging the company’s reputation.

            It is simply a lie that there is any such thing as The Free Market

            I haven’t made the argument of its existence. I appreciate the free-enterprise system, and I also prefer markets to be as free as possible, but I recognise that having a company dispose mercury in the drinking water is a bad idea. Why waste mercury willy nilly on fish when should be used to glaze doughnuts?

      • If you can find some specific enterprise that is immoral, but you don’t want to ban it for some reason, I can understand taxing it. That is effectively what we do for cigarettes. I think it is wrong to tax the wealthy on the general principle that they must have used immoral means to obtain their money.

        • E. Olson says

          One of the great Leftist myths is their belief in the “idle rich”. Most successful (and many unsuccessful) entrepreneurs, high paid managers, professionals, athletes, artists, etc. work, and train extremely long hours (60-80 hours per week) for years on end to get the very most out of their “lucky” abilities. On the other hand, studies of the “unlucky” poor find that very few regularly work a full-time position (typically defined as 30-40 hours per week) for any significant period of time. You also see among working class employers that they struggle to find employees that show up for work on time, are willing to put in extra effort when needed, and can pass drug tests, which is likely why many of them can’t find regular employment even in a strong economy. Does anyone think that perhaps if welfare wasn’t so generous, that more of these “unlucky” might find a way to get out of bed in the morning and stay away from drugs?

          • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

            @E. Olson

            The fact that there are very many rich people who do earn their pay, and who are quite deserving of their wealth is not an argument that there are no ‘idle rich’. There are very many idle rich. I wish there were stats on this. Contrast Musk against, say, Paris Hilton who I hope we can all agree has not really worked very hard for her decadent lifestyle.

            It is probably true that starvation might motivate some unemployed to seek work, but I can’t help but wonder if we can’t do better than that.

          • E. Olson says

            Ray – I suspect that Paris (and Kardashians) has actually put in a lot of hours to become “famous for being famous” by regularly getting her name and image in the media. Figuring out how to dress and what party/event to attend so that she gets in the paper or on TV may not seem like work to most of us, but probably involves much more effort than is seen from the superficial coverage of her antics. Certainly she could have quietly lived off her Hilton family fortune, but used her birth luck to further enhance her fame and wealth. I do think that whatever her efforts have been they have been vastly over-rewarded, but apparently the wider market disagrees because she has attracted a large and profitable following.

          • ga gamba says

            The fact that there are very many rich people who do earn their pay, and who are quite deserving of their wealth is not an argument that there are no ‘idle rich’.

            I’d much rather have the idle rich than the busybody rich who found and fund NGOs. The idlers do less damage.

            Frankly, how an idler spent with his/her day lawfully doesn’t bother me, and I’ve got enough on my plate without fixating that Richy Rich spent his afternoon lounging by the pool.

            I suppose a definition of the idle rich is needed. If Mark Zuckerberg were to cash in his chips, leave Facebook, and never to work again is he now the idle rich? Or do we mean those who benefit from inherited wealth who need not do anything to earn their windfall – just be born into the right family? I think the latter better describes the idle rich.

            Now, if the person is really idle, s/he will hire a lot of people to maximise his inertia.

            There are very many idle rich. I wish there were stats on this.

            We can make a decent guesstimate, but certainly not precise.

            The US Census Bureau reports the average household in the top 20 per cent of income have an average of almost exactly two full-time workers. Almost all wealthy work.

            In 1982 according to Forbes about 38% of America’s wealthiest people were self made (were not transferred wealth by a relative); in 2012, the percentage jumped to 70%. How did this happen? Entrepreneurs are disproportionately wealthy vice those who are employees, even those who highly skilled and well compensated. And entrepreneurs tend to work the most hours per week, work during bank holidays, don’t take time off for personal holidays, etc. It’s work work work for them – it’s a mindset. About 13% of the US workforce started or was running their own business in 2012. Appears America has no problem transferring wealth to those who innovate better products and services.

            Do those who receive a wealth transfer cease working or never work?

            This study from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports in its abstract: We found that on average over the period from 1989 to 2007, 21 percent of American households at a given point of time received a wealth transfer and these accounted for 23 percent of their net worth.

            If the wealth transfer accounted for about a quarter of their wealth, it’s clear they were earning money elsewhere as well,

            In the report the researchers delve back into the decades: Projector and Weiss (1966), using the 1963 Survey of Financial Characteristics of Consumers, reported that only 17 percent of families had received any inheritance. This compares with a figure of 18 percent, reported by Morgan, David, Cohen, and Brazer (1962).

            Ultra high net worth individuals (UHNWIs) with fortunes above $30 million are those most likely to be the idle rich. I think it takes many millions to be rich enough to be idle (remember, you have to employ others to aid your idleness), so this excludes those with a few million dollars in assets and live off the interest, dividends, or other earnings derived from it – they have a middle-class or upper middle-class income. Worldwide, the number of people who are UHNWIs is estimated to be from 193,490 (The Wealth Report by New World Wealth) to 226,450 (Exclusive UHNWI Analysis: World Ultra Wealth Report 2017 by Wealth-X)

            In the US, it’s estimated to be between 68,990 and 73,110. Let’s call it 70,000.

            Of the UHNWIs, 65% of the world’s population was self-made, as opposed to 19% who had inherited their fortune and 16% who had inherited and grown their wealth.

            Those most likely to be the idle rich would be from the 19% group, but remember that in the US it’s 70% and not 65% who are self-made. I’ll drop the two groups who aren’t self made by 2.5 percentage points each. That’s 11,550 Americans who were transferred their fortune entirely. This doesn’t mean they’re all idle. There is a possibility that some of the 13.5% who inherited and grew their wealth may be idle too, so that’s 9,450. Together it’s approximately 20,000 Americans who are potentially the idle rich, and of that it’s likely just a few thousand who genuinely are. What do you think? A quarter to half?

    • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

      @Derek Croxton

      “Liberals think that poor people are poor because they are systematically put at a disadvantage by society”

      There is no way to make our terms rigid, but would it not be useful to disambiguate ‘true’ liberals, that is, classic liberals, from the SJW narrative you mention? It seems to me that true liberals are centrists, appreciating both the benefits and the liabilities of raw capitalism and the survival of the fittest ethic. Even a socialist like Sanders does not deny the productivity of capitalism, the question is whether absolute greed is good or maybe not so good.

      • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

        @E. Olson

        “but probably involves much more effort than is seen from the superficial coverage of her antics”

        You do have a point. Indeed the tabloid public do seem willing to support her labors of self -promotion. So, if one believes that The Market never errs in doing the right thing, then Paris is a paragon. But I myself can’t help but wish the money were better spent, and I’d even go as far as wishing she were taxed more heavily and the money used for better purposes. And yes, that means letting bureaucrats decide, but in this case that seems the lesser evil to me.

        But I recall discussing the price of hockey tickets with a socialist friend of mine, who wanted the government to regulate. I said that frivolities like hockey games were none of the government’s affair, and if people were willing to pay ‘too much’ for tickets, then it wasn’t really ‘too much’ was it? If it was really ‘too much’ then folks would spend their entertainment dollars elsewhere. So I can see it both ways.

    • ccscientist says

      Derek: it is also noteworthy that conservatives give far more to charity.

  11. Ghatanathoah says

    As you make more and more changes to your own circumstances the concepts of “luck” and “there but for the grace of God go I” make less and less sense.

    For instance, asking whether Steve Jobs would have been as successful if he had been born in the 19th century is incoherent. If Steve Jobs had been born in the 19th century he wouldn’t be Steve Jobs, he’d be someone else. If a baby identical genetically to Steve Jobs was born in the 19th century he’d have 100% different life experiences than Steve Jobs. In real life, people who are genetically identical, but have 100% different life experiences, are called “identical twins” and they are not considered to be the same person. Steve Jobs could only have been born in 1955.

    Similarly, with the Big 5 Personality traits, if you change your personality enough, at some point you’ll stop being you. Your personality, to some extent, defines who you are.

    It makes sense to say something like, “You are lucky because if your parents both lost their jobs when you were ten they wouldn’t have been able to give you the same opportunities and you’d be less successful.” The alternate you in that scenario is still recognizably you. But saying that you are lucky to be born with the personality you have, in the place and time you were, doesn’t really make sense. If you weren’t you wouldn’t be you, you’d be someone else.

    I think this stems from a reification of the concept of “just deserts” beyond what it originally meant. People are generally regarded as “deserving” what they get if their fortune is a result of prudent decisions they made, and :undeserving” if they get something because of events their decisions did not affect. But then people noticed that the part of our brains that make our decisions are formed by events beyond our control and from that concluded that everything is beyond our control and no one deserves anything. I think this is unjustified. Decisions you make are still decisions you make, regardless of where “you” came from.

    I also think that a lot of these arguments about desert and luck come down to a simple fact: we want to help people, and we want to persuade others to help people. But for some reason, people have trouble just saying that we have an obligation to help others. Instead of saying something reasonable like “You have a moral duty to use your wealth to help others, even if your wealth is 100% deserved,” people instead come up with increasingly silly rationalizations about how no one deserves anything and therefore you have a duty to give all that undeserved wealth to other people.

    Do we really need to make it that complicated? Isn’t it more sensible to just say that we’re obligated to use our wealth to help people, even if we deserve our wealth? Doesn’t that make more sense than raising the standards for what it takes to deserve something to such ludicrous heights that no one deserves anything? At the point we’re at now the only people who deserve anything are the characters from Robert Heinlein’s time travel stories.

    • E. Olson says

      “You have a moral duty to use your wealth to help others, even if your wealth is 100% deserved,”

      Which is the more “helpful” way to use wealth to help others?
      a) investing your wealth into a business that employs hundreds of people and pays dividends to thousands of investors.
      b) buying fancy cars, homes, boats, airline tickets, clothes, granite counter-tops, for your personal use.
      c) giving money to charities that help the disadvantaged.
      d) paying high taxes to government for purposes of wealth redistribution.
      e) burying the wealth in the backyard or stuffing your mattress with money.

      Only options A and B distribute the wealth to deserving people who do something to earn it (i.e. labor in the factory, invest in the business, or sell the boat or house). Options C and D are mostly about giving people money for merely breathing as those that receive it do nothing to deserve it besides being “unlucky”, while some of it is “wasted” by the amount taken away by the NGO and government bureaucrats who take a cut first. Option E seems to be what the Left believes happens to most money “earned” by the wealthy, because this is the only way that wealth does not benefit others.


      • Anon55344 says

        ” paying high taxes to government for purposes of wealth redistribution.”

        Not every penny the government spends is wealth redistribution. You should read some stuff from the Enlightenment and 1950s (you like that time period anyway) conservative thought.

        • E. Olson says

          Approximately 2/3 of US federal spending is wealth redistribution, and it is even higher in “Socialist” Europe.

    • D.B. Cooper says


      Isn’t it more sensible to just say that we’re obligated to use our wealth to help people, even if we deserve our wealth?

      You give every impression of sincerity, and so I will attempt to respond in kind. No, it isn’t more sensible to say that we’re obligated to use our wealth to help people, any more than it’s sensible to say that no one deserves anything and therefore we have a duty to give our wealth to other people.

      In the first case, it’s not clear where such an obligation would come from. It’s one thing to suggest that it may be prudent voluntarily involve oneself – financially that is – to a certain degree in philanthropic endeavors, but it is quite another to suggest one should be obligated through coercion or force to help others. The former is more generally considered an act of charity, while the latter describes tactics popularized by the IRS and other such governing bodies. You may decide which act is the more moral of the two, but I would argue there is a substantiate difference between voluntary acts and those undertaken by coercion or force.

      And in the second case, it seems self-defeating to say that one has a duty to give their wealth to others because no one deserves their wealth; yet someone obviously deserves to have it. Why else would there be a duty to give it to others, if the “others” didn’t first deserve to have it? These other people are ‘some’ people, and they’re definitely not ‘no’ people; and yet, while no one deserves their own wealth, there apparently are some people (these ‘other’ people) who ostensibly deserves the wealth that no one else deserves. And why? Because there is a duty to give to others what no one deserves, despite the ‘other’ people definitely being some people.

      If anything about what I’ve just said makes even the slightest bit of sense, then I’ve not been nearly as clear as I needed to be. In either case, the salient point is that it’s never (or rarely) obvious why one has an obligation to carry out any duty in society, up to and including the forfeiture of one’s wealth to others. These obligations/duties may exist, but it’s not always obvious why or within what context; and therefore, one shouldn’t simply assert that one has a right to impose certain obligations/duties onto others without first sufficiently grounding said right within some philosophical framework. As a rule, we should not so easily assume that anyone has a right to anything, much less a right to something someone has produced or is already in possession of.

      • Mike says

        E. Olson: where would one go for verification of these outlandishly conservative assertions you have been making throughout this article’s threads? You mentioned Sowell . . . but that’s only one source and a reasonably skeptical progressive-minded person would need more than that to accept these right-wing claims.

        • E. Olson says

          Mike – which “outlandish” assertions are you concerned about?

          • Mike says

            E. Olson:

            If I were to summarize the best progressive argument I can, it might not even concern itself with moral notions of “fairness” so much as maximizing the well-being for all.

            1. Taxing the wealthy and redistributing that wealth downward injects money into the hands of those who actually buy things, thus stimulating the economy on the plane that most businesses actually operate, whereas the wealthy just hold onto their wealth, effectively hoarding it.

            2. Productivity has outpaced wages in the U.S. for the last 40 years, resulting in a “wage-productivity gap” unparalleled by other Western nations, which if closed would put more spending money in the pockets of workers (see above).

            3. If we had universal health care then businesses wouldn’t have to provide it, thus freeing entrepreneurs’ and small businesses’ ability to flourish in and expand the economy.

            4. Free markets send jobs to China, maximizing profit margins for rich corporations at the expense of the American working class (this is not necessarily a “progressive” economic argument so much as a critique of traditional right-wing free market principles.)

            5. You suggest earlier that charitable giving to people who don’t “deserve” it is a waste of money . . . or at least that such expenditures won’t help the recipients as much as profit-driven economic investment. Surely there is more nuance necessary to convince an altruistically-minded person that some poor kid born with a cleft lip will be better helped by investment than a donation to fix his deformity . . .

            That’s enough for now . . . and if you could provide book-length references that have presumably shaped your conservative views they would be appreciated.

          • E. Olson says

            Mike – some interesting questions that I will try to address.

            1. The rich “hoarding” their money is a common Leftist fallacy that is best illustrated by old Disney Scrooge McDuck cartoons where he is swimming in money held in his huge bank vault. In reality, the wealthy almost never “hoard their wealth”, instead they invest it (which creates new business and jobs), save it in banks (who use to make loans so that other people can buy stuff or start businesses and create jobs), buy stuff (which creates jobs for the makers and sellers of the stuff they buy), pay taxes (which supports government programs including redistribution), and give it away to charity (see Bill Gates). A key question that never gets asked of Leftist philanthropists such as Gates and Warren Buffet, who frequently advocate higher taxes and more government spending to solve “social problems”, is why they make so much effort to set up charitable trusts to keep their fortunes away from government tax collectors? Do they think they can do a better or more efficient job of distributing their money fairly/effectively than the government? If so, why do they advocate higher taxes and more government spending? Given that the poor or underclass in Western nations are the demographic group most likely to be obese, smoking cigarettes, abusing drugs and alcohol, and purchasing lottery tickets, the question is are they truly receiving too little income from government redistribution programs? Thus it is highly questionable whether you can argue that the poor spend the money they are given more wisely and in a manner that is helpful to the economy than the wealthy people who are taxed for redistribution purposes.

            2. This is mostly a myth that is derived from highly selective or distorted economic figures. Incomes have been rising substantially for virtually everyone over the past 40 years, but instead of cash wages much of the “increase” has been absorbed by the ever rising health care spending of their employers. Such statements of “flat incomes” also hide the fact that most consumer staples are much less expensive than they were 40 years ago as the inflation adjusted price of food (including restaurant meals), telephone service, airline tickets, TVs and home appliances, cars, etc. are much lower today, which is why even the poorest US citizens have air-conditioning, cars, big screen TVs, roomy living space, etc. with much more frequency than the middle class of 40 years ago (and the middle class in Europe today). Another missing figure from most analysis of poverty is the value of government benefits (food stamps, public housing, medicare, work income tax credits, etc.) are not counted in tabulating income – only income from paid work, which greatly understates the income gains of the poor over the past 40 years.

            3. Universal health care won’t save employers or employees anything if government programs can’t control health care costs better than the private sector. Yes the Leftists like to bring up Europe as a shining example, but Europe has also been subsidized by the US since WWII in two important respects: 1) they pay virtually nothing for their own defense (not even 2%) which frees up government budgets for “free” health care, and 2) they don’t pay for medical innovation as government price controls prevent new innovations/drugs from being introduced unless they are cheap enough, which means they are “free-riding” on US paid for medical innovations. Public sector medicine in Europe also pays medical staff and doctors far lower salaries than the US, which has created shortages of staff that has mostly been filled by importing doctors and nurses from the 3rd world and Eastern Europe who are willing to work for less. Europe also under spends on medical equipment, which means you will wait months to get an MRI because only a few hospitals have the machines. Long waits for treatment, less innovation, and poorly paid staff also mean that medical outcomes are also poorer in Europe generally, but these poorer results are often hidden by statistical sleight of hand (for example, Europeans don’t count premature baby deaths in their infant death statistics but the US does), and the better health habits of genes of Europeans versus obese and more genetically diverse Americans (Swedes live longer than frequently obese US blacks or Hispanics, but not longer than US Swedes). So if you want long waits, doctor and nurse shortages, poorly equipped hospitals and clinics, much slower medical innovation, then government run health care is the answer – just ask the dead patients at the VA how they like it.

            4. Lots of things have sent US jobs to China and elsewhere, including unfair trade deals that often originated when China (and other trading partners) were dirt poor and so backwards nobody was worried that they would ever be serious competitors. But other factors include many Leftist interventions such as high minimum wage laws, support for labor unions, renewable energy mandates and fracking prohibitions (that make energy expensive), overzealous environmental regulations, high corporate tax rates, health insurance mandates, etc. which increase the costs and decrease the profits of doing business in the US. The US is definitely not a “free market”, and the US does not rank nearly as high as it should on measures of economic freedom, but Trump is trying to fix many of these issues and seems to be getting some results with no Democrat help.

            5. The best help that some poor kid can get is a job. Minimum wage laws, occupational licensing laws, health insurance mandates, etc. often price the most disadvantaged citizens out of the job market because their lack of skills and many bad habits mean they aren’t worth much to potential employers. Not many companies are going to stay in business if they are forced to pay $15 per hour to people that only provide $3 worth of value, but allow that firm to pay the unskilled kid $2.50 and get some experience and develop good habits and they start being worth more to the firm and more attractive to other employers, which means they will not stay at $2.50 very long. On the other hand, if you pay people not to work (welfare) you will get a lot more people not working, and if you tax heavily the people who create jobs, they will create fewer jobs. That kids with the cleft lip will feel much better about himself if he has a job and perhaps pays for the cleft surgery himself than if he is told he is a victim and given free money.

            I would include links for the assertions above, but my experience on this site is that providing lots of links means that the my response is not posted or severely delayed. What I can suggest, however, are some names and sites that do provide some very well documented evidence supporting my statements. Besides Sowell, you should visit the Manhattan Contrarian for some excellent analysis of poverty programs, climate change analysis, and media bias. I can also recommend the Bloomberg columns of Megan McArdle on healthcare, welfare, and government spending, and the Scragged columns offering a lot of interesting analysis by a variety of authors on many aspects of government regulation, public policy and social justice issues.

          • @E. Olson

            Leftist orthodoxy is the norm apparently… That would make anything slightly right of center ‘outlandish’. More power to you for sparring with this group. I’m am so completely suspicious of the “I’m with government, and I’m here to help” crowd that even when the ideas, suppositions and theories sound reasonable enough the incompetence of the system spells disaster more often than not.

      • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

        @D.B. Cooper

        “In the first case, it’s not clear where such an obligation would come from.”

        From the social contract. This is the universal rule among hunter-gatherer societies going back at least to the Neanderthals who could figure out that it is the only practical way to run things. Shocking as it might be to some ears, they were socialists, as is every hunter-gatherer society that has ever existed. (Or almost all, someone might know of an exception.)

        • D.B. Cooper says

          @Ray Andrews

          From the social contract. This is the universal rule among hunter-gatherer societies going back at least to the Neanderthals who could figure out that it is the only practical way to run things.

          While I could rarely be accused of giving aid and comfort to those who, despite knowing better, deliberately traffic in crossed ways; I feel at least in this particular instance good form demands that I provide an ameliorating course correction to what might otherwise be described as misbegotten ideas subsumed in the grip of a terrible delusion.

          Yeah, I’m happy with that characterization. Anyway, as I was saying, as to the rehabilitation of your errors in judgement, one course correction might be to consider that when advancing overvalued ideas such as “the social contract… is the universal rule” take care not to substantiate the validity of such claims by referencing a group of people (Neanderthals) who were either quite literally bred out of existence via absorption, or who came in second place one too many times in Darwin’s game of ‘Struggle for Existence’.

          In other words, I’m simply suggesting (in good faith, it should be said) that as a matter of course going forward, rather than taking a jaunt through the absurd with claims such as: the only practical way to run a society is by utilizing a concept (social contract) that was figured out, in part, by a group of people who – according to archaeological scientists – went extinct either because of their impotence or their incompetence; maybe just don’t.

          Maybe it’s my white-male privilege showing (I’m happy to concede), but I wouldn’t think either of these reasons – impotence or incompetence – would elicit, in anyone, a great deal of confidence in the personal faculties of Neanderthals, much less in the efficacy of their social institutions, writ large. Call me old-fashion or even short-sighted, but I can’t help but feel there’s something suspiciously imprudent about giving oneself over to a concept which may have originated, at least in part, in a population of intellectually servile men who’d been cucked out of existence.

          I’m not judging your dolphin or anything here @Ray, but that type of stuff is just not my thing. I don’t get down like that.

          I’ll leave it there for now. Going forward, if you happen to feel the need to defend your honor respond, might I suggest we center our focus on the moral and political philosophies of Hobbes & Locke as it pertains to your defense of the ‘social contract’; as opposed to, I don’t know, asking you to commit to another round of defending the indefensible. Until then, I wish you and your dolphin the best of times.

        • ccscientist says

          Ray: The socialism of hunter gatherers works great when everyone knows everyone. It works by sharing the gains of the hunt, if it is a big kill. If there is a freeloader, he gets shunned (not helped when in need) and you know who the freeloader is. In a country of 350,000,000 there can be millions of freeloaders (or free riders in economic terms). This is the problem with socialism and overly generous safety nets–too little ability to weed out free riders. Even in England you have white families that have been 100% on the dole for decades. This is dead weight resulting from indiscriminate compassion.

        • Mike says

          Thank you, E. Olson, for your lengthy and thorough reply, as well as for the sources you suggest, which I will consult with interest,

      • ccscientist says

        D.B. Cooper: hilarious. reductio ad absurdum at its best.

  12. markbul says

    Within families, siblings with higher IQ go on to earn more money, work in more satisfying jobs, and get into less trouble with the law. If luck mattered to a particular degree, those results would not pop up. Luck matters less in today’s modern Western world than it every has in the history of our species. Random factors can affect our life outcomes, but the born conciencious will do better than then non-conciencious nine times out of ten. The intelligent boy who demands books about dinosaurs – and then geology, and astronomy, and biology – creates his own ‘environment’ of education, and his own ‘luck.’

    • rickoxo says

      It’s like you totally missed the point of the article. In a family of three kids, if one has higher IQ, that’s “luck”. That specific child didn’t do anything to get born with a higher IQ, it was random chance in the combination of parent’s genes.

      Then you mention “the born conscientious will do better” but again, the whole point of the article is that there are some traits that are more helpful than others, and whether or not you got born with those traits is “luck”. You might have gotten born with the trait of being hugely risk adverse or incredibly shy, both of which don’t help students perform well. That would be bad luck.

      The whole point of the article is not that intelligence doesn’t matter it’s that it’s random who gets dealt the hand with a high straight and who gets deal the hand with 10 high.

      • I guess the argument is about whether you would still be you if your genes were noticeably different. I (and, I believe, markbul) say that somebody with a different genetic makeup is per definition somebody else. How do you define “a specific child”, @rickoxo?

    • Vincent says

      Maybe the backwards part about your argument is the “born with a higher IQ” part. As far as I’m aware, infants can’t take IQ tests. By the time that child takes his first IQ test, doesn’t it occur to you that the test reflects the practice he has received in logical analysis through these hobbies rather than innate ability? Likewise, one would expect his sports-centric sibling to perform better when given some sort of dexterity/coordination test. I’m not saying that the siblings are born tabula rasa—I’m just saying that you’re not born with a specific IQ. Two individuals may get identical scores on an IQ test for very different reasons. Individual #1 may just have a knack for solving cognitive puzzles but spends his free time playing sports whereas individual #2 may not have such a neurological predisposition, but due to an interest in chess and playing other logic games developed a similar ability as individual #1. To interpret the results of an IQ test as a measurement of one’s potential rather than current mastery of the types of problems tested is to lend the test much more weight than it deserves.

      • @Vincent: That has occurred to many people in the past. Unfortunately for you, their best efforts have so far produced no indication that IQ can be changed upwards (it can be changed downwards by the pretty oblious method of brain damage), never mind a reliable method for doing so. If it was that easy you’d think that all the years of trying to equalize outcomes in school would have had some result…

        And by the way, I have no idea who you are agreeing or disagreeing with here.

  13. Morgan Foster says

    Unlucky white people need not check their privilege. Good news.

  14. Farris says

    Much of the articles determinations are contingent up the definition of success. Like the article society is increasingly preoccupied with materialism. I know a man who grew up without electricity, in door plumbing or central heating and air. Most of the food his family consumed they raised. He once made the comment to me, “I guess we were poor and just didn’t know it.” Outlook is essential to defining success. One can always covet his neighbor’s belongings and find himself wanting.

    The standard of living of the poor in most western countries would be upper middle class in many third world countries. It is inarguable that being born into dire circumstances is not determinative but rather drastically increase one’s ability to enjoy material success. Of course there exists objective measures of poverty (which vary from region to region) and it reasonable to ask why some fall below those standards? However if there is no determinative or definitive causation, as shown by the exceptions, the answer could vary as much as the individuals in question. There is little way for society to mitigate or enhance the circumstances of one’s birth. If a person is born to drug addled abusive parents, the State can intervene but cannot change or erase those circumstances. The best the government can do is guarantee equal opportunity, protect from crime and abuse, provide a safety net of food clothing and shelter. Poverty is a default position, there is no precise cause. Prosperity on the other hand has many causes, many of which lie beyond fortuitous circumstances.

    • ccscientist says

      Farris: to elaborate on your point–if someone through whatever (genes, environment) becomes an alcoholic or meth addict, there is not much “society” can do for him/her. Sure go ahead and try, good luck. You can’t MAKE people straighten up, and yet some do. It is all complicated.

  15. Tijl van Emous says

    What a weird thing to say “being lucky for the genes you have”. I couldn’t have other genes as than I would not be me. Therefore I can only be those genes. We are not some ghost floating in our head, we are a product of our head, a product of our genes. What would make more sense is to say that the particular genes are lucky to be able to produce such a well functioning body for the environment there in. Like in “they fit well”. And those selfish little bastards won’t give a damn of how lucky you think they are.

    • Farris says


      “What a weird thing to say “being lucky for the genes you have”. I couldn’t have other genes as than I would not be me.”

      You raise an interesting point. Does not claiming to have won the genetic lottery presuppose the existence of a soul? In other words if one was fortunate enough to acquire the ideal genetic makeup, then one must have existed in some form prior to such acquisition or in the alternative such deprivation.

      Also from an evolutionary point of view, did the alpha ape win the genetic lottery? Perhaps but not to the detriment of the beta ape.

    • ga gamba says

      You raise a good point. The premise seems to imply there was a type of lucky draw, a bowl filled with genetic options and the person drew a great one.

      About the only luck I see in conception is the host uterus. Does the foetus’ mum fail to take her folic supplements, smoke cigarettes, drink a litre of vodka daily, and nibble on leaded paint chips?

      • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

        @ga gamba

        Indeed the whole idea of luck in this context is silly. There is no ‘I’ apart from my luck as if ‘I’ and my luck could be separated. But one might still say that some people have a better start than others. This is just a fact and should not be made part of any normative narrative. I would say that those who are fortunate should be given the right to rise to their level of productivity, but also that that productivity should be of some benefit to society as a whole.

    • ccscientist says

      Perhaps not using the word “you” but to say a person born with good genes is lucky. This gets away from you being you complication and having different genes making a different person. Just “a person” being lucky.

  16. I join with others here in objecting to how “luck” has been calculated in this essay. For example, my parents chose each other. They were not assigned each other by a lottery. They made choices about my education. It was not a lottery. I in turn have made choices about whom to marry, and about my child’s education. It is silly to attribute this to luck or to my political orientation (which has changed over time anyway). Luck would have been to have won an actual lottery. The essay begs the question that if a child benefits from parental choices this is considered a random process. Luck is non-explanatory.

    • The essay presents the old liberal view of society as nothing but a collection of atomized individuals. The perspective we are invited to employ is that of a single cellular individual, totally isolated from family and community. The author pretends to transcend political ideology, but he hasn’t.

  17. The Ulcer says

    Post-modernist thought that contributes to the identity politics charade of public discourse in which we now live is inherently the result of privileged professors foisting their ivory tower pronouncements of reductionist moral imperatives to young, impressionable minds. The whole debate of class and privilege is a symptom of a very comfortable, somewhat bored educated class that doesn’t understand just how privileged it is to ask these questions in the first place. The end result: a lot of people who don’t know how to have a good time at a party.

  18. JK277 says

    This was an interesting read, but the argument strikes me as flawed for several reasons:
    1. It stretches the definition of luck to ludicrous extremes. If the reply to the argument ‘I earned this because I worked hard’ is to be ‘no, you were just lucky to be hard working’, then what would not be due to luck?

    2. The argument is inherently deterministic: you succeed because you are lucky to have a high IQ; however, if this is so significant as to void my agency in the success, then it is hard to see how it is ‘luck’ rather than the inevitable working of the laws of physics.

    3. Due to the determinism, the argument undermines the conventionally attached appeal for redistribution. If my achievements are due to my fortunate genetics, then my rejection of your claims is due to misfortune in my moral faculties. If the achievements cannot be claimed to my benefit, then my moral lapses cannot be held to my detriment. I can’t see any moral reasoning that could both discount the former and condemn the latter without voiding the concept of morality.

    4. I studied law in the UK. Here we don’t use terms like ‘contingent-necessity’ but sine quo non or the ‘but for’ test. If a man shoots you, it isn’t the gun that bears the responsibility. In many circumstances, you could accurately say that a murder wouldn’t have happened without the gun, but that doesn’t rob the man of his responsibility or agency. The murder also wouldn’t have happened without the man. For another example: if a carpenter makes you a wooden chair, he couldn’t have done so without the wood – but it wasn’t the wood that built the chair.

    5. There is another meaning of ‘luck’ we can use for this argument: being better off than you would be in other, hypothetical, circumstances. On this usage, many of the previous problems disappear. However, it makes the argument utterly redundant for its political uses. It is more a tautology than an argument to say that “we have a moral obligation to alter society in a manner to level the playing field” because the playing field is not level.

    Beyond the discussion in the article, I’ve always found it interesting how those arguing ‘privilege’ or ‘unfairness’ are so peculiar in their focus. If being wealthy due to my fortunate IQ is a privilege which must be ‘checked’ or ‘redistributed’, then is my lack of sexual activity due to unfortunate ugliness not a misfortune which must be compensated (preferably with government supplied super-models)? Why does wealth receive such focus? And why race rather than, say, disability? Why well-educated women rather than poverty-stricken men?

    • rickoxo says

      People’s answer to number 5 has a lot to do with if it’s a zero sum game or an infinite resources game. If it’s zero sum, most people would not be willing to give up what they have for other people. If there are infinite resources available, many more people would be willing for the playing field to be leveled, but still not everyone.

      Lots of folks like having it better than others. Or they’d be willing for the playing field to be more level than it is, but not to the point where their comfort or pleasure is inconvenienced. Or, to the point where “unworthy” people get the same outcome as the worthy people.

      To a degree you can blame it on evolution. We’ve had millions of years of having our evaluative faculties shaped by looking for the best mate. Fairness, justice and morality are recent cultural concepts we’ve been trying out for the last few thousand years in a wide variety of forms. Very little of the experimentation or theorizing has anything to do with equality for all.

      • D.B. Cooper says


        Fairness, justice and morality are recent cultural concepts we’ve been trying out for the last few thousand years in a wide variety of forms.

        I’m not sure that’s true. In fact, it’s almost certainly not. See Frans de Waal’s work on ‘social inequity aversion’ in primates. I believe YouTube has a clip of his ‘Monkeys Reject Unequal Pay’ experiment. It would seem these “cultural concepts” are more fundamental than you suggest; which, if true, would make @JK277 request for “gov’t supplied super-models” more interesting than it at first appears.

        So, why does wealth receive such focus, especially, when one considers that success, in evolutionary terms (the only game that matters arguably), is measured by survival (longevity) and reproduction (offspring). View from this perspective, could it be argued that one’s health, or lack thereof, is yet another area that may require compensation? Who has an extra kidney they’re willing to give up?

        • rickoxo says

          You’re absolutely right, I said that in a way that your point about evolutionary foundation for ideas of fairness perfectly counters. What I was meaning to say was that the concepts of justice, fairness and morality being extended beyond our immediate family, specifically beyond our gene pool is a recent phenomenon. Some religions don’t even include it, many include interesting discussions about people inside and outside. But the idea of extending the concept of fairness (that exists across a wide variety of species) to charity outside of one’s primary group is new.

          As for why does wealth get the special focus, my best guess would be back to evolution, natural selection doesn’t care what happens to you after you reproduce. If you make babies and die young, no big deal from evolution’s perspective. Mate selection for most species is about looking good and being dominant, which in our culture has a lot more to do with money than healthiness.

          • D.B. Cooper says


            What I was meaning to say was that the concepts of justice, fairness and morality being extended beyond our immediate family, specifically beyond our gene pool is a recent phenomenon.

            No worries. I write/type stuff all the time that never comes out like I, originally, meant or wanted it to. As a rule, comment sections do not lend themselves to clear and conspicuous writing. I appreciate you, circling back to clarify what you intended to convey.

            As for what you intended to say, I take your point. From what I understand of the anthropological record (which is, admittedly, limited), I would guess your intended claim (above) is more likely to be true than not. Moreover, I would posit that there’s more than enough evidence (present & past) to suggest that man’s tribal nature is has been (historically) the rule rather than the exception. So, yes, on balance I would agree with you that the “idea of extending the concept of fairness… to charity outside of one’s primary group is new.”

            natural selection doesn’t care what happens to you after you reproduce. If you make babies and die young, no big deal from evolution’s perspective.

            Here, though, I’m not sure we are on common ground. Before I explain why, I think it’s important to mention a couple three things about natural selection (NS), at least as I understand it.

            First, I don’t believe it’s correct to say that NS “doesn’t care what happens to you after you reproduce,” because I don’t believe NS cares per se about anything. Natural selection is simply a process. A process by which adaptation (to an environment) occurs through traits possessing heritable variations that confer a comparative advantage in the struggle for resources; or as Darwin called it the “struggle for existence.” Ultimately, an organism’s adaptive traits (adaptive to a given environment) are what determines (or are the primary determinants) its biological fitness, and therefore, its ability to survive and reproduce, i.e., out compete. This is the result of adaptations arising from heritable (genetic) variations which are themselves a function of environmental inputs (selection pressures).

            Second, insofar as one can claim that the process of NS cares, it should be said that NS most certainly does care what happens to you after you reproduce.

            In its struggle for resources, NS is the primary determinant that enhances both the survival and reproduction success of an organism, not simply its reproduction success. The struggle for resources is not so narrowly defined. Despite what many males would appear to believe, this struggle is not merely a struggle for gametes.

            Are there organisms who are literally willing to die (ex: sexual cannibalism) just to get some ‘strange’? Sure, there are. But while the behavior of many a teenage boy might incorrectly lead one to believe that this self-sacrifice is common in many species; that is simply not the case. In fact, survival often takes precedence over reproductive opportunities. Are physical altercations (for reproductive opportunities) the norm among many, if not most, species? Possibly, but I would argue that more often than not, the weaker/losing male chooses discretion over valor and concedes rather than forfeiting his life. Not to mention, the longer one lives (survives) the more opportunities one has to spread his/her seed (reproduce), so to speak. Viewed from this light, it would be counterproductive if NS didn’t “care” about one’s survival.

            To come full circle, since NS seemingly does care what happens to you after you reproduce, your explanation for why wealth gets a special focus, “Mate selection for most species is about looking good and being dominant, which in our culture has a lot more to do with money than healthiness,” doesn’t seem to make much sense.

    • Anon55344 says

      ” then is my lack of sexual activity due to unfortunate ugliness not a misfortune which must be compensated (preferably with government supplied super-models)?”

      I have heard that argument. I cannot recall the article or context, but it has been put out there.

      • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says


        I recall reading that in, was it Denmark?, the government hired prostitutes for disabled prisoners, because having sex was a ‘right’ and so an obligation of the government.

        • rickoxo says

          I’m almost terrified to ask, but they assumed the able bodied prisoners would just have sex with each other? Or are there female service workers in Danish prisons?

          • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says


            I’m very happy to say that I really don’t know. And to be honest I’d rather not even think about it. I just read about it once and it might not even be true. Mind, if I was ever sent to jail, perhaps for a crime like lookism, it might be fine to know that there were service workers on staff.

  19. The author’s analysis raises a lot of questions.

    The author began with: “Let’s begin with a question: Why do some people succeed in life while others fail?” This begs the further question: succeed in achieving what, or fail in not achieving what”? How can we even discuss whether someone (or a whole group or class of someones) deserve their success unless we can agree on what success is?

    How do we define success and failure? Are these subjectively or objectively determined? Am I successful if I believe I am, or only if others believe I am because I have met certain objectively determined and agreed upon criteria? If the latter, what are these criteria? And what if I consider myself a success even though I may not meet these externally determined criteria? Am I wrong in the belief of my success or are the criteria inapplicable to the objectives I am seeking to achieve?

    Are we successful if we make a lot of money, or failures if we are poor? Rather than material success, if the purpose of life is happiness, is happiness success and unhappiness failure?

    If we accept the author’s closing quote “To thine own self be true”, as being in some way related to success, how could we determine whether each of many millions of people in a country are successful by being true to themselves?

    • ccscientist says

      There are people I admire who make a lot less money than I do. Likewise, in our social circle we are not the richest by any means, and yet it is ok. So your question about success is a very relevant one. However, many people DO judge others by financial criteria, and these people will be jealous of the rich and think it is “unfair”.

  20. Indie Wifey says

    There is no such thing as a meritocracy
    That in itself is a utopian ideal
    Damn good luck is the spark that launches anyone or anything with a modicum of merit – and sometimes less – into the proverbial stratosphere

  21. rickoxo says

    I think one thing many folks are getting stuck on is the idea of luck as some random thing determining your life such that you have no say in how things turn out. That is not at all what the author is talking about.

    People make choices all the time, what job to take, who to marry, where to live, if/when to have kids, etc. If you can step back and look at the outcomes of these choices statistically, thinking, for example, about the entire sample of people who had kids, some of those folks had kids with genetic diseases who died painfully. Others had children who ended up in fatal accidents entirely out of their control. Others got children who were Olympic athletes or math geniuses. Did any of the parents of the kids who died choose that? Did they do something wrong such that that outcome was their fault or was entirely a product of their effort?

    One basic understanding of luck is using it to describe when similar people in similar circumstances get highly different outcomes and the results can’t be traced to root causes. My wife was robbed at gun point once, they took her computer and left. One of our family friends was robbed at gun point and the thieves almost beat her to death. My brother-in-law died in his 50’s from skin cancer having lived healthy all his life. My dad is 92, has smoked, drank and been over weight all his life. There’s an endless list of examples like these where the difference in outcomes is not entirely dependent on the attributes or effort of the people involved.

    We live in a world where control is an illusion. We have just enough of it to think we’ve earned it and have made it happen ourselves or even worse, that we live in a world where rational outcomes are to be expected. Most of the rest of the world knows that’s a myth but many folks think that somehow everything working out for them the way they want is a sign of their virtue/skill/moral rightness, etc.

    I think anyone with even the most basic self-awareness has to live each each day a bit amazed if they made it through the day and the proverbial ^%$# didn’t hit the fan. Crap hitting fans happens way less frequently in rich, safe countries, so the folks there tend to think the world is rational and luck is a myth or an excuse.

    • R Henry says


      Indeed, some people do work hard and earn their success. Some work less hard, but have exceptional ability, and succeed too. Others still have none of these things, yet somehow succeed wildly. Others have all these things, yet suffer deeply. There is no rhyme nor reason to to it. It just IS. Those who seek understanding of this often find the most success in religious faith.

      • E. Olson says

        R Henry – there certainly is rhyme and reason to it. There are no guarantees for life success, but there certainly are powerful predictors. Hard work, development of valued skills, reasonable persistence in the face of adversity are not guarantees of success, but greatly increase the odds of a positive outcome no matter what your natural talents and intelligence are. One of the common themes among wealthy entrepreneurs and creatives is not the fact that they developed a successful business, innovation, hit record, or best selling novel, but the fact that most of them failed but persisted/learned multiple times before they hit it big. On the other hand, slovenly work habits, failure to develop valued skills, and quitting at the first sign of difficulty are all very strong predictors of failure not matter what your natural talents and intelligence is, but just because a very, very few of these people will get lucky and win the 100 million dollar lottery doesn’t mean they should be anyone’s role model.

  22. D.B. Cooper says

    Shermer, who I think generally add more value to the conversation than not, attempts to address (I would argue rather unsatisfactorily) the problem of “how one can accept the fact that we live in a determined universe” while still “making volitional choices and thus retaining personal responsibility and moral accountability for our actions.” Shermer lists four workarounds, which are as follows:

    (1) modular mind—even though a brain consists of many neural networks in which one network may make a choice that another network finds about later, they are all still operating in a single brain.

    While I assume Shermer “modular mind” workaround is in reference to Jerry Fodor’s work, The Modularity of Mind, it’s not at all obvious to me how, or maybe why, a modulated cognitive network would allow for one retaining personal responsibility and moral accountability for his/her actions given the fact that we live in a determined universe. Simply stating that this is the case (that we have modular minds), is not a sufficient explanation in the least; though maybe Shermer has more to say on the matter somewhere else, which I am not aware of.

    (2) free won’t—vetoing competing impulses and choosing one thought or action over another.

    Shermer, again, doesn’t provide much explanation of what he means here. To my understanding, a “determinism purists” or causal determinist wouldn’t argue that choices aren’t vetoed, or that we don’t “choose” one thought or action over another. The question is do we have the ability to do (or choose) otherwise than we did? As far as I can tell, Shermer’s “free won’t” workaround doesn’t address this question; which, again, as I understand it is the point in question.

    (3) choice as part of the causal net—wherein our volitional acts are part of the determined universe but are still our choices.

    Well, yes, they still are our choices. By definition, in fact, since we’re the ones making them, but could we have made a different choice under the same conditions (at that exact moment)? Could we have done otherwise? Shermer doesn’t give any indication either way.

    (4) degrees of moral freedom—a range of choice options varying by degrees of complexity and the number of intervening variables.

    Again, this seems true by necessity. At any given moment, no one can do other than what they have the ability/opportunity, that is, the option to do. I couldn’t, for example, write this comment in red and green fluorescent colors, and if it were by happenstance possible to do so, then I would still lack the ability (knowledge) at this given time; and therefore, writing this comment in red and green fluorescent colors would not be a choice among my range of options. I may wish to levitate out of this chair I’m currently occupying, but the fact that I don’t has nothing to say about my state of free will.

    Shermer closes his argument, claiming that there’s a fifth, more fundamental, factor that “shapes how your life turns out,” which he loosely describes as self-awareness and awareness of the influencing factors. I have no idea how being aware of oneself or of the relationship between actions and events (cause-and-effect) could help retain personal & moral accountability within a determined universe, and if Shermer knows he’s not saying either. What he does say, or concede rather, is that his “workarounds” will not satisfy determinism purists; by which, I think he means, the constraints of deductive logic. It is here, I’m happy to report, that we fully agree.

  23. R Henry says

    The Argument, condensed:

    Conservatives: Equality of opportunity is most fair.

    Liberals: Equality of outcomes is most fair.

    The Conservative argument is entirely sound, cogent, and proven true day after day, globally The Liberal argument insults human reality and therefor can only fail, which it does, globally, without exception.

    • Anon55344 says

      Conservativism, as practiced in the USA, does not result in equality of opportunity. Conservatism, as practiced in the USA, consists of shoveling more wealth to the 1% from the bottom 80%.
      If you want equality of opportunity you need:
      1) Universal education
      2) Universal basic health care (but not universal specialist health care)
      3) Adequate infrastructure
      4) Adequately funded courts
      5) Laws and rules which address differences in economic power

      • ccscientist says

        How did Bill Gates get rich? Did he steal from me? No, he created stuff I wanted and was happy to pay for. How about Jeff Bezos? People love the convenience of Amazon. Who is shoveling?

  24. R Henry says

    It’s good to be good, but better to be lucky.

    –my sage friend Gus

  25. Fickle Pickle says

    Maybe the situation is potentially more fluid that most of the usual suspects that comment on these things presume.
    The perspective given on this site for instance – a perspective based on his comprehensive research by the way: http://www.brucelipton.com/books/biology-of-belief

    And the science of kinesiology too,as described in the book by Charles Krebs titled A Revolutionary Way of Thinking From A Near-Fatal Accident To A New Science of Being. The entire book is based on his lived experience and his associated comprehensive research.

    And the fact of the matter is that most people are profoundly crippled by the atrocious “upbringing” that is inflicted upon them. Everything they and everyone else does too in our dreadful sanity do is thus an (unconscious) pattern-driven tragedy imprinted into their neuro-physiology.
    The process of this systematic though unconscious crippling is described by Joseph Chilton Pearce in his books, especially The Biology of Transcendence.

    It could be said that the theme of the book is that in all cases and without exception the ignorance and “sins of the fathers” are definitely inflicted upon every new born human being,

    “Sins” which are quite literally imprinted or encoded in the body or every aspect of our neuro-phyiology

    • @Fickle Pickle

      Interesting. What is the measure of an atrocious upbringing? Does having just one alcoholic, unloving parent constitute atrocious? Seems to me family dysfunction is the norm as you suggest, therefore how does anyone grow up to be successful?

      Why does one brother overcome and succeed beyond the families expectations and the other become a wife beating drunk? Same household, same parents… Well then it must be biology handed down through the genes – that’s white genes, black genes and brown genes. So then where’s the privilege? No one can pick their genes – yet.

      We can only personally choose to overcome, but then you ask do we live as free agents of our own souls or it this a deterministic world? Geez the questions and answers just go around in circles.

  26. Kessler says

    Ironically, if it was mostly up to personal choice, as some conservatives elites think, then it would destroy capitalism. How many people have aspirations to hold their pee, working in Amazon fulfilment center? How many dream of doing menial, dirty, dangerous but absolutely necessary for society jobs? If it’s mostly up to choice, then we’ll have millions of entrepreneurs with their own companies and nobody to take out garbage. I think it makes sense for society, whether through private charity/support, government action or free market to make certain, that all people with productive and necessary jobs have decent standards of living. If free market provides it good, if not, use other mechanisms of society to achieve it.

    • I don’t understand your point. Success is not a simple matter of “choice” – the role of “choice” is in making good choices rather than bad ones. Being a success at collecting garbage is more success than being a failure at entrepreneurial activity.

      • E. Olson says

        If you are ever in Tacoma Washington, visit the beautiful LeMay car museum, which was built by a man who made his fortune hauling garbage.

  27. @Kessler

    You’re probably right for the most part. But I’ve seen very intelligent but very lazy people do what ever they can to avoid work, even to the point where they live disastrous lives. Some work so hard gaming the system that you wonder why they don’t just get a job. (you know people like this too) So there is choice involved. This phenomena is always overlooked when the government is proposed to solve the problem using other people’s money. Waste and fraud are real. Even the ever virtuous poor folk will sometimes work the system to the nth degree. Maybe that’s a small part of the conservative’s mind set.

  28. It may be that lots of conservatives think success and failure are earned, and that lots of liberals think that they are handed out by Lady Luck. I suspect that in fact almost everybody thinks a mixture of earning and luck is involved most of the time. But whether success and failure are distributed “fairly” is beside the point, when it comes to public policy.

    The public policy question is – will there be more success and less failure if public policy assumes (and bases its policies on the assumption that) success and failure is (a) earned or (b) a matter of luck ?

    I have never seen anything that seriously advances an argument that assuming (b) will generate more success and less failure than assuming (a).

    • E. Olson says

      Good comment Lee – The Left likes to tell the UNLUCKY that “they are victims”, and that “the system is rigged against them”. In contrast, the Right is more likely to tell EVERYONE that “hard work never killed anyone”, or that “people make their own luck”, or the “early bird gets the worm”, or “if life gives you lemons make some lemonade”. Which tactic is likely to be most positively motivating to more people? Does victimhood motivate anyone?

  29. DCvoyeur says

    Shermer tends to be overly impressed with his intellect. I would like to see some studies that backs much of his pontificating BS.

  30. The Crafty Trilobite says

    White privilege is not that hard a concept to grasp, nor is it “inherently racist” to observe the existence and effects of racism. Ask yourself a simple question: would I be worse off if x were different, but everything else were just the same (or at least, as much the same as it could be given the change in x)? Where ‘x’ is a single, simple, widely-understood variable that is not within one’s own control. Such as race, sex, parents’ wealth, sexual orientation, various disabilities, nationality. If you’re white, can you honestly say you would be fine if the leprechaun from Finnian’s Rainbow suddenly turned you black? Let’s say the magic spell was retroactive, your ID matches and so forth. Starting tomorrow, you were always black. Does this give you no qualms about driving, open carry, obtaining a loan, getting a job, walking on a college campus, etc.? If you would rather be white in this society than black, then being white comes with privileges. Or if you prefer negative framing, being black comes with systemic disadvantages. In this country, other things being equal, you’ve got a better chance for a better life if you’re white than if you’re black. Whether the existence of privilege calls for policy changes, and if so, what sort of changes, is another can of worms, but let’s at least recognize reality.

    • X. Citoyen says

      Wow, that’s a QED right there, kid. If only I’d put myself in someone else’s shoes; maybe I wouldn’t have been so blind!

      Anyway, I think you should share your conquest with some black people. Tell them how you found a bunch of white-privilege deniers and you said, “Hey, any of you want to black?” And we were, like, “No way!” And you were, like, “I told you so, no one wants to be black!” I’m sure they’ll appreciate your good works on their behalf.

  31. X. Citoyen says

    Anyone who accepts luck must also recognize that it can be dynamic, misfortune at one time can be a bit of luck at a later one. I recall Churchill dislocating his shoulder so badly in India that he had trouble wielding a sword while riding. Knowing this, he charged into a close-quarters skirmish in Sudan with his pistol instead, using it to kill an attacker. He observed that if he had been able to use his sword, he wouldn’t have been able to dispatch the man, so his much-lamented bad shoulder had saved his life. Luck is like this too.

  32. ccscientist says

    In college I painted houses for a while and I remember debating with my painting partner while up on a ladder about free will. He was against. I finally concluded that we have to act AS IF we have free will for life to work at all because we constantly are forced to make decisions and must make them either way.

    Luck is a funny thing. Years ago I met a visitor at work and it led to a big business opportunity, but only because I was not afraid to talk to anyone, could give a good impression, and had some technical chops he was looking for. I was only able to follow-up this good luck because I didn’t mind working weekends and have high conscientiousness.

    One of the problems with those who want to fix all the inequalities in life as “unfair” is that your attempt to fix them is likely to create a worse world. For example, by confiscating all the wealth of the wealthy (as so often happens in kleptocracies), you destroy the engine for new job formation, since only wealth can allow people to start a new business or expand one. You get Venezuela. It is also easy to view certain people as “lucky” when they in fact have many challenges in their lives. Everyone does. No one gets out unwounded.

    • E. Olson says

      CCS – obviously you aren’t woke yet. What you should have done when offered that big business opportunity is to reply in one of two ways. The polite version: “Thank you for the kind offer, but I will have to decline so that some black/Hispanic/female/homosexual/Muslim/transsexual/mentally challenged/poor person can have have the opportunity instead.” Or the woke version: “You racist/homophobic/sexist/capitalist pig – how dare you tempt me with your filthy lucre when I am clearly trying to check my privilege – I hope you die a slow an painful death.”

  33. Brad says

    Fascinating article. A minor correction–you wrote “liberals question authority, celebrate diversity, often flaunt faith and tradition.” I think you used flaunt where you intended flout.

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  35. Abu Nudnik says

    Proofreader! “flout” and “flaunt” mean different things!

  36. Scott Patton says

    I’m having trouble imagining the mechanism for luck. Maybe, if my father would have hung the horseshoe above the door properly, I would have been born rich. If my mom would have kept the rabbit’s foot given to her as a child, I wouldn’t be bald. But I have no idea how that stuff works.

  37. Russell Seitz says

    As skepticism is where you find room for it, but this is an essay so bright as call the term ” dark net” into question.

    If Michael Shermer has been driven to seek a higher ceilling for controversy here by the closing of the Scientific American mind,what other refugees from Intersectionalism may follow?

    Im surprised he did not call his Weberian opening gambit by its correct name,

    Humane and thoughtful as Sowell is, Calvinism is once more rampant in discourse left and right. Social conservatives bent on reifying zeal as policy have been put to shame by hashtag-waving Intersectional Neopuritans of a sort the Covenanters or the Consistory of Geneva might welcome–
    or envy.

  38. Lawrence Stanley says

    Schermer argues that “we are not free to do just anything we like because there are constraining prior conditions compelling our future actions, but neither are we completely determined by everything that came before since there is an element of self-aware volition in human lives—we can become aware of our genes, environment, and luck and tweak the variables going forward to initiate a different life outcome within the walls of our unique channels.”

    According to this argument, “self-aware volition” (whatever that even means) would have to operate outside the laws of physics and act as its own cause. This is not a new view, but neither is it less incoherent than the “conservative” and “liberal” ends of the spectrum. Schermer would simply split the difference, when the problem is the very notion of “free will.”

  39. I’m not always sure where Schermer is coming from. The first half of his description of Liberals beliefs toward success is actually the most widely held Conservative position. It takes a solid family, parental figure, as well as solid role models carefully chosen, and cultural values to pass down to children those traits which will make them reliable, stable individuals who can apply themselves. Framing that as the liberal only position seems askew. Liberals tend to think it’s the structural advantages wealthy people have, and their connections, which elevate some above others regardless of merit.

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