There are pros and cons to living in the heart of Washington, DC. On the one hand, you have to overhear a lot of staggeringly misinformed opinions from people who, in one way or another, want to run the country. On the other hand, it makes for good grist for articles like this one. Case in point, as I enjoyed my lunch today, I found myself seated next to two typically idealistic young gentlemen bemoaning, as has become the current fashion, the abominable state of the wicked world into which they were born.
“It’s so hard to succeed now,” one of them was lecturing, causing his companion’s head to bob in agreement. “Like, it used to be that if you were the best pianist in the village, you could make good money playing for locals. Now they have YouTube, and if you’re not in the top five in the world, people are just going to scroll past.”
The complaint here is a common one, although phrased in a peculiarly specific way. Namely, everything has gotten so good that it’s hard for the mediocre to succeed. This is really just another form of the protectionist arguments we hear against free trade and automation. Workers just can’t keep up in this horrible future we’ve created for them, and something should be done.
That this should be a gripe is a little befuddling. Surely, it’s a good thing that consumers have access to better goods and services, be they piano performances or anything else, and that low-talent hacks are now less able to grift them out of their hard earned dollars in exchange for a substandard product. The concern for workers ignores the benefit to consumers, and given that every consumer is also a worker (or else he would have no money with which to consume) it would seem that the net outcome for mankind has been rather sunny.
After all, if we apply the same argument to another trade, its weaknesses become apparent. It’s not fair that doctors have to actually cure their patients now in order to make money. Back in the good old days you could do just fine even if you killed your patients half the time. Obviously the benefit to patients of competent doctors outweighs the burden placed on medical students to learn their trade properly.
In any case, the claim that low-skilled workers can’t compete anymore is simply not true. Someone who bags groceries at a supermarket enjoys a better standard of living than the prestigious European aristocracy of a couple of centuries ago, with access to air conditioning, hot and cold running water, automobiles, refrigeration, vaccines, and all the world’s knowledge available in the form of the internet. Speaking of which, it’s worth pointing out that YouTube, as decried in an earlier paragraph, allows people to earn more money than kings and queens of old by talking about movies from the comfort of their bedrooms. So no, you don’t have to be a world class musician to live in comfort and safety in 21st century America.
Alas, the champion of the working man remains unconvinced. It’s not fair to use things like computers, he says, to compare standards of living across time. That’s just technological growth. As if technology just emerges organically through a process of Darwinian selection, untouched by human hands or minds.
The only reason we have all the aforementioned luxuries in the first place is because the process of competition drove inventors and entrepreneurs to develop ever better products in the hopes of getting the better of his business rivals.
By and large, technological innovation is tedious, unrewarding, difficult, and poorly compensated work that generally comes to nothing in the end. That one time in a thousand that it actually pays dividends is part of what keeps people motivated to plug away at a problem until they solve it. Without the brutal competition that makes success more difficult for ungifted, you don’t get all the wonders mankind has created to make life easier and more pleasant.
I’m afraid you can’t have it both ways. You can’t long for the absence of competition that once allowed mediocrity to flourish, and still hang on to the products of other people’s excellence. The astonishing luxuries of the modern world—luxuries which are largely available even to the poorest Americans—only exist because society hasn’t crushed the incentives for individuals to excel.
None of this is to say that success in the workplace is easy. It isn’t, and it never has been. Success is hard, and requires a lot of work. But this is a fact of life that has always been the case, and not something we can blame on the evils of capitalism. In fact, it is only through capitalism that the world poverty rate has fallen dramatically, and continues to fall every day. It can be frustrating to be a young person grinding it out and not getting ahead as quickly as you would like, but a little perspective goes a long way, and we should never forget that the bygone days often romanticized were also the days when poverty could mean a literal death sentence rather than an iPhone that’s a couple of generations out of date.