A typical argument between a conservative and a progressive usually goes something like this:
Conservative: “I earned my money. What gives you the right to take it from me and redistribute it?”
Progressive: “You didn’t earn your money. You got lucky. Your success could just as easily have gone to anyone else, so they deserve a share in it.”
Conservatives tend to think of society as a meritocracy, whereas progressives think the hand you’re dealt has more to do with your success than how you play the cards. So, who’s right? Neither of them, or both of them, depending on how you look at it.
Ricky Gervais has a new show out on Netflix this month. As the creator of The Office and Extras, two of the most critically-acclaimed shows ever, he has amassed enormous fame and fortune, and a reputation as one of the funniest men alive. But the story of how he got to his current position is one of mind-boggling coincidences. Having conned his way into a low-level radio job he didn’t actually know how to do, Gervais demanded an assistant, and was allowed to hire one. It just so happened that the top resume on the pile belonged to Stephen Merchant, who would go on to co-write, co-create, and co-direct The Office. It just so happened, Stephen and Ricky liked each other and worked well together, and it just so happened Stephen could write. When they pitched their idea to the BBC, Ricky demanded full creative control despite his complete lack of experience. It was a move that would have gotten most people thrown out on their ear, but for whatever reason, the BBC accepted. The rest, as they say, is history.
I recount this story to show that if any one of those steps had gone wrong, the world would never have seen The Office or any of the subsequent work of either Gervais or Merchant. There are probably thousands of people just as funny and talented as Ricky Gervais, but maybe they never found a compatible co-writer. Maybe they couldn’t con their way into getting an assistant. Maybe their assistant couldn’t write well. Maybe the TV studios never agreed to their pitch meeting in the first place. Maybe they didn’t have the guts to demand creative control, and the result was a bland, watered-down, studio-controlled sitcom cancelled after one season. Or maybe they did make that demand and got turned down flat, never to be heard from again. On another day, in another town, with another partner, Ricky Gervais would be a nobody, fired from his radio job for misrepresenting his credentials and abilities.
This story is not an outlier. Naomi Watts, the beautiful and successful Hollywood actress spend years getting rejected and was about to give up before catching her big break in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, voted the best film of the 21st century in a BBC poll. Steve Carrell, star of the American version of The Office and wildly successful movie star/comedian, was even told by his agent that he should give up after ten years of failure, before being cast on the short-lived Dana Carvey Show, where he would perform material that landed him a high profile gig on The Daily Show. If things had gone slightly differently for either of these actors, we would never have heard of them.
So, in a sense, the progressive is right that success, at least the kind of phenomenal success we see in the entertainment industry, has something in common with winning the lottery. You don’t get anywhere without hard work, true, but you also don’t get very far without a fair degree of luck. However, what the progressive misses in his analysis is this: if we redistributed lottery winnings because they are unearned by the person holding the winning ticket, then there would be no incentive to enter the lottery in the first place.
Without the possibility of overwhelming success, no one would go to the effort of taking extraordinary risk.
It’s true that successful people get lucky, but they also bear the cost of risking their entire lives, their livelihoods, their life savings, their reputations, their relationships, all on the desperate gamble that they may one day make it. Sure, there may be others just as talented, but why should they reap the rewards created by someone else who shouldered the burden of risk?
The argument for redistribution ignores the incentive effects of removing the possibility of a massive jackpot, without which, no one would have much reason to try. If risk yields no reward, and idleness is just as profitable as effort, then there would be little reason to expect anyone to do anything at all.
Unequal outcomes are necessary to ensure a hardworking, highly motivated society, but even if you don’t care about that, even if you only care about so-called fairness, it’s hard to see why those who haven’t contributed any goods or services (e.g. entertaining sitcoms) to society at large should be entitled to the wealth of those who have made such contributions. The money of content creators is still earned, even if luck played a large role in allowing that earning to take place.
Society is not, and never will be a meritocracy. If any conservatives are still making that argument, they should stop. Luck matters, as anyone born with disabilities or even just too small to play professional sports will tell you. But just because some people are lucky and others unlucky doesn’t entitle one to the wealth of the other. In the end, what matters is what you produce, not what you might have produced under other circumstances.