The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 18 No. 2 (Summer 2016)

Just Deserts

Robert H. Frank

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2016

(Volume 18 | Issue 2)

Luck,” E.B. White once impishly observed, “is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men.” Today, the widespread faith in the meritocratic ideal has pushed that taboo well beyond the circles of the successful. Most people in modern democracies cling almost religiously to the belief that merit, and merit alone, leads to success.

But how important is luck? Few questions more reliably divide conservatives from liberals. As conservatives correctly observe, people who amass great fortunes are almost always extremely talented and hard working. But as liberals also rightly note, countless others have those same qualities yet never earn much, or even see much of a rise in their station or status.

In societies that celebrate meritocratic individualism, saying that top earners, celebrities, and assorted other winners may have enjoyed a bit of luck apparently verges on telling them that they don’t really belong on top, that they aren’t who they think they are. The rhetoric of meritocracy appears to have camouflaged the extent to which success and failure often hinge decisively on events completely beyond any individual’s control.

There are, of course, many people who are quick to acknowledge good fortune’s role in their success. Evidence suggests that those people are much more likely than others to contribute to their community and to support the kinds of public investments that created and maintained the environments that made their own success possible. They’re also substantially happier than others, and their gratitude itself appears to steer additional material prosperity their way.

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Robert H. Frank is the Henrietta Johnson Louis Professor of Management and Professor of Economics at Cornell University’s Johnson School of Management. His “Economic View” column has appeared in the New York Times for more than a decade. His many books include The Winner-Take-All Society (written with Philip Cook) and Luxury Fever. This essay is drawn from Frank’s new book, Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy, with permission of the author.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 18.2 (Summer 2016). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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