A new book sets out the dangers of the "winner takes all" societyby Bim Afolami / April 21, 2016 / Leave a comment
Read more from this issue: Who Guarded the Guardian? I did
Are the most successful people in society the best, or just the luckiest? How important is a decent start in life? How much talent is under-utilised because some individuals did not get the lucky break at the crucial time? In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses his concept of “eudaimonia,” probably best translated as “human flourishing,” as what constitutes the highest good for human beings. It is useful in framing a discussion of what constitutes professional success—each of us performing to as high a standard, at as high a level as our skills and efforts can muster. How much is our journey towards that ideal stymied by luck beyond our control?
Robert H Frank’s new book, Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy (Princeton University Press) attempts to answer this central question—are those who attain the Olympian heights of professional success cleverer, harder working, and with better skills than the rest of us? Frank’s answer is no and he makes three supporting arguments. First, the influence of chance events and environmental factors has a huge effect on people’s lives, irrespective of their virtues and flaws. Secondly, success often results from positive feedback loops that amplify tiny initial variations into enormous differences. For example, the effects of getting into a top university seem to compound over time, and this manifests itself in significantly higher lifetime earnings for those who attend, say Oxford or Cambridge, rather than other universities, despite small differences in A-Level scores for those students. Frank’s third, and most interesting argument, however, is that the globalised 21st century “winner takes all” economy has made chance events in life more significant, greatly magnifying the gaps between winners and losers.
Frank makes his points persuasively, but he constantly uses extreme examples (such as the unlikely fame of the Mona Lisa, or the rise of Microsoft) to make points that should only be made in general terms. The point cannot be…