The Unaddressed Question

Sam Harris, in a followup post defending his call to use taxes to reduce income inequality, complains that his rich readers foolishly give themselves credit for their own well-being, failing to see that, in large part, they have other factors to thank:

And lurking at the bottom of this morass one finds flagrantly irrational ideas about the human condition. Many of my critics pretend that they have been entirely self-made. They seem to feel responsible for their intellectual gifts, for their freedom from injury and disease, and for the fact that they were born at a specific moment in history. Many appear to have absolutely no awareness of how lucky one must be to succeed at anything in life, no matter how hard one works. One must be lucky to be able to work. One must be lucky to be intelligent, to not have cerebral palsy, or to not have been bankrupted in middle age by the mortal illness of a spouse.

Many of us have been extraordinarily lucky—and we did not earn it. Many good people have been extraordinarily unlucky—and they did not deserve it. And yet I get the distinct sense that if I asked some of my readers why they weren’t born with club feet, or orphaned before the age of five, they would not hesitate to take credit for these accomplishments. There is a stunning lack of insight into the unfolding of human events that passes for moral and economic wisdom in some circles. And it is pernicious.

The fundamental question Harris is dancing around is: Which are the factors that government should allow well-being to be a function of, and to what extent? A total libertarian would say that society should basically not get involved, at all, and it should allow well-being to be a function of all factors, e.g. genes, good parents, pure luck, hard work, etc. Liberals often suggest that well-being which is driven mostly by luck or circumstance should be “evened-out,” i.e. that, since Warren Buffett was “lucky” to have been born into circumstances favorable enough to allow him to get a good education and so on, he should not be allowed to reap the “full” benefits of his investing.

Harris indeed seems to suggest that the only factor that should be totally unfettered in the way that it drives well-being (since it is somehow more legitimate than the other factors) is how hard someone works, normalized for his ability to work hard. (He says “Many appear to have absolutely no awareness of how lucky one must be to succeed at anything in life, no matter how hard one works. One must be lucky to be able to work.) Intelligence, lack of club feet, etc. are driven by “luck,” and thus any accomplishments attributable to these factors do not accrue credit purely to the individual.

Given Harris’ suggestion that wealth attributable purely to luck is somehow not purely “earned,” I wonder how he feels about lottery winners. Joe and Tom both walk into the store and buy a lottery ticket. Joe draws a losing ticket, while Tom wins and becomes a millionaire. Could there possibly be a purer example of achieving wealth through luck? — should Tom’s winnings be confiscated (and divided up with Joe at the very least, if not with the rest of us)? If not, why are his winnings any more legitimate, in Harris’ eyes, than the person whose good luck allowed him to be born into a family of millionaires?

And of course one must wonder why Harris doesn’t go all-out and declare all factors that can contribute to well-being to be based on “luck?” Maybe Harris believes that only those factors attributable to a person’s expression of “free will” can legitimately drive well-being. (So, in Harris’ view, should a liberal who does not believe in free will be in favor of more income redistribution than a liberal who does believe in free will?)

It is frustrating that show basically no attempt to quantify their stances on these issues, although they are fundamental to discussions of taxes and inequality. One (admittedly crude) way to quantify it (which it would be nice of politicians adopted) would be to publish a table indicating, along the first column, the factors that can contribute to well-being, and in the second column, the % of that factor’s contribution (to wealth/well-being) that the government should allow to remain in place (redistributing the rest). E.g. a total libertarian would say:

Factor               Unfettered Variation

Intelligence         100%

Hard work           100%

Rich Parents       100%

Physical Health  100%

(and so on)

A common liberal in the U.S. would probably say something like

Factor               Unfettered Variation

Intelligence         60%

Hard work           90%

Rich Parents       30%

Physical Health  60%

(Note that the term “luck” is not useful in the above, since most factors can be attributed to “luck” if you trace back far enough in the causal chain).

I’ll send Sam Harris a tweet encouraging him to publish such a table, and I’ll post it here if he does.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Unaddressed Question

  1. Anonymous says:

    I don’t find Sam Harris to be a compelling thinker. While he is a facile and persuasive writer, his critical thinking skills are widely overestimated and he is quick to gloss over thorny details for the sake of winning the argument.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *