April 11, 2006

Agrarian thinking

A lot of people have the simplistic, inflexible idea that every person in the United States has the same opportunities and basic skills so that an individual's success is a direct reflection of his or own hard work. I'm trying to figure out where this idea comes from because it doesn't make much sense. Every person has a different situation because in addition to having different economic and cultural starting points and different skillsets, everyone has to compete for limited resources in a constantly changing world.

Example one: Five equally skilled people compete for a job. One gets hired and the other continue in unemployment for months. Is this one person smarter or more hard-working? No — there is only one job to fill, and having qualifications and character doesn't guarantee a job. The person hiring has to make a tough decision and can only be guided by his or her own limited experiences and idiosyncrasies in making that decision. The unemployed people might develop credit problems while riding out the storm and might need years to make their lives normal again. Meanwhile, the one hired person appears successful, and the simple-minded people in question would think that he is somehow superior to the others in comparison even though the circumstances reflect fortune and not skill or character.

Example two: Two equally smart and hard-working people obtain equal levels of education in different fields. The first person chooses a field that turns out to be stable and useful. The second person chooses a field that has a history of providing stable work, but new technological and economic changes come up quickly. The first person advances in his career and becomes quite successful. The second person can no longer keep a steady job and may have to work in a different field. Is the first person smarter or better? Not at all. The second person had no real way of predicting the future, but the simple-minded believer in equal opportunities will think the second person has some sort of character flaw.

Maybe — just maybe — there is some simple-minded school of thought that has survived from simpler agrarian times. There was a time when there weren't new inventions every few years or invasive government regulations changing every decade. It was a time when markets and trades changed over a lifetime and not a calendar year. Jobs could not be outsourced to Bangalore. A stratus of society existed in which everyone farmed for subsistence and worked as generalized producers. In that stratus maybe everything did seem equal. If one family slacked off then maybe their farm didn't do as well as the others and they fell on hard times. With such a labor-intensive lifestyle maybe higher success was a reflection of harder work. If the weather was bad one year then everyone suffered together.

Now that technology is different and different strata of society associate more often, such thinking doesn't make sense. Hard work and skill is usually required for success, but there is also a dice roll. Chances and circumstances may either wipe out the fruits of your labors or provide a windfall from very little input. The assumption of equal opportunity among all is downright ignorant.