Why ‘Deserve’ Makes My Skin Crawl

This is a follow up to My Personal Trigger.

Quick Review

If luck is underappreciated then success is overexplained by hard work. Hard work and accountability can get you invited to the party but the tyrannical role of luck is easy to downplay when our minds reconstruct the chain of events that brought us to our champagne moment. This is forgivable. Counterfactuals are written in invisible ink. My essay was a reminder to brush the decoder pen over the story.

Why bother?

There’s practical reasons. For example:

  • Not internalizing the wrong lessons.
  • Not letting poor calibration derail your future.
  • Maintaining a sense of gratitude that can keep you from comparing yourself to others. After all, just as there is always someone smarter, there is always someone luckier (note how smart is often an instance of luckier).

[To argue against myself for a moment, I’ll say that these reasons are not necessarily adaptive. It’s likely that overconfidence can recoup more than its calibration costs by kickstarting a virtuous loop. Advice like “fake it ’til you make it” or “act as if” recruit the power of reflexivity. Humility can be counterproductive.

But here’s the counter to my counter. This strategy is zero-sum. In aggregate terms, if everyone displayed increasing manufactured confidence, society would be left with Trump-level narcissists cancelling each other out in a nitrous gas of collective delusion.]

The largest reason to reject an overdetermined view of success is how it poisons our society’s dialogue. That word deserve triggered my gag-reflex to the poison.

Deserve is a high-stakes concept

The word deserve implies a justification. If you contribute value to society which is proxied by your income, that is its own reward. To layer entitlement above and beyond the already noisy capitalist allocation channel (noisy but the best we got) is to mix the economic notion of value with the value conferred by dignity of being a human.

We already understand that luck plays a major role in outcomes. To impose additional notions of entitlement is double jeopardy for the unlucky and a gratuitous rounding up for the winners. One’s relationship with the word deserve simultaneously reveals and informs their sense of justice.

From deserve to justice

Justice is the prosocial construct that forms the basis of cooperation. Cooperation is the basis for the rise of our feeble species. When we inject the word deserve into our transactions we dilute the importance of justice, weakening its potency in times when it’s actually needed. Don’t cry wolf.

We must protect justice from the vagaries of chance. Regrettably when we start to pretend that hard work determines outcomes, we fall trap to its flipped fallacy — failure means you did not work hard. This creates a backdoor for chance to slip into the justice process using the deserve key. We substitute a stochastic variable with a deterministic variable, then compound the error by having that dictate your metaphysical worth.

The bitter recipe:

  1. A complex process such as success is overdetermined as simple cause and effect.
  2. The seductive logic of determinism justifies one’s destiny. A loser is blamed, and the winner glorified.
  3. The word deserve is imported as a seal of the outcome’s authenticity.
  4. Justice becomes a product of the outputs instead of the inputs.

What you deserve bleeds into politics

I believe your position on the luck-determinism continuum influences your sense of justice. And what we deem to be just dictates our allies. Therefore the role of luck is endemic to one’s political beliefs.

In the US, views are shoehorned into an overly compressed blue-red binary. I prefer to think of our politics across a gradient. Please indulge my caricatures of how determinism manifests in our politics as we move from left to right. If everyone is insulted, I am doing this right.

The Barbell of Determinism

Extremely Progressive

The progressive version of deterministic success is embodied by a rentier class and its bro-ish “fail sons”. Meanwhile, a baby born across the tracks is sentenced to an entrenched underclass, institutionally conspired against, and should be read Rage Against The Machine lyrics every night so she can “know her enemy”. This is the initial-conditions-as-fate story.

Moderate

If you believe outcomes have a major random component you will want to attenuate extremes which are complex processes and the most influenced by luck. The idea of a progressive tax system within reason will make sense. Healthcare for those with pre-existing conditions is basic fairness. We accept that everyone is entitled to a free education, and that a terrible accident should not bankrupt you. The notion of self-made is tempered by an appreciation that being born in a hospital was a privilege to begin with. If most Americans are moderate (debatable) then reasonable people are free to argue whether we turn the knobs to 4,5, and 6s instead of 10s (or 11s if you are a Spinal Tap fan).

Extremely conservative

Unlike the progressive for whom determinism means the seeded value predicts the terminal value, the conservative sees the terminal value as the rightful outcome of a deterministic process. You deserve what you get. Rich people are smart and poor people are lazy.

The noisy channel between justice and politics

I am reasonably confident that one’s sense of determinism drives their sense of justice. But the channel by which it influences one’s politics is far noisier. Just consider the role of self-interest in politics.

It’s reasonable to argue that conservative politics has more to do with self-interest than a sense of justice or determinism. The majority of high earners are indeed Republican [pause for the bushy-tailed 20-somethings in tech to fact check that]. Considering Democrats outnumber Republicans in general, this is especially meaningful on a normalized basis. 

Then there’s the obvious wrinkle of low-earning conservatives opposed to redistribution. Why would they vote against their self interest? I’d speculate that this can possibly be rationalized by a correlation between ‘religious-determinist’ and “everything happens for a reason”. [I’m in the deep end of the pool with that.] 

I’m trying to connect dots between how people infer the role of luck to their sense of justice to their personal politics. Self-interest confounds that process. I know because I wrestle with my own dissonance. Luck influences so much of my own view of justice. So the word deserve shook me because it cut to the heart of the contradictions I wrestle with. If I have outpunched my weight that’s a tribute to randomness. Thank heavens that’s possible. But then I’m left to wonder:

  • What is the duty that comes with that good fortune?
  • If guilt creeps in, should it?
  • Scaling up, what is the responsibility of lucky people in general?
  • If luck evens out in aggregate should we even bother to mitigate its effects on the individual level?
  • Are these questions totally off the mark?

Reconciliation

One of my favorite economists, Russ Roberts, recently published a piece that helped me clarify my own feelings. His post, Do I Deserve What I Have, is broken up into 3 parts:

Part I: Argues that he does not deserve his standard of living.

it can be argued that much if not all of my material success comes from things I had no part in — who my parents were, the rise of the internet, the importance of economists these days and so on.

Part II: Intending to equalize material outcome would be counterproductive

Pure socialism would likely make poor people poorer…[it] would make most if not all people worse off relative to the status quo.

Part III: If success is undeserved, what does that prescribe for practical policy?

I want to tackle the harder question that I avoided in part II. Sure, pure socialism is a bad idea for large societies of millions of strangers, but doesn’t the logic of part I — the acceptance that my standard of living is in some fundamental way unearned — justify what I will call Gentle Socialism — a dramatically larger redistributive effort than what we currently have in America?

Roberts comes to the same conclusion I have:

Accomplishments explain results; they don’t justify them 

You may have worked hard and that explains your outcomes but this is not the same as justifying them. It has nothing to do with deserve. That is a judgement beyond our provision.

I’ll be honest, Robert’s brainstorms in Part III left me unsatisfied. But even that is revealing. The celestial questions of justice and randomness are larger than the man-made constructs we have to hold them. There is going to be loss.

[I often think political leanings reflect your tolerance for Type I vs Type II errors. For example, convicting an innocent person vs letting a felon walk.]

Personal Commentary

By now, you can see why the word deserve makes my skin crawl. It beckons justice in realms for which it is unfit. 

Luck is often summarized by “being born on 3rd base”. But there are many forms of luck. Just look at a sprinter’s physique. They are not like you. It’s not fashionable to say so, but there are Beth Harmons out there. This is not cause for despair, but celebration. Author Fredrik DeBoer explains why beautifully:

The other possibility is the one that Malcolm Gladwell and, well, the entirety of our culture want you to believe: that it’s all just hard work. People who seem incredibly talented simply worked hard and had perseverance. And specifically they worked harder and had more perseverance than you. If individual talent is a hoax and that all that is required to excel is the expression of will, that may be a more just world in some useless Platonic sense, and a world of more open possibility. But God, it is also a bleak world, one where all of us ordinary people are not just punished through our lack of access to supreme talent, but where we deserve it, where we not only fail to accrue the tangible benefits and psychic rewards of genius, we are presumptuous to ask for them thanks to our failures of will. Is this better?

Well, there’s no need to be consequentialist: I think some people are just good at things for reasons we can’t comprehend, that they have won a cosmic lottery and enjoy the fruits. I don’t think we live in a tidy moral universe where cause follows effect so simply or with such moral convenience. The people I’m critiquing would no doubt agree that our lives are everywhere buffeted by chance, but they can’t take that last crucial step. They can’t see that we get lucky and unlucky literally as we are being made.

My Privilege

Like many second gen Americans, my parents came to the US in the 1970s. Penniless. That means I am extremely lucky.

Imagine not just being born in the richest country in the world, but the positive selection bias of having parents who rejected the familiarity of their language, cultures and homes to be here. 

That I was born in 1978, just before the dawn of a 40 year and counting bull market, means that even when I’m still the waters around me lift me higher.

My parents emphasized education. They sacrificed to send me to Catholic school. They made this bet not knowing that the gap between haves and have nots would widen along the education axis. If it was a good bet on their part, I’m the lucky beneficiary. But this luck is invisible if I just think to myself “I did good in school, therefore I deserve X”.

It would be impossible to list all the invisible sources of luck. (I’ve been in 2 crazy car crashes and had 4 concussions by the time I was 12. Every other source of luck is incidental to the fact that I’m even here)

At a society level, appreciating the role of chance is ultimately about empathy. It’s the recognition that you could have hatched from an egg anywhere in the world in any time in history. Our policies should not amplify the extremes of cosmic dice but instead balance them. 

On a me level, the best I can hope for is not to be right and justified. It’s not for my kids to be right and successful. But it’s to honor life and consequences. To share good luck, not because I have to, but because I could have had bad luck. And when life’s inevitable unfairness strikes to not look around and find everyone arguing over what they deserve.

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