Luck or Privilege?

In our culture we view the world through the eyes of privilege – actually over privilege or unearned privilege. We often attribute our unearned privileges to “blessings from God” or to “luck.” Even scientists in our culture fail to see the effects of unearned privileges and attribute these benefits to luck. But it isn’t luck at all.

An article in Science Daily entitled Reward the Second Best, Ignore the Best is a great example of these blinders of privilege at work. The article reports that those who are most successful often are successful because of a combination of both luck and skill. It states,

Implications of this research

The lucky few should understand and appreciate the role that luck played in their extreme success, and with that understanding comes an obligation to those that have not. The lucky few may be more skilful than others eventually, but the way they gain their superior skill can be due to strong rich-get-richer dynamics combined with the good fortune of being successful initially.

This was interesting because the author used Bill Gates’ extreme success as an example of this phenomenon.

Yes, Bill Gates may be very talented, but his extreme success perhaps tells us more about how circumstances beyond his control created such an outlier. Stated differently, what is more exceptional in this case may not be Gates’s talent, but the circumstances he happens to be in.

For example, Gates’s upper class background enabled him to gain extra programming experience when less than 0.01% of his generation then had access to computers; his mother’s social connection with IBM’s chairman enabled him to gain a contract from the then leading PC company, generating a lock-in effect that was crucial for establishing the software empire. Of course, Gates’s talent and effort play important roles in the extreme success of Microsoft. But that’s not enough for creating such an outlier. Talent and effort are likely less important than the circumstances (e.g., network externalities generated by customers’ demand for software compatibility boosted Gates’s initial fortune enabled by his social background) in the sense that he could not have been so successful without the latter.

And yet, the author clearly demonstrates it was not, what the author described as, “lucky circumstances” that aided success. In the case of Bill Gates, the author explains that it was actually “Gates’s upper class background [that] enabled him to gain extra programming experience when less than 0.01% of his generation then had access to computers; his mother’s social connection with IBM’s chairman [that] enabled him to gain a contract from the then leading PC company, generating a lock-in effect that was crucial for establishing the software empire.” So inherited, unearned benefits and privileges of class created the circumstances contributing to Gates’ initial success – so not luck at all — but the unearned benefits of the privileged.

Our social and economic systems are specifically designed to benefit some at the expense of others. What would have been unusual is if Bill Gates hadn’t benefited from his inherited, unearned, upper class privileges.

While the premise of the article is worth noting – that we should consider more carefully the success of those rated “second best” – it should have noted that unearned privileges of class, not luck, gives a big leg up to those at the top.

As Americans we like to believe that we live in a classless society or that everyone has an equal opportunity for success. The reality is that we live in a highly stratified society of social class with an income disparity of countries like Uganda and the Ivory Coast.

We may pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, however our bootstraps came from somewhere. We didn’t create them, but they weren’t “luck” either. And our social and economic systems are designed so that some of us don’t get any bootstraps at all.

Our task in this world is to provide similar bootstraps to those with none so that everyone has a chance to use their gifts and live a fully human life. This requires learning how social and economic systems really work so we can make intelligent changes. We are all connected. We will not all be whole and healed until all are whole and healed.

2 thoughts on “Luck or Privilege?

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