President Obama recently referred to the wealthy as “society’s lottery winners.” This clever little locution contains a world of radical implications, none of them good.
The phrase is, of course, the counterpart of another view Obama frequently espouses, namely, that the poor are not responsible for their poverty or even their behavior. Poverty and anti-social behavior can’t be the result of freely chosen actions: One cannot build a cult of victimhood on the soil of personal responsibility.
Now the rich are also implicated. No one is responsible for anything. The rich did not fairly earn—and thus do not deserve—their riches any more than the poor deserve their poverty. Society is a crapshoot in which some win and others lose, without regard to personal merit. Responsibility and merit are altogether absent from the blind natural forces that churn out winners and losers in life’s lottery.
We might begin by noting that President Obama’s view of life as a lottery stands in opposition to the teachings of virtually every major religion. Every theology with an afterlife—from salvation and damnation to reincarnation—attaches some degree of personal merit to one’s fate. Even the harshly consistent doctrine of Calvinist predestination does so for most people; we all deserve damnation and only God’s freely given mercy exempts some from the fate of the damned. If the elect are the afterlife’s lottery winners, the rest of us deserve what we have coming.
Obama’s lottery doctrine also stands in direct opposition to virtually every legal system in the world. All legal systems, including our own, are founded on the notion of personal responsibility. There are exceptions and accommodations, of course, for accidental events, for youth, and for (permanent or temporary) insanity. But they are rare.
In taking on every major theological and legal system in the world, the president has chewed off quite a bit. It makes redefining the millennia-old definition of marriage look like child’s play. What are we to make of this?
Obama’s view taps into a long-running argument between free will and determinism and an even-longer-running argument about the role of fortune in human affairs. Are we the masters of our own fate, at least to a degree, or are our actions a strict consequence of all that has occurred up to the present moment? Are we buffeted about by forces beyond our control? If we are not responsible for our lives and our successes and failures, what right do we have to our lives or to the fruits of our endeavors?
Fair-minded successful people would acknowledge that success depends in some measure on good fortune. Whether one is born of successful, intelligent parents is not the result of personal merit. Whether one unthinkingly took a job at the newly formed Google or at a now-failed start-up down the street makes a difference. So does whether one gets a break from good timing, a lucky product placement, or the intrinsic scalability of one’s business.
But success never depends upon good fortune alone. Even the lottery winner had to buy a ticket. And for everyone else success depends in good measure on much more: sound judgment, a willingness to take risks, and above all hard work. It has frequently been noted that people who benefit from happy breaks have often put themselves in a position to do so. Real-world success almost never bears a resemblance to winning a lottery.
Further proof of this is that good fortune is not a sufficient condition for success. Many who enjoy good fortune squander their lives. Good fortune is not even a necessary condition for
success; there are many instances of successful people who grew up in the least promising of circumstances. Think Ben Carson.
Perhaps the fairest conclusion is that the world is a very complex place in which personal qualities like skill and hard work mix in surprising ways with good fortune. But there is nothing politically useful about such a nuanced view; nor are such truths likely to motivate people. Political success depends upon a simpler narrative.
Here are two relatively simple political narratives. The first is founded on the traditional American idea of rights that are held naturally by all people; it is that personal responsibility is important, indeed vital to one’s success in life. Thus, we should not place burdens or obstacles in the way of anyone who seeks to employ his or her talents to work hard to achieve success.