A Thought Experiment
How do the good things of life come to us, both the necessities and the luxuries? Hard work, dumb luck, Providence, exploitation? What about other kinds of wealth, such as beauty and intelligence? Most Americans are not purists for any of these categories. Even the most iron-willed self-made man will willingly grant that he, and certainly others, have benefited from good fortune or Providence along the way, and even the most fatalistic of us go about our day performing actions designed to achieve a certain end.
Because of this, tight categories are not going to be possible, and there will be overlap. Nonetheless, people assign very different percentages to how much each of these affect one’s lot. I will drift over the overlapping choices a bit.
Luck, or Providence if you are more religious, always provokes conversation. In entertainment, who makes it and who doesn’t has a legendary randomness, yet even there, talent and hard work seem to increase one’s luck. A contractor’s success would seem to be heavily weighted toward hard work and good judgment, yet even he benefits from living in an area that is prospering and needs buildings.
We say we are lucky to have been born in America and not in Haiti, and that is certainly a good fortune we did not earn. On the other hand, it is not merely accidental that America is more prosperous than Haiti, but the result of past decisions of our direct ancestors and our fellow citizens of previous decades.
The Rules of the Game. In this formulation, success comes to us by understanding the principles of what makes the overall system work and applying them. There is a great deal of variety in this category, because some folks think that effort is the number-one principle, while others would think that attaching oneself to the prospering tribe is key. This obtains even in those other wealths: even fanatic studiers might choose a college for its reputation and associations, and the elusive attractiveness of being in The In Crowd can be a more valuable beauty than good features. We send out signals of wealth, attitudes, intelligence, and culture, and these factor in to whether we are considered lovely.
A “rules” formulation can have heavy negatives. Exploitation and chicanery are in a sense rules for gaming the system, and the difference between finding a loophole and finding a legitimate advantage is not always clear. But the idea that there is some impersonal system which responds to whoever pulls the levers, is common.
Supernatural. This is a bit different than providence, which may operate unasked for. Supernatural intervention is sought and asked for, at least vaguely, or the result of previous actions. For Christians and Jews, this would be focused on petitionary prayer. Other spiritual practices would fall more under the supernatural side of the rules of the game. When God reminds or improves us through scripture or the events around us, that is less “miraculous,” and more an application of spiritual principles. (There are Christians who teach that certain techniques of prayer make the spiritual systems work. I’m ignoring them here. In fact, I usually ignore them anyway.)
Here’s the thought experiment part. Even though these categories are not mutually exclusive, take each one in turn and ponder what social, personality, and political effect each theory would have on its believers. By examining each in pure form, we can later see how the threads interweave.
Pretend that luck, or good fortune, provided all the explanation why the people you see or read about have what they have. Do they work hard? Well, they were lucky to have good parents then, who taught them that, or gave them DNA that includes a perseverance gene. Does she sell more product? Well, she’s got that natural charm, y’know? And it doesn’t hurt that she’s young and pretty. Issues of prejudice come up in this a lot. Would he have been appointed if he were black? Would she be on the board if her mother hadn’t founded the company?
Imagine a few generic "people" working at your job, or living in your neighborhood, or going to your church, who believed this way. What would it all look like to them? Imagine how people from other countries might look at us if this was their prevailing belief.
Don’t cheat. For the sake of completeness I should set out the thought experiment for the other categories, but if I do that, you’ll just keep reading and skip the exercise.
See you tomorrow.