Started From the Bottom, Stayed at the Bottom
There are all these movies, songs, and books about people who started in economically disadvantaged positions and, through raw effort and maybe some luck, ended up rich and successful. The problem with this kind of media is that people tend to draw harmful conclusions based on it.
Rather than drawing the conclusion that “This person got very lucky.” they draw the conclusion that “Anybody can have economic success if they work hard enough.” Looking more closely, I claim that this statement is unclear, misleading, and false under almost any reasonable interpretation. So let’s pick it apart to see why.
First, let’s assume that by “economic success”, people mean upgrading their socioeconomic class, since that’s what happens in media that inspires these sorts of claims.
The conclusion then implies a pseudo-meritocratic view of the current economy where wealth is apportioned according to who works hardest. But wealth distribution is not even close to meritocratic and even if it were, those who are predisposed to pick up certain skills would be rewarded the same as untalented people who worked very hard to learn the same skills.
Also, it’s not clear what the conclusion means by “anybody”. I assume it’s excluding the severely disabled people and senile elderly people who are poor who we would all agree have zero socioeconomic mobility.
I also assume that by “anybody”, the conclusion isn’t referring to “everybody”, since that would require everyone to work harder than their competitors in the labor market, which is logically impossible. There is a sense in which everybody upgrades their “absolute” economic stratum as standards of living rise, but that’s not the same sense in which it’s being used in the conclusion.
Even ignoring that the economy as a whole isn’t meritocratic, ignoring that meritocracy isn’t equivalent to “effortocracy”, excluding the mentally disabled, the elderly, etc, and interpreting “anybody” to mean some subset of the entire population, there’s still the question of what it means to say someone can upgrade their socioeconomic class if they never in fact do it. What does it mean to say someone “can” do something that they never do?
That may seem like a trivial question, but I argue that it’s not. There’s room for reasonable people to disagree. For example, if I say I can do something, but I’m never motivated enough to do it, is it fair to say that I can do it then? That’s unclear to me.
I think I’ve sufficiently critiqued the conclusion enough to convince the audience that it should be rejected outright or at least be treated very skeptically, but we have to go along with it anyways to understand the mindset of those who believe it.
The modus tollens of “Anybody can upgrade their economic stratum if they only work hard enough.” results in “People who can’t upgrade their economic stratum don’t work hard enough.” which often gets twisted into “Poor people are lazy.”
Even accepting the flawed premise that I’ve already criticised, one still could not conclude that “Poor people are lazy.” The phrase “hard enough” in the conclusion after the modus tollens, while sounding like a moral failure on behalf of the poor, merely refers to the fact that the poor aren’t better than their competitors in the labor market. Calling them “lazy” just because it’s logically impossible for everyone to be better than the competition is stupid. By that logic, there can never not be lazy people no matter how hard everyone works.
Additionally, there are a variety of reasons poor people don’t work hard enough to advance economically besides laziness. Maybe they lack intelligence. Maybe they’re depressed. Maybe their culture discourages them from certain types of work. Maybe they’re discriminated against. Maybe they’re too busy doing other things besides work. Maybe they don’t care about reaching the next socioeconomic class. So let’s not oversimplify and call them lazy or say they don’t want to work, okay?
I’m happy for all these hip-hop artists who made it out of the projects, but I think their success stories serve more as a counterproductive distraction by imparting to people the idea that hard work is a substitute for systemic economic change. Unfortunately, many celebrities coming from the warped perspective of their own fortuitous success mislead their fans about what’s economically possible. However, I did find this entertaining Conan interview with a famous comedian who is refreshingly honest about the situation and actually calls out others for doing this.
But for the rest of them, it’s as if they’re saying “Look at me! I worked hard and succeeded and you can too! The millions languishing in poverty without enough food or clean water just need a change in mindset!” In reality, what’s keeping most people poor isn’t laziness. It’s that today’s capitalism enforces the existence of a large economic underclass that no amount of “hard work” can fix, unless that hard work goes towards overthrowing, subverting, or massively reforming the economic system itself.
All today’s capitalism can do on its own is shift around who is in which position on the pyramid of wealth, with the rich at the top of the pyramid always being few in number and the poor at the bottom of the pyramid always being very numerous. But no matter what, the shape continues being a pyramid. That’s no good. We need economic policy change to reduce wealth inequality. I won’t let heartwarming individual success stories in media distract me into thinking otherwise and you shouldn’t either.