Saturday, February 25, 2012

The conservative fallacy: "someone -> anyone -> everyone"

Back in my days of Swords Crossed debates, I read an argument that Americans are in control of their own economic success. This argument was built upon the observation that several people from low-income backgrounds had managed to earn high incomes during their working lives. This belief is a cornerstone of economic conservatism, since it dismisses the need for economic reform and supports the idea that differences in wealth are the result of personal choices.

However, this argument is based on some pretty sloppy logic, which is commonly employed by conservatives without much thought. I just encountered it again coming from Bryan Caplan (via Anagory) and figure I should put my criticism up for critique. Caplan's basic argument is that high income people have achieved their success in part by "being meek", and that many low income (i.e. working class) people are held back by their lack of meekness. He concludes by implying that if only the working class would me more meek, America could be saved from the emergence of the permanent underclass that Charles Murray harps about.

So let me break down the argument:
  • Some people have achieved success by being meek.
  • Anyone else can also achieve success by likewise being meek.
  • Everyone can achieve success by following this strategy.
Let me first enter the caveat that Caplan does not explicitly follow this entire chain of logic; he seems to be equivocal on the second point, and perhaps completely deviates from the third point (I'll discuss this at the end). However, he puts this in the context of Charles Murray's campaign to teach the lower classes how to be upper class, so that implies that this could be a strategy by which everyone could achieve prosperity and status.

So here's my criticism. First, the fact that someone achieved success by following a particular strategy does not mean that everyone can achieve success by the same strategy, even leaving aside the issue of variation in talents. There is randomness in the world, and one strategy will produce both winners and losers. That's not to say that some strategies aren't better than others, just that we can't attribute all differences in outcome to different choices.

Second, even if the strategy could work for anyone, that does not mean that it could work for everyone simultaneously. This is evident from some pretty basic and well established economic models relating to the growth of competitive industries -- that large profits in an industry attract new suppliers to enter the trade, resulting in lower prices and smaller profits. In other words, while one person could get rich by entering this particular market, if everyone tried to do the same thing, no-one would get rich (but they would get normal wages, and the customers would be happy with the low prices).

Another scenario where anyone does not imply everyone is illustrated by elections: even if anyone could be President, there can still only be one President. While politics may be a special case of hyper-competition (as opposed to the regular competition described above), I think that a lot of the success stories trotted out by conservatives (e.g. Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordon) involve the same dynamics, where individuals made their fortune by attaining a prominent position in society, and providing a service that by the nature of being a society-wide service necessarily was limited to only a few providers. In other words, there can only be a limited number of celebrities whom "everyone is talking about".

Finally, to be fair to Caplan, his argument does not precisely fit this chain of logic. First, he points out that some people can benefit from being overly assertive, but they are the people who are already at the top of the hierarchy or otherwise have a major bargaining chip, and the "meekness" prescription only applies to the rest of us slobs. Second, he seems to frame the benefit of "meekness" as a competitive tool for climbing up the professional ladder, not as a way for low income people to generally increase their productivity and wages. As such, he doesn't really imply that this strategy would "work" for everyone. However, in this case he deviates from the philanthropic motivation behind Murray's campaign, and is basically just telling the lower classes to know their place.

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