What matters more for economic outcomes: hard work or class?

Another way to phrase this question may be more common: do we live in a meritocracy? Arthur Brooks, head of the American Enterprise Institute, certainly thinks so. Here’s an excerpt from his piece in the Washington Post a few days ago.

And so it is in our country. If opportunity in America is a sham — if the system is rigged and some people get the breaks only for reasons of luck, birth, or discrimination — then merit is fictitious and redistribution brings greater fairness. But if America is an opportunity society — if you have the chance to work harder, get more education and innovate — then rewarding merit is fair, and it is fair for some to make more money than others.

Brooks pulls selectively from the economics research to prove his point. But in the end, I’m not sure he’s even convinced himself. For example, he seems–and this is becoming a general theme of my critiques on this blog–to waiver between rejecting we can know anything for certain and forcefully arguing that his own view of the causal relationship is right:

Since equality of opportunity is not universal, doesn’t this invalidate — or at least weaken — the romantic notion of meritocratic fairness? Of course not. You’re living in a dream world (or you have tenure) if you really believe merit doesn’t matter. Everyone can think of times when things went well as a direct result of hard work. We can also come up with cases in which we were punished at work or in life for laziness, incompetence, free-riding or stupidity.

Yes, but what’s the systematic relationship between these things? Brooks hedges, and instead blows some ivory-colored smoke:

Most important, if we reject the ideals of opportunity and meritocratic fairness, we will end up with a system where outcomes are simply based on luck or political power — it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a 2005 study published in the American Economic Review, economists at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studied 29 countries and showed that a belief in luck over merit was strongly linked to the level of taxation and spending on social programs. Furthermore, they showed that the more citizens believed in a merit-based system, the more their public policies produced such a system.

I don’t care where these folks were from, but you need to offer more evidence than a correlation cooked up by some anonymous people from big name schools. And by the way, what was our causal question again? Note that now we’re thinking about the effects of beliefs. Changing the subject–yet another theme that we’re seeing again and again.

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