The injustice of talent

Sep 4 JDN 2459827

Consider the following two principles of distributive justice.

A: People deserve to be rewarded in proportion to what they accomplish.

B: People deserve to be rewarded in proportion to the effort they put in.

Both principles sound pretty reasonable, don’t they? They both seem like sensible notions of fairness, and I think most people would broadly agree with both them.

This is a problem, because they are mutually contradictory. We cannot possibly follow them both.

For, as much as our society would like to pretend otherwise—and I think this contradiction is precisely why our society would like to pretend otherwise—what you accomplish is not simply a function of the effort you put in.

Don’t get me wrong; it is partly a function of the effort you put in. Hard work does contribute to success. But it is neither sufficient, nor strictly necessary.

Rather, success is a function of three factors: Effort, Environment, and Talent.

Effort is the work you yourself put in, and basically everyone agrees you deserve to be rewarded for that.

Environment includes all the outside factors that affect you—including both natural and social environment. Inheritance, illness, and just plain luck are all in here, and there is general, if not universal, agreement that society should make at least some efforts to minimize inequality created by such causes.

And then, there is talent. Talent includes whatever capacities you innately have. It could be strictly genetic, or it could be acquired in childhood or even in the womb. But by the time you are an adult and responsible for your own life, these factors are largely fixed and immutable. This includes things like intelligence, disability, even height. The trillion-dollar question is: How much should we reward talent?

For talent clearly does matter. I will never swim like Michael Phelps, run like Usain Bolt, or shoot hoops like Steph Curry. It doesn’t matter how much effort I put in, how many hours I spend training—I will never reach their level of capability. Never. It’s impossible. I could certainly improve from my current condition; perhaps it would even be good for me to do so. But there are certain hard fundamental constraints imposed by biology that give them more potential in these skills than I will ever have.

Conversely, there are likely things I can do that they will never be able to do, though this is less obvious. Could Michael Phelps never be as good a programmer or as skilled a mathematician as I am? He certainly isn’t now. Maybe, with enough time, enough training, he could be; I honestly don’t know. But I can tell you this: I’m sure it would be harder for him than it was for me. He couldn’t breeze through college-level courses in differential equations and quantum mechanics the way I did. There is something I have that he doesn’t, and I’m pretty sure I was born with it. Call it spatial working memory, or mathematical intuition, or just plain IQ. Whatever it is, math comes easy to me in not so different a way from how swimming comes easy to Michael Phelps. I have talent for math; he has talent for swimming.

Moreover, these are not small differences. It’s not like we all come with basically the same capabilities with a little bit of variation that can be easily washed out by effort. We’d like to believe that—we have all sorts of cultural tropes that try to inculcate that belief in us—but it’s obviously not true. The vast majority of quantum physicists are people born with high IQ. The vast majority of pro athletes are people born with physical prowess. The vast majority of movie stars are people born with pretty faces. For many types of jobs, the determining factor seems to be talent.

This isn’t too surprising, actually—even if effort matters a lot, we would still expect talent to show up as the determining factor much of the time.

Let’s go back to that contest function model I used to analyze the job market awhile back (the one that suggests we spend way too much time and money in the hiring process). This time let’s focus on the perspective of the employees themselves.

Each employee has a level of talent, h. Employee X has talent hx and exerts effort x, producing output of a quality that is the product of these: hx x. Similarly, employee Z has talent hz and exerts effort z, producing output hz z.

Then, there’s a certain amount of luck that factors in. The most successful output isn’t necessarily the best, or maybe what should have been the best wasn’t because some random circumstance prevailed. But we’ll say that the probability an individual succeeds is proportional to the quality of their output.

So the probability that employee X succeeds is: hx x / ( hx x + hz z)

I’ll skip the algebra this time (if you’re interested you can look back at that previous post), but to make a long story short, in Nash equilibrium the two employees will exert exactly the same amount of effort.

Then, which one succeeds will be entirely determined by talent; because x = z, the probability that X succeeds is hx / ( hx + hz).

It’s not that effort doesn’t matter—it absolutely does matter, and in fact in this model, with zero effort you get zero output (which isn’t necessarily the case in real life). It’s that in equilibrium, everyone is exerting the same amount of effort; so what determines who wins is innate talent. And I gotta say, that sounds an awful lot like how professional sports works. It’s less clear whether it applies to quantum physicists.

But maybe we don’t really exert the same amount of effort! This is true. Indeed, it seems like actually effort is easier for people with higher talent—that the same hour spent running on a track is easier for Usain Bolt than for me, and the same hour studying calculus is easier for me than it would be for Usain Bolt. So in the end our equilibrium effort isn’t the same—but rather than compensating, this effect only serves to exaggerate the difference in innate talent between us.

It’s simple enough to generalize the model to allow for such a thing. For instance, I could say that the cost of producing a unit of effort is inversely proportional to your talent; then instead of hx / ( hx + hz ), in equilibrium the probability of X succeeding would become hx2 / ( hx2 + hz2). The equilibrium effort would also be different, with x > z if hx > hz.

Once we acknowledge that talent is genuinely important, we face an ethical problem. Do we want to reward people for their accomplishment (A), or for their effort (B)? There are good cases to be made for each.

Rewarding for accomplishment, which we might call meritocracy,will tend to, well, maximize accomplishment. We’ll get the best basketball players playing basketball, the best surgeons doing surgery. Moreover, accomplishment is often quite easy to measure, even when effort isn’t.

Rewarding for effort, which we might call egalitarianism, will give people the most control over their lives, and might well feel the most fair. Those who succeed will be precisely those who work hard, even if they do things they are objectively bad at. Even people who are born with very little talent will still be able to make a living by working hard. And it will ensure that people do work hard, which meritocracy can actually fail at: If you are extremely talented, you don’t really need to work hard because you just automatically succeed.

Capitalism, as an economic system, is very good at rewarding accomplishment. I think part of what makes socialism appealing to so many people is that it tries to reward effort instead. (Is it very good at that? Not so clear.)

The more extreme differences are actually in terms of disability. There’s a certain baseline level of activities that most people are capable of, which we think of as “normal”: most people can talk; most people can run, if not necessarily very fast; most people can throw a ball, if not pitch a proper curveball. But some people can’t throw. Some people can’t run. Some people can’t even talk. It’s not that they are bad at it; it’s that they are literally not capable of it. No amount of effort could have made Stephen Hawking into a baseball player—not even a bad one.

It’s these cases when I think egalitarianism becomes most appealing: It just seems deeply unfair that people with severe disabilities should have to suffer in poverty. Even if they really can’t do much productive work on their own, it just seems wrong not to help them, at least enough that they can get by. But capitalism by itself absolutely would not do that—if you aren’t making a profit for the company, they’re not going to keep you employed. So we need some kind of social safety net to help such people. And it turns out that such people are quite numerous, and our current system is really not adequate to help them.

But meritocracy has its pull as well. Especially when the job is really important—like surgery, not so much basketball—we really want the highest quality work. It’s not so important whether the neurosurgeon who removes your tumor worked really hard at it or found it a breeze; what we care about is getting that tumor out.

Where does this leave us?

I think we have no choice but to compromise, on both principles. We will reward both effort and accomplishment, to greater or lesser degree—perhaps varying based on circumstances. We will never be able to entirely reward accomplishment or entirely reward effort.

This is more or less what we already do in practice, so why worry about it? Well, because we don’t like to admit that it’s what we do in practice, and a lot of problems seem to stem from that.

We have people acting like billionaires are such brilliant, hard-working people just because they’re rich—because our society rewards effort, right? So they couldn’t be so successful if they didn’t work so hard, right? Right?

Conversely, we have people who denigrate the poor as lazy and stupid just because they are poor. Because it couldn’t possibly be that their circumstances were worse than yours? Or hey, even if they are genuinely less talented than you—do less talented people deserve to be homeless and starving?

We tell kids from a young age, “You can be whatever you want to be”, and “Work hard and you’ll succeed”; and these things simply aren’t true. There are limitations on what you can achieve through effort—limitations imposed by your environment, and limitations imposed by your innate talents.

I’m not saying we should crush children’s dreams; I’m saying we should help them to build more realistic dreams, dreams that can actually be achieved in the real world. And then, when they grow up, they either will actually succeed, or when they don’t, at least they won’t hate themselves for failing to live up to what you told them they’d be able to do.

If you were wondering why Millennials are so depressed, that’s clearly a big part of it: We were told we could be and do whatever we wanted if we worked hard enough, and then that didn’t happen; and we had so internalized what we were told that we thought it had to be our fault that we failed. We didn’t try hard enough. We weren’t good enough. I have spent years feeling this way—on some level I do still feel this way—and it was not because adults tried to crush my dreams when I was a child, but on the contrary because they didn’t do anything to temper them. They never told me that life is hard, and people fail, and that I would probably fail at my most ambitious goals—and it wouldn’t be my fault, and it would still turn out okay.

That’s really it, I think: They never told me that it’s okay not to be wildly successful. They never told me that I’d still be good enough even if I never had any great world-class accomplishments. Instead, they kept feeding me the lie that I would have great world-class accomplishments; and then, when I didn’t, I felt like a failure and I hated myself. I think my own experience may be particularly extreme in this regard, but I know a lot of other people in my generation who had similar experiences, especially those who were also considered “gifted” as children. And we are all now suffering from depression, anxiety, and Impostor Syndrome.

All because nobody wanted to admit that talent, effort, and success are not the same thing.