Merit and Luck
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In 1949, the eminent sociologist Robert K. Merton shrewdly observed how merit and luck were woven together in the American psyche. Even as they praised individual achievement and self-reliance, Merton noted, Americans readily acknowledged the role of chance in determining their life-course. For the rich and successful, luck provided a patina of modesty (“I just got lucky”) as well as a way to gloss over structural inequality: if everything was a matter chance, then it really didn’t matter how society distributed its resources. Among the less successful, by contrast, luck “serves the psychological function of enabling them to preserve their self-esteem in the face of failure,” Merton noted. But, he quickly added, it also might also “entail the dysfunction of curbing motivation for sustained endeavor.” The more you chalked things up to chance, the less likely you were to try to change them.1
Merton had no way of anticipating how merit would come to dominate American culture and ideology...