Much has been said about work and success over the past several months of campaigning, and I believe it is the relation between the two that lies at the root of disagreements between the economic right and left. In my view, the theoretical poles of this spectrum can defined as libertarianism on the right and socialism on the left. To take the extreme positions for a moment, the pure libertarian would consider the relation between one’s work, and success to be perfectly inelastic. That is to say that every unit of work generates a unit of success, or more simply, they are perfectly correlated. At the other end of the spectrum lies the socialist, for whom work and success are perfectly elastic. Success is simply a function of birth, or some other immutable attributes. There is no correlation between work and success. I am fortunate enough to have never met anyone who subscribes to either one of those extremes, however anyone who has an opinion on the matter either implicitly or explicitly falls somewhere along this continuum. As a general principal of political thought, I believe it is essential to acknowledge that all political ideologies are inherently continuous, rather than discrete.
It is only too easy to begin chipping away at these ideological poles. In the case of socialism, it should be obvious that there is at least some correlation between work and success. That is, if you put no effort into succeeding, then you will almost certainly fail. If you put much effort into succeeding, you will almost certainly be rewarded with some headway. Conversely, it should be abundantly clear that libertarian position is flawed in that our success is certainly influenced by factors beyond our control. If nothing else, the economic status of the family you happen to be born into certainly will affect your odds of success. A wealthier family can subsidize more mistakes and bad lack than a poorer one can. Furthermore, it is hard to argue against genetics, upbringing, culture, language, institutional discrimination, and a number of other factors all affecting one’s success in life to varying degrees.
Given the two choices, clearly the libertarian view assumes an idealized version of the way the world works and the socialist one a rather cynical one. I am confident that given the choice, an overwhelming majority of people would love to see hard work directly proportional to success, and laziness inversely proportional to success. It is my view that society ought to strive for this ideal. This is very different than assuming this ideal, as the libertarian is prone to, however I believe it is within our power to mitigate some of these exogenous determinants that affect the elasticity between work and success.
This goal is often the essence of economic disagreement between the left and right. The left tends to assume that there are more determinants and proposes greater measures to mitigate their effects while the right tends to assume that there are fewer determinants with less impact. The problem with the former is that it may take us farther from the aforementioned ideal by reducing the proportionality between work and success, while the problem with the latter is that it does not allow disadvantaged people to achieve the same return for their work as a more fortunate person may receive.
I don’t think that anyone is a position to definitively answer this question, however it would be patently foolish to assume perfectly elastic and inelastic relationships between input and output. To at least frame the discussion in this manner though may remind people that even the most seemingly divergent views all fall along the same continuum, and that more often than not, they do in fact hold the common goal of maximizing the proportionality between work and success.