A bastardised understanding of meritocracy has become part of bling self-indulgence

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

Rahul Dravid. Photograph: Getty Images

Last winter, I bumped into the masterly Indian batsman Rahul Dravid at a charity dinner in Sydney. Dravid gave a speech and in a question- and-answer session showed why he is a gentleman as well as a champion. He was asked how he stayed so motivated, even in his late 30s. Dravid replied that as a schoolboy, he noticed that many kids had at least as much desire to play professional cricket as he did. But you could tell – from just one ball bowled or one shot played – that they simply didn’t have the talent. “I was given a talent to play cricket,” he explained. “I don’t know why I was given it. But I was. I owe it to all those who wish it had been them to give of my best, every day.”

Instead of peddling the meritocratic fantasy that he had little natural talent and dragged himself to the top through hard work alone, Dravid interpreted his genetic good fortune as innately bound up with his responsibilities. Too often talent and opportunity are excised from the story of great lives for fear that they might detract from the “deserved success” that apparently follows from sweat and tears. I remembered Dravid’s words this week, reflecting on the wonderful speech given by Ben Bernanke to Princeton graduates. It may be too early to judge how well Bernanke has done as chairman of the Federal Reserve. But we can give him an “A” for moral philosophy.

Whatever you think about quantitative easing, it’s hard not to raise a cheer to that. Yet Bernanke’s speech has not lacked detractors. Matthew Syed, writing in the Times, dismissed the speech as “deeply flawed, not just in its philosophical terms but in its psychological consequences”. His reasons why we should not believe in luck provide an excellent summary of conventional wisdom. He argues, “If we believe that another person’s success is solely a matter of social and genetic good fortune, are we not likely to resent it?”

Bernanke didn’t say “solely” but let’s still deal with Syed’s objection that Victoria Beckham deserves to be eulogised for her hard work. Syed also worries that, “If our own failure has nothing to do with us – it’s the useless genes endowed by our parents and the hopeless school we attended – doesn’t that give us an excuse to sit and fester?” Bernanke didn’t say that either but the wider point still warrants a rejoinder.

Believing in luck does not lead to a surfeit of jealousy and resentment. The sociology of luck demonstrates quite the reverse. Helmut Schoeck’s book Envyshowed how the idea of luck ameliorates social divisions. In contrast, tribes and societies that lack a concept or word for luck find it hard to develop enterprise and aspiration. Nor does believing in luck thwart individual ambition. Even Kerry Packer, the brash, highly driven, alpha-male Australian tycoon, once told a friend of mine: “When you meet a successful person who doesn’t believe he’s been lucky, you know you’ve just met a complete jerk.” Arguing that we will only try hard if we pretend that effort is the sole determining factor reduces all human beings to the psychological level of toddlers.

Nor is the idea of luck politically simplistic. The left, it is true, may interpret the question of luck through the prism of opportunity and injustice. But thinking about luck should lead even the most sceptical Conservative, opposed to any kind of utopian thinking, to reflect on his social responsibilities.

Where luck is underestimated, meritocracy has suffered from theoretical overshoot. Advances in meritocracy in real life have prompted wildly overstated advances in theory. While it is true that no one any longer inherits a rotten borough, it doesn’t follow that modern life is perfectly meritocratic.

Michael Young coined the term as a satirical warning in his book The Rise of the Meritocracy, published in 1958. The idea was quickly misinterpreted and misappropriated. Much later, writing four years into New Labour, Young revisited the idea: “If meritocrats believe, as more and more of them are encouraged to, that their advancement comes from their own merits, they can feel they deserve whatever they can get. They can be insufferably smug . . . So assured have the elite become that there is almost no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves.”

A bastardised understanding of meritocracy has become part of bling self-indulgence. I earned it, I deserve it, I owe no one, thank nobody. It is all justified by the convenient theory that success follows simply from “hard work”. The crucial point is missed: hard work is necessary but not sufficient. Many people work hard. Only a very few have the ultimate good fortune: their hard work interacts with luck and opportunity and ends in serious success. Quite simply, there are more deserving people than there are seats at the table.

It is hard to improve on Bernanke’s reference to the Gospel of Luke: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded”.