The Luck of Those Who Persevere

by Don Boudreaux on April 1, 2017

in Man of System, Myths and Fallacies, Seen and Unseen

On Thursday I linked to George Leef’s excellent criticism of Robert Frank’s hypothesis that luck plays such a large role in determining individuals’ successes and failures that the state should serve to counterbalance the role of luck.  Reading George’s essay prompted Cafe Hayek reader Todd Moodey to send to me this e-mail, shared below with Todd’s kind permission (original emphasis).  (Todd, as it happens, took classes from Prof. Frank many years ago at Cornell.)


The example of Bryan Cranston getting the role in Breaking Bad that George Leef refers to is interesting in what it tells you that Bob Frank overlooks. It’s hardly surprising, unusual or unexpected that actors turn down roles for new shows. So the relevant question is how Cranston was even in a position to be considered third for the part. (If you’re always considered third for roles in Hollywood, you’re going to be rich.) Undoubtedly, it was skill and perseverance, honed over many years of hard work and diligent application, that so positioned him over the many thousands of 40/50-ish white male actors in Hollywood–hardly luck! My hunch is that most of the examples of what Frank considers to be luck are of this ilk: being in the right place at the right time precisely because of the skill, hard work, ambition, etc that has been put in to arrive at that place. “On the margin” it may appear to be lucky, but it’s resulted from a great deal of purposive effort.


Todd Moodey

Well said, Todd.

The undeniable fact that some good fortune plays a role in every successful person’s life (and some bad fortune in every unsuccessful person’s life) – and even the undeniable fact that a handful of successful people owe their successes almost exclusively to good fortune – does not make luck the chief, or even the main, driver of life’s outcomes.  What matters above all is the role played by luck versus the role played by perseverance, prudence, and other personal characteristics at the margin.  This reality is no marginal consideration.


Speaking of Bob Frank, I can’t help but use this occasion to mention that, while I profoundly disagree with him on many issues, I find him to be one of the more creative and challenging economists of the political left.  And his 1988 book, Passions Within Reason, is one of the very finest books that I’ve ever read.


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