Michael Gove says Simon Cowell is "irresponsible and stupid" to say that the key to success is "to be useless at school and then get lucky." Who's right?
In one sense, Gove is. Everyone agrees that, on average across all people, those who do better at school - getting A levels or degrees (pdf) relative to just GCSEs (pdf) or nothing - tend to earn more.
Sure, there are a few exceptions to this. And it's possible that doing badly at school might even cause some people to do well in later life - say, if they want to prove their teachers wrong. But these are a minority.
However, Cowell is correct to say that luck matters. We know this because (observable) personal characteristics account for only a fraction of the variation in earnings. Even allowing for the subject and class of degree, variations in qualifications account for a quarter or less of variation in earnings. Even if we add measurable aspects of personality (the big five factors), this proportion rises only to around two-fifths (pdf).
Of course, this could tell us that unobservable characteristics matter. But, by definition, we can't test this.I suspect instead that it tells us that luck is important. Surely anybody with an atom of honest self-awareness knows this; I can easily imagine that, with slightly circumstances, I would be much poorer or much richer than I am.
In this sense, Cowell's right.
But it doesn't follow that Gove is wrong to call him irresponsible. There's a difference between truth and utility. Telling youngster that luck matters might be true, but it could cause them to work less hard thus jeopardizing their chances in life. Inculcating the false belief that hard work and talent is all, on the other hand, might motivate them to do well.
No less a person than Hayek was awake to this dilemma. On the one hand, he wrote:
The relative position of all the members of a particular trade or profession compared with others will more often be affected by circumstances beyond their control and knowledge. (Law, Legislation & Liberty vol II p73)
But on the other:
It certainly is important in the market order...that the individuals believe that their well-being depends primarily on their own efforts and decisions. Indeed, few circumstances will do more to make a person energetic and efficient than the belief that it depends chiefly upon him whether he will reach the goals he has set himself.
It is therefore a real dilemma to what extent we ought to encourage in the young the belief that when they really try they will succeed, or should rather emphasize that inevitably some unworthy will succeed and some worthy fail.
The row between Gove and Cowell reflects different views on the solution to this dilemma.