A few years ago, researchers at the University of California conducted an experiment. They gathered student volunteers and divided them into teams segregated by gender—three men or women per team. They randomly chose one student from each group to act as leader. Then they put the groups into separate rooms, where each was presented with a complex moral problem to solve.
Thirty minutes later, the researchers interrupted each team, entering the room with a plate of four cookies. Each of the three team members obviously got one cookie, but that left a fourth cookie, just sitting there. This should have been awkward—but it wasn’t. With incredible consistency whoever had been arbitrarily appointed leader of the group grabbed the fourth cookie, and ate it, without any hesitation whatsoever.
This person had performed no special task. After all, the leaders had been chosen at random. Their position was based on nothing but dumb luck. Yet it left them with the sure sense that the cookie should be theirs.
Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball and Liar’s Poker, shared this account in a commencement address he delivered at Princeton University. He used it to sound a warning against a real and present danger: the tendency of those blessed with prosperity to attribute their good fortune to merit and, by corollary, to insinuate that the poor are deserving of their misfortune. This notion of America as a meritocracy, where success is a sure sign of virtue, is actually written into the 2012 Republican party platform, which touts its “positive, optimistic view of an opportunity society where any American who works hard, dreams big and follows the rules can achieve anything he or she wants.”
Torah recognized the fallacy in such thinking three thousand years ago. Deuteronomy 8 warns of the hubris that can accompany prosperity, of misconstruing wealth as a mark of our own merit: “The Eternal is bringing you into a good land. . . in which you will lack nothing. And you shall eat and be satisfied and bless the Eternal for the gift of this good land. But beware, lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this treasure.’”
The Talmud speaks of the true nature of affluence and paucity when it notes: “If one man does not come into poverty, his son may; and if his son does not come into it, his son's son may, for poverty is a wheel that goes around and around the world.” Therefore, those who are blessed with good fortune must never forget that much of what we have is due to dumb luck. Our advantages are largely a fluke—as are the disadvantages of the underclass. Contrary to that Republican platform, many Americans work hard and dream big and receive very little in return. And others, born into tremendous privilege, hardly work a day in their lives, yet live like kings and queens.
This reality creates a kind of moral responsibility. When we realize that wealth is largely unearned, we understand that those who can afford to do so ought to share significant share of their bounty with those in need. As Michael Lewis concluded in his address to those privileged Princeton graduates: “Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt to the unlucky. All of you have been faced with the extra cookie. All of you will be faced with many more of them. In time you will find it easy to assume that you deserve the extra cookie. For all I know, you may. But you'll be happier, and the world will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don't.”