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In terms of formulating effective rules, one needs to have a panoramic understanding of the potential consequences. Even the downstream outcomes are not easily foreseen. Providing some validation of F.A. Hayek’s notion of the Pretense of Knowledge. No one person, organization, or collection of governing institutions has all of the information required to plan for every scenario. Making it foolhardy to enact inflexible rules that operate as if the definite outcomes can be methodically calculated. Treading down the path of the socialist calculation debate is fruitless as the refutations on both sides of the aisle have already been exhausted. The fall of the Soviet Union alone should serve as a historical anecdote of the fallacy of planned economies.

It should be noted that information asymmetries and unforeseeable outcomes are a natural consequence of having limited information. Explaining phenomena such as cobra effects, because certain repercussions cannot be known until it is too late. These distorted outcomes as the result of flawed rules can happen on a much smaller scale than that of the national economy or a country’s legal system. Something as mundane as a birthdate cutoff to participate in youth hockey can spur some surprise inequities in the trajectory of young hockey players. This example springing from the pages of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers gives us some keen insights into the potential for implicit flaws in rule formulation. Gladwell details the observations of psychologist Roger Barnsley (p.22-23) upon perusing the program of the Canadian national youth hockey championship. Barnsley noticed that the majority of the players had birthdays ranging between January and March. Is it possible that there is a certain qualitative factor distinguishing children with birthdays earlier on in the year? If we examine the zodiac symbols of those born in January and February there are characteristics that are conducive to success. However, there is little scientific merit to astrology anyhow. Barnsley had another explanation for this discrepancy between Canadian Hockey players born in January versus July. 

Barnsley astutely directs us towards the factor of birthday cutoffs for eligibility to play youth hockey in Canada. This fact was substantiated when Barnsley discovered that roughly 40 percent of all elite hockey players were born between January-March, 30 percent between April-June (p.23) Demonstrating the role of the individual player’s birthday in determining success. Having a January first cutoff, privileged prospective players born in the earlier months of the year (p.24). The main difference being that the boys born in earlier months were more physically mature. In turn, received more attention from the coaches lending this dynamic to an early delineation between talented and untalented players (p.25). Due to the difference in age eligibility cutoffs in American youth football and basketball leagues, they did not exhibit the same distortions in the distribution of talent (p.26). Engendering a Matthew Effect or what is otherwise known as an accumulative advantage. Adam Smith even points to the concept of accumulative advantage in The Wealth of NationsExplaining how in a sense the poor pay the price for the poor decisions of their forefathers. 

Many proponents of meritocratic social arrangements may scoff at the idea of making rules that are fair. However, if the rules are providing a lopsided advantage to one group, are the results truly the result of superior performance or the distortion created by the rules? Few would ever view the occurrence of instances of regulatory capture or rent-seeking as a triumph of free-market competition. Rather just the opposite, it is an example of interest groups bending the rules to suit their own needs. Careful consideration needs to be made in how we set and enforce rules to avoid distorted effects that handsomely benefit a few and harm a great many. Gladwell succinctly sums up this point very eloquently: 

“Because we cling to the idea that success is a simple function of individual merit and that the world in which we all group up and then we choose to write society don’t matter at all.” (p.33)

While variables such as luck, talent, ingenuity, and hard work can all have a role in success, we cannot forget that how the rules are written can also have an inseparable impact on outcomes. Even rules that are inadvertently written in a manner to favor one group over another without consideration of merit is a flawed rule. Marred by an unforeseeable blind spot that nevertheless has generated distorted outcomes. These outcomes are not truly the byproduct of talent or work ethic but by technicalities that create illusory perceptions of actual skill. 

2 thoughts on “Success By Default is Not Truly Success

  1. Excellent post: people often act strategically and try to “game” the rules, and these strategic actions usually produce unexpected outcomes! I would only add the following question: are clear-cut or “bright-line” rules easier to game or manipulate than more complex or indeterminate rules? In law, courts will often employ a clear-cut rule — like the rule of first possession in property law — to decide a case. (See, for example, the classic case of Pierson v. Post.) But just as often, courts will also employ an indeterminate “balancing test” (e.g. “totality of the circumstances”) or a test involving multiple factors (such as the fair use doctrine) without telling us how any of the factors are weighted! I wonder now if courts are doing this on purpose in order to make it easier for them to detect and deter strategic actors?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. From a prima facie stand point( without any further research into the matter), I would say there is some merit to your theory.

      We frequently see governing institutions making rules that can easily be bent to privilege one group over another. Just thinking about money alone I can think of two examples. Fiscal illusion and Money Illusion. If policies, laws, etc create confusion or are riddled with loopholes in theory they are easier to game.

      Liked by 1 person

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