What you think ought to be done about inequality likely hinges on your view about whether financial success is determined more by luck or by effort. Progressives generally believe luck matters more, while conservatives say effort does.
This way of framing the question is wrongheaded. It suggests that the traits and behaviors conservatives emphasize — hard work, will, initiative, drive, focus, persistence, discipline — are largely independent of luck. And that encourages progressives to deny or minimize their importance in influencing success.
Thus Matthew Yglesias:
To get rich in the United States you pretty much have to work hard. But the idea that success is due to hard work ignores the fact that there are all these other people working hard and not succeeding. Hard work is much more common than success. And advantages of birth and dumb luck are making the difference — separating the hard-working partner at the corporate law firm from the hard-working guy who moved the furniture into the law firm’s office.
And Ezra Klein:
Since we justify income inequality by understanding success as an outcome of virtue, there’s a tendency to ascribe achievement to diligent effort rather than the market’s amoral decisions to attach high value to certain spheres of labor and low value to others. The important variable for success, however, does not seem to be hard work but profession. If you’re in a high-value profession, hard work can do you a lot of good. If you’re not, it may not do you much good at all.
Drive, diligence, and other virtuous qualities are themselves heavily influenced by luck. They are to a considerable extent a product of factors over which we have no control: our genes, what happens in utero, birth order, our parents’ traits, childhood nutrition and health, early social experiences with peers, stumbling into an occupation that suits our interests and abilities.
Conservatives tend to say the success and rewards that go to Michael Jordan, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and others like them are a result not only of their skills and of being in the right place at the right time, but also, perhaps mainly, of their effort. Even if true, this doesn’t diminish the role of luck. For their effort is itself largely attributable to good fortune.