Jersey Shore, Emily Whitehurst, and Merit
By Bryan Caplan
I’ve repeatedly argued that economic success and merit are moderately positively correlated. In plain English: Talented people who work hard usually enjoy considerably higher income and status. I hasten to add that in a free market, this correlation would be far stronger. Still, few actually existing governments are awful enough to make the correlation between economic success and merit disappear. Merit will out.
If you’re a pessimist, you’ll remind me that “moderately positive correlated” means “far less than perfectly correlated.” Fair enough. There are many successful people bereft of merit. Take the cast of Jersey Shore. Yes, I’ve actually watched the show, and I can’t imagine defending the stars as “meritorious.” While they clearly produce a lot of economic value, they’re slow-witted, lazy, impulsive drunks. Slow-witted, lazy, impulsive, drunk millionaires.
At the other extreme, take Emily Whitehurst, my favorite underappreciated artist. She’s been the lead singer and song-writer for Tsunami Bomb, the Action Design, and now Survival Guide. What singing! What songs! When I saw her live, she poured her whole soul into her performance. Yet over a decade into her musical career, she remains obscure.
I don’t know Whitehurst’s economic philosophy. But if she responded to my claims about meritocracy with, “How come Snooki’s big and I’m not?,” I’d blush with embarrassment. I’d like to the blame the government, but that’s silly. Immigration restrictions force employers to discriminate against meritorious foreigners. Progressive taxes and redistribution force the industrious to support the indolent. However, if there are regulations on the books that heavily favor drunken exhibitionists over sublime singer-songwriters, I haven’t heard of them.
So what’s the least-bad answer to the “How come Snooki’s big and I’m not” challenge? Probably: “Because the masses aren’t good enough for you.” Millions want to watch eight idiots get drunk in a hot tub. Only tens of thousands want to watch Emily Whitehurst sing. The market gives people what they want, not what deserves to be wanted.
Then why not take from Snooki and give to Emily? I could offer a public choice objection: “If markets ignore you, democracy will too.” Yet that’s not true. Look at opera, supported by tax-paying philistines around the world. My honest answer is just a libertarian truism: People have a right to be wrong with their own money. While I don’t respect the consumer choices that make Snooki outshine Emily, we’re obliged to accept them. Oh well. At least Emily enjoys one big consolation: being awesome.