There is no universal rule that ensures that hard work is always rewarded. Neither the lives of individuals, society, economies, the world, or the universe are meritocracies and there is no necessary reason that hard work will get you what you want because that is a simplistic view of how reality works. Life, economy, society, and reality are complex systems that cannot be simplified to just “hard work”. Many other factors such as luck, external help, the especially lack of hindering are not only important but very common and often vital reasons that result in success. This essay will show multiple counterexamples to show this incase the complexity of such systems is not apparent to the reader.
This essay also uses a capitalist notion of success in order to be more easily understood by people who think in the same way. This notion is of course subject to what any one person defines as success and is also subject to specific goals, which may be driven by anything from direct or indirect financial gain to love or happiness or artistic goals or moral imperatives.
There are many examples where someone who works extremely hard will not succeed:
- Factory/shop being shut down
- Layoffs (which are not the employees fault, but rather a decision made by people higher up for various reasons, such as to cut costs)
- (not only the hardest workers who stay, it’s the ones who have the best results. Results aren’t only from hard work)
- Quotas for diversity
- A person of a different race might be given a job or admitted to university simply because of their origin or skin colour, which they cannot control. While they might need a minimum amount and quality of work experience or grades, in order to fill a diversity quota they might be picked over someone who worked harder or is more qualified. This is an example of hard work not being awarded.
- A mother missing work or being tired at work because she has a child. She still works very hard, but that is split between her work and her child and house.
- No matter how hard you work, if your job can be replaced by a machine, there is no assurance you will keep your job
- Factory workers being replaced by robots
- Taxi drivers being replaced by “Uber” drivers and self driving cars
- Wrong Goals
- If you work extremely hard by studying for a test only to find out that you studied the wrong material, all your work will yield no reward for this test. What you learned -might- help for another test, or it might not ever be needed, or you might forget it by the time that test comes.
- If someone contracts you to make or do something for them, but then changes their mind after you’ve already done a lot of work. You might be entitled to some pay, but not always.
These examples show hard workers not getting rewarded, because in modern society you are not rewarded for hard work, you are rewarded for results given to a specific person. No matter how hard you work, if you do not deliver the results you were supposed to, it is far less likely for you to be rewarded. Some contracts can ensure you get paid for working hard and trying to get the expected results, but the person paying you naturally has a point of view where they do not care so much about how hard the person worked for them, as they do not want to repay hard work, they want to pay for what the person has contributed to them. If you contract a company to build or repair a house but it turns out that the construction is not possible, you would not want to pay them, since you’re giving money but not getting anything in return.
How it Actually Works
What this fallacy might be attributed to is the idea that one -should- be awarded based on their work; that life should be a meritocracy. This is seen when someone who works hard get angry at someone who doesn’t work hard but gets a better reward. While it is a shame when someone works hard and does not get a reward fitting of the work put in, one should not expect this to happen. If you expect this to be the case then you will be disappointed, or even angry when it does not. This happens because hard work does not necessarily give a fair result. There is no law of nature or society that makes this happen, and in fact, society is structured in such a way that while hard work is rewarded, it is rewarded less so than other things. Examples of this are nepotism, favoritism, favours, personal gain, and racism and other types of hate.
- Cheating- Cheaters, if not caught, will gain rewards they did not necessarily work for. While this may sometimes only work because of a lack of anti cheating measures or oversight, it is also largely due to results driven systems.
- Personal Gain
- Racism and Hate
- A hard working person can be denied a job if the employer is racist against them
- An employee can be fired for revealing their non-heterosexuality, even if the employer hides that reason for firing them with an excuse.
Any of these are reasons that a hard working person can be hired, rejected, or fired because of how the system they are in works.
Other examples include:
“It’s not what you know, but who you know”
This statement reflects how important networking is, especially in todays’ job market. This does not only apply to nepotism though; it’s not just being hired because the boss is doing you a favour because they know you, like you, or are related to you. “Knowing” as the quote puts it, or in this case having a good relationship with your boss or coworkers can give you access to people they know. Having a wide network of people who can give you information or who are willing to help you can get you introductions to important people or give you information about a job posting you would have otherwise not found out about. This rewards networking, which is often more so about pretending to be people’s friends because they might be useful to you, rather than actually making friends or being nice to people. This is manipulative, deceptive, and selfish behaviour that objectifies people as tools and shows a lack of empathy. Despite that, it is encouraged because it gives you more options in your career. While this may include some hard work, it would be skewed to say that this is truly hard work or that it is the work one should be doing. This is closer to cheating, when comparing it to getting a job due to your merits as a person who has worked hard in your field and is more qualified than someone who gives a good impression or ha a good recommendation, or worse, someone who was recommended by someone you trust. In such a case, the employer would be going with trust over examples of hard work.
“I did it, so anyone can”
This expression makes several assumptions. The first possible assumption might be that the person who achieved something is not particularly skilled or intelligent, which is intended to be humble, but is actually hollow in that regard. It ignores that hard work was likely not the only factor that lead to their success, since there is almost always some luck involved, and someone who helped in some way. Even in the case where their success did not involve any obvious luck or help from others, this ignores what I will call indirect luck or help.
What indirect luck refers to may not be that person A was successful because they were lucky so much as that person B was not successful because they were unlucky. Assuming both people worked equally hard, any of the following things can happen:
- There are only so many jobs available.
- If person A’s competition for a position is less impressive than they are, while person B’s competition is more impressive, it is entirely likely than person A had some degree of luck on their side that helped them get one of their jobs.
- The absence of bad luck.
- There are always external factors that we cannot control.
- If a relative of person B dies, it may affect their performance in their job or during job interviews.
- If person B’s vehicle breaks, it could make them late for work or even miss a job interview.
- If person A has none, or even just fewer such instances of bad luck, they is at an advantage.
- There are always external factors that we cannot control.
The help may be direct, or it may have been indirect such as
- Emotional support
- Somewhere to live, or a better place to live
- Financial help
- Transportation, or easier, faster, or cheaper transportation
- Even something as indirect as their parents helping them through
- Education from parents, schooling, or university
- Assistance in getting internships and first jobs
- Favours and connections
- Work ethic
- Happiness in their childhood that encourages and prepares them for their future.
The prestige of the schools you went to can be a huge advantage when starting your career. For people who are not lucky enough to have parents like this, it is completely irrational to expect them as children to know that such things will help them in their life, as they do not even necessarily know what they want to do in their lives and therefore cannot know how to achieve it. Some children do end up working hard despite the odds, but this is either through luck or them somehow knowing that a career of hard work will improve their situation. As a child doesn’t know any better, it is possible that they will see the world as unfair, and cheat their way to success, because as said before this way often works depending on how it is done. Even worse, a child might adopt a worse mentality and think that “If you want something, you have to take it”. This may lead to a life of crime, which is likely to end up worse for them, but may also lead to their -undeserved- success. Even if not criminal, it may lead to immoral behaviour and a general lack of empathy.
It is true that help can be difficult to find, but it would perhaps be more accurate to say that it is rare for people to be very helpful. It is extremely unlikely for someone to never have had help, whether it be in a big way or something small. Although you may not realise it, your success was quite likely partially helped by someone else. This does not make your hard work any less valuable or worthy.
Lack of Obstruction or Hindrance
A final note would be to imagine if during your hard work, things had been worse. If the obstacles you faced were larger, or even just if there were more issues, then you can imagine how other people’s situations are more difficult to overcome. Everyone’s lives are different for many reasons, and as such the same amount of hard work will not suffice for each person’s situation to result in the same success. Even if they did, our society is not made to be fair, and some people are just unlucky enough to not reach the same status as others.
Some people may be facing the same issue or may have the same goal as you, but they may have people, systems, or events that present more issues or bigger issues for them. Someone may be disliked by others simply because of their skin colour, heritage, sexual orientation or religion, all of which are not chosen with the exception of religion, sometimes. They may be mistrusted or stereotyped for the same reasons. Minorities and immigrants are more prone to be suspected by local police either because the police are racist or believe the stereotype of such people being more likely to be guilty of -something-. Corrupt police are more likely to target such groups by falsifying evidence and blaming them for something they did not do, simply because the criminal justice system or even the public are more likely to believe that a minority committed a crime than to believe that someone of the stereotypically law abiding majority did. This means that such groups need to be careful not to break even petty laws, avoid being suspicious, and avoid the police.
There are too many examples of police ruining people’s lives because of an initial suspicion of them based on prejudice. Many fatal shootings of innocents were due to the suspect’s skin colour or strange hair without any real evidence. This is not merely persecution and negative prejudice, it is also the favouring and positive prejudice of majority groups. An Islamic shooter is labeled a terrorist, a black shooter is labelled a gang member, while a Caucasian shooter is labeled mentally ill.
Even in a less extreme case, a minority is less likely to be given a favour. Someone who is stereotyped as dishonest in any way is less likely to be given leeway to break the rules or just help them out. An example that is fairly common is when dealing with a clerk or secretary. If there is a rule that states that you need to show them a specific paper but have lost it, it will be up to the clerk to decide whether or not to let you proceed without it, assuming that is doable. This is also the case if you desperately the clerk to give you some information that you need, such as your own Social Security number in order to accept a job offer, or to know where your package has been delivered to so you can pick it up early. If the clerk is not allowed to tell you these things, then it is up to them to decide whether to break these rules in order to help you, or to not trust you, resulting in you not able to get the job, or not receiving your package. If you lose an identification card used to enter a building, it is up to the guards to allow you in or not. If you forget something of yours in a locked room, it is up to the person who has the key to allow you to go in or not. Any such situation depends on the person with authority trusting you, and even if they do not hate your race, gender, orientation, heritage, or appearance, they may be biased by stereotypes or experiences with those groups. What this means is that some groups will be given more leeway simply and thus more opportunities to succeed because of their appearance, while other groups are mistrusted and suffer because of it.
This could be an impoverished Caucasian or an African American that just happens to be wearing a sports shirt. It could be a Bangladeshi who is mistaken for an African soon after an ebola outbreak in Africa, or it could be an Israeli Jew mistaken for a Muslim after a radical Islamist attack. Before such events these people might have gone unnoticed, but the fear generated by such events cause people to generalise. This could mean a salesperson might lie and tell you there are no seats left, it might mean you will be searched when going through security, or it might mean a family gets thrown off a plane for no other reason than fear. It could mean you miss your flight, and it could mean that the clerk doesn’t like or trust you and makes up an excuse to tell you that they are not liable, resulting in the price you paid for the tickets being for nothing, and missing whatever you were travelling for. It means people are objectified and abused because of things they cannot change, from subtle racism to violence, torture, and killings.
While this argument may sounds like a tangent about racism, the point is that these situations hurt innocent people and tend to keep the disenfranchised in their social and economic positions. It not only forces failure on people, but it also makes it harder for them to succeed. Hard work can ameliorate such people’s situations, but it does not always help to great extents, if at all.
The “Hard Work Fallacy” as Used by the American Right Wing
To address the more specific usage of the hard work fallacy in modern American politics, we have to look at where it is used. The context, as far as I have seen it used, tends to be from the right wing when discussing the poor and unemployed. What they tend to claim is that these people can improve their situations by working harder. Some even go as far to say that such people are lazy, and feel entitled to help from others.
To address the first matter of the poor being able to improve their situation through simply hard work, it should be sufficient to read the discussion above on the many ways that hard work is insufficient. That discussion though is perhaps too vague for this situation, it would be more beneficial to address the specifics of modern American culture, society, and the business and political environments that affect how jobs are attained, kept, and lost. As I am not an expert in any of these fields, this discussion will not be as conclusive as it should be, and will not use sources or statistics to prove any specific points. These points will be debatable and should not be taken as fact. This section repeats many points stated previously in a slightly different light.
Some of the counter arguments used in this situation though are the following:
I do not claim to know exactly what white privilege is, and hence the following section may have errors.
An employer that is racist is more likely to reject job candidates of races they are prejudiced against. As Caucasians are (and especially in the past, were) the majority in most of the United States, it is natural for some of them to feel like the country belongs to them, and to reject people who are different as outsiders who do not belong. This tribalist and exclusionary mentality leads to the idea that these people are “stealing” the jobs that supposedly belong to “real” Americans, so they do not want to give them jobs. A much simpler reason is also that racist employers simply do not want other races in their workplace, and do not want to help them. While racism is not limited to Caucasians, we are discussing the United States specifically where they are the group that has traditionally filled positions of power, and as such have been in a position of privilege.
Another part of “white privilege” is that due to hatred, people of other races are more prone to being blamed or mistrusted. This is applicable in criminal justice where minorities are stereotyped as being violent, poor, or untrustworthy. This is a central theme of the film Crash where a Caucasianwoman adopts a defensive pose when walking past two African American men. This is also seen in how Caucasians or Christians who commit violent acts are labeled as insane or as exceptions, while other minorities are more readily labeled as terrorists or members of organised crime.
It is not only that African Americans are stereotyped as dangerous or lazy, it is also that once anyone has committed a crime it becomes very difficult for them to get a job, regardless of their ethnicity. This is due to restrictions on jobs that accept people who have committed crimes as well as the government requirements they have once they are released from prison. From meetings with their parole officer to paying for their services to being forced to find a job, there are many obstacles that can put them back in prison. This is doubly hard to maintain as most employers will not accept them, and average people will prejudge them for their past crime which they might not even understand. Some such people work very hard and are able to reintegrate into society, but this is not purely due to hard work. It often requires luck and help.
To claim that the poor do not require help is also erroneous. This point of view may be caused by the bias that economically stable people and those who think “I succeeded, so anyone can” have. This bias is caused by an environment in which hard work gives results, and where luck and help are either not noticed as much, are claimed to be less influential in the outcomes of things, or are not needed due to privilege and meritocratic circumstances. This perspective can lead to a generalisation of fairness in any given system and hard work as required to succeed in said system. The idea of needing help is thus foreign to these people, either because they do not realise they get helped at all or do not recognise how useful the help of others has been to them. Since it is foreign and not seen as necessary for them, they also claim it is not necessary for others. Therefore, the poor do not need help according to them because of this bias. People who claim to need help are considered as self entitled, or thinking that they deserve things without having earned them. They also consider such people lazy because they are not doing the thing that supposedly will fix their situation, which is hard work.
If you look beyond this bias, some things should be clear:
- The system is not fair, so there are people who need help because hard work is not always sufficient for them to get what they need.
- These people are not necessarily self entitled or lazy. Some of them might be, but those who are not should not suffer the same fate as them.
- Furthermore, even the self entitled and lazy deserve to live out of poverty because -every- human being, and furthermore, every sentient and living being deserves minimum human rights.
- Giving people help might make some of them lazy, but that is better than letting them suffer, or letting them become cynical because of that suffering.
We need to fix the system, because it’s broken and unfair. It might be fair to you, or to some people, or perhaps everyone you know, but it is not fair to everyone. Making it fair does not mean making it a meritocracy, because that makes assumptions about who deserves rewards and punishments. We can make a humanitarian environment without resorting to communism.
It is also somewhat hypocritical of some of the American right wing to claim to care about the poor in the US when confronted with helping foreigners, and then claiming that the poor are self entitled and don’t deserve food aid, water, housing, or education. No matter who you are or how lazy you are, you deserve these things. I would claim it shows a lack of empathy to claim otherwise.
Obviously there are people from minority ethnicities that have risen in American society to positions of power, most notably president Barrack Obama. It is entirely possible for minorities to get the same success that Caucasians have. The issue is that the system is often in the favour of Caucasians over them. This along with the luck and situations of individual people all make a complex system where minorities are likely to have a harder time than the majority group (but might not), or where the most privileged might have harder struggles, or any other permutation of deterministic events might be the case, because there are so many factors involved that one cannot say that any single person is certain to succeed or fail.
We therefore cannot say that the system is fair, or that everyone is able to reach the same success, or that hard work is sufficient to do any arbitrary thing. To take such a complex system of lives and economy and reduce it to a single variable is simplistic and naïve, and oftentimes arrogant.
Two examples of this fallacy that I could not verify in time, and are therefore perhaps not examples of the hard work fallacy at all, and former US president Theodore Roosevelt and Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth, as well as finding specific members of the Republican party and examples from Fox News who I have seen use this fallacy.
Hard work is not always enough to get what you want. There are almost always people helping you, even if only a little, and things you are unable to determine.