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Making It with Glenn Beck

July 23, 2009
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In his recent Fox News rant, Glenn Beck characterized President Obama’s proposed health care plan as big government trying to convince you to “give someone else the shaft.” In Beck’s rhetorical world, individual merit alone determines economic outcomes. It logically follows that people who lack health insurance lack merit. That, or they have bought into the liberal lie that upbringing and education matter more than determination when it comes to “making it.” Beck has his own message of hope and change for such unfortunate souls:

“My father was a baker. His father was a baker. I never went to college. Nobody in my family went to college . . . Nobody in my family ever made a dime. If I can make it, you can make it. Don’t let anybody else — any of these pinheads [on the left] tell you any different.”

Despite Beck’s assertions to the contrary, I count myself among the pinheads who believe that merit is only one piece of the “making it” pie. Yet the longstanding liberal-conservative quarrel over merit misses the larger point: namely, that Beck and his fellow conservatives are often entirely vague as to what constitutes merit. If conservatives wish to argue that merit means doing what the markets reward, they are merely repackaging the old “might makes right” argument. Having wealth, in this view, is synonymous with deserving it — a claim that, upon closer inspection, says precisely nothing.

Assuming — probably wrongly — that Beck’s comments are a bit more substantive, we might take him to mean that markets reward hard work and talent. But do they? It is difficult to tell. On the one hand, nobody would deny that a Steve Jobs or Michael Jordan possess both virtues in abundance. On the other, day care workers, teachers, and EMTs all presumably work very hard, but receive relatively modest compensation. A talent for philosophy or poetry usually renders “making it” a mere fantasy. Isn’t it obvious that scarcity and demand — entirely impersonal factors having nothing to do with individual merit — do far more to shape economic outcomes?

The real dilemmas for those who dream obsessively of “making it” (i.e. become fabulously wealthy, as Beck presumably is) are these: how badly to I want to get rich, and to what extent am I willing to set aside moral and intellectual standards for the sake of doing so? Moreover, if Glenn Beck is going to be my role model for rags-to-riches success, do I really want to become even remotely like that ogre of a man?

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