Does Deprivation Fire Ambition?

In the NYT today, David Brooks makes some interesting points about motivation, reflecting on Romney’s latest gaff:

The final thing the comment suggests is that Romney knows nothing about ambition and motivation. The formula he sketches is this: People who are forced to make it on their own have drive. People who receive benefits have dependency.

But, of course, no middle-class parent acts as if this is true. Middle-class parents don’t deprive their children of benefits so they can learn to struggle on their own. They shower benefits on their children to give them more opportunities — so they can play travel sports, go on foreign trips and develop more skills.

People are motivated when they feel competent. They are motivated when they have more opportunities. Ambition is fired by possibility, not by deprivation, as a tour through the world’s poorest regions makes clear.

If rich people really think benefits don’t help you, then they wouldn’t send their kids to private schools and elite universities. They wouldn’t use their personal networks to land their kids high-paying jobs in friends’ companies. They wouldn’t buy them a car, or give them a credit card or a mobile phone.

And we know this isn’t how it works.

So the next time one of your wealthy right-leaning friends tells you that the welfare system destroys ambition, you might want to point our their hypocrisy. If they really believed it, they would send their own kids to live by themselves in Kabul for a few years.

I grew up on the poverty line (by Australian standards) and I’m grateful that we had healthcare and education made available to us. If we hadn’t, I’d probably still be living in Bundaberg, either unemployed or doing some kind of manual labour. I’m not suggesting there is anything wrong with those things, but it was only because I had a decent education that I could explore other opportunities.

Yes – growing up poor made me hungry. And in my 20s that was a hunger to be rich. In my 30s and 40s that turned into a hunger to improve the system.

What people like Romney don’t understand is that altruism is about enlightened self-interest. If you build a strong society of people with a decent education and decent healthcare, you will get rewarded a thousand-fold. These people will become the next generation of doctors, inventors, engineers, artists, authors, journalists, film-makers, musicians, scientists and historians that improve society for all of us.

(HT to @NikolasKozloff for the NYT link)

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3 thoughts on “Does Deprivation Fire Ambition?

  1. James says:

    I use a variation on this concept with the team I coach… I tell them “Your job is to make your team mates look good, to make their job easier. If you do that well, you’ll in turn look good, feel good and be appreciated more. And the team will play better”….

  2. Elphie says:

    I agree to a high degree. That said, I see the convergence of lack and opportunity is where the greatest growth can occur. There’s a good reason why so many people who really “make it” come from lower medium income families. We end up with *just enough* to keep us from spiralling into destructiveness, but have this shiny carrot dangling above us in the hierarchy of the world of something even greater.

    I’ve always been proud and so thankful for our socialist-capitalist society we have here in Aus. Plenty of opportunity, with the safety of a government net, but the ability to do “very well” through a capitalist system.

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