Mitt Romney: Candidate or Motivational Poster?

“I am being sunk by a society that demands success when all I can offer is failure,” says the ruined theater impresario Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks’s “The Producers.”

Mitt Romney sees things differently: He is offering success to a society that seems to actually prefer failure. “If people think there’s something wrong with being successful in America, then they’d better vote for the other guy,” he says. “Because I’ve been extraordinarily successful, and I want to use that success and that know-how to help the American people.”

Among the secrets of success that Romney might wish to share is how you arrange to be born to a rich family. Or, to be less vulgar, an intact and loving family that valued education. Or, for that matter, to be born smart. The neoconcontroversialist Charles Murray writes books arguing that the second and third factors (family and innate intelligence) are more important than the first (money). You can argue about this all day, but in Romney’s case it doesn’t matter because he had all three factors hard at work, paving his way to success.

Is he even aware of it? Maybe Romney’s not so smart, because he goes on and on about how successful he is in a way that strikes people as obnoxious. “I stand ready to lead us down a different path, where we are lifted up by our desire to succeed, not dragged down by a resentment of success.”

Is there a “resentment of success” in this country? I don’t sense it. Certainly you do not need to resent success in order to believe that successful people are, for the most part, adequately rewarded for their success.

Rewarding Success

Sure. Lovely. Let’s reward success. But the Republicans seem to think that success is self-defining. Anyone who has done well or was born well deserves what he or she has got, and maybe more, because these are society’s “job creators.” Let’s add up just a few of the ways in which this is not necessarily true.

Maybe your success is due to something you got from your parents. This could be money, or good manners. It could even be a quality like determination. Evolutionary psychology is teaching us that huge chunks of personal characteristics, good and bad, derive from our genes. The full implications of this have not sunk in, but one of them surely is that “rewarding success” is more futile and more difficult than previously thought.

Maybe your success is due to something you got from the government, like a broadcast license, or a new freeway through your property, or a special tax break. Maybe it’s due to an education you received at a public university, or financed through federal student loans. Maybe it’s just because you’re an American. The average baker in the U.S. earns more than twice what a baker earns in Poland and five times what a baker earns in China (and I imagine the bread and the working conditions are better, too). What’s true for bakers is true for bankers: operating in a rich country is more lucrative than operating in a poor one. This is for reasons having nothing to do with admirable personal characteristics.

And let’s not forget simple luck. All the factors discussed above boil down to good luck — whom you’re born to, and where, and so on. But the residual, unexplained differences in how people succeed or don’t are also mostly luck.

A society that rewards success is good for the successful, and no doubt good for society as a whole. Romney is right about that. But not everyone can be successful. How many people did Romney have to elbow out of his way on the path to success?

“It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.” That’s Gore Vidal, and it’s unnecessarily vicious. The pleasure of success shouldn’t depend on the prospect of others failing, but the reality of success usually does.

But failures are people, too! If success is mostly luck, then so is failure. When a government policy rewards success in a way that actually does lift all of society, that’s fine. But the policies advocated by Republicans, including Romney –primarily lower taxes on the higher brackets — would only make success more successful. They would do nothing to distinguish success for the few from success that really does benefit us all.

“I’m not ashamed to say I was successful,” Romney says. No one is asking him to be ashamed of his success. What he should be ashamed of is his complacency. It seems absurd to say so, but maybe it will take losing the presidency to teach him a little humility. If he wins, he’ll be really insufferable.

Michael Kinsley

Michael Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist.