Editor, The New York Times Book Review
To the Editor:
Reviewing Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, David Leonhardt favorably quotes the author: "We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that 13-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur ... But that's the wrong lesson. Our world only allowed one 13-year-old unlimited access to a time-sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today?" ("Chance and Circumstance," Nov. 30).
True. But Gladwell misses the larger point. In a world of many Microsofts, Bill Gates would be no outlier. But that world would still have its own outliers – individuals succeeding well beyond the average.
Although our economy isn't perfect, it does give unprecedented opportunities to such a large number of people that our economy overflows with successes that would be outliers in less productive economies. Alas, we overlook that which is common. The successful clothing retailer, sheet-metal producer, flower importer, medical-device inventor, window-blind merchant, local radio personality – the immense productivity of these and countless other persons, and the standard of living they achieve, appear to us to be unexceptional because we take for granted the extraordinary productivity and accompanying prosperity that today's economy makes possible as a matter of routine.
Donald J. Boudreaux
Don Boudreaux is the Chairman of the Department of Economics at George Mason University and a Business & Media Institute adviser.