TCS Daily

Meritocracy: The Appalling Ideal?

By Will Wilkinson - August 11, 2004 12:00 AM

Did you know that John Edwards is the son of mill worker? Did you? Edwards's toothy display of hopeful vacuities at the Democratic National Convention moved socialist economist Max Sawicky to lament yet "another paean to the self-made man." The American Prospect's Matthew Yglesias pushed the anti-bootstrapping point even harder, trumpeting on his blog "the insight that

equality of opportunity and the cult of the self-made man is an utter fraud both empirically and morally. Meritocracy is an appalling ideal. Being born with the inclination and ability to become financially successful is no more morally praiseworthy than being born with the inclination and ability to inherit a large fortune. It's chance all the way down either way."

While mainstream Democrats revel in tales of upward mobility and promote the idea that diligent hard work produces just deserts (such as their own glittering, McDuckian piles), left-leaning intellectuals, like Yglesias and the Center for American Progress' Matthew Miller, regularly deny that one can deserve anything by effort. Working gives you no special claim to what you've got, because you didn't work hard to become the kind of person who works hard. Your genes or parents made you that way. You got lucky, and you don't really deserve what you got by luck.

This argument has an illustrious provenance. In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls, perhaps the most important political philosopher of the 20th Century, argued that

"one of the fixed points of our considered judgments that no one deserves his place in the distribution of natural endowments, any more than one deserves one's initial starting place in society. The assertion that a man deserves the superior character that enables him to make the effort to cultivate his abilities is equally problematic; for his character depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit. The notion of desert seems not to apply to these cases."

And it goes on: we also do not deserve the rewards we have "earned" through the application of the abilities (which we do not deserve) that we cultivated with our good character (which we do not deserve). It's important to understand the role this argument plays in Rawls's defense of the redistributive welfare state. Rawls argues that an acceptable theory of justice must cohere with our "considered judgments," which are basically the conclusions of moral common sense filtered through a process of unbiased reflection and deliberation. If these judgments -- that no one deserves her natural abilities, her disposition to cultivate them, or the fruits of her discipline and effort -- are indeed fixed points of moral common sense, then any theory of justice that argues that people are morally entitled to what they've achieved in virtue of hard work must be wrong.

Rawls' conception of desert leaves us with a picture of society where all the rewards have been spread around essentially by chance. Some folks are conceived under the lucky star of Pitt-like looks, Hawkingesque IQs, Gatesian trust-funds and Brazeltonian baby care. But most poor souls were born under uglier, stupider, meaner stars. Those of us who won the genetic and social lottery will naturally try to rationalize our great good luck. We will turn up our calloused palms and tell of the blood and sweat on our every red cent. Yet from the "perspective of the universe," in which self-serving appeals disappear into the vastness of impartiality, the distribution of rewards in our lotto-world appears entirely arbitrary. If a bag of money falls into your lap, that doesn't mean it's really yours.

At this point, the redistributionist tends to argue that since no one has legitimate moral title to his holdings, there can be no objection to taking from the wealthy and giving to the less fortunate in order to "correct" fortune's caprices. Now, one must admit that this is a powerful argument. So powerful, in fact, that it's rather like advocating the destruction of all life on earth in order to prevent another terrorist attack. The luck argument, if it's any good, scorches the dialectical earth, undercutting the possibility of justifying political power, the mechanisms of government redistribution, or, well, anything.

Material inequality is one kind of inequality among many. Political inequality is more troubling by far, for political power is the power to push people around. Coercion is wrong on its face, and so the existence of political inequality requires a specially strong and compelling justification. However, if the luck argument cuts against moral entitlement to material holdings, it cuts equally against any moral entitlement to political power.

The justification for political power is generally sought in the "consent" of the people through free, fair and open elections. Yet the fact that someone has gained power by a democratic ballot can be no more or less relevant than the fact that Warren Buffet gained his billions through a series of fair, voluntary transactions. John Edwards (who, by the way, is a mill worker's son) didn't deserve his luxuriant tresses and blinding grin. Reagan didn't deserve movie-star name recognition. Bushes don't deserve to be Bushes. Kennedys don't deserve to be Kennedys. Kerry's war medals? Please.

If the luck argument is any good, then democratic choice and the resulting distribution of coercive political power is also, as Yglesias says, "chance all the way down." And if luck negates the moral right to keep and dispose of one's stuff, it also negates the right to take and dispose of others' stuff.

Like Rawls, Yglesias goes on to defend the instrumental value of allowing a degree of material inequality:

"There are reasons to structure incentives so as to encourage a certain amount of hard work so as to increase overall prosperity, but this is a question of pragmatics not desert, and only worth doing if overall prosperity is being managed so as to cause widespread prosperity."

Remember Rawls's claim that it is our "considered judgment" that the consequences of our natural endowments are not deserved, because our natural endowments are not themselves deserved? I let it slide, for the sake of argument. But let's back up a second. Imagine the following case:

"Alvin and Buster are hired to clear a field. Alvin does 70% of the work and Buster does the remainder. When they are paid, Buster proposes to split it down the middle. Alvin argues that he deserves more than half, because he did well more than half the work. Buster dissents, arguing that Alvin is not responsible for the fact that he happens to be the harder worker, and thus does not deserve to benefit unequally from his good luck."

Who is right?

Alvin, obviously. Buster, I'm sure almost all of you will agree, is telling a weird, bullshit tale. Our intuition about this case is that Buster has fleeced Alvin if he just walks off with half the money. Contra Rawls, our considered judgment, reflected in almost all our everyday interactions, is that people generally deserve rewards roughly proportional to the value of their contributions. The fact that our personal qualities and dispositions are the outcome of chains of cause and effect stretching back to the immaculate conception of the universe -- chains we could not have personally caused -- just doesn't enter into our thoughts about who deserves what. And, really, why would it? Rawls' seems in this case to have been uncharacteristically confused about the content of moral common sense.

When you think about it, it would be pretty surprising if the link between effective effort and desert wasn't etched deeply into our moral psyche and reflected in our daily judgments and choices for precisely the pragmatic reasons Yglesias cites. The argument that people are motivated by the prospect of keeping what they have gained by hard work, and that even the worst off can do better in a society that allows relatively large degree of inequality, can be easily converted into a compelling story of the evolutionary origins of our judgments about fairness and desert. A population of proto-humans inclined to distribute the fruits of social cooperation according to the value of each proto-person's contribution to the joint enterprise, and to regard this as fair, would likely crowd out competing groups with more egalitarian intuitions about fair distribution. The argument that there is instrumental, pragmatic value in "structuring incentives" as if people deserve what they have worked to achieve is awkwardly close in form to the argument that a conception of desert and fairness linking work to reward is precisely the conception we would expect actual people to have -- the conception we would expect to see reflected in the judgments of moral common sense.

So, it turns out that our considered judgments about what it takes to deserve are rather contrary to Rawls' sense of the matter. And even if it is chance all the way down, this fact fails to provide any justifying foundation for coercive redistribution, for it also undermines any possibility of justifying the inequalities implicit in coercive political power.

As it happens, it's not chance all the way down. I just poked the tip of my nose. I did it on purpose, I was in control, and I'm responsible. You got up this morning and went to work. You did it on purpose, you were in control, you were responsible -- even if the event of your getting up and going to work was written in the stars at the commencement of time. If you actually work at work, in accordance with your terms of employment, then you deserve your paycheck. If you have the best record of performance and show the greatest potential, then you deserve the promotion. There are self-made men responsible for their own success. If paeans to them give us hope, and move us to throw more effort into realizing our dreams, then let the paeans ring forth. Let the sons of mill workers and goat herders thrill and inspire us.

Many people, through no fault of their own, got a raw deal and need a lot more from us than exhortations to greater effort. One thing they don't need is to be told that people who have done well have done so through no fault (or credit) of their own, that working to make a fortune is no more praiseworthy than inheriting one, and that it's really all just chance all the way down. If meritocracy is an appalling ideal, then the idea that nobody is really responsible for anything is... what?

Will Wilkinson is a program director for the Institute for Humane Studies and a writer living in Washington, D.C. He maintains a weblog at A frequent contributor, he recently wrote for TCS about Political Libertarianism.


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