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August 14, 2004


Max Sawicky and Matt Yglesias made desert this summer's blogosophical blockbuster.

But we can't talk about desert without specifying what we think successful people deserve. For example, I think that John Edwards deserves a lot of good things including my admiration, a huge TV, an the Vice Presidency. Even so, I don't think that Edwards therefore deserves to keep every penny he earns, or that he is entitled to bequeath his entire fortune untaxed.

But, if Edwards earned his fortune, what right does society have to redistribute any of it? One liberal argument is that Edwards doesn't deserve 100% of the credit for his success. After all, both John Edwards and George Bush won lotteries. Bush inherited a name and a fortune, but Edwards hit the genetic jackpot. Edwards didn't earn his good looks, his charm, or his intelligence. He didn't deserve to be born into a stable family in a free and prosperous country. He wasn't entitled to be white, male, or able bodied. Yet even desert skeptics would probably agree Edwards deserves more praise for capitalizing on his windfall.

Furthermore, as Peter Singer argues in The President of Good and Evil even self-made men need public goods to make their fortunes. An entrepreneur invests his own money, but his business couldn't exist, let alone grow, without countless public goods, such as roads, schools, policing, a currency, and the courts. Common sense suggests that people deserve what they work hard for and invest in. So, when the public works hard and invests to create a healthy business climate, the public deserves a share of private gains.

Will Wilkinson argues that successful people deserve their success simply for having done remarkable things, regardless of whether they deserved the ability or inclination to excel, In one sense, Will is absolutely right. If I hold the winning lottery ticket, I deserve the jackpot. After all, the rules say that the winning ticket holder gets the prize. My desert is independent of whether I earned the ticket, or whether I showed good judgment in buying it, let alone whether I "deserved" the luck of the draw. The same goes for more substantive accomplishments. When Edwards shreds a corporate shill on the witness stand, makes an electrifying summation, or helps oust Bush, he deserves to be praised for his achievement, regardless of whether he deserved his genes or his upbringing.

Wilkinson points out a tension between belief in free will and strong skepticism about desert. He contends that Rawls' critique of desert ends in a reductio (or at least an implausibly hard determinism). All of our capacities and prospects are influenced by unequal natural lotteries. If that means that we don't deserve credit or blame for our economic and professional accomplishments, then it should also exempt us from responsibility for every other facet of our lives.

Chris Betram of Crooked Timber argues convincingly that even a meritocracy won't inevitable reward all and only all the deserving people in proportion to their desert. Bad luck alone will suffice to count some deserving people out.

Then there's the question of the legitimacy of the standards of any given meritocracy. Chris notes that a Rawlsian pluralism about the good precludes us from entrenching any particular set of meritocratic norms. Better, Rawls would say, to allow some redistribution to maintain fair equality of opportunity. In such a society, free people have a chance to pursue their own vision of the good instead of being held hostage to the virtues rewarded by the status quo.

Proponents of a meritocracy often invoke merit as if it were a unitary non-natural property. In fact, different meritocracies will reward different "merits", not all of which we ought to endorse. Being meritocratic is a formal property, not a substantive one. It just means that success is a function of an individual's ability to display certain valued characteristics. It doesn't say anything about how or why these values were chosen, or whether they are just or beneficial. A meritocratic hunting and gathering society would reward different virtues than a meritocratic market economy, or a meritocratic theocracy.

Some people are lucky enough to be born into societies that want to buy what they have to sell, be it Linux, fertility, hand-to-hand combat, or a flair for the tea ceremony. Others, through no fault of their own, are born into societies that don't value their talents. A pluralist conception of the good leaves room for the possibility that other conceptions of the good may be as good or better as those that society happens to reward.

Desert is more complicated than many meritocratics acknowledge. The assumption is that successful people succeeded by displaying virtues rather than vices. But there's nothing in the concept of meritocracy to guarantee that the most valuable traits are those that merit praise rather than blame. One might argue that the most ruthless trader in the pit deserves to succeed even if the values of commodities brokers are despicable. However, one might counter that this broker deserves to be blamed for embracing morally bad values in order to get ahead. Sandwichman makes a similar point over at MaxSpeak.


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