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December 27, 2004

on equality and meritocracy

David Schmidtz: December 27, 2004

When Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” he was dreaming of a world where his children could count on equal treatment, not equal shares. He was dreaming of the kind of equality that is not contrary to meritocracy but is instead meritocracy’s foundation. 

Very roughly, a regime is meritocratic to the extent that people are judged on the merits of their performance. A meritocracy will satisfy a principle of “equal pay for equal work.” Rewards will track performance, at least in the long run.  A pure meritocracy is hard to imagine, but any regime is likely to have meritocratic elements.  A corporation is meritocratic as it ties promotions to performance, and departs from meritocracy as it ties promotions to seniority. Note: no one needs to intend that rewards track performance.  While a culture of meritocracy is often partially a product of deliberate design, a corporation (or especially, a whole society) can be meritocratic to a degree without anyone having decided to make it so.

Paying us what our work is worth may seem like a paradigm of fairness, but some philosophers see conflict between equality and meritocracy.  Norman Daniels says many “proponents of meritocracy have been so concerned with combating the lesser evil of non-meritocratic job placement that they have left unchallenged the greater evil of highly inegalitarian reward schedules.  One suspects that an elitist infatuation for such reward schedules lurks behind their ardor for meritocratic job placement.”   

Such remarks are, if not typical, at least not unusual in the academy, but liberalism has an older, populist tradition that deployed the concept of meritocracy against hereditary aristocracy. Even the socialist tradition once was partly a meritocratic reaction to a social hierarchy that prevented workers from earning fair wages. Contra Daniels, meritocratic liberalism fought against elitism, not for it. Liberalism won, and indeed won so decisively that today we hardly remember that a battle had to be fought. In the western world today, no one expects us to bow. No matter how rich or poor we are, the proper way for us to introduce ourselves is with a handshake, which implies that we are meeting as equals. Mundane though that fact is, the very fact that it is so mundane—that we take it for granted—is inspiring.

Today, we see people as commanding equal respect qua citizen or qua human being, yet we need not and do not pretend that every auto mechanic (for example) is equally competent and equally honest. We know perfectly well that auto mechanics do not command equal respect in every respect. We prefer to do business with people who are good at what they do. There would be something wrong with us if we did not. In everyday life, egalitarians intuitively grasp that genuine respect has meritocratic elements, and thus to some extent tracks how we distinguish ourselves as we develop our differing potentials in different ways.

WHAT EQUALITY IS FOR: Suppose we have a certain moral worth, and there is nothing we can do to make ourselves more or less worthy. If this were true, then we might turn out to be of equal worth. Now suppose instead that, along some dimensions, our moral worth can be affected by our choices. In that case, it is unlikely there ever will be a time when we are all of equal worth along those dimensions. Thus, only a cartoon form of egalitarianism would presume all of us are equally worthy along all dimensions.

What is the true point of the liberal ideal of political equality? Surely not to stop us from becoming more worthy along dimensions where our worth can be affected by our choices, but to facilitate our becoming more worthy.

Liberal political equality is not premised on the absurd hope that, under ideal conditions, we all turn out to be equally worthy. It presupposes only a classically liberal optimism regarding the kind of society that results from giving people (all people, so far as this is realistically feasible) a chance to choose worthy ways of life. We do not see people’s different contributions as equally valuable, but that was never the point of equal opportunity, and never could be. Why not? Because we do not see even our own contributions as equally valuable, let alone everyone’s. It matters to us whether we achieve more rather than less. If we invent something, we think it matters whether it actually works, and we expect it to matter to our customers too.

Traditional liberals wanted people—all people—to be as free as possible to pursue their dreams. Accordingly, the equal opportunity of liberal tradition put the emphasis on improving opportunities, not equalizing them. The ideal of “equal pay for equal work,” within the tradition from which that ideal emerged, had more in common with meritocracy, and with the equal respect embodied by the concept of meritocracy, than with equal shares per se.

There has been much debate within the academy over what should be equalized. There are hardly any vocal meritocrats in the academy. (Although I would not lump meritocrats together with conservatives, this reminds me of Elizabeth Anderson's note a while ago about how rare vocal conservatives are in the academy.) Anyway, if meritocrats were to come forward, they would find they disagreed among themselves in the same way egalitarians do. After all, what are meritocratic rewards supposed to track? Like equality, merit has numerous dimensions: how long people work, how hard people work, how skillfully people work, how much training people need to do the work, how much people are contributing to society, and so on.

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Comments

Posted by: Matt

What worries me in this post is the idea that we have a very sound idea of "what our work is worth". Is it just whatever the market will pay? Then the "equal pay for equal worth" movement, at least if you are refering to the 70's women's rights movement for this, seems to go against the market, wanted to set certain regulations about how jobs should be paid. I'm not sure that's wrong, nor that it's right, but it moves us away from using the market as a discovery tool. And, to get to the sort of case that Daniels might think of, its it so clear that the work of US executives is worth so much more than their workers, in comparison to the Executives in Germany or Japan, where CEO pay is a much smaller ratio of worker pay than in the US? It's perhaps especially important to note that actual pay, seemingly set by the market, tracks the sorts of things you mention at the end- intensity, duration, training, skill, contribution to society, etc. quite imperfectly, and it's quite hard to see how a classical liberal can say very much about that.

Posted by: Matt | Dec 27, 2004 8:05:58 PM


Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

For the most part, I agree. Jefferson hoped that a ‘natural aristocracy’ would emerge in America, by which I take him to have meant people whose superior worthiness was achieved as opposed to being ascribed or inherited and on whom much of the future success of America would rest. W.E.B. DuBois spoke of a “Talented Tenth” of black Americans that would “rise and pull all that are worth the saving up to their vantage ground.” I suspect neither Jefferson nor DuBois would be very popular in the academy these days. I further suspect there are many meritocrats who have already come forward, only not in the academy, and whose work is therefore not well known inside its confines.

One thing egalitarians and meritocrats might equally (and meritoriously) bemoan is the extent to which simple dumb luck leads to what both sides would consider unjust results. I speak not only of the accidents of birth such as being born in poverty or in an oppressive society, etc., but the fact that one can work long and hard and skillfully, be possessed of great natural talent and social advantages and still fail. The first category more readily arouses our sympathies, but the latter category (in which I would include many ‘failed’ artists, intellectuals and even entrepreneurs) also gives evidence that justice is not a natural quality.

To Matt’s comment I would only note that however unjust the market may seem when we look at variously disparate compensations, efficient markets are enormously valuable in allocating resources the way people actually value them, notwithstanding the fact that we might wish them to value them differently. Substituting someone’s or some group’s judgment of what sort of work or talent or whatever is ‘equal’ to other sorts is hardly less arbitrary. Indeed, it may be much more arbitrary and in that sense alone more unjust.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Dec 27, 2004 8:26:43 PM


Posted by: Dan Kaufman

I agree with D.A. Ridgley that the bemoaning of (allegedly dumb) luck is widespread today, but I disagree with him that it is meritorious. Indeed, it strikes me as one of our least attractive postures. On this front, as well as many others, the ancients were far more mature than we moderns in recognizing and accepting the role of fate in one's life.

There is something narcissistic--not to mention adolescent--about the "fairness cult" that reigns today,under whose influence we demand that the universe--and all of the actors within it--must reward us for our merits and punish us for our sins. The author of Job forces us to stare unfairness in the face--to recognize that bad things often happen to good people--a grim reality that Christianity attempts to sweeten by promising that everything will get sorted out in the afterlife. And of course, Aristotle acknowledges in the Nicomachean Ethics that there is always the possibility that bad fortune may snatch happiness from the grasp of even the most meritorious man; indeed, that this may even happen--unfairness compounded!--after his death.

Daniel A. Kaufman
Associate Professor
Department of Philosophy
Southwest Missouri State University

Posted by: Dan Kaufman | Dec 27, 2004 9:35:07 PM


Posted by: rtr

“It presupposes only a classically liberal optimism regarding the kind of society that results from giving people (all people, so far as this is realistically feasible) a chance to choose worthy ways of life.”

Is it giving to vote to increase your neighbor’s taxes for subjectively favored government programs, such as worker training programs or public school education?

Is it giving to commit armed robbery to [whatever]?

Is it giving sexual pleasure to rape?

How has the leftist meaning of the word “giving” evolved to include any element of involuntary forceful violent coercion?

The cut of the so-called meritocratic doling Aristocracy grows ever larger.

From dictionary.com, a more complicated word than I was expecting:

give Audio pronunciation of "giving" ( P ) Pronunciation Key (gv)
v. gave, (gv) giv·en, (gvn) giv·ing, gives
v. tr.

1. To make a present of: We gave her flowers for her birthday.
2. To place in the hands of; pass: Give me the scissors.
3.
1. To deliver in exchange or recompense; pay: gave five dollars for the book.
2. To let go for a price; sell: gave the used car away for two thousand dollars.
4.
1. To administer: give him some cough medicine.
2. To convey by a physical action: gave me a punch in the nose.
3. To inflict as punishment: gave the child a spanking; was given life imprisonment for the crime.
4. Law. To accord by verdict: A decision was given for the plaintiff.
5.
1. To bestow, especially officially; confer: The Bill of Rights gives us freedom of speech.
2. To accord or tender to another: Give him your confidence.
3. To put temporarily at the disposal of: gave them the cottage for a week.
4. To entrust to another, usually for a specified reason: gave me the keys for safekeeping.
5. To convey or offer for conveyance: Give him my best wishes.
6. Law. To execute and deliver. Used especially in the phrase give bond.
6.
1. To endure the loss of; sacrifice: gave her son to the war; gave her life for her country.
2. To devote or apply completely: gives herself to her work.
3. To furnish or contribute: gave their time to help others.
4. To offer in good faith; pledge: Give me your word.
7.
1. To allot as a portion or share.
2. To bestow (a name, for example).
3. To attribute (blame, for example) to someone; assign.
4. To award as due: gave us first prize.
8. To emit or utter: gave a groan; gave a muted response.
9. To submit for consideration, acceptance, or use: give an opinion; give an excuse.
10.
1. To proffer to another: gave the toddler my hand.
2. To consent to engage (oneself) in sexual intercourse with a man.
11.
1. To perform for an audience: give a recital.
2. To present to view: gave the sign to begin.
12.
1. To offer as entertainment: give a dinner party.
2. To propose as a toast.
13.
1. To be a source of; afford: His remark gave offense. Music gives her pleasure.
2. To cause to catch or be subject to (a disease or bodily condition): The draft gave me a cold.
3. To guide or direct, as by persuasion or behavior. Used with an infinitive phrase: You gave me to imagine you approved of my report.
14.
1. To yield or produce: Cows give milk.
2. To bring forth or bear: trees that give fruit.
3. To produce as a result of calculation: 5 × 12 gives 60.
15.
1. To manifest or show: gives promise of brilliance; gave evidence of tampering.
2. To carry out (a physical movement): give a wink; give a start.
16. To permit one to have or take: gave us an hour to finish.
17. To take an interest to the extent of: “My dear, I don't give a damn” (Margaret Mitchell).


v. intr.

1. To make gifts or donations: gives generously to charity.
2.
1. To yield to physical force.
2. To collapse from force or pressure: The roof gave under the weight of the snow.
3. To yield to change: Both sides will have to give on some issues.
3. To afford access to or a view of; open: The doors give onto a terrace.
4. Slang. To be in progress; happen: What gives?


n.

1. Capacity or inclination to yield under pressure.
2. The quality or condition of resilience; springiness: “Fruits that have some give... will have more juice than hard ones” (Elizabeth Schneider).


Phrasal Verbs:
give away

1. To make a gift of.
2. To present (a bride) to the bridegroom at a wedding ceremony.
3.
1. To reveal or make known, often accidentally.
2. To betray.

give back

To return: gave me back my book.

give in

1. To hand in; submit: She gave in her report.
2. To cease opposition; yield.

give of

To devote or contribute: She really gave of her time to help. They give of themselves to improve the quality of education.

give off

To send forth; emit: chemical changes that give off energy.

give out

1. To allow to be known; declare publicly: gave out the bad news.
2. To send forth; emit: gave out a steady buzzing.
3. To distribute: gave out the surplus food.
4. To stop functioning; fail.
5. To become used up or exhausted; run out: Their determination finally gave out.

give over

1. To hand over; entrust.
2.
1. To devote to a particular purpose or use: gave the day over to merrymaking.
2. To surrender (oneself) completely; abandon: finally gave myself over to grief.
3. To cause an activity to stop: ordered the combatants to give over.

give up

1.
1. To surrender: The suspects gave themselves up.
2. To devote (oneself) completely: gave herself up to her work.
2.
1. To cease to do or perform: gave up their search.
2. To desist from; stop: gave up smoking.
3. To part with; relinquish: gave up the apartment; gave up all hope.
4.
1. To lose hope for: We had given the dog up as lost.
2. To lose hope of seeing: We'd given you up an hour ago.
5. To admit defeat.
6. To abandon what one is doing or planning to do: gave up on writing the novel.


Idioms:
give a good account of (oneself)

To behave or perform creditably.

give birth to

1. To bear as offspring.
2. To be the origin of: a hobby that gave birth to a successful business.

give ground

To yield to a more powerful force; retreat.

give it to Informal

To punish or reprimand severely: My parents really gave it to me for coming in late.

give or take

Plus or minus a small specified amount: The chalet is close to the road, give or take a few hundred yards.

give rise to

To be the cause or origin of; bring about.

give (someone) a hard time

1. To make life difficult for; harass.
2. To make fun of; tease.

give (someone) the eye

To look at admiringly or invitingly.

give the lie to

1. To show to be inaccurate or untrue.
2. To accuse of lying.

give up the ghost

To cease living or functioning; die.

give way

1.
1. To retreat or withdraw.
2. To yield the right of way: gave way to an oncoming car.
3. To relinquish ascendancy or position: as day gives way slowly to night.
2.
1. To collapse from or as if from physical pressure: The ladder gave way.
2. To yield to urging or demand; give in.
3. To abandon oneself: give way to hysteria.


[Middle English given, from Old English giefan, and Old Norse gefa; see ghabh- in Indo-European Roots.]

Posted by: rtr | Dec 28, 2004 12:34:34 AM


Posted by: Jim Hu

much shorter version of rtr (I think): who gives?

"There has been much debate within the academy over what should be equalized."

Even if you decide, who equalizes?

Posted by: Jim Hu | Dec 28, 2004 1:54:39 AM


Posted by: Matt

D.A.,
I didn't mean to imply either that we should not or that we should use markets to decide what to pay people- only to point out that this is already to assume an answer as to what work "is worth" and that this answer often has very little to do w/ issues such as intensity, duration, training, etc. (these are often strongly corrolated w/ pay- just not always). Often the factor seems to have been (to be?) "is a woman doing the job?" or "Is a minority doing the job"? When these are the factors that determine what the market will pay, we ought to at least be nervous. It was considerations such as these that made the "equal work for equal pay" movement break away from the type of solutions favored by classical liberals, for good or ill. I don't pretend to have the right answers here- my basic idea would be that w/ fair equality of opportunity for all and a decent social minimum we should then let the market set pay.

Posted by: Matt | Dec 28, 2004 2:07:17 AM


Posted by: Steve

Much better post.

You could explore a bit more the contradiction (or lack of contradiction) between a 'meritocrat' and 'egalitarian.' Because this post is also confused about this issue. You spend most of the post arguing that 'egalitarians' (or 'equality' or 'classical liberalism'-I think you are using the phrases roughly interchangeably) are not actually opposed to inequality-they are arguing for, in essence, 'equal opportunity to pursue meaningful life', which may end up in unequal resulting lives (ie. the bad mechanic won't be as wealthy as the good mechanic, rewards based on 'how long people work, how hard people work, how skillfully people work, how much training people need to do the work, how much people are contributing to society, and so on,' to use your examples.)

And yet the final paragraph seems to suggest that egalitarians and meritocrats are in fact, different (if there aren't many meritocrats in academia, and there are alot of egalitarians, they must be different groups, right?).

I suspect you are arguing one of two things:
1) there are actually three groups: a)'classical liberals', who believe in equality of opportunity but accept inequality of outcomes, b) modern day egalitarians, who don't accept inequality of outcomes (and who dominate the academy), and c) 'meritocrats' who are actually quite similar to 'classical liberals', but who are pariahs in the academy. or,
2) you are arguing that the two groups ('egalitarians' and 'meritocrats') are actually more similar than stereotypes would suggest, due to their similar source in classical liberalism. If this second one is correct, I suspect you are in essence 'hiding' or 'avoiding' or 'simply not addressing' the real, remaining conflicts between the two groups-that of freedom vs. equality, and that exemplified by your concrete example of 'equal pay for equal work.' Because no matter what the theoretical identities between meritocrats and egalitarians ("Look, we're not so different, we're both classical liberals at heart!"), in the real world, a commitment to a Federal Equal Pay for Equal Work Agency (as an example) or opposition to the same represents a vast gulf between the two groups.

Steve

Posted by: Steve | Dec 28, 2004 9:27:41 AM


Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

My parenthetical inclusion of “meritorious” was intended to be a bit of whimsy, but if Mr. Kaufman is arguing a deterministic position, I would be forced (another bit of whimsy) to disagree.

If he means, however, that, say, the Stoics were on to something or simply that we are not and cannot expect to be total masters of our own fate, then it seems to me that no one but a madman or a philosopher could disagree. I am astonished at the hubris of theorists and social engineers who insist on an unobtainable perfection when mere incremental progress is difficult enough.

Let me return, in that spirit, to a part of Mr. Schmidtz’ original post:

“Paying us what our work is worth may seem like a paradigm of fairness, but some philosophers see conflict between equality and meritocracy.”

Aside from noting how encouraging it is to discover from the second clause that some philosophers have caught up, as it were, with the rest of the world, consider just several of the implicit assumptions of the opening clause: (1) that there is some important sense of worth to the work (as opposed to the person doing the work) other than and more important than what others are willing to pay for it, (2) that we (whoever “we” may be) can discern and measure this worth, and (3) that fairness requires or at least urges that the compensation for such work be adjusted upwardly or downwardly as a result.

Now, it may be that, following Daniels, there are “highly inegalitarian reward schedules” in the intuitive sense that some corporate executives or performing artists might be vastly overcompensated and some unskilled laborers and untenured professors vastly undercompensated in terms of the actual benefit either their employers or society in general derives from their work, but there are several plausible responses to that. First, our intuitions may be wrong. In an efficient market over a sufficient period of time, the real value to both employers and society may be closely correlated to the market price of that labor. Second, none of that is obviously or necessarily relevant to the egalitarian sense that Mr. Schmitz already noted; that is, that we can nonetheless affirm the fundamental equality of every person qua person, every citizen qua citizen, etc.

There is at least one sense of traditional liberalism that recognized the notion of equality of opportunity in its most general or all-encompassing sense to be unobtainable or, even if obtainable, undesirable because of the social costs such equalization would incur, but which nonetheless wished to dismantle the social (and therefore invariably governmental) barriers to opportunity which discriminated against person by virtue of their social status as women, minorities, etc. It did not follow that economic equalization was required even though it was recognized that much of the economic inequality largely derived from the social and governmental barriers. The sense was that if those barriers were removed, persons would be free to rise economically and otherwise according to their merits and, ideally, constrained only because of the caprice of chance or fate. That remains, I think, the part of classical liberalism which has been inherited by contemporary libertarianism.

The paradigm shift in contemporary liberalism, as I understand it, occurred when liberalism began to insist that irrespective of membership in some discriminated against category, poverty per se was unjust in an affluent society.

To that I will make only a few, cursory comments which I hope are relevant to the thread. I think there is something genuinely unjust about children in poverty, not only but especially because it seriously diminishes their real opportunities. There is no need to go into the litany of reasons why. Thus, though I find the political advantage liberals so often try to milk from the standard “it’s for the children” ploy, I acknowledge they are tapping into some genuine and pervasive moral sentiments about how wealth unfairly skews opportunity for children.

I am far less convinced in the case of adults, especially in a society as remarkably open and filled with opportunities as ours. While we may have compassion and even empathy for the poor, it is difficult for me to see why their poverty, per se, is a matter of injustice. Similarly, while I might sympathize with how comparatively difficult life may be for moderate income earning adults than for affluent ones, it is also unclear to me why that should be deemed a matter of injustice. Certainly, mere lack of wealth does not diminish the worthiness of the person qua person, and it is unclear to me why as a society we should be concerned to ensure that that personal worthiness is not unjustly diminished. Mind you, I am not arguing that we should be indifferent to the needs of the poor; only that I do not think our concern properly derives from justice, per se.

Finally, as has already been noted, there is a serious moral concern over who shall decide, and by what criteria, what gets equalized with what. As Mr. Schmidtz alluded, there is a sense of meritocracy which occurs in society, however imperfectly, without deliberate design; namely, the free market economy. Yes, it has its serious problems, and no I am not arguing for the complete absence of market regulation, etc. (So, in that sense, as one commenter noted about me, “we are only haggling over the price.”) But our experience in regulating markets has, to put it mildly, not been altogether salubrious, and we have little reason in principle to believe that any group of equalizers (who, perforce, would be mere people with limited wisdom and even more limited information) would do a better job than the market or even that their solutions would not prove worse than the problems they sought to solve.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Dec 28, 2004 10:05:34 AM


Posted by: Richard Bellamy

But is there really a constituency for meritocratic pay? Do we really want "Rewards will track performance?" I think most of us want to make a little more money every year, irrespective of our skill level. Most jobs have a learning curve that level off fairly quickly (e.g., after 5-10 years at the latest).

The auto mechanic with 20 years experience makes the same amount as the mechanic with 30 years experience, but once we get into a factory and ask the workers what they really want (through their union), they want pay to incrase every year -- so that those with 30 years experience earn more than those with 29, even if your peak efficiency is at age 35 (10 years in), and you've been on a slow decline ever since.

Repbulicans tend to want "merit pay" for teachers. Teachers' unions oppose it. It is only among the relative "elites" (big name professors, upper management) that there is any call for meritocracy at all.

Posted by: Richard Bellamy | Dec 28, 2004 10:09:10 AM


Posted by: Steve

D.A. Ridgeley:

"some philosophers see conflict between equality and meritocracy"

I thought this was hilarious too-I just couldn't work a comment into my post.

Steve

Posted by: Steve | Dec 28, 2004 10:26:12 AM


Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

A minor correction. I wrote "it is unclear to me why as a society we should be concerned to ensure that that personal worthiness is not unjustly diminished."

I meant to say "...concerned beyond ensuring..."

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Dec 28, 2004 10:40:10 AM


Posted by: Jay F

Thanks for following up with a more substantative post David.

Jay F

Posted by: Jay F | Dec 28, 2004 10:41:36 AM


Posted by: Terrier

Glad this topic was brought up. This is related to what scared me the most about Ross Perot saying, "Run the government like a business." Most American business is badly run and only manages to survive by overcharging for the services or products that are successful without much effort. Those in charge set the standards so the rewards normally flow to those who are deciding the rewards. Very little merit is rewarded except by chance which also rewards incompetence about equally.

The problem with all reward schemes is that they presuppose there is an objective measure of achievement. I would guess that some teachers (and other professions) balk at this because they suspect that the applied standards will not accurately measure the success or failure of their work.

Posted by: Terrier | Dec 28, 2004 1:18:04 PM


Posted by: AlanC9

"Overcharging," Terrier? Even if the companies were better run, they'd still charge whatever they could for the products; they'd just keep more in profit. Unless everybody else got more efficient too, of course.

Posted by: AlanC9 | Dec 28, 2004 3:06:34 PM


Posted by: frankly0

In discussing the reaction of liberals to meritocracy, it would be good to quote a single one of them who believes that compensation should not be a monotonically rising function of the merit of work performed. I think that search would be in vain, unless one deviates into the moonbat Marxists.

Why don't liberals talk up meritocracy more? Well, one reason is that it is so often invoked to justify a practice that seems grossly unfair: the bizarre discrepancies in compensation between those at the lower end of the scale and many of those at the upper end.

For example, take CEO compensation. A few decades ago, a CEO of a Fortune 500 company might have earned 20 times as much as the average worker; today he earns more like 300 times as much. In terms of the ratio of CEO compensation to profits of the companies they run, CEOs have increased their compensation by a factor of 7 since 1980.

Here's the problem many liberals DO have with meritocracy as it's

Posted by: frankly0 | Dec 28, 2004 4:07:44 PM


Posted by: frankly0

Oops --hit the post button by mistake -- will repost the full post shortly.

Posted by: frankly0 | Dec 28, 2004 4:08:28 PM


Posted by: frankly0

[My full post follows.]

In discussing the reaction of liberals to meritocracy, it would be good to quote a single one of them who believes that compensation should not be a monotonically rising function of the merit of work performed. I think that search would be in vain, unless one deviates into the moonbat Marxists.

Why don't liberals talk up meritocracy more? Well, one reason is that it is so often invoked to justify a practice that seems grossly unfair: the bizarre discrepancies in compensation between those at the lower end of the scale and many of those at the upper end.

For example, take CEO compensation. A few decades ago, a CEO of a Fortune 500 company might have earned 20 times as much as the average worker; today he earns more like 300 times as much (I believe these numbers are roughly correct, though I'm relying on memory here -- but the increase of over an order of magnitude IS certainly correct). In terms of the ratio of CEO compensation to profits of the companies they run, CEOs have increased their compensation by a factor of 7 since 1980.

And the problem is not just at the level of CEOs -- ALL of the positions directly below CEO are likewise hugely inflated, and indeed this phenomenon goes on all the way down to middle managers, though to a lesser degree. It's very much as if a rubber band had been stretched with CEOs at the top, and everybody above the low level workers have seen great increases over the last several decades. What's important to note in all these cases is that the overall profitability of these companies has NOT increased. It is ONLY the compensation, it would appear, that has increased.

Now here's the political problem with talking up meritocracy in the face of this phenomenon: it serves only one purpose, namely, to justify this change in compensation, rather than mollify or correct it. Society's inclination to compensate, indeed, OVER-compensate merit is simply too well entrenched as it is.

What seems pretty obvious is that the degree to which merit is compensated hangs very heavily on society's own view of what a fair compensation really is. If the CEO of the 1950s, say, was paid only 20 times as much, it was because of the "outrage factor" that would be introduced if he were paid much more. If today's CEOs ever get paid less, it will be because, finally, an outrage factor kicks in, and boards are simply too embarrassed to pay at current rates. CEOs in the 50s were not, I'm sure, less happy -- they were no less at the top of the heap when paid 20 times as much as today's CEOs are at 300 times as much. The "outrage factor" is, in no small part, society's way of registering its own sense of what fair compensation for merit really is. If that is fueled at least to a good degree, by a larger sense of that human beings are, while quite different from each other in talents and achievement, not so very different that a CEO should earn 300 times as much as an average worker, why would that be wrong? If the "egalitarian" impulse is so expressed, does that make it a bad one, or really incompatible with embracing meritocracy?

Posted by: frankly0 | Dec 28, 2004 4:26:33 PM


Posted by: Jay F

"Most American business is badly run and only manages to survive by overcharging for the services or products that are successful without much effort."

Could you please substantiate this statement? I am particularly interested to find out how a business can achieve success by "overcharging".

"Very little merit is rewarded except by chance which also rewards incompetence about equally."

Could you please substantiate this statement too while you are at it?

Jay F

Posted by: Jay F | Dec 28, 2004 4:27:43 PM


Posted by: No Labels Please

I find David Schmidtz' comment a slightly more complex version of the "equal opportunity" versus "equal outcome" attempt at bifurcating "conservatives" from "liberals".

He states:

"Traditional liberals wanted people—all people—to be as free as possible to pursue their dreams.."

I would maintain that nearly everyone of any political label would agree with this platitude. The only argument would arise when "freedom" for one group involved confiscation of property from another [ie one group's increased "freedom" comes at the expense of another group's property rights]. Then clearly there is a line to be drawn between freedom and property rights [roughly speaking, entitlements and taxation] that must and should be debated. There is no neat way to do this except for some approximation of the messy political process we have.

With respect to the meritocracy argument - the best of the bad alternatives seems to be to allow one's fellow citizens to vote in the arena of the economic and social marketplaces, with a reasonable amount of collective oversight. Primarily collective alternatives [communism, centrally palnned economies] to this have seem doomed to failure by historical experience and also by reasonably compelling intellectual arguments - eg see "Road To Serfdom".

This doesn't guarantee unpleasant outcomes [day trader makes 100x high school teacher], but probably avoids the 100 million type losses of human life that have been proven to lie on the extreme other side of the debate.

So why isn't the equilibrium point of these forces more like Canada or Sweden than the present state of affairs in the US? It's quite possible that the tensions between these ideas of equality and meritocracy are exacerbated in more regionally, culturally and ethnically diverse societies...another unpleasant thought.

Posted by: No Labels Please | Dec 28, 2004 9:40:41 PM


Posted by: Sean

With all due respect, I see the original post and some commenters attempting to compare apples to oranges. To wit, to the extent that one attempts to state that what one is paid to perform a task is either a moral evaluation of that person or necessarily has a moral element misses the point. Ideally, markets are amoral (I know, many will quibble with whether present conditions are ideal, but this is a philosophical discussion) - you pay someone according to the value they give you, not according to your judgment of their worth as a moral being. Thus, anyone's rate of compensation is not a useful barometer of that person's virtue or moral worth. It only shows how useful that person is.

That being said, I think the definition of "meritocratic" is somewhat of a misnomer. the label implies that a person who works hard, doesn't shirk responsibilities, is honest and generally virtuous should and will be paid more than those who don't. In that regard, it seems to skew to an egalitarian view, which some commenters express, by concluding that CEO compensation is undeserved or unjust. People are paid, however, not necessarily based on those qualities, but on how much value they bring to the enterprise, how much wealth they generate for the enterprise, and how much risk they assume. These qualities are rare, and, in some cases, unique. Thus, the more an individual possesses them, the more he will be compensated. For example, a factory worker who assembles widgets may work 9 hour days and be a hard and virtuous worker. But if all he does is assemble widgets, his value to the business is not that great. Indeed, depending on the amount of skill involved in assembling widgets, it may not be worth much at all. In contrast, the executive who works 7 hour days but who alone possesses the ability to consistently generate new sales and customers to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year is more valuable to the enterprise. If you look only at hours worked, the widget assembler should be paid more. But if you look at value added, the executive is invaluable to the business, for he ensures future growth. In a nutshell, it is "what have you done for me lately." If this is what is meant by meritocratic, there is something there. But if meritocratic means "equal pay for equal work" it is not so apt. The key is generation of value, which is not always the same thing as amount of labor expended.

Posted by: Sean | Dec 28, 2004 10:12:46 PM


Posted by: Ginny

I assume Terrier either sleep walks or has never worked at successive days at "state" jobs and "business" ones, nor has he run his own business in between years in academia. A business that overcharges is not likely to stay in business; while fewer and fewer of the classes for which students (and their parents and the government) are paying higher and higher tuition are taught by full-time faculty with Ph.D.'s and some record of publication. And while the boss's son is likely to get a job easier than the man on tbe street, it is likely (in the largest percentage of businesses in terms of size) to be the boss that will take the financial hit if the kid is a complete disaster. Whatever the latest craze in employee benefits, the government job is likely to offer before it has proven to actually increase producitivity. Yes, productivity is measured in business. I suspect that it is more seldom measured in government not because it can't be but because it is likely to prove unflattering. Of course, I now work for the state as does my husband; I don't think we are sluggards. But I also know when I ran my business my lack of productivity was likely to cost me money. Now, I doubt anyone would know the difference.

Posted by: Ginny | Dec 29, 2004 12:22:28 AM


Posted by: rtr

Well put Sean. The meritocratic idea depends upon a two thousand years out of date philosophical conception of value which perplexed Plato, Aristotle, and all those in between until Menger reformulated aspects of Epicureanism. Maybe 140 years isn’t that much for a discipline stretching thousands of years but it’s about time the philosophy discipline learned that the question of value has been brilliantly settled with the conception of extrinsic versus intrinsic. Value is subjectively extrinsically determined. A marginal increment of all existing diamonds, iron, or whatever may be valued more than marginal increments of water, gold, or whatever. The comparison is not between all the iron or all the gold. As such, Economics is derived from a particular philosophical question.

.....[continued on “Another Well Poisoned” thread,]

Posted by: rtr | Dec 29, 2004 1:11:24 AM


Posted by: Bill

I agree 100% with Matt's comment that started off this thread.

Along the same lines, as I wrote about 'meritocracy' a couple months ago on my blog:

One of the more confusing things about this very confusing word is the '-cracy' part. Is it 'rule of the meritorious' or 'rule of merit itself'?

If the former than is it 'rule of those who have the merit to rule'? Or is it rule of those who have some amorphous general 'merit'? If that last is the case, then what in the world is that stuff and what does it have to do with ruling?! And how is this different from 'aristocracy'?

But I'm obviously barking up the wrong tree. (Hint: It's for rhetorical purposes.) 'Meritocracy' does not mean rule of the meritorious. Rather, the word's function is to subvert the meaning of 'rule', as commonly understood. So it DOES mean something like 'the rule of merit itself'.

And what is merit? It's whatever any given person thinks it is. So meritocracy turns out to be something like Nozick's anti-Marxist slogan:

'to-each-according-to-how-much-he-benefits-those-who-are-in-
a-position-to-benefit-those-who-benefit-them'

On this understanding of meritocracy, it is quite easy to see why it appeals to libertarians. It does away with the idea of rule entirely and replaces it with an institutional process (referred to, in all its complexity, as "the market") for determining what merit is and who has it.

Of course there are other readings of meritocracy in which the meaning of merit is given actual content (rather than just being a place holder for values fixed by a market process). This explains why there are some apologists for meritocracy who think that "the market", if one such thing there be, fails to reward merit.

If I were forced to choose between one camp or the other, I personally would go with the market-skeptic meritocrats. But I choose rather to reject the concept of "meritocracy" entirely--except insofar as it refers to people getting positions because of their merit rather than connections, etc. Merit is always for a more or less specific end and it is always an open question whether that thing is valuable. Merits are thus plural and to be conceived on the model of virtues, albeit virtues of a more techne-like kind.

The overall point that I want to make with this message, however, is summed up as follows:

The concept of meritocracy, especially if it is to be contrasted with aristocracy, is of a piece with the broadly 'market liberal' ideology of the social order. So I can understand why Will and other libertarians are gung-ho about it. But the problems with 'meritocracy' are as numerous and (to my mind) as decisive as the closely related critiques of Nozick and, for example, Richard Posner.

If I were to recommend one article it would be Ronald Dworkin's 'Is Wealth a Value?' in the Journal of Legal Studies. Every thinking person should read that.

Posted by: Bill | Dec 29, 2004 1:59:22 AM


Posted by: Tom Perkins

frankly0 wrote: "Why don't liberals talk up meritocracy more? Well, one reason is that it is so often invoked to justify a practice that seems grossly unfair: the bizarre discrepancies in compensation between those at the lower end of the scale and many of those at the upper end."

Hazarding not reading down to see if someone already made the obvious point, it isn't a bizarre discrepancy to the people who own the companies.

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, pfpp

Posted by: Tom Perkins | Dec 29, 2004 4:53:38 PM


Posted by: Terrier

I made my comments based on my 20 years of experience in business. I fully recognize that a smaller business is different and would not be able to tolerate the amount of incompetence that is normal at larger firms. I have never worked directly for the government and have never worked in academia. Working for a government contractor I saw massive fraud and incompetence on a daily basis and thus resolved never to do that again. I once received a letter at my desk at a private business that informed me that in March my department was 300% over-budget for the entire year!? Quite frankly, most efficiency gains I have seen were the result of fewer people doing the same amount of work without regard to whether the resulting product was better or worse. Thus the people who measured the productivity were able to claim that less money was spent so they deserved more money as compensation for their leadership. The point of my post is not that everyone in business is a moron but that most people in business, as most people anywhere, are mediocre and if you have mediocre people judging merit the result will be to encourage mediocrity. So, in fact, the title of this post should be "on equality and mediocrity." A great teacher I had once drew a "bell curve" and sliced it from top to bottom explaining that his job was to teach students to conform not to stimulate non-conformance. This whole issue worries me the most when people talk about privatizing schools because I don't think we can afford to reward mediocrity in our schools. Certainly, the great disparity between secondary education and universities in this country are the result of more competent leadership driven by the fact that our society values universities more than primary and secondary education. We need schools to educate human beings not prepare students for tests. We don't have the luxury of a wide tolerance that a business with great assets and great earning potential has for failure. When the schools fail we all die a thousand deaths.

Posted by: Terrier | Dec 30, 2004 10:39:15 AM


Posted by: noah

We do reward mediocrity and our schools are strangling in paperwork and political correctness.
If the schools were all privatized and more importantly unregulated in keeping with the Ist Amendment, then we would have a "market" for teachers (and schools). As it stands now, teacher pay is determined in a political struggle between teacher unions and government. It seems that everyone has agreed that markets are a superior means for determining value. Its been true for a long time that anybody with a teacher's certificate and not much else can teach. Teacher unions oppose vouchers...so what we are left with are "merit" pay (in essence credentialism) and "No Child Left Behind" (or "teaching to the test").
One of the most shameful aspects of U.S. "liberalism" has been its indifference to the poor quality of inner city schools except to demand more money which empirically has been shown to not work.
(I realize that I am sort of "farting in church" by bringing up a real world subject on this blog.)

Posted by: noah | Dec 30, 2004 1:01:24 PM


Posted by: Terrier

"It seems that everyone has agreed that markets are a superior means for determining value." - not me! That is exactly the point I am making - a market will reward mediocrity by playing to whatever level is providing approval. If you are paying for your child's education - how do you know whether she is being taught that Pi is 3 or FDR was a Communist? Teaching is a 'craft' and thus is hard to quantify. If you are saying that too much money is spent avoiding frivolous lawsuits (and the threat of) by parents and shuffling paper to keep administrators happy in jobs that earn at least 5 or 6 times teacher's pay - then I completely agree with you. Do you know any teachers in the public schools? The ones I know work much harder than I do and do a job much more important to you and me than my job and they earn less than half of my salary. We do not value teaching, so to say that money has been spent to no effect is ridiculous - can someone point me to a study that says that doubling teacher's salaries has had no effect? Certainly we need to judge the teachers we have and if the rewards were substantial enough I believe teachers would gladly implement peer review processes to protect their profession. Lawyers and doctors police themselves because only they know best what competence is in their fields. Do you shop for the cheapest heart surgeon or would you go to the one that the most doctors selected for themselves?

Posted by: Terrier | Dec 30, 2004 1:59:30 PM


Posted by: J Darcy

Accepting the role that "dumb luck" or fate plays in our lives, as Dan Kaufman suggests, need not lead to an open-ended acceptance of all outcomes or the factors that lead to them. Yes, there will always be a few bumbling fools who receive rewards far in excess of their merit by just about any standard, and some overlooked titans who receive far less. That does not mean, however, that we should accept a system that makes our (economic) lives even more of a lottery than they need to be, or - even worse - exhibits systemic bias in rewarding something other than the kind of merit it pretends to. Many would argue we live in just such a system, in which who you know matters more than what you do and skill at marketing or salesmanship is more consistently rewarded than any other kind of skill. Whereas a true capitalist meritocracy would systematically - though not perfectly - reward virtues such as talent and hard work and innovation, too often our system seems to be rewarding something else.

The problem is that capitalism is fundamentally indifferent to merit. Supply and demand is the basis of reward, and the only definition by which that matches merit is a circular one. Whether capitalism is inimical or congenial toward meritocracy, particularly compared to some other system, is a matter for another debate, but they are very certainly not the same thing even though many tend to equate them.

Posted by: J Darcy | Dec 30, 2004 2:49:00 PM


Posted by: Jim Hu

J Darcy makes an important point. Supporters of markets should understand that markets are not about rewarding value in some abstract sense that society agrees on. Markets are about letting individuals decide what is more valuable to them, and even then only relative to available options. That seems to me to be a good approach when it's feasible. But libertarians and others who, like me, are inclined to favor market solutions, need to address the fundamental liberal criticism of markets - that Societies (defined however) may have legitimate reasons to interfere with markets based on the results delivered.

old joke: Q: how many libertarians does it take to screw in a lightbulb? A: None, the invisible hand does it

But to return to the original content of the post. Schmitz wrote:
"...if meritocrats were to come forward, they would find they disagreed among themselves in the same way egalitarians do."

Agreed. But meritocracy is not the alternative to egalitarianism any more than hereditary aristocracy is. I don't think anyone on the Right is suggesting a Confucian system where everyone takes a national Civil Service exam and the top scorer gets to be President. Or a system where everyone's salary is set by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Egalitarianism and Meritocracy when expressed as a set of hopeful goals (Dr. King's speech, for example, reflects both egalitarianism "not by the color of their skin" and meritocracy "by the content of their character") are thankfully uncontroversial. This is just saying that we favor justice and fairness. But the multidimensionality you point out means that measuring value cannot be done without weighting the dimensions. Thus, meritocracy and egalitarianism have the same intractable problem of how to weight and who decides.

The libertarian/small government critique of egalitarianism is thus not about promoting meritocracy. I think it's more about deciding when when Societies get to trump the freedom of consenting adults to contract with each other in order to promote fairness and justice. I think many here would agree with me that the interference itself involves costs in fairness and justice. It seems to me that the libertarian/small government critique of egalitarianism as promoted by the Democratic Party in the US involves 1) that the costs in fairness and justice of implementing programs with egalitarian goals are grossly undervalued and 2) the effectiveness of the programs in actually delivering is similarly overstated.

Posted by: Jim Hu | Dec 30, 2004 5:38:18 PM


Posted by: Dan Kaufman

J Darcy wrote:

"Many would argue we live in just such a system, in which who you know matters more than what you do..."

Sounds like academia and especially, professional philosophy, which functions much more like an aristocracy than like anything resembling a meritocracy.

When I hear people saying things like "That does not mean, however, that we should accept a system that makes our (economic) lives even more of a lottery than they need to be, or - even worse - exhibits systemic bias in rewarding something other than the kind of merit it pretends to," I wonder what the "not accepting" will involve. Coercive confiscation and redistribution of property? Hiring quotas? What sort of government sponsored levelling do you think will significantly reduce the role of good and bad fortune in creating inequalities, which, far from involving "a few bumbling fools who receive rewards far in excess of their merit by just about any standard, and some overlooked titans who receive far less inequality," are ubiquitous in life. Such "fortune variables" include: In what country one is born; In what family one is born; what one's natural gifts are (including intelligence); how one is raised; etc... etc... etc...

I must admit to fearing social reengineering, inspired by Rousseauian notions much more than I fear the inequalities caused by fortune. (And I say this, in spite of the fact that I would likely benefit from such reengineering. There is Zero chance that I will ever get a tenure-track post at a top 20 institution, for reasons that have nothing to do with the merits of my resume and everything to do with connections, and yet, I would abhor a system of "equitable redistribution of faculty posts.")

Daniel A. Kaufman
Associate Professor
Department of Philosophy
Southwest Missouri State University

Posted by: Dan Kaufman | Dec 30, 2004 6:01:51 PM


Posted by: J Darcy

I would have expected an associate professor of philosophy to recognize and avoid the excluded-middle fallacy, but apparently my expectations were too high. "Not accepting" something takes many forms, Daniel Kaufman, short of jack-booted thugs knocking down your door at night. Your characterization of alternatives as "confiscation" and "levelling" and the ever-popular "social reengineering" is the sort of soundbite "debate" one might expect on network TV, not a reasoned discussion of basic principles. I find it telling, though, that you refer to *re*engineering as a tacit admission that some form of social engineering is already being done. Outcomes are already being affected by the way the rules are written and enforced. The question is not whether that should be allowed, for it is inevitable, but whether we can write and enforce rules in a different way that better supports our avowed principles - including equality, but also including liberty and whatever other values you, I, or we collectively cherish. I believe we can. Would you like to offer a reasoned explanation of why you believe otherwise? Something that's not mere appeal to emotion or argument from adverse consequences would be appreciated.

Posted by: J Darcy | Dec 31, 2004 10:45:47 PM


Posted by: dan kaufman

Mr. Darcy,

I am happy to have a conversation with a person who is pleasant and respectful. I will not have conversations with people who are nasty and disrespectful. Indeed, I think that I have had enough with blogging and will return to the more traditional modes of communication.

Most sincerely,

Daniel A. Kaufman
Associate Professor
Department of Philosophy
Southwest Missouri State University

Posted by: dan kaufman | Jan 1, 2005 9:23:32 PM


Posted by: neal

Let me summarize this post in english.

People don't want to be racially discriminated against. Anti racists thought the idea of merit, equal pay for equal work, would eliminate racism. This didn't meet our goals, since capitalists want producers, this only helps the capitalists. We realized that market forces still leave the control in their hand: we just did them a favor. We don't like the idea that the very thing we protest to despise, money, still has a lot of value to people, and the very thing we want to control, rewarding people and thereby motivating them to do what we think they should do was still controlled by the moneyed people. At least we can congratulate ourselves that people don't bow anymore, but they still aren't doing what we think they should. We really wish there were no difference in the proletariate, except the hard work we put in to become the intellectual elite, but realize that not everyone is as dedicated to the one truth as we are.

So we tried to come up with a new word: worth. Not merit. Worth has the value that it implies trying, unlike merit. So, inspite of the fact that you can't carry out the aged grandfather from the fire, you might have trained for it with all your heart. You are worthy of pursuing your dreams, midget though you are.

My second favorite: "If we invent something, we think it matters whether it actually works, and we expect it to matter to our customers too." You know, in acedamia, it doesn't matter if it really works, other than whether it is defensibly fair. You've lost several levels of indirection there. In the real world, the rope has to work so the climber doesn't fall. In the business world, you have to convince the climber the rope works and he won't fall. In academia, you only have to prove the rope will break equally to all prospective climbers, or lately that it is less likely to break for the person least able to climb.

My favorite: "There has been much debate within the academy over what should be equalized." Yeah, who is going to decide, and who has the power to do it. Look, just because you jump from word to word, from idea to idea, hiding your thoughts in 25 cent words does not give you the right to decide my life. My life is my own. You weren't there when I was born, and I alone have to die. I make the decisions for my life in between. If I want to waste it with drugs, if I want to succumb to the temptations of commercials and why I need to get rid of the fungus under my toenail, it is my business alone, and none of yours. I despise that I pay your salary with my taxes, with my labor, because I am a laborer, a producer that you feed from. Labor is the very place you suck from: you have been unable to take from the rich, just the middle class, and are stomping it into the lower class.

Stop trying to control my life, grow up and realize you are no better than the system you so self righteously claim to rise above, with all your "caring",
wisdom, and sophistry. A street sweeper adds more value to society than you do, and doesn't cost as much.

Posted by: neal | Jan 2, 2005 6:30:51 AM


Posted by: oliver

Neal is arguing from an interesting standpoint, which we might consider experimenting with. Let's just say all existing property is up for grabs and every existing social relationship is null and void and let people do what they want. If Neal is right, everybody will end up with exactly what they deserve...which is what we all want, right?

Posted by: oliver | Jan 2, 2005 12:52:35 PM


Posted by: Paul Torek

People are *not* paid based on how much value they bring to the enterprise. People are paid, roughly, based largely on the boss's preconceived notions of how much various types of work are worth. The boss may well look at compensation rates at other firms, but this primarily amounts to substituting others' prejudices for his own.

Suppose one clever boss notices that by paying secretaries well above the usual rates, she attracts the best ones at a meager net cost while drastically improving the performance of her company. The odds of her cleverness being widely copied are approximately diddly-squat.

I'm an engineer at a metals recycling company. I make various improvements to extremely complex production processes, which interact with other improvements in highly nonlinear, impossible-to-disentangle ways. I received a substantial raise in 2004. Did I contribute significantly more to the company's bottom line in 2004 than I did in 2003? Neither I nor my boss has a clue.

frankly()'s point about CEO salaries cannot be answered by pretending that the labor market is perfectly efficient. A study of the correlation between CEO pay and company performance might be more to the point.

Posted by: Paul Torek | Jan 6, 2005 9:41:27 PM


Posted by: seth edenbaum

"...a regime is meritocratic to the extent that people are judged on the merits of their performance."

Performance of what, exactly?

We can not and should not attempt to define value and worth exclusive of any other definition. Any success is provisional. The solution is to argue for meritocracy without allowing one definition to prevail.
A courtroom, for example, is a place not of justice but of questioning, of argument among various definitions of justice. Foundationalism, whether of the market or any other god is hollow and empty. The only foundation is the architecture of debate.

Technocracy abhors what it sees as a vacuum.

Nuff said.

Posted by: seth edenbaum | Jan 13, 2005 12:19:04 PM


Posted by: marek

One character who fits David Schmidtz' profile almost perfectly is Tom Paine -- Common Sense is laced with attacks on the "no-ability" and the hereditary principle, for example, all in the name of merit. And Paine, of course, didn't think attacking aristocratic privilege entailed abolishing property, or an "equality of outcome" (I've never been quite sure what this means or who, if anyone, defends it).

But Paine did think that private land ownership, while necessary and beneficial, entailed a cost to all human beings that ought to be properly compensated (the argument works from the supposition that in a state of nature the earth was the common property of the human race). So, he proposed a payment of 15 pounds sterling to "every person" when they reached 21, "as a compensation in part for the loss of his or her natural inheritance by the introduction of the system of landed property," and, 10 pounds yearly to anyone over 50. He thought these should be paid to rich and poor alike, and if you didn't want it,you could throw it back in the pot (this is all from the essay "Agricultural Justice," pp. 400-01 in the Collected Writings).

Now, we wouldn't want the state of nature argument (I suppose?), and we are less concerned with landed property than Paine (yes, his target is still the aristocracy), and we might want to fiddle with the details. But something here seems intuitively compelling: private property benefits the owner of the property, but it also benefits everyone else. Still, private ownership is a privilege held at the expense of others, and those others ought to be compensated for their loss. Further, what the proposal recognizes is that private property rights do not themselves derive merely from individual merit (however construed), nor does the exercise of those rights. I don't, for myself, think this is only true of land.

This leads me to another of Paine's recommendations -- the inheritance tax, which appears in the same essay. Now Paine restricted this to a modest 10% -- but for the sake of the argument, I'm going to recommend 100%, and not only on the rich, but on everyone. Why? Well, I want to get at what the institutional implications are of being in favor of "merit" and opposed to "inheritance." Paine saw his inheritance tax as part of a plan to secure the conditions under which merit could flourish, and inherited privilege could be thwarted. But why should we wink at *any* inherited privilege at all? However bad I may be as a car mechanic, it isn't clear why my son should suffer the consequences, any more than it's clear why my son should be King because I was. If we wanted to ensure equality of opportunity (from birth, say) wouldn't that entail a fairly radical restructuring of the playing field once a generation or so?

Notice, incidentally, that the market can work its alchemy, the Fates can snip with their scissors, and property can be protected -- but the most obvious, accumulated, good or harm is not passed on to my children (and yes, I have children) by virtue of inheritance.

BTW -- in case you are tempted to think that only postmodern-liberal-Marxist-academics, and other people with deep identity crises, worry about such things, see "Faltering Meritocracy in America" in the January 1st edition of The Economist.

Posted by: marek | Jan 19, 2005 4:06:36 PM


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