Sunday, August 15, 2004
There is an old curse: may you get what you deserve. What we deserve is a matter of intense dispute among political philosophers and commentators alike. Will Wilkinson has recently argued that effort matters- we deserve what we do. Matt Yglesias and Matt Miller, on the other hand, claim that human desert is very contingent.
First I want to make clear that Yglesias and Miller have staked out a very questionable position, one that few political theorists on the left have embraced- that people deserve nothing because their character (and effort) are themselves a product of undeserved chance. And Wilkinson has misrepresented Rawls's position. Wilkinson selectively quotes from A Theory of Justice to the effect that Rawls thinks that natural endowments are arbitrary. What he fails to note that is that Rawls believes that the basic institutions of society should not reinforce these inequalities, not that the state should actively intervene to rectify social imbalances.
If we reject the extreme "redistributionist" arguments (which most egalitarian theorists do), then we are left to refute the extreme libertarian ones. Wilkinson follows along with Nozick that people's effort (and reward) are their exclusive property right, and it therefore violates the autonomy of the person to take the fruits of their labors to help someone less fortunate (whatever the reason for that misfortune).
Of course this theory presumes that the market is a just procedure, when even a cursory examination of the market mechanism is that it is a) arbitrary and b) frequently unjust. For example, Michael Jordan is one of the world's wealthiest men, but would he have been with the continuance of slavery or before the invention of basketball? Probably not.
The market is not the product of natural laws: it is the product of social regulation. The existence of the market is an artifact of public policy- modern corporations were created with a change in contract law in the 19th century. Entrepreneurs' success would be impossible without the conditions created by the efforts of government to guarantee opportunities, social order, a free and competitive market, etc.
So where does that leave us? Probably where we should be- with a belief that people deserve some of the fruits of their labors, but not all, because we recognize that a good portion of our success is due to chance and to the efforts of others.
A just society should fairly distribute the social product. In other words, we are all in this together. It is manifestly unfair if everyone works hard but only a few people benefit. It is also unfair if some people contribute more than others but get nothing extra for it. The trick is to strike the right balance.
Unfortunately, today we are very far from achieving that happy equilibrium. Reaching it is not made any easier when liberals like Miller and Yglesias make specious arguments. But their hearts are at least in the right place. Conservatives seem to lack any notion of reciprocity at all. But that is very old news.