Thirds for Desert

Chris Betram replied to my reply to his reply to my TCS piece (scroll down in comments). And I’d like to, well, reply. I’d also like to reply to Brad DeLong, who I don’t think understands what he’s talking about. Economists are usually like that — confused — when they dabble in moral philosophy, with the exception of Buchanan, Sen and a few others, like Tyler. For now, let me just quote from Chris:

One reason why I framed things in terms of the political turn was that Will has endorsed that part of Rawls’s work. So I think it worth repeating that to the extent to which conceptions of desert are the object of reasonable disagreement, they can’t be incorporated into public standards of justice. Will ought to agree with that.

I do endorse the idea of political liberalism. What I’m arguing is that the anti-desert party is violating the spirit of political liberalism. The content of our sense of justice, the content of the “reasonable moral psychology” of citizens of North Atlantic liberal democracies, is that people deserve rewards roughly proportional to their input to mutually advantageous cooperation. This is, of course an empirical claim. But my argument is that Rawls is simply wrong about the content of our considered moral judgments on this score, and Rawlsians about desert are employing a tendentious metaethical argument contrary to the content of a reflective sense of justice.

More from Chris:

There’s also the “tracking” point, which he doesn’t address in his response. I asserted, following Hayek and Rawls, that the free market doesn’t do anything like reward people according to desert. Does Will disagree? If he does, it would be nice to hear an argument. If he doesn’t then it would seem that he is hoist with his own petard, since libertarian principles will also fail to frame a stable social order, and for the same reasons.

I think this is a complicated question. Now, I think Chris is quite wrong that the market “doesn’t do anything to reward people according to desrt.” In fact, I think this is a rather absurd conclusion. The distributional changes that occur on the heels of voluntary market exchanges are more likely to track desert than any other mechanism I know of. The idea of desert based in mutually beneficial cooperation is, I think, the most neutral notion of desert available, and is reflected generally in our moral psychology.

The careful reader will have noticed that I didn’t actually defend meritocracy in the TCS piece. I simply defended the possibility of desert, and, implicitly, the idea that meritocracy is not appalling as an ideal. I think there is a totally intractable epistemic problem in discovering who merits what and to what extent. And this is in addition to the problem of settling on a public standard for merit.

Market exchanges, because they are voluntary and presumably mutually advantageous, generally split to gains of cooperation according to mutually agreeable terms. Whether people get what they deserve according to whatever the correct standard is . . . who knows? But if someone believes that the terms of cooperation and exchange are unfair in the sense that they will not be getting what they deserve, they can refuse to cooperate, and people often do. So it is reasonable to believe that market exchanges at least roughly track desert.

Now, I agree that the overall pattern of distribution in a market order will not tightly track desert. There is an assymetry in the nature of entrepreneurship, for example. People who make entrepreneurial bets that pay off seem to us to deserve what they get because they were willing to bear the risk of the bet, and ended up providing something that has enhanced others’ welfare on agreeable terms as evidenced by their revealed preferences in the market. People who make reasonable (not foolish or negligent) bets that don’t payoff don’t seem to deserve to be bankrupt. And the failure of their bet provides useful information to other entrerpeneurs, who in some sense don’t deserve to have this information. So here’s a case where the overall distribution of rewards tracks desert partially, but not very tightly.

Now, most people have some idea of the deserving and the underserving poor, of who does and doesn’t merit our charity and assistance. Because the standards of desert here are unlikely to be shared publicly, unlike our conception of desert in mutually advantageous exchanges, the political libertarian argues that the mechanisms of redistribution ought to be largely private. Some people deserve what they receive on the market. It’s not the job of the state to decide that they don’t. And some people deserve our aid, and it’s not the job of the state to decide that they do. So I think the tracking point is an argument in favor of political libertarianism, and an argument against infecting the general social principles of association with sketchy metaethical premises about determinism and desert.

Of course we might ask which of two social orders, a Rawlsian one or a free-market one, would diverge most flagrantly from the desert criterion that Will endorses. Note that under both systems the hard-working talented will, as a matter of fact, often earn more than those of an average talent and an average disposition to work, just so long as their talents are actually valued by others at or around the time they’re deploying them. This despite the fact that neither system contains an intention to reward such deployment for desert-based reasons and that the “fit” will be extraordinarily loose. But which of the two “maps” better? My money would be on a Rawlsian “well-ordered society”.

My argument is precisely that a Rawlsian well-ordered society just is a political libertarian order, once one eliminates the elements of Rawls’s theory, such as his metaphysical musings about desert, that are flatly inconsistent with his own methodology. I want to see the argument that Rawls is entitled to use his thoughts about desert in devising a distinctively political set of principles based in a reflective sense of justice.

Now, I’ve noticed that no one has disputed my argument that if the luck argument negates the moral right to unequal material holdings, then it also negates the moral right to unequal political power. That was my main argument, and I guess it stands. So even if Rawls is right about desert, which he is not, then we get a kind of political nihilism in which nothing much — the right to rule, the obligation to obey, etc. — is justifiable. Should I take it that this much is simply granted by the critics of my piece? If so, I’m pretty happy.

About DeLong, well, I need to go just now. Let me just say that I think I know exactly what Yglesias thinks about this issue. Matt’s a friend, a neighbor, and we’ve argued about it face to face.

[Note: Removed the little story about MY, which took place under conditions not particularly conducive to philosophical rigor, and should be off the record. Anyway, I thought it was funny.]

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center