Brighouse on Desert

Harry Brighouse keeps the debate on desert aflame.

It is as obvious to me that no-one deserves political power as that no-one deserves their talents, or deserves to live in an environment in which those talents attract the contingent rewards that they happen to attract. (Steffi Graff’s income more than doubled in the year after Monica Seles was stabbed. Did she deserve to be in that environment? No. So in what sense did she deserve her increased income? Not any foundational moral sense, surely?) Is Wilkinson denying this?

I find this to be a puzzling response. Yes. I'm denying a lot of this, because it's pretty crazy.
Now, as a matter of fact, I think very few people deserve political power. But not because nobody deserves anything, but because the mechanisms of democratic choice generally fail to even loosely track desert. But sometimes people are elected because of their merit and, to the extent unequal political power is legitimate, they deserve their office and its powers. None of this is to say that there exist no non-desert grounds for legitimate political power.
People of course don't deserve their talents, insofar as a talent is pure potential given at birth. People of course do deserve their talents if they have deliberately cultivated and brought them to fruition through effort and work. If I am a wonderful violinist, I no doubt got to be that way by some combination of native ability and years and years of hard practice and discipline. If Harry doesn't believe that people deserve their cultivated talents, then I wonder why not. It's obvious to me, and I think most people, that people do deserve their cultivated talents. I don't deserve to be the sort of person who is ABLE to become good at the violin. But if I worked hard to realize my ability, then I deserve the ability that I've earned through my dedication and hard work. I take this judgment to be a deep and fundamental part of our moral self-conception. I think people who disagree have either broken or ideologically distorted intuition. Of course!
Surely Steffi Graff did not deserve to be in a Seles-free environment! But this has no bearing whatsoever on whether Graff deserved her winnings that year, since she had no responsibility for stabbing Seles. If she won a bunch of matches played according to the rules of tennis, then she deserved to win them, and deserved the prize money. Isn't this obvious? Suppose that 30 years ago a fetus was aborted who, in the nearest possible world in which she was not aborted, became the best women’s' tennis player in history and dominated all the major tournaments. By Harry's logic, we then have to say that almost all of the major tournament winners neither deserved to win, nor deserved their prize money. I consider this a reduction to absurdity. (Michael Phelps is living a lie!)
More of the same:

Politicians who win do not deserve to win at the very least because they do not deserve to live in systems which reward their particular talents (very few UK MPs would reach the top in the American political system, and very few American members of Congress would reach the top in the UK system; desert just doesn’t help out here). There are good, desert-free, reasons for designing a political system one way or another. I don’t see how desert could possibly come into it.

Again, I don' think politicians tend to deserve their power, but I think they could in principle. Anyway, I guess I should just make explicit that I reject this form of argument:
(1) S doesn't deserve to be in context C.
(2) S does A in context C, and thereby gets some reward R.
So, (3) S doesn't deserve R.
I don't deserve to be in a universe where our actual laws of physics obtain. But I eat, and thereby preserve my life in virtue of the laws of physics. So I don't deserve to live? I know this is an utterly stupid argument, but I don't really see how other arguments of this form really differ. Try a Michael Phelps example. Michael Phelps doesn't deserve the existence of the 100m freestyle, which happens to be well-suited to his particular physical talents. Michael Phelps wins the Olympic gold in the 100m freestyle. So Michael Phelps doesn't deserve the Olympic gold. But of course he does deserve the gold, simply in virtue of swimming faster than his competitors in accordance with the official rules.
I haven't gotten to the core of Harry's comments, but I need to run. So more later.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

15 thoughts

  1. I just started reading your blog and, I must say, I’m really impressed. Each post has been very thought-provoking. You’re definately different than the Yglesiases of the blog world.
    Also, I listened to your conversation with Bruce Caldwell and thought it was a superb introduction to the ideas of F.A. von Hayek. You two guys did a wonderful job conveying the continued relevence of much of his work, and the conversation led me to buy Dr. Caldwell’s book.

  2. awesome post. I agree 100% with every word.
    What I find most telling in the way you discuss this latest episode in dimly stupid partisan warfare is the continued feature of detachment that allows libertarians to view the two mainstream monoliths honestly and without the silly attacks by one side on stereotypes and preconceived motivations of the other.
    Partisan politics is like love: it makes otherwise bright people into total idiots.

  3. I agree with the praise of the post.
    The problem is that power corrupts. And what works to motivate change in politics are stupid, simple ideas with simple moral narratives.
    So otherwise smart people become hacks because hackishness is almost what it means to be an effective political advocate. It’s a shame.
    People sometimes start out non-hacky and then when they get some power or attention they turn into hacks. The incentives just point that way.

  4. “Anyway… I can hardly stand “what our team needs to do” sorts of books.”
    But isn’t that the walking contradiction that is libertarianism. I’ve been floating around libertarian blogs convinced the Republican philosophy is bankrupt, and loosing faith in the Democratic party. But I can never find a book or a plan on how libertarians would arrive at whatever it is they want. I mean don’t libertarians need a book on what their team needs to do?
    Libertarians seem to be anti-democratic and anti-elitist and these positions seem to have been the only two sides of the debate. You seem to have chosen not to pick a side and that seems to have left you with nothing but good philisophical rantings. From a practical basis that puts libertarianism right up there with commuism which philosphically can be made to sound good as well but doesn’t work out in the real world. I’m not sure liberalism even exists in the real world.

    1. Muirgeo, that is a fair critcism. Personally, I have read at least one book that attempts to spell out what libertarianism is about–Ludwig von Mises’ book Liberalism. You can probably find it free online at the mises institute site. Libertarianism, to me, is essentially no different in its goals than that of classical liberalism, or what was derided by interventionists and socialists as “Manchesterism”.
      I don’t think libertarianism is necessarily anti-democratic like you said. Most (if not all) libertarians believe that democracy is the form of government most compatible with libertarianism as it allows all members of the state to have some sort of say in how it should be managed. The hostility to democracy that you probably percieve must be contextualized against our present democracy. Interest group politics is inherent to democracy; there will always be seperate groups striving to control the state and use it to enact what they deem desirable. The goal is to establish certain limits on how large the state can become, and thereby limit the power and resources that the interest groups can control once they are in charge of the state. To be sure, it’s not an easy thing to achieve in that the natural incentives facing the state will always be for it to grow (in terms of power and resources that it controls) and to perpetuate itself. But the goal should be to establish a government that has as little intervention within the market economy and one that has the most limited restrictions on the use of a person’s private property.
      Mises’ works are peppered with how liberalism would work in the real world, and his scientific contributions to economic theory and social philosophy not only indicate that liberalism is possible, but that it is more desirable than any other socio-political system because of its beneficial consequences for liberty and freedom. Read the classical liberals and read Mises. I bet much can be gained from Hayek too, though I am less familiar with his writings than I am with those of von Mises.

      1. Beyond simply voicing arguments against individual policies, libertarians can certainly advocate certain policies that would move the world in a liberal direction, e.g. increased immigration, perhaps greater federalism, etc.
        Happily, as near as most of us can tell, the relationship between liberalism and reasonable social welfare functions seems to be monotonic, so any measure toward liberalism is good whether we can ever establish a libertarian paradise. This is a benefit that Marxism doesn’t even have in theory.

  5. “sort of the left-wing equivalent of right-wing ravings about how liberals at bottom are moved by hate for the essential awesomeness of America and want to destroy it one abortion at time while taking away our guns so we can’t do anything about it.”
    Hayes “ravings” at least presuppose that those he casts as malefactors are driven by rational, comprehensible, self-regarding impulses (maximize personal wealth; protect financial interests). Whereas the right-wing analogue presupposes only that liberals are possessed by a haphazard assortment of hatreds and resentments. Both stories may be grossly false, of course; but given standard economic assumptions, at least, Hayes’ is prima facie the far likelier.
    Anyway, I could go on, but I have to go meet up with my weekly “Burn the American Flag!” discussion group now…

  6. I have nothing but high praise for any post like this that points out the inherent arbitrariness of our primary two political coalitions while also pointing out that these coalitions tend to unite around common moral values. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the political coalitions are inherently good things – just that they’re not geared towards the imposition of some sort of totalitarian dystopia.

  7. Per the last paragraph: I can agree with your sentiments, and can appreciate a good rant, but like all rants, I think it might get away from you.
    Certainly concern for the poorest members of the society, along with concerns for social mobility and a just distribution of goods, are not always morally bogus–even if they are presented like so in GNP. Nor are these concerns morally dispensable.
    I hope then that you don’t take your club analogy too seriously. Deciding just economic and social policies are a lot less like currying favor and squabbling over alliances in your college fraternity that it is like it. Put differently, it’s not clear whether your indignation is directed towards caring for a ginned-up and manipulated ‘working-class’ for the sake of electoral advantage, or caring for the working class at all.

  8. I like Will’s blog, but I’m not impressed with this post. Comes across as another centrist, mushy middle, slice the baby in half sort of fallacious rant. Will may not appreciate the stereotype that Hayes is pushing but stereotypes are usually based in some sort of reality and “subvert the welfare state and distribute income upwards” is sure as true about Republicans as “being good at basketball” is true about Blacks. Perhaps not all Blacks are good at basketball but if I’m putting together my Olympic team it ain’t going to be very white. And as a liberal I’m certainly am hateful of the idea of the essential awesomeness of America. I think we have to work at being awesome and don’t think God Blessed us with awesomeness no matter how many times we ruin the 7th inning stretch with that god damn song.
    Basically I see GNP as the slow ritual leftward shift of the Republican party and Conservative politics in general. The pragmatic left that has guided this country quite well when given the chance will continue to be right about most things, the Republicans will realize it 10-30 years after the fact, and Libertarians will squeal from the sidelines wondering why no one wants to implement their Utopian logic. Get in the partisan game already and pick a side. There’s too much to bicker about within the partisan gates to stand outside of them throwing in Cato essays.

  9. no matter how many times we ruin the 7th inning stretch with that god damn song.
    Take Me Out to the Ballgame?
    I can respect KJ’s point, which is that to effect change you have to step into the fray, and politics is wild enough that if you have to become a bit of a hack or a soldier, so be it.
    But the criticism of those “on the sidelines” is a bit over the top. People on the sidelines serve a purpose, and people in the fray serve a purpose. We all seek out the spot that seems best for us.
    I’m heartened that 10-20% of Americans are Independents. I don’t know if that could really translate into a movement against pandering, dishonesty and hackishness in politics. Probably not, because even those people are probably pretty irrational.

  10. According to a study of the candidates’ tax proposals by the Tax Policy Center, by 2012 under Obama’s proposals the after-tax income of the lowest quntile would rise 5.4 percent, the top .1 percent would fall 12.4 percent, and the 95-99th percentiles’ would fall 2.0 percent.
    Under McCain’s proposals, the lowest quintile’s income would rise .9 percent, the top .1 percent’s income would rise 11.6 percent, and the 95-99th percentile’s income would rise 5.3 percent.
    Capital is sacred to Republicans, if you get your income in this form, they tax if more favorably than if your income takes the form of wages and salaries. As a result of this policy difference and others, as Larry Bartels has shown, under Democratic administrations the poor and rich gain income alike, under Republican administrations, only the rich gain (and the economy as a whole grows less rapidly than it does under Democrats).
    If Wilkinson means to suggest that unclubble (illegal) immigrant workers are mistreated and exploited, and that this should be a matter of prime concern to us all, I take his point. But if he means to suggest that the working class–the lower half and especially lowest tenth of the income distribution–doesn’t fare better under Democrats than under Republicans, I believe that the record demonstrates otherwise, and that, judging from the candidates’ tax proposals, this partisan pattern will persist. Under McCain the “working class” will lack the necessary means to exercise their rights in a worthwhile way, and it will seem pointless for them to dream up some relatively long-term plans, because for good reason they will doubt whether they will be able to enact them. But the dreams of the rich, even allowing for the very good run they’ve had the last seven years, will be fulfilled as never before.

  11. KJ: I’m not sure what Will’s explanation would be, but I’m inclined to believe the reason why libertarianism seems “sidelined” is that it is inherently an anti-political ideology. When you break it down to what actually happens, popular politics is mutual armed robbery, each group taking turns royally screwing the others — ostensibly “for their own good” mostly, but sometimes nakedly for self benefit. How do you “pick a side” in a game that you personally believe cheats everyone in the end anyway?
    In the short-term, there are things libertarians can do, though most wouldn’t be recognized as particularly libertarian because they’d be seen as single-issue advocacy and action. But in the long run, the libertarian goal is the end of politics as we know it. This is the confusion behind libertarianism within the US political system, it doesn’t have much success because it fails to realize 1) how radical it is in principle & 2) that such radicalism is not a bad thing. The movement would be more intellectually honest — and IMO more effective — if rather than try to accept mainstream politics its adherents split off based on what their number one issue was, presenting (only when asked) the sum of its parts as being “pragmatic anarchism”, nothing more, nothing less.

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