Will Wilkinson has a column up at TechCentralStation on desert . This very fact is regrettable, since Wilkinson is smarter, saner, and more interesting that the average TCS columnist and hence will serve to cover-up—somewhat—the nakedness of this astroturf operation. Anyway, the real issue is what he says, which is aimed at Matthew Yglesias , Max Sawicky and others who attack the concepts of meritocracy. Wilkinson credits their argument—that we don’t really deserve anything—to John Rawls. The argument Wilkinson (mis)attributes to Rawls is, in a nutshell, that although, superficially, it may seem that we deserve praise or reward for our efforts, in some deeper sense we don’t, because the attributes that enabled us to strive (such as our genetic makeup and our upbringing) were not themselves deserved. Given the moral arbitrariness of of our natural endowments—including the capacity for hard work—those with more talent can be legitimately taxed, as necessary, to support those unfortunate enough to have less.
[I’m putting the rest of this below the fold as it gets into technical Rawlsiana]
There are no doubt one or two sentences in A Theory of Justice that encourage such an interpretation. But, as Wilkinson surely knows, the argument in which Rawls asserts that “no one deserves his place in the distribution of natural endowments, any more than one deserves one’s initial starting place in society” (which Wilkinson cites, selectively, from the first edition of ToJ) concerns the choice of a co-operative scheme for a whole society. In the passage in question Rawls is not addressing the question of whether those who are better-endowed with natural assets or who have “superior character” ought to get more within a co-operative scheme, he’s writing about whether their better endowment ought to be reflected in the choice of scheme under which they co-operate with others. And his answer is, that no, the more talented have no special right to have their interests given greater weight than those others.
There are two basic Rawlsian objections to the idea that distribution should reflect moral desert or deservingness. First, that it seems impossible to establish a workable public standard of deservingness because of the fact of reasonable pluralism; second, that even if we could establish such a standard, it would be impossible to contrive an economic system to track it. (One might expect, given Wilkinson’s endorsement elsewhere of “political” libertarianism, that he would be at one with Rawls on this.) Given these objections, Rawls sets aside reward according to desert and proceeds to consider other options.
Rawls’s preferred option, democratic equality and the difference principle, doesn’t endorse or track any particular standard of desert or merit. But the point here is that neither does the economic system Wilkinson himself appears to favour: there’s no good reason to believe that a system of free-market and private property is anything close to a merit-based system. Some people work hard on worthy projects for their whole lives or take exceptional risks on society’s behalf and nevertheless remain comparatively poor; others, through being lucky or rich, get to be as rich as Croesus. Is Warren Buffet more morally deserving than the firefighters on 9/11? Of course not. He doesn’t think so, they don’t think so, we don’t think so, and Will Wilkinson doesn’t think so.
There does seem to be a psychological need for those who have profited from the system to be comforted by the idea that they deserve what they have. (Maybe some of them even do deserve what they have!) It is nice to think that one’s good fortune is a function of one’s morally praiseworthy qualities, and that those who have done less well have, well, got their just deserts on account of their fecklessness and unwisdom. (Poor choices made by stupid people.) One of the functions of columns at TechCentralStation is to pander to the psychological needs of a certain stratum of society—gas-guzzling SUV? No need to feel guilty, global warming is a myth !—but such pandering would be rather unseemly coming from a political philosopher of Wilkinson’s ability, and I’m sure it wasn’t what he intended.
fn1. The passage cited comes from sec 17. of ToJ (1st edn) on p. 104. In the second edition the passage reads: “We do not deserve our place in the distribution of native endowments, any more that we deserve our initial starting place in society.” (p.89).
fn2. See for clear accounts of this, Thomas Pogge, Realizing Rawls, ch. 2 section 6 and Jon Mandle, What’s Left of Liberalism , pp. 124—34.
fn3. See Rawls, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, p. 73.
fn4. One possibility that I ought not to neglect, is that Wilkinson takes Rawls to be denying that self-made men (and women) are ever truly deserving of what the have earned. I think the right answer to this thought is to say that, insofar as such as judgement issues from within any comprehensive moral doctrine, Rawls is committed to neither affirming nor denying its truth.