June 13, 2012 columns

Can You Deserve Something that You Don’t Merit? A Response to Bryan Caplan, Round Two

Burrus continues his discussion of whether libertarians should argue their cause on the basis of merit.

For too long, libertarians have been characterized as Scrooges who believe that the wealthy and the poor both merit their stations in life. Should we be encouraging such spurious arguments by raising the unnecessary and morally charged idea of merit as a justification for free markets?

I think not, but Bryan Caplan is again making excellent, meritorious points against my anti-meritocratic views. In this short response I hope to clarify a few distinctions as to what I think our debate is actually about.

First, as I see it, the following questions are at issue:

  1. How strong is the correlation between success and merit?
  2. If the correlation is strong enough, should this be raised as a reason to believe in free markets?

If the answer to question 2 is “no”—that is, that the issue of merit should not be raised by free-market advocates—then this could be for two reasons: 1) because the question of merit is incidental to the case for free markets, or 2) because bringing up merit is bad rhetoric for libertarians who wish to be convincing.

As I argued in my last post, I believe there is a strong correlation between success and merit, but a less strong one between “failure” and merit. I believed this when I wrote my initial post, and I still believe it. Nevertheless, I still think that, for both reasons 1 and 2, merit arguments should be generally avoided in making the case for free markets.

Bryan asks, if the question of merit is incidental to the case for free markets, then “[d]oesn’t the same hold for prosperity, tolerance, culture, and all the other good stuff that libertarianism is supposed to deliver?”

No. First of all, prosperity, tolerance, and culture are not morally charged, individualized assessments. Saying that “the free market delivers prosperity” as a general observation is very different from saying “the free market delivers prosperity to those who merit it.” The same is true for the abstract concepts of tolerance and culture. It is a virtue of the free market that it will tend to deliver prosperity, tolerance, and culture regardless whether the individual recipients are meritorious.

This dovetails into Bryan’s question about whether merit has essentially nothing to do with my belief in free markets: “If you looked at the world and saw nothing but lazy, drunken idiots making money hand-over-fist while hard-working, sober geniuses begged for spare change, wouldn’t that bother you?” Yes, I would be upset, but this would not affect my belief in free markets as long as the reason that those lazy idiots were making money hand-over-fist was that they were creating mutual gains from trade through a system of just exchanges.

Which brings me to my final point: Perhaps we should clarify the difference, if any, between merit and desert. To me, merit carries far more moralistic weight. It implies things about the quality of your character, facts about your history, and the state of the world around you. Desert, however, is far less morally weighty. I am prepared to say—in the vein of Nozick’s entitlement theory—that a series of just and consensual exchanges creating mutual benefits from trade is sufficient for the resulting gains to be “deserved.” Whether it is sufficient for the gains to be merited, however, that’s an open question.

This addresses Bryan’s excellent observation that rhetoric opposing free markets is often awash with arguments from merit, and that maybe we shouldn’t use the same critiques of free markets as our opponents. Bryan writes, “What do revolutionary socialists tell the have-nots to stoke the fires of alienation and resentment? That successful people earned what they’ve got, fair and square? Or that success is all a matter of chance?”

Countering this rhetoric is important, but we do not need the concept of merit to do it. We only need to point out that a free society based on general, universally applicable rules does not concern itself with such obscure and unwieldy concepts as merit. Instead, we only ask whether a person’s accumulated gains from trade derived from just and consensual exchanges—that is, that they are “deserved” in a minimally normative sense. Even raising the morally weighty issue of merit opens the door to the idea that such considerations are relevant to the case for the free market. They aren’t.