Equality, Meritocracy and Desert

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Equality, Meritocracy and Desert

Post Number:#1  Postby Scott » May 22nd, 2012, 9:21 pm

In many other topics, I think it has been shown clearly that the distribution of wealth in the global economy and in the national economies of countries like the United States is both non-meritocratic and unequal in the absolute sense of equality. These topics include: Is the United States Meritocratic, Why All the Big Business Bashing, and Order vs Justice. In that sense, regardless of whether you philosophically prefer meritocracy or non-meritocratic equality, and regardless of what exactly you think qualifies as merit or desert if there is such a thing, we can still agree that the current global and national economies and societies are far from ideal not only in the expected unattainable sense of unreal perfection but that they are far off even from what is reasonably practical to have.

In this topic, I want to take a more philosophical approach and address the issues of meritocracy and absolute equality in the sense of what we each think is so-called ideal. Of course, perfection doesn't ever really exist. But an economy can be meritocratic or not in the practical sense the way a ball can be round or not in the practical sense such that a basketball is round and a football is not especially a football with an air-leak. In any case, we first need some definitions. In the economic sense, I use absolute equality to refer to an economy in which all people each have roughly the same amount of wealth/money. The word 'absolute' in that sense doesn't mean the implementation of such a system is necessarily unrealistically perfect, but rather means the people are literally equal in the simple sense of practically having the same amount of money/wealth as opposed to a more abstract equality based on some other merit-based or non-merit-based discrimination. In contrast, in the economic sense, I use meritocratic economy to refer to one in which presumably there is not absolute equality because some people accrue more wealth than others but also in which there is not inequality from non-merit-based discrimination. Meritocracy might be described as equality of opportunity or equality in the ratio between each person's respective merit and respective wealth, which is why I use the word absolute to distance it from the simpler, less relative concept of equality. For instance, if 5 people crash land on an island, and for the sake of argument all have roughly the same level of physical strength and health and all have the same IQ and general intelligence, but 1 of the 5 is very lazy and non-materialistic and the other 4 are hard-working people who enjoy personal comforts, and they divide the viable farming and tree-cutting land up evenly between the 5, and the 4 work very hard and each build themselves a little mansion and feast every night and become fat and the last 1 lazily sits about barely working up a shed to live in and eating only meager amounts to stay alive and avoid the worst hunger pains living on the border of poverty, that would seem to be a meritocratic economy. In contrast, if the 1 lazy guy took out a gun and said he wants everyone to be equal, and maybe even 2 of the other 4 agree in the principle of equality to give them a majority and turn into a democracy, but in any case they split up the wealth so that all 5 divide up the food-growing and mansion-building work of the 4 so that the original 4 each have slightly less than before while the lazy guy has more than before so they are all equal in result; that gives us absolute equality but takes away the special equality of a meritocratic economy.

Simply by those definitions, it seems clear to me that a meritocratic distribution of wealth is very preferable to absolute equality (but both absolute equality or a meritocratic distribution would be preferable to what we have now). The example makes it even more clear, but that is because it isolates every factor except for laziness, work ethic and materialism (i.e. the desire for comforts and luxuries), and the difference in personal productive output associated with working more.

This brings us to the question of what is merit? If merit is simply defined by fairness or desert, i.e. what one deserves, then that makes it very subjective and perhaps relative. We know discrimination based on race, gender, eye-color, etc. is not meritocratic. But what is it that we shall discriminate based on that isn't unfair or undeserving? Martin Luther King said to judge a man by his character, but what is that and how does it apply to economic distribution. If you look at the example previously of the lazy man on an island with 4 people roughly the same in every other potentially relevant way besides laziness, work ethic and materialism, and you feel as I do, then we agree already that one aspect of merit is work ethic versus laziness. So now we know one thing that is merit (laziness/work-ethic) and several things that aren't (race, gender, eye-color, socioeconomic class of birth), which in and of itself gives us a rough idea of the categorical dichotomy. Nonetheless, now we need to look at more complicated things that could potentially be considered merit:

    (1) education
    (2) intelligence
    (3) natural physical strength and physical abilities
    (4) strength and physical abilities gained through practice, training or similar personal effort
    (5) previous work ethic
    (6) the results of previous work ethic (e.g. academic achievement)
    (7) natural physical beauty in inter-subjective sense
    (8) achieved physical beautification (e.g. having healthy teeth from brushing daily as opposed to being toothless and morbidly obese from overeating)
    (9) relative behavioral popularity in an inter-subjectively judged sense (e.g. being trustworthy, having good credit, being the kind of person people like where determined by behavior, etc.)

Which if any of these 9 can be added to the laziness/work-ethic that I think has already been shown to be an aspect of merit? We could alter the question, including as (10) the laziness/work-ethic from the previous example, and ask which if any of these 10 would you prefer statistically influence the distribution of wealth as opposed to having absolute equality? If none, then that means you prefer absolute equality, right? Or that you have other candiates for inclusion as part of merit, in which case I ask, what are they? Surely we can come up with more thought experiments like my one before with the lazy guy to isolate each different quality and see if we prefer absolute equality or inequality in the absolute sense to accommodate differences in alleged merit (e.g. do we want the lazy guy to have as much and as big of a house as the other 4 or do we want work ethic considered?).

Insofar as we can't agree on merit, we will have multiple different forms of meritocratic wealth distribution to decide between. But I wonder if anybody really wants absolute equality or if it's simply an issue of choosing between different versions of allegedly meritocratic distributions of wealth none of which would give absolute equality.

My answers

Firstly, let it be known I would prefer a society in which nobody unable to avoid poverty is in poverty. However, I wouldn't exactly consider it an instance of poverty if someone lives in poverty conditions via their own laziness or non-materialism or otherwise voluntary choice to live below the poverty line, just like I wouldn't consider anorexia to be an instance of world hunger. For instance, if we tie merit to desert, we might say that nobody deserves to be poor -- at least in the sense of someone involuntarily stuck in poverty not someone who chooses to live in poverty-like conditions. We might say that, even if the Little Red Hen deserves more pie than the lazy people who didn't help her make the pie but could have helped, the crippled hen down the street who couldn't help make it still doesn't deserve to starve.

Anyway, noting that I prefer what I see as merit-based distributions, I would judge how meritocratic I think the distribution of wealth in an economy is by expecting to see inequalities in results based on these traits of the previous 10:

(1) education
(4) strength and physical abilities gained through practice, training or similar personal effort
(5) previous work ethic
(6) the results of previous work ethic (e.g. academic achievement)
(8) achieved physical beautification (e.g. having healthy teeth from brushing daily as opposed to being toothless and morbidly obese from overeating)
(9) relative behavioral popularity in an inter-subjectively judged sense (e.g. being trustworthy, having good credit, being the kind of person people like where determined by behavior, etc.)
(10) laziness versus work ethic (which correlates in many but not all contexts to productive output, subtracting certain natural severe disability)

I would hope not to see any significant inequalities of distribution based on these traits, noting that we can not expect anything to be perfect like the roundness of a real live ball:

(2) intelligence
(3) natural physical strength and physical abilities
(7) natural physical beauty in inter-subjective sense

If we don't exclude these three, I think that is like saying that the Little Red Hen's crippled neighbor who was unable to help make the food deserves to starve to death. The word 'deserve' may be equivocal, subjective and/or relative, but no matter what it means, I can't say that the crippled hen deserves to starve even if the other lazy animals who declined to help make the bread deserve to go hungry until they learn to pull their weight. (Incidentally, in real life humans, we might keep in mind that disability is not so black-and-white. Consider the success of Stephen Hawking whose brilliance makes the rest of us look mentally disabled in comparison.) Moreover, we might consider the fact that we all start off as babies, and failure to fulfill the basic needs of babies on grounds of their universal disability would make the species go extinct. Luckily, the family structure and voluntary charity seem very good at eliminating this kind of poverty and starvation. Rather, poverty seems to be more of a macro-community problem in which entire communities, nations or oppressed groups become poor with no regard to merit or disability, which has little to do with the debate between equality and merit. In other words, it seems to me that in real life people don't ever starve to death simply because they individually are unable to support themselves since it is so common for us to charitably take care of such people (while still refusing to give charity to those who do not need it but are trying to abuse the would-be charity -- like a spoiled, lazy 23-year-old finally getting kicked out of her parent's house for not paying rent or doing chores but yet her disabled 93-year-old grandmother doesn't get kicked out). Rather, it is because the entire community gets poor such that they can't take care of each other when needed, e.g. the working father loses his job when the big plant closes down and he, the lazy daughter, and the dependent grandmother all starve to death, maybe her a little quicker unfortunately. The point is I think perhaps the idea that the disabled or otherwise naturally unlucky might be at risk in a meritocratic economy is misplaced and can easily become a red herring or strawman.

Another issue that might come up is that of the preferred and/or most effective political system at bringing out whichever economic results we would like to see. In some ways, this is a separate issue since two people can agree on what qualifies as merit in terms of wealth distribution and thus agree on which inequalities in the absolute sense they would find tolerable or supportable and which they would oppose, but then these same people may disagree on which political system and state-enforced policies they want to allegedly lead to those results. But the two separate issues can also overlap insofar as one might allege that the desired economic results couldn't be made to come about even in the practical sense in which a ball is round or that the politics required would be a solution more undesirable or destructive in some way than the problem it fixes. In any case, I will run down quickly the politics I would prefer that I believe would lead to practical meritocratic economic results. On the issue of the dependent, e.g. those so disabled and lacking in previously gained wealth that they are unable to survive comfortably without charity, I personally am opposed in principle to forced charity by which I mean a state or national government requires people give to charity or taxing the working to give to charity. While as I said before that I do not think the starving crippled hen deserves to starve, I also don't think the Little Red Hen deserves to be routinely mugged by the state. However, in practice, I think such forced charity effectively can lead to the same results since I believe people would take care of the dependent anyway, so my opposition is moot and I would find these kind of policies tolerable even in theory (like if you put a gun to my head and order me to eat a delicious piece of cake I was going to eat anyway). (And, even more, in the real life less philosophical sense, I would be adamantly opposed to, say, the sudden abolition of social security or state-funded welfare for the truly needy due to the many complications of the government and economy we have today and the simple fact that that would hurt all those poor people in a way that is completely and utterly intolerable in my analysis and opinion.) Moving on, in theory overall I support a truly free-market system. By truly free-market, I mean one in which the masses can't be exploited by the few via the appropriate of natural resources (as addressed in this forum topic, this forum topic, and this blog post. Ironic as it may be, I believe the free market best meets the goal of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need." Although, after basic needs are met, I also think it happens to provide for a meritocratic distribution. That's not to say that productive output is merit. You'll notice I did not include it in the list of 10 above. I don't, because it would seem to say the dependent such as some severely crippled people deserve to be poor or starve. Rather, politically speaking, I think as a rule giving people the right to the fruits of their own labor leads to a meritocratic distribution based on the qualities of merit listed above, and either the tendency of humans to take care of the dependent voluntarily or the tolerable -- although philosophically contradictory -- institution of state-forced ways of making this charity occur. A middle-ground, where applicable, is forced insurance such as is done in the USA in various ways with disability insurance, car insurance, unemployment and retirement and now the private health care insurance mandate. Why does giving people the right to the fruits of their labor lead to people with qualities I have listed as merit having more? Of course, laziness versus work ethic is heavily tied to output with the difference mainly dealing with the disabled and extremely unlucky. Also, academic achievement and strength training as the result of personal effort are valuable in the free-market leading such people to more success. I do think methods need to be in place to slightly help prop up those with slight natural disadvantages, particularly say at the grade school level, e.g. kids with slight learning disabilities getting extra attention in school, but where the disability is extreme then the person would be included in the dependent disabled whose welfare has already been addressed. Again, many so-called disabled people or cripples needn't be lumped in to this category of dependent people. Consider the amazing Stephen Hawking's success -- a man who's amazing not because of or in spite of his so-called disability but regardless of it. And, again, let's not forget that it goes without saying that we all get help needed to succeed when we are babies and dependent young children which nobody including myself would argue be taken away, so that removes any argument such as 'well Hawking would have never been successful in your system because he wouldn't have been given the opportunity or maybe he would have starved to death before he became successful' because if that was the case then we would all never make it out of childhood. If a man like Hawking isn't successful in an economy, it isn't meritocratic.

Also, please note, the politics themselves aren't necessarily meritocratic because in the old, strict sense that might simply mean a government run by people with high IQs or a dictatorship in which the dictator is the person with the highest IQ. Rather, the politics lead to a meritocratic distribution of wealth. Of course, insofar as wealth represents power and particularly political power, which in the borderline anarchism of a free-market it seems to, then indeed that happens to also be one form of meritocracy in the political sense.

So what do you think? Assuming you don't want absolute equality, which of those 10 things do you include in merit? Do you include anything else? If you actually prefer absolute equality, please address that thought experiment with the lazy man and 4 hard-working, productive, mansion-building, excessive food-gathering people who live on that island.
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Equality, Meritocracy and Desert



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Re: Equality, Meritocracy and Desert

Post Number:#2  Postby Grendel » May 23rd, 2012, 9:14 am

Scott wrote:For instance, if 5 people crash land on an island, and for the sake of argument all have roughly the same level of physical strength and health and all have the same IQ and general intelligence, but 1 of the 5 is very lazy and non-materialistic and the other 4 are hard-working people who enjoy personal comforts, and they divide the viable farming and tree-cutting land up evenly between the 5, and the 4 work very hard and each build themselves a little mansion and feast every night and become fat and the last 1 lazily sits about barely working up a shed to live in and eating only meager amounts to stay alive and avoid the worst hunger pains living on the border of poverty, that would seem to be a meritocratic economy. In contrast, if the 1 lazy guy took out a gun and said he wants everyone to be equal, and maybe even 2 of the other 4 agree in the principle of equality to give them a majority and turn into a democracy, but in any case they split up the wealth so that all 5 divide up the food-growing and mansion-building work of the 4 so that the original 4 each have slightly less than before while the lazy guy has more than before so they are all equal in result; that gives us absolute equality but takes away the special equality of a meritocratic economy.


I would be that lazy guy, and being non-materialistic as you say, the agreement to divide up the land would never happen, I'm not materialistic and don't think we have any right to claim individual ownership of any part of the island (denying nature to others is an absurd notion). As an alternative I would suggest we form a collective, based on the principle "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need".

Also in your scenario, what's much more likely to happen is the 4 people will take out guns, go visit the lazy guy, explain that he's not using his land to its full potential and they will, their wealth although large is not enough for them, so they deserve to have it not him.
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Re: Equality, Meritocracy and Desert

Post Number:#3  Postby Scott » May 23rd, 2012, 9:59 am

What if the four only used half the island and left the rest for you? What if they only used a quarter of the island and left the rest for you? What if they gave you first pick? What if they only wanted you to stay out of the, for the sake of argument, tiny fraction of the island on which they build their mansion, i.e. they don't want you in their house?

I don't understand Grendel. Would you insist the four hard-working, extra-food-growing mansion-builders let you into their mansions or build you one on the half of the island they are not using? When you use Marxist ideas to try to convince them to share with you despite you being like the other animals trying to get some of the Little Red Hen's bread, what if they decline? Or would you be happy and peaceful living in a shack with barely enough food to live while they live in mansions and get fat?

It seems to me that the more free market/society, meritocratic alternative I propose would better achieve the goal of from each according to his ability, and to each according to his need. Under your system, assuming you intend to force the hard working people to subsidize the lazy even in this simplistic island scenario, then that discourages them from building mansions by the principles of supply, demand and cost efficiency since the non-lazy guy who wants to get a mansion and get fat would have to work twice as hard for the mansion and food so that he could subsidize the lazy person who is capable of doing his share of the work. He'd need to build two mansions only to get one and hunt twice as much food only to get half of what he gets. Under your system it is not from each according to his ability, and to each according to his need; under your system it's from each according to his lack of laziness, to each equally regardless of their unfair laziness.

From each according to his ability? The island scenario presupposes each has the same ability!
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Re: Equality, Meritocracy and Desert

Post Number:#4  Postby Scottie » May 23rd, 2012, 11:53 am

People are naturally unequal. There will always be somebody stronger, faster, smarter, more attractive, more creative, more likeable, more something than I or anyone else. These traits are manifest in differing amounts and in different relative amounts in everyone.

I would never seek a society where there is an attempt to legislate and/or enforce absolute equality of means. There will always be classes of people.

The amount and degree of unequal access to resources in our current system is dangerous to community living. Our political system ensures that people of little means are considered unsuccessful and, therefore, unfit to contribute anything meaningful to the public process of the allocation of resources.

I believe that it's our concept of property that is deeply flawed. I'm not sure that individuals or elites should be able to OWN common and necessary resources. The fruits of those common resources should be allocated such that the people performing the labor to harvest them get enough. While I'm willing to admit that someone who works harder or more should perhaps get more in return we need to question the idea that, in a finite sphere, there should be no limit concerning what a person can own and, therefore, deny others at his pleasure.
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Re: Equality, Meritocracy and Desert

Post Number:#5  Postby Ecurb » May 23rd, 2012, 12:12 pm

“Merit” suggests moral value. My dictionary defines it as “Worth or excellence; that which deserves esteem.” Why does working solely for one’s own benefit “deserve esteem”? What does deserve esteem is working for the benefit of others. This altruism is a feature of all mammalian life, without which no mammals (and few birds) could survive. All female mammals routinely share scarce resources with their offspring.

The problem with “meritocracy” is that everyone has a different notion of what behaviors are “meretricious”. Suppose there are two religious prophets. Both are smart and hard working, but one attracts a large following, all of whom put money in the weekly collection plate, and one of whom attracts no followers. Is one more “meritorious” than the other? Suppose there are two craftsmen, who design jewellery. Both are hard working, but (for unexplained reasons having to do with the whims of consumers) one sells his jewellery for lots of money and gets rich, the other finds no customers, and starves. Is one more meritorious than the other?

“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” Ecclesiastes

Suppose a tidal wave washed over one quadrant of the island, ruining one of the hard-working men’s crops. Is his “merit” any less than that of his rich companions?

The idea that merit (in the form of the Protestant/Capitalist virtues of hard work) is inevitably rewarded is a capitalist myth. Time and chance affect everyone. In addition, who cares if the very rich are merely lucky? Why the jealousy? My suggestion is that everyone should be able to take care of basic, human needs – beyond that, I don’t care if wealth is accumulated by luck, or work, or talent. My guess is that all three have roles.

Suppose you have two poker players. One is lazy and lucky. The other is hard-working, and has studied poker theory, and practiced poker techniques. They sit down to a game. Whoever wins, why complain? Why should we spectators value the “hard work” of the poker expert? What does it produce for us, or for society? Do we want the hard-worker to win merely to confirm our Protestant/Capitalist faith in hard work? Or do we want the lucky player to win, to allow hope to spring eternal? I don’t think victory for either is more morally laudable than victory for the other.
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Re: Equality, Meritocracy and Desert

Post Number:#6  Postby Grendel » May 23rd, 2012, 12:17 pm

Scott wrote:What if the four only used half the island and left the rest for you? What if they only used a quarter of the island and left the rest for you? What if they gave you first pick? What if they only wanted you to stay out of the, for the sake of argument, tiny fraction of the island on which they build their mansion, i.e. they don't want you in their house?

I don't understand Grendel. Would you insist the four hard-working, extra-food-growing mansion-builders let you into their mansions or build you one on the half of the island they are not using? When you use Marxist ideas to try to convince them to share with you despite you being like the other animals trying to get some of the Little Red Hen's bread, what if they decline? Or would you be happy and peaceful living in a shack with barely enough food to live while they live in mansions and get fat?

It seems to me that the more free market/society, meritocratic alternative I propose would better achieve the goal of from each according to his ability, and to each according to his need. Under your system, assuming you intend to force the hard working people to subsidize the lazy even in this simplistic island scenario, then that discourages them from building mansions by the principles of supply, demand and cost efficiency since the non-lazy guy who wants to get a mansion and get fat would have to work twice as hard for the mansion and food so that he could subsidize the lazy person who is capable of doing his share of the work. He'd need to build two mansions only to get one and hunt twice as much food only to get half of what he gets. Under your system it is not from each according to his ability, and to each according to his need; under your system it's from each according to his lack of laziness, to each equally regardless of their unfair laziness.

From each according to his ability? The island scenario presupposes each has the same ability!



In a meritocracy every moment of life will be an evolutionary struggle of people competing against one another, stabbing each other in the back conniving to get ahead, forever having to look over their shoulder, in permanent stress and worry. Even if you say you don't want that, that's what you're go to get. A world where material wealth is more important than relationships and living a fulfilling life. Industrial societies are full of isolated, lonely, depressed people. Visit a third world country and see how much higher the quality of life is, where people look out for one another, share what little they have and never have to look over their shoulder or worry about starving if they fail to produce.

Capitalist free markets have only ever existed twice in history, Russia where within a fortnight people were on the streets selling their furniture for bread and the oligarchs bought out the government, grasping everything in sight. A true meritocracy. And Iraq, where they're still counting the bodies from that period.

Finally we live in a diverse world, full of diverse people and ideas. Does someone deserve to be fed by others while sitting their lazily being smoking pot all day. Well that's how some of mankinds greatest acheivements have been made, science, art, literature, music, philosophy has all been made by people like this. Even recently JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter while on the dole. Should she have got a low paying job and forgot about that writing nonsense?

Now without blowing my own trumpet too much, I live in a developing world country and work in a reletively very well paid job. In this country welfare is practically non-existent and the highest tax bracket under 10%, little is done to help the poor. Now being a foriegner I do little to aid the poor, however when I pass beggars in the street I am usually quite generous to them, and not one time have I ever asked a beggar if they are empoverished because they can't get a job or don't want to get one, it's irrelevant to me. You propose a system where people think they only owe themselves, fortunately most people in the world don't think like that.
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Re: Equality, Meritocracy and Desert

Post Number:#7  Postby wanabe » May 23rd, 2012, 3:24 pm

Simply by those definitions, it seems clear to me that a meritocratic distribution of wealth is very preferable to absolute equality (but both absolute equality or a meritocratic distribution would be preferable to what we have now). The example makes it even more clear, but that is because it isolates every factor except for laziness, work ethic and materialism (i.e. the desire for comforts and luxuries), and the difference in personal productive output associated with working more.


Some people don't want to toil for creature comforts. Current society has taken over and has made this toil mandatory. These people only want what's needed, but current society forces us to have more. There are people who have a good work ethnic who are not materialistic. Their work, however cannot sustain them in a society that constantly demands more of them, this society does not allow for non-materialism. The space to live out side of this current society is not available as an option for the numbers that desire such because the society does not leave space for non-materialism. A meritocracy must address this to be viable. Otherwise it assumes perfection which is of course false. It also assumes material goods in any amount are always the best, even when there is overabundance and it causes problems.

People should all be able to live as they wish, so long as it physically or mentally harm others. Surly someone meritable would understand charity regardless of how a poor person became poor, or why they stay poor. Using your island example. No matter how lazy this one person is, he is not harming anyone else; physically or mentally. For that reason if at some point he can't get the things he needs he is surly still deserving of the things he needs to live and they should be provided for him. His inaction may very well have allowed those others to prosper in the ways they wish.
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Re: Equality, Meritocracy and Desert

Post Number:#8  Postby Scott » May 23rd, 2012, 3:59 pm

Grendel,

Yes, you make some good points about the complexities of real life. Although, I don't believe that third world countries have a higher quality of life.

Also, you say that I "propose a system where people think they only owe themselves, fortunately most people in the world don't think like that." I don't think that's really accurate. I think the system I propose better meets the goal of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" than you do, with when needs are met the word need being replaced by freely chosen wants. I think you propose the cutthroat backstabbing system in which lazy people enslave the hard working because you propose a system of "From each according to his laziness, to each and all equally regardless of laziness." That's a cut-throat, backstabbing competitive system in which the lazy animals who were just able to help make the bread as the Little Red Hen make the Little Red Hen give share all her bread with them.

However, you didn't answer my questions about the philosophical thought experiment:

Scott in post #3 wrote:Would you insist the four hard-working, extra-food-growing mansion-builders let you into their mansions or build you one on the half of the island they are not using? When you use Marxist ideas to try to convince them to share with you despite you being like the other animals trying to get some of the Little Red Hen's bread, what if they decline? Or would you be happy and peaceful living in a shack with barely enough food to live while they live in mansions and get fat?


***

Scottie,

Scottie wrote:I believe that it's our concept of property that is deeply flawed. I'm not sure that individuals or elites should be able to OWN common and necessary resources. The fruits of those common resources should be allocated such that the people performing the labor to harvest them get enough. While I'm willing to admit that someone who works harder or more should perhaps get more in return we need to question the idea that, in a finite sphere, there should be no limit concerning what a person can own and, therefore, deny others at his pleasure.



In the last sentence in that quote, do you mean there should be a limit? Otherwise, it doesn't seem to jive with the rest of what you wrote. That sentence aside, I agree completely. I think the main thing leading to the distribution of wealth, particularly of the fruits of the labor, being so non-meritocratic AND unequal in the absolute sense rests, as you say, on the issue of property, particularly the appropriation of natural resources.

Aside from those who argue for a basic safety net via some sort of government welfare or mandated charity, I find that those who claim to oppose a so-called "free market" really only oppose traditionally capitalist views of private property in terms of natural resources. Thus the issue isn't about free association and voluntaryism, but property.

***

Ecurb,

Ecurb wrote:The problem with “meritocracy” is that everyone has a different notion of what behaviors are “meretricious”.



Yes, I have listed all the behaviors I think people would consider to be 'meretricious' in terms of the distribution of wealth in the economy. I'm open to adding to the list if anyone else can think of a way. And I think I have decent methodology for exploring each one using a controlled philosophical thought experiment in which we isolate that one quality as I did already with the lazy man on an island with 4 other people who are equally able but more materialistic and not so lazy.

Ecurb wrote:Suppose there are two religious prophets. Both are smart and hard working, but one attracts a large following, all of whom put money in the weekly collection plate, and one of whom attracts no followers. Is one more “meritorious” than the other? Suppose there are two craftsmen, who design jewellery. Both are hard working, but (for unexplained reasons having to do with the whims of consumers) one sells his jewellery for lots of money and gets rich, the other finds no customers, and starves. Is one more meritorious than the other?



These are interesting examples, but unfortunately I do not think they contain enough information to say. It depends on whether the huge margin success of one was truly simply luck, like winning the lottery as opposed to being born with no legs and then getting an expensive-to-treat-cancer, or was it because one of them actually did a better job. In general, as a rule of thumb, if one jeweler is making way more money than another than I would say he is working harder and smarter, e.g. maybe he went to school longer to learn his craft. But it certainly isn't absolute, and in exceptional circumstances a person can be exceptionally successful or unsuccessful for non-merit-based reasons, i.e. it could just be luck.

Ecurb wrote:Suppose a tidal wave washed over one quadrant of the island, ruining one of the hard-working men’s crops. Is his “merit” any less than that of his rich companions?



Great question. His luck is certainly worse than his companions. Whether his merit is or not depends on whether or not they were wise enough to create an insurance pool -- or mutual agreement to that sort -- to protect themselves against that kind of devastation, e.g. they all agree ahead of time that if one of their houses/crops suffer a natural devastation or genuine accident that they will all pitch in to help that person recover their losses. If the other men made some kind of arrangement to that effect or wanted to but the first man didn't or declined to, then yes I would say they have more merit to be wealthy than him. If the other men risked it too and just got lucky, then I would say no he does not have less merit than them and his relative lack of wealth stems from bad luck. In the latter case, hopefully, without the need of a government law, these other people would treat this unlucky man like they might treat a dependent newborn baby or someone who becomes severely disabled during their childhood and is unable to financially provide for themselves, i.e. give him charity voluntarily. In real life, your wise example demonstrates an argument for policies such as the new USA health care insurance mandate. On the one hand we don't want people to be destroyed by bad luck, but on the hand we can't let them game the system by refusing to chip in for an insurance system and then beg for handouts when they would have needed the insurance payout.

Ecurb wrote:Suppose you have two poker players. One is lazy and lucky. The other is hard-working, and has studied poker theory, and practiced poker techniques. They sit down to a game. Whoever wins, why complain? Why should we spectators value the “hard work” of the poker expert? What does it produce for us, or for society? Do we want the hard-worker to win merely to confirm our Protestant/Capitalist faith in hard work? Or do we want the lucky player to win, to allow hope to spring eternal? I don’t think victory for either is more morally laudable than victory for the other.



As a matter of opinion, yes I think it would be disappointing to see someone who worked hard lose. Poker is just a game made to have an element of luck however, like a grown up version of war, so it's not as disappointing as if someone clearly more deserving lost at the Olympics due merely to luck. There was an instance in a base ball game once where a fan reached over and grabbed the ball turning into an apparent home run which caused an uproar.

I wouldn't really describe the distribution of wealth, the status quo of which is always enforced with violence (e.g. if I go over to my neighbor's house and take some of his wealth I will be forcefully thrown in prison), to be a game. Additionally, I believe there are benefits to a meritocratic distribution that exceed mere opinion over the merit itself. For instance, rewarding hard work leads to more hard work which presumably creates more wealth in society to go around and more independence. Non-meritocratic systems of wealth distribution, such as where we give the lazy guy -- not who doesn't have a mansion and excess food because it was unluckily run down by a wave but because he chose not to work when the others did -- a mansion built by the other four, then that subsidizing of laziness encourages laziness. Once you take that away from the other 4, they might as well each one by one also choose to be lazy and stop building. Suddenly, all will be near poor because nobody wants to be the only one working to take care of 4 other people. So it isn't just that it is fairer in the sense of the poker player who works harder and plays better winning, but that this fairness when taken out of the game of poker and put into the significant real life issue of wealth distribution has significant effects on the efficiency, effectiveness and productivity of the economy. An allegedly fair economy isn't just desirable because it's fair but because its fairness -- I believe -- leads to other more tangible desirable ends.

Finally, I wasn't so broad as to say that 'working hard' equates to merit. I made a list. Here is the list from the OP of the qualities I consider to make up merit:

(1) education
(4) strength and physical abilities gained through practice, training or similar personal effort
(5) previous work ethic
(6) the results of previous work ethic (e.g. academic achievement)
(8) achieved physical beautification (e.g. having healthy teeth from brushing daily as opposed to being toothless and morbidly obese from overeating)
(9) relative behavioral popularity in an inter-subjectively judged sense (e.g. being trustworthy, having good credit, being the kind of person people like where determined by behavior, etc.)
(10) laziness versus work ethic (which correlates in many but not all contexts to productive output, subtracting certain natural severe disability)

***

Wanabe, I think you are absolutely correct that some people aren't as materialistic. Insofar as the lazy man from my island example doesn't try to steal from the others or otherwise force the others to share the fruits of their labor with him, then I don't think anything negative of him. In fact, it's a great example of why a truly free market system (truly free in the sense of somehow being void of oppression via unfair appropriation of natural resources) is so great. The people who prefer material gains and luxuries like living in mansion and getting fat can choose to do the work involved to get that stuff. The guy who prefers his leisure and would rather sit and enjoy the beach day after day while not being fat and having a mansion may do so.

"From each according to his ability, to each according to his need," only goes to the point of fulfilling needs, after that I think we may alter it to "from each according to the combination of his ability and desire for luxury (i.e. wants versus needs), to each according to his role in the production of wealth (i.e. each person keeps the fruits of their own labor).' Ultimately, I think these goals go hand-in-hand with meritocracy, as long as there is either social or political measures in place which there always seem to be to deal with the unfortunate and dependent, e.g. babies, some certain disabled people, the poor and elderly, etc. Philosophically, it would be contradictory for me to support political measures to that effect, i.e. government forced charity, but I think it is a moot point since I think people would give to effective charity anyway, so forcing people to give to charity is like putting a gun to my head and ordering me to eat a delicious piece of cake I was going to eat anyway; it's moot. In other words, I wouldn't mind those kind of policies.

***

Thanks everyone for your replies!
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Re: Equality, Meritocracy and Desert

Post Number:#9  Postby Prismatic » May 23rd, 2012, 4:04 pm

If income and wealth inequality were simply that and nothing more, it would be harder to justify action to change it as long as poor people got enough assistance to live. The problem is that economic inequality produces political inequality—those with more money have great access to government and much greater influence in setting policy. The last thing business wants is a free market. What each business wants is an unregulated market biased in its favor. They get this through lobbying and political contributions. The United States is not a democracy anymore, it's a plutocracy—government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich.
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Re: Equality, Meritocracy and Desert

Post Number:#10  Postby Scott » May 23rd, 2012, 4:08 pm

Yes, I agree Prismatic. Good points. This is why I think having meritocratic results depends on making the market/society truly free, which would be no easy task in real life since it means taking power away from the wealthy elite who have bipartisan control over the government and have rigged the market in their favor.

The median black man in the USA today makes 2/3rds what the median white man makes today. That is not only equal in the absolute sense, but it's also plainly non-meritocratic since race does not correlate to merit. Unfortunately, that's the kind of thing that will take a long time to correct, if ever. And that is only one aspect of non-meritocracy we have today which acts as an example of how difficult working our way to the ideal is. Getting rid of the non-meritocratic effects of classism in general may be be a lot harder than getting rid of the non-meritocratic effects of racism simply because Big Business is so much richer and thus more politically powerful.

Alas, we can still philosophize about what would be ideal.
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Re: Equality, Meritocracy and Desert

Post Number:#11  Postby Prismatic » May 23rd, 2012, 4:30 pm

Scott wrote:Yes, I agree Prismatic. Good points. This is why I think having meritocratic results depends on making the market/society truly free, which would be no easy task in real life since it means taking power away from the wealthy elite who have bipartisan control over the government and have rigged the market in their favor.


When I first spent time in Washington years ago and started to understand the legislative process a bit, I was appalled at how open to influence it was. Even after a bill has passed and been signed into law, it is possible to influence its implementation through the rules setting process. Agencies assigned to implement a law publish in the Federal Register rules by which that law is to be administered. Interested parties are able to comment for a period and then a final version of the rules is published. I was amazed to learn that these implementation rules can even contradict the intent of the original legislation by allowing for exceptions and waivers. The final rules may actually undo a piece of legislation and negate its effect.

An amusing sidelight on the legislative process was my gradual realization that a high percentage of legislative aides and agency employees in DC are gay. Why? Because salaries are so low a family man cannot afford to work in those jobs. Only single people can work and live in DC. Sometimes a representative or senator will hire a family member willing to work for little, but often they have to have gay assistants. Washington is one of the gayest cities in the USA.
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Re: Equality, Meritocracy and Desert

Post Number:#12  Postby Ecurb » May 23rd, 2012, 6:11 pm

I can’t go along with your list of meritorious activities and attributes, Scott. Let’s look at it:

(1) Education – Isn’t it inevitable that all people are educated in different ways? The Harvard student studies Philosophy, the street corner drug dealer studies the movements of the police and the potential for customers. Both are receiving an education – the value judgment we make about the “merit” of the subjects being taught is based on our own prejudices, preconceptions, and legitimate concerns.

(2) strength and physical abilities gained through practice, training or similar personal effort -- I don’t get it? Why is strength gained through practice more meritorious than natural strength. If two people are equally strong, and if strength has any “merit”, why would the merit of the one outrank that of the other?

(3) previous work ethic (6) the results of previous work ethic (e.g. academic achievement)-- That’s what I’m questioning. Why is a “work ethic” more meritorious than a “play ethic.” Personally, I prefer people who don’t work very hard, but put a lot of time, energy and talent into playing hard. I admit that this is merely my personal preference, but I can’t help but oppose a claim that “work ethic” or “previous work ethic” have any more merit than play ethic.

(4) achieved physical beautification (e.g. having healthy teeth from brushing daily as opposed to being toothless and morbidly obese from overeating) – I don’t buy it. I think a woman with naturally beautiful breasts every bit as meritorious as one who had implants.

(5) relative behavioral popularity in an inter-subjectively judged sense (e.g. being trustworthy, having good credit, being the kind of person people like where determined by behavior, etc.) – I’ll go along with this one – but it’s basically just saying people who are meritorious are meritorious.

(6) laziness versus work ethic (which correlates in many but not all contexts to productive output, subtracting certain natural severe disability) – I don’t like laziness, either – but neither do I like the work ethic.

Have you ever read Max Weber? He was one of the founders of the (then) modern field of sociology, and his most famous book is “The Rise of Capitalism and the Prostestant Ethic’. He shows how the two fed off each other, as Protestantism and Capitalism arose together on the shoulders of an ethos not so different from yours.

Since you brought up sports, let’s look at them. They are fun (in part) because they are an artificial meritocracy – artificial in the sense that no real “good” derives from winning. Nonetheless, every American athlete interviewed on TV appeals to the “work ethic” mythology you suggest. “I could’ve gone to the streets…. But I worked hard, every day, and stayed on the straight and narrow – That’s how I made it to the NBA…”

Anyone who has ever played sports knows that, while there is a grain of truth to the ethos, the reality is that sports are the paid human endeavour in which hard work is LEAST important, and natural talent MOST important. If you want to be a doctor, you have to work hard for 8-10 years before even starting to practice. If you slave away at hoop for a couple of years, you can make it big… especially if you’re already big, as in 6’10”. Does anyone really think the 6’10” star works much harder than the 6’0” scrubs on his high school basketball team? Of course he doesn’t. But the hyper-capitalist ethos of athletics demands he publicly endorse the Capitalist work ethic. This is precisely the opposite of the approach in some other societies: Herakles and Achilles never ranted on about how hard they'd worked to achieve their physical prowess -- they thought it was more meritorious to be born that way, because one had a God for a parent. It's hard for me to think one way of thinking better than the other.
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Re: Equality, Meritocracy and Desert

Post Number:#13  Postby Scottie » May 23rd, 2012, 7:05 pm

Scott -

What I mean is that, on the one hand inequality is a normally occurring state of affairs in groups of people.

but

In a finite sphere all resources are limited. much of our resources are commons.

The notion of trying to bring about equality is absurd because complete equality is not possible. Novels like Harrison Bergeron point out that it would be detrimental to humanity because would prevent the creation of much of what makes humanity worthwhile. Danilov in "Enemy At The Gates" puts it well, "rich in love, poor in love rich in gifts, poor in gifts. . ." You just can't make everything equal.

The problem with the western conception of natural rights and property is that, in a finite sphere there's only so much available in total. Additionally, much of what we allow as property either is or has come about by way of access to commons.

To my sights, the current notion of common resources being allowable as property is questionable BECAUSE in a finite sphere there is a point where a laissez faire unlimited right to property makes it possible to deny common resources or the fruits of common resources to a great number of people at the pleasure of the owners in an abstracted way i.e., it's just business.

There's an attractive symmetry in the idea that if you work more you get more. It seems to me that at a basic level anyone enterprising and motivated enough to labor to extract resources (which benefits humanity as a whole) should be allowed to keep some of the profits, perhaps more than some other people who work in more limited/mundane capacities. I think that, at it's base, this is desirable because it motivates people to be useful, both to themselves and to society as a whole. The right to own commons in the current political/ideological context, however, is suspect as far as I'm concerned.

. . . so I ask the question - wouldn't it make sense to set some limits on property? I don't think that contradicts anything I've said earlier.
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Re: Equality, Meritocracy and Desert

Post Number:#14  Postby Prismatic » May 23rd, 2012, 7:15 pm

Scottie wrote: There's an attractive symmetry in the idea that if you work more you get more.


The problem is that the current operational version of that principle has become: if your risk more of other people's money through the creation of credit default swaps you get much, much more in your bonus.
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Re: Equality, Meritocracy and Desert

Post Number:#15  Postby Scottie » May 23rd, 2012, 7:28 pm

which is why I think we should have some limitation on property together with strict systemic regulation of participants in certain, perhaps all, markets. This isn't aimed at reducing professionals' salaries and it doesn't mean that they can only have three bedrooms (although those at the top will be affected and they will make a lot of noise about it). What it means is that we explore the idea that the legal construct of property has a point of diminishing returns for society as a whole which we are well past.
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