« Will Long-Term Growth Slow Down? Becker | Main | Luck, Wealth, and Implications for Policy--Posner »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


May want to consult a molecular biologist on this -- but "chance" not luck determines genetic makeup -- while "methylation" of your genes is a mixture of "luck", and processes/environments over which we have some control.

...and on the trading floor, the managing director in charge would say: "I'd rather be lucky than smart." and he certainly proved this in some of his unfortunate life-choices.

Christopher Graves

I would agree that people do not deserve their possessions or, at least, it is really hard to determine such issues objectively. There are philosophical problems as well as practical problems with a merit-based theory of social justice. The practical problem is who is to judge who deserves more and along what lines are people to be judged? Is it work effort, intelligence, virtue, diligence, or some combination of these qualities and perhaps others? And then if we could specify some formula of desirable qualities that we collectively want to reward, what would happen to liberty of association, contract, bequest, and charity? Would they be outlawed? We can see how these considerations can become at odds with merit by recounting Jesus' parable of hiring workers for the vineyard in Matthew 20:

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius[a] for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

As Robert Nozick argued, an entitlement theory of social justice is superior to either a meritocratic principle or an egalitarian principle. Entitlement avoids the problems I have pointed to withe merit as it protects individual liberty. We also avoid the problems posed by Judge Posner and Professor Becker about luck and free will. Further, we side-step issues relating to exactly how much people need to induce them to continue socially productive activities, viz. incentives.

The entitlement theory also avoids the intrinsic problems present in egalitarian notions of social justice that center on continually attempting to measure the degree of inequality of result and tinkering with institutions and individuals' lives to force people into the specified social pattern. We have a long track record of the intrusive, and in many cases, tyrannical tendency of regimes founded upon egalitarian notions of social justice.

On Nozick's view, which he derived from John Locke, people are entitled to whatever they gain as a result of a fair process. People are endowed with certain abilities, which they rightfully own based on the principle of self-ownership. People mix their labor with nature or they trade with others who have acquired their property either by appropriating it from nature or by fair trade or bequest. This process allows for the free play of individuals and, over time, organic social institutions and practices to develop to regularize these acquisitions in a flexible but stable manner. Government's role on the entitlement view is limited to protecting private property and enforcing contracts. This is the conception of social justice that the United States is founded upon, and we can see the results in terms of personal liberty and prosperity over two centuries.

Gordon Longhouse

I think you are right about issues of "luck" versus hard-work having little impact on the issue of tax rates and tax bases. It is nevertheless useful to counter the rhetoric -often heard in Republican circles including by its most recent presidential candidate- around taxes being in some way a penalty or punishment for being rich.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Become a Fan

May 2014

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
        1 2 3
4 5 6 7 8 9 10
11 12 13 14 15 16 17
18 19 20 21 22 23 24
25 26 27 28 29 30 31