Bryan Caplan  

Burrus and Merit: Final Thoughts

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Trevor Burrus continues our previous exchange on merit and liberty (see here, here, here, and here for previous installments).  Trevor misses one of my key points here:

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.

I name these examples because, like merit, they're all "morally charged."  There are ascetics and anti-consumerists who think prosperity is overrated or even sinful.  There are social conservatives and radical leftists who oppose tolerance.  There are philistines who scoff at culture. 

Hard fact: To hail the fact that libertarianism positively correlates with prosperity, tolerance, and culture tramples on the values of ascetics, anti-consumerists, social conservatives, radical leftists, and philistines.  But at the end of the day, libertarians have to trample on those values.  Philosophically, the opponents of prosperity, tolerance, and culture are wrong.  And strategically, placating the opponents of prosperity, tolerance, and culture risks alienating the many non-libertarians who do value prosperity, tolerance, and culture.

My position is that merit belongs on the same list of positive correlates of liberty, and that libertarians should treat merit analogously.  Yes, the correlation  between liberty and merit is imperfect.  But it's quite positive.  Philosophically, merit is important.  And strategically, placating the opponents of merit risks alienating the many non-libertarians who do value merit.  You might not meet many meritocrats in philosophy departments, but the real world is full of us.

Trevor continues:

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."

Yes.  But both are true, properly interpreted.  Free markets typically lead to high levels of prosperity.  Free markets also typically lead to far higher levels of prosperity for meritorious than the not-so-meritorious.  Common-sense morality - and most people - recognize this as a good thing.  Trevor should too.

One last point from Trevor:
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.
Nozick's distinction between merit and desert is useful.  Yes, the wastrel son of a great inventor can deserve his inheritance (or perhaps simply be "entitled" to it) even though he doesn't merit it.  However, this is no reason to act like merit doesn't exist or isn't important.

To repeat my main conclusion: If one political-economic system happens to lead to an exceptionally meritocratic distribution of rewards, that's clearly a point in its favor.  That's why socialists love to demean the rich as parasites and exploiters.  And that's why libertarians should publicize the positive correlation between merit and economic success - and decry the heinous acts of government that keep that correlation from being as high as it ought to be.

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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Greg G writes:

If merit is so tightly correlated with financial rewards then why did compensation in the financial industry soar at precisely the same time irresponsible practices reached their peak? See also The Peter principle.

This idea that merit correlates so well with compensation is a classic tautology.

John Roccia writes:

@Greg G: I think part of Bryan's point is that right now, merit ISN'T tightly correlated with financial rewards. He's advocating an increased meritocracy, because right now we're quite lacking in that department.

James writes:


Are you not reading? No sane person claims that merit always correlates with income regardless of circumstances. The claim libertarians make is that libertarian policies lead to a correlation between merit and earnings, motivating most people to behave in a meritorious way.

Pointing out a specific case where irresponsible people were well compensated while policies deviated significantly from the libertarian prescription isn't even a counterexample. It's as though I had said "If a number is even, then its square will also be an even," and you respond with "If squaring leads to evens, then why does 7x7=49?"

It should tell you something that you have to rely on such fallacious reasoning to criticize the case for liberty.

Greg G writes:


That's why I never claimed that Brian said "that merit always correlates with income regardless of circumstances."

I characterized him as saying they are "tightly correlated." He said the correlation was "imperfect but "quite positive." Guess I thought that little glitch in the financial markets was something more than an imperfection. And I don't think that saying so is any kind of assault on "the case for liberty."

James writes:


Are you misreading on purpose? Bryan claims that there will be a positive correlation between merit and income under certain policy conditions. An event occurring under different policy conditions is not evidence against Bryan's thesis.

If I claimed that a specific vaccine would prevent malaria, would you regard a case of malaria in someone who never took that vaccine or only took half the recommended dose as a counterexample?

Stephen M writes:

I think it matters whether you look at thing prospectively or retrospecitvely. Looking at things prospectively, merit doesn't always equal success or value. However when you look at things retrospectively, a lot of goods or services that have value were achieved through merit.

The reason we favor value over merit is the same reason we acknowledge the importance of comparative advantage. If two people open up a bakery and they both work equally as hard, then one bakery can be more successful than the other for multiple reasons (better advertising, better name, better products). One person can just be a naturally better baker. So one bakery succeeds and the other fails.

We see this as beneficial because the person who failed at baking can now expend energy and labor in another industry where they may be even more valuable.

Greg G writes:


Bryan is arguing that a higher level of economic freedom should result in a higher correlation between merit and income.

I am pointing out that the reverse happened in regards to the financial crash. In the ten years prior to that event many derivatives that previously been illegal were legalized. Many other forms of financial activity were deregulated. There was a vast expansion of previously prohibited financial activity. It was argued that this increase in economic freedom would result in more prosperity and more safety for all. As all that was happening, compensation soared in the financial industry. Then it all blew up. Did you forget already?

Of course we never had a perfect libertarian state. No one is arguing that we did. What we had was a relative increase in economic freedom with relative results totally opposite to what this theory would predict. Oops.

It is ironic that libertarians so often fall back on the excuse of the communists: "You never really tried our system."

Sarah writes:

As a person with no merits, I'm opposed to meritocracy. The only way capitalism can work in my favor is if it rewards the undeserving with the deserving. Fortunately, I believe it does. Otherwise I'd have to move.

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