Bryan Caplan  

The Meritocracy of Liberty: Why Trevor Burrus Should Become a Meritocrat

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The meritorious libertarian Trevor Burrus has unfortunately joined the ranks of libertarians against merit:

Libertarians are often accused of advocating for a merit-based society. The free market, the argument goes, produces a distribution that more-or-less corresponds to how meritorious the people are. If you're poor, you likely deserve to be poor; if you're rich, the same. To mess with the market is to mess with that moral order.

Even worse than those who pigeon-hole libertarians into that argument, however, are those libertarians who actually make this argument.
I've previously had this argument with Rod Long and Shikha Dalmia (see here, here, here, here, here, and here).  At least on my reading, I persuaded Shikha to abandon almost all of her key points.  Now I'd like to try the same with Trevor.

The first question to ask, of course, is what merit is. This question proves quite difficult, but it seems, at a minimum, that merit refers to the characteristics that make an activity praiseworthy rather than the characteristics make it valuable. The free market "determines" value through a freely flowing price system that quickly accounts for changes in supply and demand.
All true, but as I told Shikha before:
Dalmia's right, of course, that value and merit are different, and that when markets have to choose between the two, value prevails.  However, she doesn't seem to consider the obvious retort: On the free market, value and merit are highly correlated, so markets reward merit after all.  Hard work, more work, and higher-quality work are all meritorious, and they all create value.  The same goes for more and cleverer ideas.

Since value and merit are not perfectly correlated, of course, meritocratic arguments occasionally backfire in free-marketeers' faces.  The same goes for utilitarian arguments, economic prosperity arguments, etc.  So what?  Merit, utility, and prosperity aren't everything, but they're all important, and free markets do a pretty good job of promoting all three.
If merit comes from striving, effort, or overcoming adversity, then a free market works to diminish the amount of meritorious action in order to increase productivity. Efficiency is preferred over toil. If holes need to be dug, then they should be dug in the most efficient manner possible, not in the most meritorious manner. Digging a hole is hard work, and digging a hole with only one arm is even harder work, but it would be odd if we determined the value of hole-digging based on these considerations.
Simple answer: All else equal, the efficient use of resources is meritorious.  This is hardly an eccentric Objectivist invention.  Common-sense morality praises people who use their time wisely, who save for a rainy day, and who calmly weigh their options instead of running around like chickens with their heads cut off.  Of course these aren't the only things that common-sense morality praises, but they are on the list.

Many characters in Rand's novels, after all, are heroes whose successes in the marketplace are indications of their virtue and merit. If you wish to admire the character traits that lead someone to become a steel tycoon, that's fine. But it does not follow that those who failed to become tycoons are less meritorious. The singer-songwriter who makes a decent living crafting excellent songs and playing small venues can also be praised as meritorious.
To repeat, the correlation between market success and merit is imperfect.*  But it's still fairly high.  Better musicians earn more for their music than worse musicians.  Musicians who spend most of their time injecting heroin typically earn less than musicians who spend most of their time honing their craft.  There are exceptions, but they proverbially prove the rule.

Not convinced?  Suppose a financially struggling musician asked you for advice to increase his income from his craft.  What would you tell him?  Some obvious suggestions:

1. Spend more time practicing music.
2. Try to write better songs.
3. Ask more experienced musicians for candid advice.
4. Avoid drugs and alcohol.
5. Try to get along with your bandmates.
6. Honor your contracts.
7. Be punctual for all your gigs.

The entire list is intriguingly meritorious. 

Yes, there are counter-examples.  "Make your music more commercial," (a.k.a. "Sell out") is the most obvious.  But trying to be more commercial is often more meritorious than it sounds.  After all, isn't most uncommercial art extremely low in intrinsic quality?  In any case, my point isn't that the correlation between market success and merit is perfect, but that it's fairly positive.

One last point: Even if everything I've said is wrong, there are many major government policies that clearly make the world less meritocratic than it would otherwise be.  Immigration restrictions, which legally prevent most of the world's population from competing for the world's best jobs, are the most powerful and heinous example.  The sordid bail-outs of recent years are another case in point.  And how about progressive taxation? 

The lesson: Libertarians can say with confidence that a freer world would be far more meritorious than the world of today.

* You can personally increase this correlation by becoming a paying fan of my favorite obscure rock star, Emily Whitehurst of Tsunami Bomb, the Action Design, and Survival Guide.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (13 to date)
Paul writes:

"Hard work, more work, and higher-quality work are all meritorious"

If that is so, then why do so many religions have traditions of asceticism, hermitage, and monks and nuns who take vows of poverty and spend their lives in menial labor and prayer? Johnathan Haidt might say that the argument correlating moral merit with market value is one that libertarians would find appealing but would strike conservatives as self-evidently false. If you need to pay people to do it, it most likely isn't God's work.

However, the argument that rewarding "hard work, more work, and higher-quality work" leads to greater wealth and general prosperity strikes me as a very solid argument in favor of markets.

Wallace Forman writes:

I think Bryan Caplan the meritocrat is hard to square with Bryan Caplan the intuitionist.

If Jinxed Jack is stranded on an island and can't find any bananas despite working hard to find them all day, should he be allowed to take some from Lazy Larry who slept all day but found a fruit tree as soon as he woke up? Sounds "meritocratic" to me.

If meritocracy just correlates imperfectly with one's conception of justice and efficiency, then it is deceptive to describe oneself as a "meritocrat". Utilitarians care about utility. Entitlement theorists care about entitlement. Rawlsians care about the least difference principle. Meritocracy is just a side-effect, a shadow. Sure a society run according to X principle might be more meritocratic, but that's another matter.

I see this as similar to the arguments about libertarian utilitarianism. Utilitarian considerations might be a justification for libertarianism, but only if you care about utility. If you are a pure utilitarian, you should prefer a non-libertarian system if it produces higher utility. If you are a fundamentalist deontological libertarian, utility is just incidental.

If you are a pluralist, you have some difficult questions to answer. Where does meritocracy take one that libertarianism/utilitarianism/whatever doesn't?

kebko writes:

There seems to be an assumption that if markets are not perfectly meritocratic, they lead to more inequality. But, occupations that allow for precise measurement (sales, for instance), tend to have much higher variance of incomes than typical occupations (clerical workers, for instance). Inertia and imperfect information mean that most markets are actually much more egalitarian than a strict meritocracy would be.

In statistical terms, Bryan is saying that if we could do a regression of income to merit, the r^2 would be higher than we give credit. I would suggest that in addition to that, the slope of the regression line would be relatively flat. Most criticism of markets deals with the noise around the line and ignores the flat slope.

On net, markets make the world more egalitarian than pure meritocracies, not less.

Eric Rall writes:

It's all in the framing. "Make your music more commercial" is more or less a perjorative way of saying "make music more people will want to hear".

Steve Sailer writes:

How about:

8. Take lots of drugs, especially new drugs.

The cash machine classics still playing on the radio from the 1960s-1970s were typically done on LSD, marijuana, or heroin, while the 1970s-1980s stuff is heavily driven by cocaine.

As Mickey Kaus points out, what they forget to tell you in all those biopics about musicians who finally conquer their inner demons is that the point when the musical innovator finally gets off drugs tends to correlate with the point when he stops being a musical innovator.

Saturos writes:

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Tom West writes:

The one other caveat that Bryan forgot is that it's not enough to provide a valuable service to people who want to pay for it, you have to provide it to people who *can* pay for it.

By the strict "merit = pecuniary success" barometer, service provided to the penniless is worthless.

(I suppose a strict propertarian might argue that only those who have provided worth to someone else (whether by action or by birth) can provide worth to others - strictly speaking a penniless person is worthless. However, I don't think that philosophy meshes with the moral intuition of most of us.)

Eric Falkenstein writes:

Johnny Cash, Ray Charles...stop the drugs, and then they just replay the oldies.

I think this doesn't work well for more analytic work. Marx supposedly drank a lot, which perhaps explains a lot.

Chris Brennan writes:

The relative prices we actually pay for goods and services may be easily observed in ways that allow us to agree that objectively "price X was paid for a good" or a "price Y was paid for a service".

In comparison, beyond our individual feelings about them, things do not actually have value nor do actions actually deserve merit. Our feelings cannot be observed in a way that allows us to agree that, objectively, a thing "has value X" or an action "deserves Y merit".

I may feel that a thing is valuable to me while you may feel it is not valuable to you. The thing itself does not possess an attribute of "having value" which would make either our feelings wrong.

I may feel that an action merits my praise or respect while you may feel it does not merit yours. The action itself does not actually possess an attribute of "being deserving of merit" that would make either of our feelings wrong.

Occam's razor suggests that we not make metaphysical assumptions about value and merit which are unnecessary to accurately describing the world we observe.

The political question is "What basis can I see for using threats of violence to force to others to accept my individual feelings about value and merit?" The libertarian answer is "None."

Wallace Forman writes:

Also a quote from Thomas Sowell's Knowledge and Decisions seems apropos:

"Economic optimality is not moral justification. This is especially so in a changing economy, where rewarding 'merit' may be incompatible with re-allocating resources in accordance with changing technology and changing tastes. In a totally unchanging economy, it is conceivable that the hardest working, most foresighted, imaginative, or skilled individual would end up with earnings reflecting these valuable characeteristics, so that economic efficiency and morally justified rewards would both result. In an economy constantly changing in technology and taste, rewarding 'merit' and efficiently re-allocating resources are often contradictory goals.
To reward 'merit' is to reward some subjective estimate of input as judged by some unitary scale of values applied by some observer(s). To reward output is to reward tangible results as assessed by those actually using the output, in light of their own respective, diverse preferences. Only by the rarest coincedence would these different procedures lead to the same result. The question, then, is what is to be gained by substituting one set of surrogate preferences for diverse individual preferences, and adding the costs of consensus about values?"

Lewis writes:

Fugazi should be the greatest band of all time then. Maybe they are

mark writes:

"If merit comes from striving, effort, or overcoming adversity, then a free market works to diminish the amount of meritorious action in order to increase productivity.'

This is the root of his mistake. The striving / effort can be mental effort to make labor more productive. It isn't only hard work that translates into merit. Intelligent decisions even when arrived at in a short time are also highly meritorious.

Tom West writes:

The question, then, is what is to be gained by substituting one set of surrogate preferences for diverse individual preferences, and adding the costs of consensus about values?"

And the answer in the minds of many, of course, is justice.

Of course, justice is pretty fuzzy, and comes only at the expense of a different justice. But if we're dealing with the vast majority of human beings, there's a pretty strong feeling that there ought to be a link between effort and reward (again, somewhat fuzzily). And to a large extent, the majority approves of progressive taxation to further that belief.

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