Burrus and Merit: Final Thoughts
By Bryan Caplan
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
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.
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.