The Meritocracy of Liberty: Why Trevor Burrus Should Become a Meritocrat
By Bryan Caplan
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.
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
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
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.