Trevor Burrus, I Want to Convert You to Meritocracy
By Bryan Caplan
Bryan argues that “the correlation between market success and merit
is imperfect, [but] still fairly high.” Great success can come to the
lucky and lazy, but they tend to be the exceptions rather than the rule.
agree. I respect those people who have risen to the top, and I
understand that very few of them got there through pure luck. Even for
those imbued with natural intelligence and other advantages of birth,
success doesn’t just happen.
Trevor objects that this is asymmetric:
[T]he correlation between merit and success is less exact for those who
are not successful–that is, there are many people who have worked very
hard, have been unlucky, and are not successful. I’m thinking of
undiscovered bands, brilliant entry-level workers who had apathetic
mentors, and would-be superstar executives who simply didn’t have the
Lots of meritorious people fail to make it to the very top. But how many meritorious people end up anywhere close to the bottom?
There are also countless people who put in years of good,
hard work at companies that eventually failed who are now over-50 and
struggling to find a job in a horrible economy.
Yes, but it’s rare. Even now, the unemployment rate for college graduates is 3.9% – and much of that is concentrated among the young.
But whatever the relationship is between success and merit, it is not
integral to the case for the free market, and, if pushed too strongly,
it may in fact be harmful to libertarian arguments.
Doesn’t the same hold for prosperity, tolerance, culture, and all the other good stuff that libertarianism is supposed to deliver?
For me, merit has essentially nothing to do with why I believe in free
markets. Insofar as market success imperfectly correlates to what I
believe is meritorious, I regard it as almost a coincidence.
Really? Question for Trevor: If you looked at the world and saw nothing but lazy, drunken idiots making money hand-over-first while hard-working, sober geniuses begged for spare change, wouldn’t that bother you?
Trevor poses two questions:
everything that Bryan pointed to was false–if only a smattering of
those who are successful could be described as meritorious under any
definition of the word–would there still be a convincing case for the
Convincing, but considerably less convincing.
2. If someone had an idiosyncratic view of
merit–perhaps that “invisible hand” motives are an immoral of using
others’ needs and wants to fulfill selfish desires–should that person
still believe in the free market?
Probably, but with less confidence.
[I]t may be a tougher sell, but even in the face of such obstinacy a
successful case for the free market can be made based on the
Hayekian/Austrian argument against central planning and the concept of
individual rights. These arguments have the added virtue of being both
less subjective than opinions about merit and less potentially demeaning
to those who, right or wrong, feel cheated by the market.
“Subjective”? We could just as easily say that what counts as “prosperity” or “tolerance” is subjective. There’s no reason to think that there’s any less consensus on merit. “Potentially demeaning”? I say that ignoring the achievements of the virtuous demeans them. As I told Shikha:
Whenever any other group in society feels disrespected – whether it’s women, gays, blacks, immigrants, nerds,
or whatever – we advise them to stand up for themselves. We tell them
to demand that their fellow citiziens give them the respect they
deserve. Why shouldn’t businesspeople and high-earners follow the same
strategy? Yes, in the short-run, this might be, in Dalmia’s words,
“off-putting.” In the long-run, though, pride movements are pretty
Imagine a world where people feel as uncomfortable
publicly criticizing “the rich” as they now feel about lashing out at
blacks or gays. Imagine a world where politicians nervously fumble,
“I’m not complaining about the rich, merely certain aspects of rich
culture, because of course rich people make many great contributions to
our society…” It won’t be easy, but contra Hayek, this is exactly the
direction free-market advocates should be pushing in.
If the fact that markets tend to reward hard work and high skill is a
reason to believe in markets, then anyone who doesn’t value hard work or
high skill can disagree with markets for the same reason. These people
may not be as uncommon as Bryan supposes. Many movements in
twentieth-century art and music were based on a conscious rejection of
skill, practice, and many other meritorious virtues traditionally
associated with quality art.
There are also many movements in twentieth-century politics and culture that reject materialism and consumerism. Should libertarians stop hailing the effect of free markets on economic growth? There are many movements that reject social tolerance. Should libertarians stop hailing the effect of market on social tolerance?
Trevor should reflect more on the why that critics of the market demean its success stories. They’re doing it for a reason. As I told Shikha:
What do revolutionary socialists tell the have-nots to stoke
the fires of alienation and resentment? That successful people earned
what they’ve got, fair and square? Or that’s success is all a matter of
chance? I agree that there’s no need to rub people’s faces in their
failures. But if they’re complaining about their lot in life, it’s not
just true, but helpful, to tell them to emulate successful people rather than resent them.
Tell me I’m wrong, Trevor.