Fly Bottle‘s Will Wilkinson has an interesting piece in TCS entitled, “Meritocracy: The Appalling Ideal?” In it, he challenges the arguments of Matt Yglesias, not to mention John Rawls and others, that so-called “self-made men” really don’t deserve their station in life since the distribution of talents–including a penchant for hard work–are simply accidents of fate.
Wilkinson argues that, even if random chance largely determines our actions, it simply makes pragmatic sense to distribute rewards accordance to the benefits one produces for society and that, in any case, using the coercive powers of government to redistribute wealth to achieve “fairness” is immoral on its face.
And even if it is chance all the way down, this fact fails to provide any justifying foundation for coercive redistribution, for it also undermines any possibility of justifying the inequalities implicit in coercive political power.
As it happens, it’s not chance all the way down. I just poked the tip of my nose. I did it on purpose, I was in control, and I’m responsible. You got up this morning and went to work. You did it on purpose, you were in control, you were responsible — even if the event of your getting up and going to work was written in the stars at the commencement of time. If you actually work at work, in accordance with your terms of employment, then you deserve your paycheck. If you have the best record of performance and show the greatest potential, then you deserve the promotion. There are self-made men responsible for their own success. If paeans to them give us hope, and move us to throw more effort into realizing our dreams, then let the paeans ring forth. Let the sons of mill workers and goat herders thrill and inspire us.
Many people, through no fault of their own, got a raw deal and need a lot more from us than exhortations to greater effort. One thing they don’t need is to be told that people who have done well have done so through no fault (or credit) of their own, that working to make a fortune is no more praiseworthy than inheriting one, and that it’s really all just chance all the way down. If meritocracy is an appalling ideal, then the idea that nobody is really responsible for anything isÃ¢€¦ what?
Quite right. I think it is true that the qualities of personality that help propel some people of similar raw ability to achieve more than others are, like brains and beauty, largely inate. Some people simply have more ambition, drive, and discipline than others and probably have no more right to take credit for those things than they do for their eye color. Like Wilkinson, though, I’m not sure that it really matters. The fact of the matter is that these people work harder and produce more than others and are thus more valuable to society.
UPDATE (1133): Apropos of this argument, Dean Esmay links scientific evidence that procrastination is genetic.