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 is… 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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. McGehee says:

    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.

    Oh. My. God.

    I knew there were people who actually believe such things, but I was sure they were more likely to be found huddling inside refreigerator cartons or panhandling on street corners than writing popular weblogs like Yglesias.

    (He is popular, isn’t he? I mean, he gets quoted, and fisked, quite a lot…)

  2. But to counter this notion that we “distribute rewards accordance to the benefits one produces for society,” just ask yourself what difference you made as a professor versus what difference Ray Lewis makes, or the difference 50 Cent makes.

    By that measure, I should have killed myself long ago because when measured financially my life contributes nothing to society.

  3. James Joyner says:

    PC: While I’d argue that “education” is more valuable than “entertainment” at an aggregate level, it’s not necessarily true at the microeconomic level. As a professor, I affected perhaps 200-250 people a semester. Ray Lewis and 50 Cent affect tens of millions.

  4. Aren’t you confusing fame with impact? Sure, entertainers take us away from our problems for a short time, but what is the lasting positive effect on individuals or society (micro or macro)? On the micro level, the hundreds or thousands of students you saw should have left your courses as better citizens, which obviously is supposed to help society at large. What is the corresponding micro or macro benefit from a football game or a crappy rap CD? Individual and mass escapism?

  5. Boyd says:

    Professors, you’re discussing the quality of the product, which is subjective, and leads to a, at best, skewed perspective.

    In the broad marketplace of ideas, more people want(ed) to pay more money to Ray Lewis, 50 Cent, et al, than they want to pay a teacher. It’s that simple.

  6. Boyd: You’re absolutely right. I guess what I’m wrestling with is whether the market can measure merit (defined in some way that reflects societal good). Given that ignorance is a virtue in our society, it seems not. I’m not so much bitter about it as I am perplexed and saddened.

    No, I’m bitter.

  7. Attila Girl says:

    Money is important, but so are a bunch of other things in life.

  8. American Cuban in Miami says:

    When I read articles like this I get very astonished that these type of thoughts even exist and that people actually spend hours thinking these things and then I remember something important I once learned

    “There is a theory which states that if anyone discovers just exactly what the universe is for and why we are here, that it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. Then there is a theory which states that this has already happened”

  9. Nathan says:

    Boyd and Prof.Chaos,
    You are missing one vital aspect of this, as well: distribution.
    A linebacker of Ray Lewis caliber didn’t make that much money in the 50s, when NFL wasn’t on TV as much and didn’t have as many viewers when it was on. Cable TV and worldwide fandom has increased the revenue stream to professional football, and he gets his share. I’d bet that the revenue stream toward education is far larger than that of the NFL…but you have many more people who need their share of the pie.

    Another way to look at it: each person probably pays far more for education than they spend on a 50 Cent CD, but he’s (just one artist) selling millions of them. That’s one reason for the growing gap between the “rich” and the “poor”: the rich, like Bill Gates, sit at the top of a very broad chain of distribution, and those little bits of a penny add up.

  10. Joseph Marshall says:

    No one knows what someone else “deserves” and the thought that you do is the essence of spiritual pride. The end of life is not the “good of society” for we are not bees, destined to be workers or drones and subject to a queen.