August 13, 2004

For What We Deserve, Let Us Be Truly Thankful

Chris Bertram writes that "[Will] Wilkinson is smarter, saner, and more interesting that the average TCS columnist" and praises him as "a political philosopher of... ability." I'm sorry. After reading Wilkinson I don't get it. It seems to me that he his misreading of Matthew Yglesias is so bad as to demonstrate philosophical incompetence.

Wilkinson writes that:

Wilkinson: left-leaning intellectuals, like Yglesias and the Center for American Progress' Matthew Miller, regularly deny that one can deserve anything by effort. Working gives you no special claim to what you've got, because you didn't work hard to become the kind of person who works hard. Your genes or parents made you that way. You got lucky, and you don't really deserve what you got by luck....

And it goes on: we also do not deserve the rewards we have "earned" through the application of the abilities (which we do not deserve) that we cultivated with our good character (which we do not deserve).... If these judgments -- that no one deserves her natural abilities, her disposition to cultivate them, or the fruits of her discipline and effort -- are indeed fixed points of moral common sense, then any theory of justice that argues that people are morally entitled to what they've achieved in virtue of hard work must be wrong.

At this point, the redistributionist tends to argue that since no one has legitimate moral title to his holdings, there can be no objection to taking from the wealthy and giving to the less fortunate in order to "correct" fortune's caprices. Now, one must admit that this is a powerful argument. So powerful, in fact, that it's rather like advocating the destruction of all life on earth in order to prevent another terrorist attack. The luck argument, if it's any good, scorches the dialectical earth, undercutting the possibility of justifying political power, the mechanisms of government redistribution, or, well, anything....

As Wilkinson should know--or is it as Wilkinson does know?--that is not Yglesias's (or Miller's, or Sawicky's, or Rawls's) point at all. We want a society in which those with natural abilities are provided with powerful incentives to use them productively. We want a society in which the successful cultivation of abilities is greatly rewarded. We want those capable of discipline and effort to receive as rewards the fruits of that discipline and effort. We want all these things because a society that provides people with a framework of such incentives is a richer, a happier, a more productive and prosperous society--a better society.

What Yglesias is asking is a different question. Given that we have powerful instrumental reasons to favor a society in which ability, industriousness, discipline, and effort are rewarded--because such incentives are powerful instruments for making a greater society--is there anything more? Is there any extra reason, over and above the instrumental benefits in making a greater society, for those who chose the right parents (for their genes) and chose the right circumstances (for their environment) and wound up talented and industrious to have an even greater proportion of the pie than incentives' usefulness as instruments would suggest?

Matthew Yglesias says, "No." The reasons for rewarding talent, skill, industry, discipline, and effort are instrumental ones. In his view, we say that it is useful for these incentives to provide them with such rewards--we don't say that they deserve these rewards (or if we say they do deserve them, we aren't thinking clearly).

I, at least, find Yglesias's argument very clear. I find it impossible to imagine how a good-faith reader could mistake it. And I'm not even a licensed philosopher. So I would like an explanation of Bertram's high regard for Wilkinson.

Posted by DeLong at August 13, 2004 09:38 PM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post
Comments

Wilkinson didn't mistake Yglesias' argument at all, and certainly not yours. If your argument is that it's instrumentally useful for the talented and productive to be rewarded for their efforts, that's far short of a *moral* entitlement. Wilkinson's response is simply, "If luck negates the moral right to keep and dispose of one's stuff, it also negates the right to take and dispose of others' stuff."

If we're not morally entitled to keep what we earn through voluntary trade with others, then how are we morally entitled to take it away from others?

Posted by: Kevin B. O'Reilly on August 14, 2004 12:36 AM

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Sounds like you've analyzed away the meaning of "deserve".

Do athletes deserve their medals? Should they feel pride in their achievement after all their hard work? Apparently not! They just got lucky, lucky to have good genes, lucky to have a disposition for hard work. Any lazy couch potato or do-nothing slacker would be just as deserving of those medals as those who earned them. Wow, I'm going to be seeing the Olympics in a whole new light.

Posted by: CP on August 14, 2004 12:46 AM

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Whether Will Wilkinson understood or misunderstood Yglesias' argument is less interesting to me than the actual content of the argument itself, which strikes me as fundamentally at odds with what commonsense moral reasoning tells ought to be the case. In this particular case, at least, I believe that it is common sense that is right, for reasons I lay out below.

An easy way of seeing where this argument goes wrong would be to frame it in a slightly different context. Let us take, for instance, some traits I'd hope all of us would normally call "virtues" - courage, honesty, loyalty to friends and family. Who would dare say that these traits are praiseworthy only for their "instrumental" value, rather than as ideals in themselves? Would anyone make the argument that we ought not to value people who display these character traits beyond whatever "instrumental" value they provide to "society?"

I'd imagine (or rather, hope) that the answers to both of the preceding questions would be a resounding "NO" - that honesty, loyalty, courage, patience and other such traits aren't worthy of admiration in others only to the extent that they satisfy some utilitarian objective, and as a factual matter I find it hard to believe that most people could really feel any other way, for otherwise tales of brave sacrifices in vain or of loyalty beyond the grave would touch no special sensitivities in our hearts. But it is the very same reasoning that applies to the aforementioned virtues that apply to "enterprise", "thrift", "focus" and the like, so one group of traits cannot stand or fall independently of the other. QED.


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Posted by: Abiola Lapite on August 14, 2004 01:35 AM

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We're having a fun time discussing the issues over at CT, Brad, though I know you're Rawls-allergic.

But "Bertram's high regard for Wilkinson", the fact that I think he's someone I ought to respect as an interlocutor, derives from my having read other things by him in the past which I've thought rather better than his latest.

Posted by: Chris Bertram on August 14, 2004 01:41 AM

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This is very interesting. I have often disagreed with Abiola about this or that, and I think it comes down to this rather fundamental point.
Brad, you have here two people, CP, who seems to be in the same boat as Will, and Abiola, who, for the most part, I think gets it, possibly not at the right level of abstraction, but at least understands the difference.
Abiola, from what you have written, I think it follows that you do not believe in that fundamental American idea that all men[people] are created equal [or you are not really understanding MY either], which is a valid stance, but is at odds with the trajectory of western society.
With regards to your counter example, I think we do value those things for instrumental reasons, not deontological ones.

Posted by: theCoach on August 14, 2004 05:04 AM

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I wasn't aware that "all mans is redhaired" was a fundamental American value.

Posted by: Paul on August 14, 2004 07:25 AM

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Interesting- on the surface it's a 'philosophical' restatement of the history of economic Liberalism, presumably more attractive to the 'big thinkers' who shy away from tedious history.

But a sea change has occurred, and by the time Abiola restates the mantra, the rationalist approach to productivity has become a spiritual 'high' indulged in the fortunate at birth.

In fact, it sounds kind of like the 'divine elect'. Awards reflect our highest values and if 'chance' seems to distribute the awards mainly to the wealthy, that is God's way of signifying his approval.

Ironically, the 'productivity' of the Olympic classes consists mainly of almost endless 'play'. A life spent lounging around ski resorts exemplifies our highest values, while the person who works nights in the hospital is probably a lazy and unresourceful drone.

I can see why today's affluent young people would like it.

Posted by: serial catowner on August 14, 2004 07:31 AM

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A policy of wage subsidies financed by a progressive consumption tax would preserve the link between reward and effort, while promoting the general welfare in a way Yglesias would approve. Plus it would fix the problem of trading with low wage Giga-countries.

Contrast this to the concept of guaranteed incomes financed by a progressive income tax, and you have the difference between a 20th and 21st century concept of the liberal welfare state.

Posted by: Luke Lea on August 14, 2004 09:01 AM

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"I think it follows that you do not believe in that fundamental American idea that all men[people] are created equal [or you are not really understanding MY either]"

I believe that all men are equal BEFORE THE LAW, not that they are equal in talents and proclivities, and I also think the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly on my side on this score.

"With regards to your counter example, I think we do value those things for instrumental reasons, not deontological ones."

Then you and I obviously differ in our moral viewpoints at a very fundamental level. I would admire the virtues I mentioned even if they brought no benefit to either those who displayed them or to "society" at large.


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Posted by: Abiola Lapite on August 14, 2004 09:11 AM

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Does Abiola admire the "courage" of Muqtada Sadr, or is Sadr not courageous because he is not on "our" side. This is not to defend Sadr, who needs to be dead real quick, but to demonstrate that the instrumental view of the virtues is so deep as to condition their very definitions.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on August 14, 2004 09:48 AM

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"Does Abiola admire the "courage" of Muqtada Sadr, or is Sadr not courageous because he is not on "our" side."

This is just too silly for words - I'm sorely tempted to use even stronger language to describe how logically absurd I find this statement. No virtue can be admired in isolation: that doesn't mean that one must admire them in an "instrumental" fashion.

For the record, Muqtada al-Sadr has yet to display any "courage" whatsoever: chutzpah, yes, but cowering in a holy shrine that you know your adversaries are too decent to simply demolish doesn't amount to "courage" in my book. If you're looking for bad guys to use in your attempt to refute my position, I hereby offer you the baddest of them all for free: Adolf Hitler. Yes, he had courage, real courage, tested repeatedly on the battlefield, courage well worth admiring when considered in isolation. It's just too bad that his moral failings far outweighed this one attribute in his favor.

You're going to have to try a lot harder to wrong-foot me than what you've accomplished so far.


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Posted by: Abiola Lapite on August 14, 2004 11:15 AM

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Muqtada has apparently been wounded, I do believe the Shrine will be stormed(provoked by Sadr, Sadr may not be there, and probably not a good idea), and wherever Sadr may be hiding, he remains in Iraq with a death sentence on his head. He is obviously willing to die( or even desiring it), that is the reason he has repeatedly been allowed to escape.

And it is interesting to see Lapite's admiration of Hitler's courage, apparently not just for his actions of 1914-17 and perhaps early twenties, but for the later very risky decisions he made during the thirties and forties.

I actually think Abiola has made my point.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on August 14, 2004 12:05 PM

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Contrary to the classical moralist's views, the so-called virtueless do not stand equally BEFORE THE LAW. Of course, someone benefiting from a system rigged in one's favor is unlikely to perceive his or her's UNNATURAL advantages in such a light.

A phenomenon as old as history itself, the elite classes rig an economic system in their favour, so that only those with wealth can rig the system, ad infinitum, and then go ahead and blaim the "mob" (to use Cyril Robinson's term) for being dumb, lazy and immoral and impudently seeking a share of the spoils. How ghastly!

Posted by: Jacques on August 14, 2004 01:09 PM

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Abiola sees things principally from the point of view of the individual, while most liberals reach towards a view of things which incorporates the broader society. If the only justification is the result for the individual lucky enough to have the desirable traits, then the results for the unlucky are irrelevant. But the fortunate cannot exist in isolation, and envy coupled with weapons is a formidable antagonist for the fortunate.

An argument based solely on "moral common sense" will generally be too simple for our complex society, at any level of abstraction beyond the most basic.

Posted by: masaccio on August 14, 2004 01:12 PM

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I think the liberal's argument is not that the individual's luck is not all that should matter; actually, quite the opposite. They rightly observe the phenomenon as old as civilization itself, that "lucky" individuals create common cause with other "lucky" individuals by banding together by force of arms, in order to strengthen their overall position in a way such that outcomes do NOT determine their individual traits. Particularly, they create laws that give them advantage withing society whether earned or not. It is this imbalance between the rulers and ruled which the enlightened liberal seeks to redress. Moreover, the liberal sees a direct redistribution of wealth as a crude tool in doing so, much preferring such actions as campaign finance reform, responsibility for individuals acting within the confines of corporations, a fair legal system, spaces reserved for public use, etc. all issues already decided in favor of elite interests.

Admittedly, the American revolution was a great advance for the interests of genuine equality. Nonetheless it would be ludicrous to suggest it was the death-knell for the ruling classes of the age and that it could have been the be-all and end-all for freedom and equality forevermore. The struggle for freedom and equality continues all the while entrenched power and their apologists attempt to roll it back as best they can.

Posted by: Jacques on August 14, 2004 02:17 PM

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Luke Lea wrote, "A policy of wage subsidies financed by a progressive consumption tax would preserve the link between reward and effort, while promoting the general welfare in a way Yglesias would approve. Plus it would fix the problem of trading with low wage Giga-countries."

Huh? Both equity and efficiency are best served by first taxing Ricardian land rent.

Posted by: liberal on August 14, 2004 03:51 PM

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http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-virtue/

Mr Lapite's language led to a little quick study of something called "virtue-ethics" which is the mode of ethical analysis that dominated for perhaps 2500 years until replaced by deontology(Kant) and utilitarianism(Bentham,Mill). I confess to finding it difficult, and so rarely use words like "courage" and "honesty".

Basically, people are virtuous or they are not. There are no virtuous acts or virtuous behavior. Virtues are not social constructs in any way. A person who is not virtuous can never act in a virtuous way, tho certainly a virtuous person can make a mistake of judgement.

As examples, Hitler in 1939 was not a virtuous man, so could not be courageous.
Clinton is not a virtuous man, so tho he may make a factually accurate statement, he cannot be honest.
And Bush is a virtuous(honest) man, so tho he may make a misstatement, he cannot lie.

Simple common sense, unavailable to the decadent likes of me.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on August 14, 2004 05:11 PM

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I don't know who Wilkinson is and I don't really care if he is a fool or a knave. However, as you note, an argument can be made for each interpretation.

If he has a PhD in philosophy or an allied field he must be competent enough to understand that Yglesias is, as always, a consequentialist arguing for instrumental and not deontological justifications for everything except consequentialism.

He might be a knave attempting to trick people who are completely untrained in philosophy. Yglesias is doing something most commentators don't do. He is arguing at length against a justification of a policy (non zero incentives) whihc he supports. This is very rare. Many do not even acknowledge arguements against their positions. I don't think you can find an op ed devoting to attacking an argument supporting the commentator's position. Yglesias' essay is philosophy not an op ed. TCS readers might be unfamiliar with the concept.

However, why would he stoop to deceit to attack Yglesias, who is very very smart but not very famous yet ?

I think that (like many commenters here) he disagrees so strongly with Yglesias' view that hearing it drove him temporarily nuts. There are certainly arguments which have that effect on me. I can't bring myself to type them.

This post got a lot of comments. I haven't read all of them. It is striking that the first few do not address the post at all. Rather the idea that "deserving" should not be the basis for distribution is so shocking to people that they must attack it. O'Reilly is so sure that it is the only possible basis, that he claims that without it there is no distributional justice at all.

Posted by: Robert Waldmann on August 14, 2004 05:50 PM

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"Who would dare say that these traits are praiseworthy only for their "instrumental" value, rather than as ideals in themselves? "

Me! Me! I would! What does morality come from? What is its purpose? To warm the heart? Is that not part of the mechanism by which morality exerts its influence on human nature. Morality is partly an emotional thing for us because its function is largely to influence our decisions, and our emotions are largely for making decision with.

I think morality is an evolutionary adaptation to enable people to live together in groups, especially in larger groups than those of the ancestral environment. That would be an instrumental view, and one that can emcompass our natural emotional affinity for virtue, however, defined. If you have a different idea, Abiola, what is it?

Posted by: Martin Bento on August 14, 2004 07:13 PM

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Mr Wilkinson is a PhD candidate in Philosophy. I found more interesting than most TCS writers, and have added his site to my blogroll. I did not find him knavish, nor Mr Lapite or Will Baude.

I think most people do understand Matthew's argument quite well. To simply stop at MY's conclusion that we only have instrumental reasons for incentivizing virtue is somewhat disingenuous, for from that conclusion does arise immediately some very serious policy implications.
For of course, we are then in a world of calculating the marginal utility of incentives, personal property, and freedom. I think Mr Wilkinson is guilty of the usual libertarian dystopic hyperbole, but the conclusions he draws from Yglesias premise are not completely absurd.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on August 14, 2004 07:39 PM

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As I see remember this debate as it is viewed in liberal economics. One starts by clearly seperating the question into two components. On the one hand, we wish to divide societies products in a way which maximizes aggregate productivity. Since it is very hard to make any assumptions about how the utility of money would differ among individuals, we assume that each person has the same money-utility function. In this function the marginal utility of money is diminishing. Then, dividing societies net products evenly would maximize aggregate utility. Morever, the gains from division would be largest with the first wealth transfer and would diminish to 0 as we approached communism.
On the other hand, we must be concerned that a communist system like this would have drastic negative effects on productivity (since it disconnects reward from effort). We might expect that there is actually some level of distribution of resources which improves productivity. (i.e. that associated with adequate public expendeture on education, defense, roads, law, etc.) However, at some point, an increase in expenditure no longer increases aggregate product. Increasing expenditure from this point will decrease productivity, reducing the size of the economic pie. (probably at an increasing marginal rate)
When we take these two observations together, we realize that we do in fact want to redistribute income past the point at which it begins to decrease productivity. We would like to redistribute to the point at which the marginal productivity losses from redistribution = the marginal utility gains from redistribution.

We expect that the losses from the aggregate economic pie would outweigh the gains from its even distribution. Somewhere in the middle lies a progressive tax system where we have hit the redistribution sweet spot.

Deserts don't have anything to do with this argument. I don't think they should. Why do we punish prisoners after all, is it for society's benefit or to provide them with their just deserts? If we reward productive people at the expense of those less productive, it should be for soceity's sake, not for anyone's just deserts.

Posted by: Taipei English Teacher on August 14, 2004 08:16 PM

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"Taipei English Teacher "

Well put. I have somewhat different views on the punishment of prisoners, but I agree with you on the distribution of wealth. I would like to see a standardized measure of wealth that took utlity into account, instead of GDP and suchlike measures (which have other problems as well). Is there any such statistic?

Posted by: Martin Bento on August 14, 2004 08:36 PM

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This is all either over my head, or long forgotten from the impractical portions of college. But I do know that W Wilkenson is correct in saying that the New Testament will not help his case. Alvin and Buster deserve equal, at least in one version of the last analysis.

Posted by: jml on August 14, 2004 10:50 PM

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Martin Bento wrote, "I would like to see a standardized measure of wealth that took utlity into account, instead of GDP and suchlike measures..."

GDP is a measure of *income*, not wealth.

Posted by: liberal on August 15, 2004 05:35 AM

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Martin Bento wrote, "I would like to see a standardized measure of wealth that took utlity into account, instead of GDP and suchlike measures..."

GDP is a measure of *income*, not wealth.

Posted by: liberal on August 15, 2004 05:47 AM

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Taipei English Teacher misses the point by focussing on income and not wealth.

The point is to realize that a large amount of wealth lies in land, and people receive income on that land (namely, Ricardian rent) for doing *nothing*.

The economy would be *both* more equitable and efficient if Ricardian rents were taxed at nearly their full value.

Posted by: liberal on August 15, 2004 05:49 AM

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I think that Wilkinson and others are shying away from the enormity of that the concept of desert is invalid. Is an existential point.

On one hand I didn't deserve to be born into a society at a time and a place where all the land is taken when I arrive. A system of rules and bureaucracies already exists when I arrive. I can't just walk to the edge of the realm and set up shop on unclaimed land and do my thing. (In taht sense, a bear cub born in the woods is born with a greater set of rights than I. What that bear cub do to deserve that?) Instead I have to grapple with the all the barriers, challenges etc waiting for me when I am born. I didn't deserve that. I don't deserve to live in a world where the many of themost successful companies cleverly market sewage as cinnamon. I don't deserve the music of the Backstreet Boys or System of a Down. I don't deserve my weaknesses and character flaws.

We don't deserve to be born into time and place when our temperment and abilities make us out of place and of little value. Nor do we deserve to be born into a time and place when our temperment and abilities translate into competence and acumen.

I don't deserve to be born into a time and place where disease and pestilence are of little concern. I don't deserve access to Vietnamese, Thai, Spanish restaurants. I don't deserve the poetry of James Tate or the jazz of Thelonious Monk. (all these riches that my rival bear cub is missing out on. What have I done to deserve such things?) I don't deserve my strengths and virtues.


When we dispense with the fallacy of desert we can much more clearly consider the questions of reward. MY is correct that an instumentist view of these questions is a more productive approach.

>>>>"If luck negates the moral right to keep and dispose of one's stuff, it also negates the right to take and dispose of others' stuff.

True, and so we should consider very carefully how we approach the issues around how best to structure our system of property and reward.

As for why we react emotionally to displays of virtue and competence, how could it be any other way. The fact that we naturally admire displays of survival skills brought into sharp relief does not provide any moral basis for the claims that those displays make for reward.

Unless you want to make the case that Lance Armstrong should be richer than Bill Gates.

Posted by: Marc Brazeau on August 15, 2004 05:51 AM

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"And it is interesting to see Lapite's admiration of Hitler's courage, apparently not just for his actions of 1914-17 and perhaps early twenties, but for the later very risky decisions he made during the thirties and forties."

And you've just proved that you're severely reading challenged ...


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Posted by: Abiola Lapite on August 15, 2004 06:19 AM

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Robert distinguishes between op ed and philosophy.

[Likewise Michael Moore declines the opportunity ( but not the prize) to call his movie a documentary but is quite satisfied to refer to it as an op ed piece.]

I wonder how far we can press this distinction? Can we slap some different labels in place --philosophy light/ philosophy deep; op ed heavy / op ed scurrilous?
Is this action, (legislating a piece as op ed as opposed to philosophy) an editorial opinion?
You can bet that only those practicing philosophy will want to be the legislators of that opinion, dicarding the mere editors to the dustbin.
You can bet that most of the op ed guys in the dustbin won't even notice.

Posted by: calmo on August 15, 2004 09:39 AM

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"And you've just proved that you're severely reading challenged" Lapite

"Yes, he had courage, real courage, tested repeatedly on the battlefield, courage well worth admiring when considered in isolation." Lapite

Certainly a commander's courage is also tested on the battlefield, as we can say Eisenhower was courageous in authorizing Normandy. And certainly Hitler made many strategic military decisions.

If you had meant "Hitler demonstrated courage as a soldier in WWI" you should have said so.
Perhaps it is not my reading that is severely challenged.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on August 15, 2004 10:11 AM

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"I would like to see a standardized measure of wealth that took utlity into account, instead of GDP and suchlike measures (which have other problems as well). Is there any such statistic?"

Almost cetainly not, but I think Amartya Sen's "Development as Freedom" is essential reading if that sort of question interests you.

You may end up concluding that utility doesn't quite cut it either.

Posted by: Kevin Donoghue on August 15, 2004 12:52 PM

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Even if we accept that all the people were equally gifted, it would still be in society's interest to maximize its welfare by means of the division of labour. So, in this hypothetical case, a person will be a CEO and another, equally talented and hard-working person will have to make pizzas. Unless I am deeply misunderstanding the desert argument, everyone is rewarded for what he/she has actually done. But in this case we are going to have two equally talented persons rewarded differently, due to the different results of their activities.

Of course, it is a hypothetical situation, one might say, and we do not live in a world where people are equal, but I think that just because perfect equality (in terms of natural endowments) doesn't exist in real life, it still doesn't mean automatically that the results of one's actions necessariliy mirror his/her skills. Proving the former doesn't prove the latter (even though it is likely). Some persons may be engaged in activities where their potential is underutilized, but in reality it is the result of the activities that is rewarded, and not the talent of a person. So, my question is, when endowments and results achieved diverge, what is it that should be considered as deserving of reward?

Posted by: Slex on August 15, 2004 05:52 PM

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I do have one question: Do we have any way, even conceptually, of empirically determining what a person's "desert" is other than by assuming a general equilibirum of markets? And what would we have to observe in order to verify that the market correctly values us by our just deserts.

I suppose I find this whole debate just too theoretical. But it seems to me unless some one has a way to measure deserts, and verify whether those deserts are rewarded correctly in society (by the market? a correctly functioning market? a sequence of "tight" market equilibria over time?), then we have to muddle through.

So that means an trial and error instrumental appraoch. A person can argue all day long about nonoperationally defined things like "desert" but how is that measured.

Seems to me points have to go to MY and BDL on that point.

Posted by: jml on August 15, 2004 09:13 PM

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Desert is no way to look at the distribution of resources from the perspective of policy, no matter how personally appealing each side may find that sort of analysis. Will W. is absolutely correct in saying, as Kevin O' Reilly points out, that if I don't deserve the wealth accumulated through voluntary exchange because I am simply lucky, someone else who receives those benefits doesn't DESERVE them either. This means that the act of redistribution is desert-neutral.

What is the justification for redistribution, then? Some clearly believe that enhancement of income equality is a good in and of itself. To me, this argument makes no sense at all, but I recognize it as the statement of a private value preference similar to the one I have for liberty. The term utility is in public discourse often distorted to mean "enhances the value I hold as primary". If we don't agree on what that value is, we will disagree on what maximizes "utility" in that sense. Rawlsian analysis places a very high premium on risk aversion that I don't identify with, for example.

All we can talk about meaningfully in the public space is consequences. I don't care one bit if income variance is arbitrarily large. Someone else may care very much and proposes a remedy. We use reason to project what the consequences of the remedy would be, then I apply my values to see if I like the results and others apply theirs. The only 'gotha!' moment we get is if I claim to hold X value as most important, but reason and/or experience tells us that my policies won't enhance X.

My disagreements with the modern left are largely based on my reasoning that most liberal policies weaken the 'liberty' that is supposed to be at the heart of liberalism. Redistribution is not a good idea precisely because it is a capricious act of infringement on private matters. Having a central authority determine who gets what is inherently a bad idea, regardless of what values are held by said authority. Self preservation will always be among those values, you can count on that.

Posted by: Jason Ligon on August 16, 2004 08:16 AM

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Got here late. Hope nobody minds if I go back to the start. Seems that the order in which the analysis is taken has a considerable influence on the conclusion. Yglesias wants to consider the normative outcome, but does a bit of positive analysis along the way. The hoped-for normative outcome is that everybody has a shot at the good life, yes?, as well as living in an environment that encourages effort toward intellectual and material progress. Wilkinson immediately turns toward what is deserved (and seems, on the way, to take the common, if not quite legitimate approach, of stuffing straw-man views into the minds of an ill-defined group of adversaries – in this case left-leaning intellectuals – in order to make his case), saying “left-leaning intellectuals, like Yglesias and the Center for American Progress' Matthew Miller, regularly deny that one can deserve anything by effort.” No time for making things work out best for everybody. Straight to the normative judgement.

If it happens, under “Yglesias” that the world is still a very good place for those who are destined to strive and succeed, but also a better place for those who are destined to strive and fail, or those who are not destined to strive and need a bit of help to learn how, Wilkinson will never know. No room for an assessment of the possibilities. The fortunate “deserve” their good fortune – and we’re done.

As to whether we should admire virtues – by all means. That doesn’t mean we need to provide advantageous tax treatment for having them. The brave can be brave, and admired, without gleaning a single advantage. We should all admire diligence and striving, surely, both for their own sake and for the example they sets to those who might not naturally be inclined in that direction. We do not skew the tax code to reward bravery, though we do reward certain forms of kindness in a limited way. When it comes to public policy, well, isn’t public policy supposed to be instrumental? Virtue is, after all, its own reward.

Posted by: kharris on August 16, 2004 11:46 AM

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"If it happens, under “Yglesias” that the world is still a very good place for those who are destined to strive and succeed, but also a better place for those who are destined to strive and fail, or those who are not destined to strive and need a bit of help to learn how, Wilkinson will never know. No room for an assessment of the possibilities. The fortunate “deserve” their good fortune – and we’re done. "

Just to point out that this ("Yglesias") is not only a description of consequences, but a judgement on those consequences that depends on us holding a certain value. Specifically, kharris is saying that as long as those who strive and succeed have it good, we should not worry about the opportunity cost of reallocating a portion of their success to others. It might be the case that money in other hands innovates better, so the calculation is not straightforward. We are also only obviously done in this scenarioif we value a closing of the income gap. A neutral analysis is just that some people have more money immediately after the redistributive act, while others have less.

Posted by: Jason Ligon on August 16, 2004 12:41 PM

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Jason,

Uh, nope, I'm not saying that. I'm saying that Yglesias wants to investigate the possibility that the world will be a better place under a certain set of conditions, and that Wilkinson jumps right to a normative conclusion about who deserves what that prevents us from considering whether the world could be a better place under Yglasias' conditions.

Yes, Yglesias carries a set of normative views with him, as does Wilkinson. In the end, our preferences about the way the world goes will always be normative at their heart. The difference, I think, is that Wilkinson has decided how things will turn out and has no need to look at the possibilities Yglesias offers. I worry when I hear analysis that chides the other side for having normative views, as if that is a weakness, while declining to consider the positive argument being made.

Your contention that I am ignoring opportunity costs, while wrong, is at least in the right direction - you are entertaining the possibility that some factor other than what we "deserve" may determine overall welfare, and its distribution.

Are there any empirical data suggesting that ratio of CEO pay to workers pay in the US produces better outcomes than the ratio that is seen elsewhere? Is there any evidence that opportunity costs are high in taxing incomes above $200,000 at a marginal rate 5% above today's rate? The opportunity cost argument ought to be reasonably manageable, as long as we don't spoil it by trying to jigger the data toward one outcome or another.

Part of Yglesias' argument, as I understand it, is that opportunity is unequally distributed, and that unequal distribution of opportunity, by itself, imposes costs. Human potential is wasted by leaving good minds undeveloped. Human potential is wasted by not giving the (relative) have-nots some encouragement to strive beyond the Horatio Alger treatment.

Arguments about distribution also tend to ignore what has been discovered about the emotional salience of being better or worse off. Happiness, it seems, is not fostered very much by more income, past a certain modest level. Happiness is fostered by the impression that the world is fair. Effort is not, as far as anyone has been able to demostrate, undermined by marginal tax rates in place prior to, say, Bush II tax cuts. There is a tendency to measure one's situation against "peers", who ever one might consider them to be.

My guess is that, in policy debates, and in philosophical debates with policy implications, there is considerable spill-over from one's (often not fully considered) emotional stance to one's policy position. The cud of opportunity costs, incentives, income distributions and the like has been well chewed. Isn't it time to begin recognizing that a good bit of the debate is now well patterned, going nowhere, and often slighty dishonest? Iglesias is making an argument that is not part of the standard cud. Those looking into the "happiness" afforded by various economic arrangements and outcomes are also looking past well-worn positions. We ought to at least do better than lump them all together and dismiss them before actually giving their arguments a good honest looking over.

Posted by: kharris on August 16, 2004 01:26 PM

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But this is a theological question, not a philosophical one! Luther says that there can be no just reward for "good works"--only "justification by faith" (Calvin will disagree). The point is certainly complex, and entails a lot of close dialectical argument, but it's still not a philosophical question, because it's based on the "revealed truth" of Scripture, which is not, for philosophers, the kind of "truth" that they're looking for. The distinction matters if you wish to stay home during Sunday School.

Posted by: alabama on August 16, 2004 02:07 PM

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Happiness research is a whole new world of dishonest arguments. To the extent that people are made happy by being Democrats, er, by greater equality of income distribution, you would think those unhappy souls with the power to volutarily equalize would do so until their happiness was maximized. Nothing is ever said about whether people are made happy when their choice to donate income at thier discression is eliminated in favor or a government program. Also, one person's study of happiness is another's study of envy, but you can certainly see why policy prescriptions are framed in the former and not the latter.

Wilkinson hasn't any more decided his inclination toward Yglesias' argument than vice versa, he is specifically pointing out a flaw in the claims of Rawlsian liberalism. Yglesias made claims about desert, and Wilkinson pointed out that the same claims apply to the beneficiaries of a redistributive program. This isn't being obtuse, it is being reasonable.

My point about your previous argument is that there is a tendency for utilitarians to load the notion of utility, of 'the world would be a better place' with value judgements while treating them as objectively desirable situations. Better by what metric, for whom, and to what degree?

Some people might be more happy, but others might be less happy. It is not the case that the world is a better place unless you prioritize reported levels of happiness in your definition of utility.

Posted by: Jason Ligon on August 16, 2004 08:35 PM

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So, if we don’t like the implications of a line of research, then it must be dishonest. That’s pretty convenient. And while we’re at it, why not misstate the logic of the connection between equality of income and happiness in order to make it sound silly. Do charitable donations make some people happy? Certainly, but that is far from the issue when discussing the coincidence of greater income equality with greater happiness. It is a question of conditions in the broader society, a question which individual charity doesn’t address in any large way. Either you haven’t read very far into the research you are condemning, or you aren’t treating the research very honestly. Either way, you’re taking yourself out of the real discussion.

Your intended point about my previous post may well have been what you say it was, but what you did was to claim I had said something I hadn't said.

Then there’s the “...by being Democrats...” approach to argumentation. Yup, sure enough. Wouldn’t want to take an argument on its merits when we can make it a partisan issue. Just to clarify, I have worked on the staff of a Republican Lt Governor and a Republican member of Congress, but never on the staff of a Democrat. I come from a household that lent one of its members to Reagan’s list of political appointees. I have never, ever, been registered as a Democrat. Coming from that background, I can take Yglesias and the “happy” people as they come, rather than concluding they are wrong and then straining to figure out how. Give it a try.

So just in case you missed the point of my second comment, I was suggesting we stop dismissing inconvenient realities, stuffing the other guys argument full of straw while his back is turned, plowing the same old partisan ground, and in the process, going nowhere.

Posted by: kharris on August 17, 2004 06:52 AM

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