Who Deserves What?

by Benjamin Studebaker

One of the central questions of distributive justice is desert–what determines the size of one’s claim to the economic pie. The conservative right often maintains that certain inherent virtues or positive qualities justify desert. A hard working person is said to deserve more than a lazy person, a smart person is said to deserve more than a dumb person, and so on. This amounts to sort of a virtue ethic, a deontology–these things are inherently good, and consequently those who possess them deserve more. The liberal left has a different answer to this question, one grounded more in consequences and less in arbitrary virtues and vices, and I think there’s a strong case for saying that it more closely reflects reality.

The left’s argument (which receives much of its formulation on this issue from John Rawls), suggests that merely being hard working or being smart or otherwise capable is not sufficient to deserve a larger reward. Instead, a larger reward can only be justified if the larger reward leads to (and consequently reflects) behaviour that raises the standard of living for the rest of society. A smart person deserves a larger reward not because he is smart, but because his smartness will enable him to create larger social goods for others if he is sufficiently motivated. In many ways, this line of thinking is already followed, though many people do not realise it.

Take, for instance, a very hard working labourer, or a very clever cashier. Conventional right wing thinking would stipulate that, if these people are more talented or more hard working, they deserve more by virtue of their inherent goodness. But do we pay them more? No, we pay them just as much as we pay other labourers or cashiers, and the reason for this is simple–the amount they are paid is not determined by their virtue, but by the value of the work they’re doing, and the perceived necessity to incentivise that work to ensure optimal results for the rest of society. No matter what your virtue, be it kindness, business talent, humility, work ethic, any of the conventional, socially accepted virtues, you will only be paid more if it translates into larger societal gains for others. There is no direct relationship between how hard you work and how much you are rewarded–you could work a 16-hour shift as a janitor and still receive a paltry wage.  We live in a society in which wages are determined on a consequentialist, rather than deontological, basis. There are still major problems with this of course, in that there are still many people (like say, people in the financial sector) whose wages are not justified by their societal contribution because the free market system has been unable to rationally recognise the value of the work in question. Furthermore, given that we are presently in a liquidity trap with faulty demand, there’s a strong case for arguing that wages are too depressed for most working people, which would again assert inefficiencies in the market. Of course, the problems of the market and not directly related to the liberal concept–the liberal concept holds that people should be paid in accordance with this principle, not that they always are.

Now there’s an opportunity to illustrate the differences between liberals and Marxists here. The liberal believes that the wage is set based on the societal contribution and the necessary incentive sufficient for obtaining it. The Marxist on the other hand has an entirely different view of distributive justice in which every person is rewarded the same for the same amount of work. In an effort to eliminate class differences, all work is assumed to have the same value, regardless of whether its societal impact on others is large or small.  A janitor who works for 12 hours should be paid as much as a doctor who works for 12 hours, if you agree with the Marxists. The funny thing is that, if the right follows its own logic, it leads to this solution.

See, the right argues that hard working or especially skilled and talented people will accumulate more wealth, that they deserve to keep that wealth because it was earned through their virtues, and that our economic system should reward those virtues. This assumes that hard working or especially intelligent or skilled people will do better than other people. What the example of the hard working labourer or the clever cashier shows is that these virtues and pecuniary success do not always go hand in hand with one another. Often times people with the “Protestant work ethic” or other traditionalist, conservative values do not manage to outperform other people because the number of places at great universities and high-paying jobs is limited. Even in a world in which all of us had all the conservatives virtues–we were all clever, hard working, and so on down the line, there would still only be so many job opportunities for doctors, lawyers, business executives, and so on. A vast number of hard working, clever people would end up in other jobs. Now, if we were going to follow conservatism to the letter and award people based on their virtues and qualities, what we would have to do in that scenario is precisely the same as what we would have to do in a Marxist scenario–everyone would be paid the same amount for the same work. The two ways of thinking about distributive justice are entirely dissimilar from one another in starting point, but end up in the same place if surplus amounts of people possess the conservative virtues.

This is why you being a hard worker or you being clever are totally irrelevant to what you deserve, and why it’s perfectly acceptable to tax the rich higher than you would other people. These people just happen to have gotten access to the positions and wages in question. Perhaps they’re hard working, perhaps they’re clever, perhaps their fathers gave them head starts, who knows–it doesn’t come into it. We pay people based on their results for the benefit of everyone, not to reward them for being virtuous. Your wage isn’t there to reward you for being special, it’s there to inspire you to keep working so that you will continue to contribute to all of us as a whole. The deserved wage of a person has nothing to do with the given individual, it has everything to do with the nature of the output resulting from the work done, and it is only higher than other wages for other individuals because the disparity is needed to ensure optimum performance. Forget who and what you are, look at what you do, the consequences of your actions, not their motivation. And when we do that, we realise how arbitrary it all is and how lucky those of us who are well off are, to happen to be the people selected to do the well-paying jobs. Who knew where you would be born, your genetic background, what sort of family you’d have, or what schools you’d have access to? None of this is inherent to you and how special you are, all of it is a product of circumstance. The system should not reward you for being genetically smart or having great parents or for going to a great school. It should reward you solely on the basis of your ability to better the quality of life of those who had none of those things, who work the long hours as labourers and clerks, doing jobs many of us would loathe for wages many of us would consider a pittance. That is the only justification for rewarding some people more than others–that doing so might alleviate the travails and miseries of everyone else.