Deserving, Earning, Merit, and Unicorns

I’m just going to come right out and say it. Merit is a concept best abolished, stricken from the category of productive heuristics we use to understand our world. What do you mean by that? You’ll see. Let’s take three people with six figure incomes (so here we’re talking about some of the richest people in the history of the world, actually). Dude A runs a company. He does upwards of 70 hours a week of complicated work that he had to go to university to train for. He also pays his employees well and gives more vacation than required to by law. Dude B worked in his 20s and 30s, but now he does not. He drives sports cars and takes younger girls out to fancy Italian restaurants. He is a particularly gifted investor, and now lives off of the profits of his portfolio. Dude C is 27, and had a rich Dad. He plays Halo, mostly.

Analysis now!? Nope, more dudes. These fellows have triple figure incomes. Like most people in the world. Dude D works 12 hours a day growing rice. I don’t know that much else about Dude D; the news can’t be expected to inform me of his existence when there are cars driving into non-road things all over my state. Dude E lives in El Salvador. He does construction, and is pretty good at it, but the work is very inconsistent. He’s thinking about emigrating. Dude F is a homeless American. He lives in San Diego. He’s bipolar.

K. So, some first insights: Dudes A & C receive the same share of the world’s wealth, so if we say that you deserve whatever you manage to acquire, legally, in the system in which you live, then they have to be equally deserving. Uh huh. So merit by actual result of current system is out. Generally, I think, we’d say Dude A is more deserving of what he has than Dude C. He works a lot harder, and he’s got talent (though C’s probably better with a spartan laser). But now we’ve got a problem. Dude D works really hard, too, but his diet’s lacking protein and his children don’t have notebooks. So does Dude A deserve to have more than Dude D? Isn’t the fact that A has more wealth just a product of being born into circumstances where his effort would result in wealth, while D was born into circumstances where his equal effort would leave him poor? Can we then say that A has earned hundreds of thousands of dollars, while D has not? Can you earn something by being born into a certain context? (I’d hazard a no, but you can (should) come up with your own thought(s).)

You might say, “Ok, our system doesn’t distribute wealth as it is deserved.” Good. Thanks for saying that. But I want to go further. Talent/ability and effort seem to be the last holdouts for things that might actually make one more deserving. But talent is just a product of our genes and our environment, right? Do I deserve anything more than someone with average intelligence or Down’s Syndrome? Of course not, right? Do I deserve anything more than someone whose parents couldn’t or didn’t spend as much time reading and talking to them? That seems ludicrous to me. And then we have effort – the last soldier in the army of possible justifications for the concept of merit in its battle to obsolescence against logic and justice. But you only work harder than someone else if your context/environment was such as to shape you to do so or if your genetics were such as to program a harder-working person given your specific context. As we do not create our own genetics or our own context (except in the degree that our context is altered by our participation (itself a result of our genetics and previous context) in it), we cannot take credit for, or deserve anything more in any real way as a result of, our effort. We all just are what we are and it’s simply illogical, as far as I can tell, to say that what some people are is more deserving of receiving things than what another person might be. Can we say that certain actions are better than others, in that they result in a better state of the world (more happiness and meaning for sentient beings)? I certainly think so. But the link between a certain output in the world, or certain qualities in oneself, and a certain just recompense from that world, an idea so basic to the way pretty much all of us generally see the world, is built on convention and not reason, and thus should go the way of kings and miasmatic theory and roman numerals if we are to commit ourselves to understanding and bettering our existence. Just as it is ludicrous to say that I deserve more because I am tall or because I am intelligent, it is ludicrous to say that I deserve more for working harder or for doing something useful. The output to input connection, as an inherent merit, is false, like the existence of gods or the Illuminati. In all these cases, I could be wrong of course, but this is where my logic leads.

Huge caveat! The fact that harder workers and bigger contributors don’t inherently deserve more doesn’t mean that it can’t make sense to give them more to incentivize their behaviors. How we should distribute wealth and other benefits is a separate discussion. I aim here only to disabuse us of the notion that the inherent value of some actions or qualities corresponds to a certain inherent deserval of some recompense. Everyone should have what they need, and what they prefer, insofar as their having it has a net positive effect on the world (including them), because that’s good, not because they deserve it. It’s not that they don’t deserve it; it’s just that the concept is worthless.

Imagine how the world changes when Dudes A through C realize that whether or not they deserve what they have is a wrong, faulty, and irrelevant question and instead turn their thoughts to the real question of the best use (in the sense of doing the most good, of course) of the resources at their disposal. Better yet, what happens when everyone begins to view those dudes’ wealth (in addition to their own) in that way. How could this realization not push us in the direction of higher taxes on the wealthy and more energy put into helping the least fortunate, not only within our arbitrary nation-state borders, but also to those billions of people who suffer from being on the wrong side of global economic privileges that have accrued to the “developed” world without being deserved? How could anyone without the false concept of merit argue that we should build a giant wall, backed by 40,000 armed guards, to keep some people from crossing onto this side of a political line? Sure, you could argue that you want to keep them out and maintain your wealth and privilege at their expense just because you like it this way, but stripped of the false rhetorical cloak of having earned these disparities, the naked self-interest would be glaringly bulbous, and those most of us who generally strive to do good will win the argument.

The God of Merit will be slower dying and is more destructive than Allah or George Bush’s conversation partner, but human beings have been able to, and continue being able to, fundamentally alter the way we see the relationships between things. Here I sever for myself the bond between value of individual or collective output and any correspondence to certain deserved inputs. I continue – I strengthen – my commitment to doing as much good as I can.

I love you for reading this far. But really I think it’s just better to love you anyway, as much as I’m capable of, which is a lot.

All in everything together,

from my sleeping bag in Vancouver with Josie the cat


Commas are hilarious


4 thoughts on “Deserving, Earning, Merit, and Unicorns

  1. I think the main reason why the merit pay debate is still around is largely due to the struggles of being able to fire people in the public sector. As a teacher, I do not necessarily believe that I should be making more money than the person teaching next door to me. This is because the vast majority of the teachers who I work with now do an outstanding job. However this was not always the case. In a previous school that I used to teach at, there were at least 10 teachers who had tenure and flat out sucked at their jobs. Over a few years of making much less ($20,000-$30,000 less per year) than them, due to the lack of years in the field, it became very frustrating to see them doing nothing all day but hurting future generations of kids. It reaches a certain point where the quality teacher comes to realization that deadbeat teachers will never be fired and that the quality teacher therefore should be making more than the deadbeats down the hall. The public sector needs to get rid of tenure or at least make it extremely easy to fire tenured teachers because of teaching ability. If management did its job and got rid of the slackers and unqualified, then the merit pay debate would fizzle out.

    • Craig,

      I want to make sure I understand what you’re arguing. You’re saying that there would be no good reason to argue for differential/merit pay if it were easier to get rid of bad teachers? If that’s the case I think I agree with you on both counts. We should pay all teachers much better in general (it’s pretty much the most important job in our society) and get rid of the bad ones. It’s a much too important job to have people turning it down for better paying work in the private sector, and it’s a much too important job to allow incapable or unwilling people to continue having such a big effect on our kids.

      – Adam

  2. Pingback: The Hotel Experience | sowmanyreasons

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