Meritocracy with decency

A lot of the huffing and puffing from the political right in the U.S. these days has to do with the idea that a progressive income tax “punishes success”. And I suppose I understand why someone might look at it that way. But the rhetoric is way overblown.

Most liberals, myself included, think that what makes sense for the U.S., at this juncture in history, is meritocracy with decency. What is a meritocracy? A meritocracy is a system in which people who work harder are given more. Work twice as hard? Make twice as much money. It’s not a bad idea. A meritocratic system is different from a completely egalitarian system in which some income (say) is guaranteed regardless of how much or little one works. From a meritocratic point of view, the radical egalitarian system disincentivizes effort and success. Why work twice as hard if you aren’t going to get twice as much?

There’s plenty to say about all of this. The first thing that comes to mind is that, for some at least, rewarding work is its own reward. Money, from this perspective, is an external good. People who are really driven by their passion don’t work for external goods–they work for internal goods: the rewards that are intrinsic to whatever it is they happen to be good at.

But forget about that. It seems to me you can keep the basic insight of the meritocratic system (that there should be some way of recognizing the differences in effort and talent between people) without significant harm. The question we need to ask is not whether or not meritocracy is desirable. Let us assume it is. The question we (here, now) should be asking is, is our current economic and social system a meritocracy?

Plainly, it is not. I’m too lazy to troll the internet for precise statistics, but I know that, however hard most CEOs work, it does not justify the pay differential between them and their lowest paid workers. In fact, low paid workers are frequently very hard workers. But their hard work is radically undervalued in our economy. The work of certain others, on the flip side, is radically overvalued. Let’s go hardcore meritocratic and assume some people are ONE HUNDRED times more productive than others. Fine. Let them be paid one hundred times more than the others. But that is not the system we have right now. The system we have right now is a system in which certain individuals, simply in virtue of good luck, good connections, and an ability to work the system, make TENS OF THOUSANDS of times more than hardworking people at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

What we have is not a meritocracy. A meritocracy would be huge leap forward. And if we kept the income gap between hardworking, productive, and intelligent people, and lazy, unproductive, stupid people, at a reasonable size… we’d have plenty left over to make sure our meritocracy was decent. So that even the lazy, stupid people didn’t have to starve, or get sick and die.

A meritocracy with decency. Shouldn’t we be able to get on the same page about the desirability of that kind of system?

In our political climate, I suppose, probably not.

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