“How deserving are the poor?”

Next Wednesday night, Bryan Caplan will debate Karl Smith on that topic at GMU.  For background, here is a relevant short essay by Karl.

From the perspective of “common sense morality,” the poor, in wealthy countries at least, are responsible for quite a bit of their difficulties.  I believe Bryan stresses this factor, although I am less sure how he treats common sense morality when he disagrees with it.

Yet other perspectives must be brought to bear.  There is determinism, at differing levels, ranging from “it’s tough to come from a broken home” to “lead poisoning is bad for you” to “what if the universe is a frozen four-dimensional Einsteinian/Parmenidean block of space-time?”  (Ethics does look different when you are traveling at the speed of light.)

There is the view that desert simply is not very relevant for a lot of our choices.  We still may wish to aid the undeserving.  Matt Yglesias adds relevant comment.

What about utility?  Corrupt societies are inefficient, frustrating, and infuriating, but is more meritocracy utility-enhancing at all margins?  I doubt it.  Chess is a relative meritocracy, with clear standards for performance and achievement, but I am not sure that chess players as a whole are happier for this.  Some ambiguity in one’s level of achievement can be socially useful and somewhat of a relief at the personal level.  Life in a sheer meritocracy would be psychologically oppressive.

What about multiple equilibria and self-fulfilling prophecies (pdf, very interesting paper at first glance I have not read it yet)?

The goal of discussions of desert is to improve on common sense morality, without straying so far from it that the proposed reforms are unworkable or unsustainable.  Views on merit and desert are also incentives, and they must slot into *someone’s* common sense morality if they are to be applied and carried forward.

In this area, it is easy to stomp on the views of other people.  It is harder to synthesize these factors, and others, in a way that is defensible or even explicable in terms of a coherent approach.  Where does the commensurability across the different factors come from?  How much room or slack does common sense morality give us to operate at all?

What if we turned out not to deserve meritocracy?  What would then be the meritocratic thing to do?


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