Last week Ned Reskinoff wrote a piece for Slate on what it means to “deserve” the money you earn. He actually doesn’t think the notion of “deserving” wealth is coherent at all. Here’s the basic argument: Sure, lots of people do make money through diligence and hard work, but a lot of the time how much wealth you have also boils down to luck and circumstance. And even when it comes to their hard work, what have they done to “earn” their good work ethic, high intelligence, personableness, and so on? If you take all this into consideration, everyone’s wealth is determined by a variety of factors, most of which they have no direct control over, so what it means to “deserve” something becomes pretty hazy.
What this suggests to me is that the only way you can coherently argue that a person inherently deserves a certain level of privilege or material comfort is to also argue that all persons deserve it, by virtue of their personhood. We already have language to describe these things that all persons innately deserve: we call them rights.
Beyond rights is where the language of “deserving” falls apart as a morally relevant factor. There are, of course, other morally relevant factors…[but m]ostly it falls back to a question of economics: how to balance the state’s ability to provide needed services for all citizens, including its most needy, while preserving a capitalist system which rewards achievement, and therefore (one would hope) innovation, productivity and excellence.
I think it’s great that Reskinoff brings this issue to light. It’s all too easy to take our moral beliefs about economic activity for granted, but in reality the relationship between ethics and economics isn’t all that transparent. Every brand of political thinking takes a different stances on this: conservatives and center-right liberals see the “freedom” of the free market as the highest good, a level playing field where people can reap the rewards of hard work; left liberals see the market as generating some negative effects but believe these can be ameliorated through government intervention; and socialists see capitalism as irredeemably exploitative, favoring the adoption of an entirely different economic system altogether. And then, of course, there’s the view that economic activity broadly considered is a morally neutral phenomenon, sometimes good and sometimes bad, and that we merely project our moral prejudices onto it.
Of course, no one knows who’s right—that’s obviously a big reason why we have Consider in the first place—but for some reason most people can’t seem to shake the belief that morality and economics have something to do with each other. Because of this, it’s remarkable to me that economics as a discipline doesn’t take greater account of these beliefs in explaining how markets function, instead assuming that everyone approaches economic activity with the same cold, calculating, utility-maximizing mindset. Maybe behavioral economics can delve into this, but the psychology of economic morality is something I’d like to know more about.