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Post No.: 0540talents


Furrywisepuppy says:


We shall jump straight back to continue from the end of Post No.: 0533 and our analysis of equal opportunities, and move onto whether people deserve even the fruits of their own natural talents?!


…Nature and luck are neither just nor unjust – what is just or unjust is how institutions deal with these facts, according to John Rawls. Yet what’s the point of a contest or race if one handicaps the naturally best?


A solution could therefore be to not punish people but to create head-start programs and publicly-funded schools so that everyone can go to a decent school and, as best as possible, start the race at the same line, and to reward and encourage those who may be gifted to exercise their talents but to change the terms on which people are entitled to the fruits of the exercise of those talents. People may benefit from their own luck and there may still be huge wage differentials and gross inequalities of outcomes, but only if it works to the advantage of the least well-off, as set forth by the ‘difference principle’ (e.g. a highly-paid actor can make millions but only in a system that taxes a chunk of that to help those who lost out and lack the acting skills that this person was blessed with). Those who’ve been favoured by nature cannot think they morally deserve the wealth they gain as a result of a natural lottery. In Rawls’s opinion, a distribution isn’t just if everyone gets what they ‘deserve’, because what people ‘deserve’ isn’t what they really deserve but is a function of chance.


But would such a tax end up reducing the incentive to work hard? Would people work as hard if they knew that a percentage of their labour would be taxed?


Some people argue that increased taxes will decrease productivity. Yet we don’t see evidence of this in reality – the most productive countries in the world don’t have the lowest rates of taxes, nor do the countries with the lowest productivities have the highest rates of taxes. There doesn’t seem to be a clear correlation between taxation and productivity. As long as those with higher salaries will always take home more pay than those with lower salaries after taxes then it’ll be worth trying to maximise one’s personal productivity – and this is true with income taxes, even where there are different tax brackets for those who earn different amounts, for higher tax rates only affect that portion of income that falls within its threshold or bracket. (Or a sassier answer could be if people don’t work as hard just because they’re taxed then maybe they don’t have the right furry work attitude after all!)


Well the level of taxation should be such that it finds the right balance between leaving enough incentive for workers and providing enough benefit to the least well-off – if the taxation is too high that the talent ceases to work and so the least well-off won’t benefit either, then it’s too high, and that’s the test to see if the right level has been reached. (Tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance complicates matters in the real world though thus are problems that also need to be solved.)


Would it be more just if everyone simply got paid the same rate for the same work they do, regardless of how talented or popular they were (e.g. all radio hosts, at least on the same radio station, getting paid the same wages as each other)? Should we all share the risks of failure too if we all share the fruits of the successes? Well in a way, where there’s taxation, everybody will lose out if someone doesn’t gain because everybody will lose out on the taxes that would’ve been collected for the public treasury if this person had succeeded – hence where there’s taxation, the public and private interests are aligned.


Along with maintaining the incentive to work – because it has to be counterbalanced with the requirement to find the right level of taxation – another two objections to Rawls’s form of egalitarianism are the reward for effort and the right to own what one earns because one has worked for it (and the problem of rewarding free-riders or people who don’t work yet benefit from the work of others) and the issue of self-ownership and the problem of treating our natural talents as common assets.


Equal education for all and schemes that help everyone to start at the same starting line are fine – but if taxation were to provide this then taxation is against people’s will and is therefore a form of theft or coercion because it uses people, according to the likes of Robert Nozick. So Nozick thinks that it’s unjust for the state to tax people’s earnings in order to provide an education for all citizens.


Rawls’s reply would be that, behind the ‘veil of ignorance’, everyone would indeed agree to the principles of basic liberty (freedom of speech, religion, conscience, etc.) and to not be owned or controlled by another. Therefore the only way in which the idea of self-ownership must give way comes when we’re thinking about whether one owns oneself in the sense that one has a privileged claim on the benefits that come from the existence of one’s own talents in a market economy – and Rawls says on reflection that we don’t. We don’t own ourselves to that extent at all. We aren’t responsible for ourselves to that degree if what we do is affected substantially by what’s arbitrary; by luck and by what we didn’t choose or truly earn, such as our natural biology. But we can still defend rights, respect individuality and uphold human dignity without requiring the idea of self-possession at all.


Even one’s effort, ambition and work ethic (and therefore all that follows, including the practising and mastering of our, natural or cultivated, talents and the opportunities that we appear to open for ourselves), according to Rawls, depend on one’s upbringing, and possibly genetics and birth order, for which one cannot claim credit for. Plus if effort is what should be rewarded then should an inefficient but hardworking person be rewarded more than someone who doesn’t need to break a sweat to get the same job done? Yet if it’s not about effort but about the contribution or end results that a worker delivers then that takes us straight back to our natural talents and abilities (and therefore all that follows) that we didn’t choose and therefore don’t deserve.


Rawls’s concept of distributive justice has nothing to do with the matter of ‘moral desert’ (deservedness) but with the matter of ‘entitlements to legitimate expectations’. Rawls introduces an important distinction between moral desert and entitlements to legitimate expectations – this is demonstrated when comparing between winning the fruits of a game of skill (where winning isn’t, regarded as, down to luck at all) and a game of chance (where winning is indisputably down to luck). In other words, there’s a difference between deservedness (according to one’s skill) and entitlement (according to the rules of, say, a lottery, natural or otherwise).


Rawls claims that what someone is entitled to should not be dependent upon or proportional to his/her intrinsic worth. Even if we could successfully counter-argue him to show that our talents and efforts are completely our own to claim deservedness for – in a market economy, how much our talents and contributions are worth depend on what other people happen to want or like in a society at a particular time and place (i.e. supply and demand) and these are not one’s own doing either; and so again it should not be the basis for moral desert. The markets should not dictate what we morally get.


Without personal responsibility, an ordered society wouldn’t or couldn’t function though. Without responsibility and punishment for crimes, everybody could get away with anything. But he would argue again that for a civil society to function, there is no moral desert, but there are entitlements – punishments as well as rewards – according to market forces and established laws.


Would we be less worthy, virtuous or meritorious if we lived in a time and place where our natural talents weren’t highly rewarded? Rawls’s answer is no. We might make less money but we would be no less worthy or deserving than we are now. We are entitled to the benefits that the rules of the game (e.g. the predetermined tax rates or admission criteria that we choose) promise for the exercise of our talents, but it’s a mistake and it’s conceited to suppose that we deserve, in the first place, a society that values the qualities we happen to personally possess in abundance. So some people may be entitled to more than others (depending on the rules we put in place) but no one morally deserves (in pure principle or virtue) more than others.


This punches a hole right into the basic premise of meritocracy, which suggests that we should all get what we all deserve, for this isn’t the case because of all of the moral arbitrariness of upbringing, culture, genetics, being born and raised in the right/wrong time and place for your best talents, etc. that no individual ever chooses or earns, or therefore deserves. In a meritocracy, most people think that success reflects what we deserve, but we don’t actually deserve what we claim to ‘deserve’. Hence if the tax system requires someone to hand over a portion of their income to help the disadvantaged, they cannot complain that this deprives them of something they ‘morally deserve’.


Inequity is a barrier to freedom of choice because the deprived have fewer options in life than the privileged. And inequity at birth – and therefore what follows in path dependence from birth – is never one’s choice. ‘Path dependence’ means that the opportunities presented to us are dependent on the previous opportunities, decisions and experiences we faced and made in the past. Your yesterday affected your today, which will in turn affect your tomorrow, etc.. This is how one’s initial good/bad luck can compound. (Even if one could alter one’s entire genome with gene editing technologies, what one will choose will be dependent on one’s existing genes and cultural influences one didn’t choose.) Rawls believes that egalitarianism can therefore be paradoxically reached via allowing inequality – but only inequalities that benefit the least well-off.


So it’s not about an equal distribution of income or wealth outcomes but an arguably more powerful philosophy of equality than that – it sets aside contingent or arbitrary facts about persons and their social positions. Not all equalities are therefore equal! Perfect equality is sub-optimal for even the poorest in society.


Don’t handicap the fastest runners – let them run and do their best, but simply acknowledge in advance that the winnings don’t belong to them alone but should be shared with those who lack similar natural and arbitrary gifts i.e. cancel out the luck to a degree.


Milton Friedman also concedes that many people get to where they are not because of talent or effort but because of inheritance or genetic luck. However, Friedman would say that life is unfair and instead of trying to deal with this, we should just accept it. But the way things are doesn’t determine the way things ought to be, and Rawls appeals to empathy and compassion – to consider the accidents of nature and social circumstance and to share in one another’s fate. Rawls therefore perhaps presents the most compelling theory of justice for a more fair society to date.


Woof! What do you think about us not morally deserving even our own natural talents or work ethics because they arise from things we didn’t choose or earn? And what should we do about this, if anything, to make a world that is more just? Please share your valued thoughts by using the Twitter comment button below.


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