Printer friendly version

August 17, 2004

If You Don't Deserve It, Give It to Me

About a year ago, Rush Limbaugh suggested on his radio show that what makes a certain segment of the wealthy espouse destructive liberal policies is that, deep down, they don't feel as if they deserve the wealth that they've got. Although, running through a mental list of top-tier actors and pop stars, one mightn't be inclined to argue against their feeling that way, it seemed to me a little too easy of an assessment, the way Rush put it.

Well, if subtlety of thought — or at least of expression of thought — was the deficit that I felt needed to be addressed before I'd accept the claim, Will Wilkinson has contributed the necessary amount, albeit from a different direction:

[John] Rawls' conception of desert leaves us with a picture of society where all the rewards have been spread around essentially by chance. Some folks are conceived under the lucky star of Pitt-like looks, Hawkingesque IQs, Gatesian trust-funds and Brazeltonian baby care. But most poor souls were born under uglier, stupider, meaner stars. Those of us who won the genetic and social lottery will naturally try to rationalize our great good luck. We will turn up our calloused palms and tell of the blood and sweat on our every red cent. Yet from the "perspective of the universe," in which self-serving appeals disappear into the vastness of impartiality, the distribution of rewards in our lotto-world appears entirely arbitrary. If a bag of money falls into your lap, that doesn't mean it's really yours.

Wilkinson goes on to argue that where Rawls went wrong was with his "claim that it is our 'considered judgment' that the consequences of our natural endowments are not deserved, because our natural endowments are not themselves deserved." Our considered judgment, which is ultimately determined by our horse sense (forgive the too-apropos cliché), is just the opposite. Ability and work do create desert. Thus derives our opportunity to play psychoanalyst of philosophers and limelight socialists: What skews them away from a principle that seems so obvious to the rest of us?

There are other routes to the same aversion, of course, than the guilty neurotic's conclusion that filmed dress-up oughtn't an emperor's fortune make. Some folks understandably like the argument that they deserve equivalent income because those who earn extra don't deserve extra. Others like the comfort of espousing socialism disguised as philanthropy. Others just take the ideological fashion without worrying about whether it's correct.

And then, if I may step a bit far out on the plank of speculation, there is the group from which those who devise the fashionable anti-meritocratic logic likely come. These are the people who believe that their merit has been overlooked. In a world in which such broadly accessible qualities as optimism, affability, confidence, and a willingness to exert one's self are the components of (quote/unquote) "merit," surely the very notion of merit must be ill conceived.

Posted by Justin Katz at August 17, 2004 10:03 PM

I was once listening to Rush as he spoke with a young medical student. This was during the era when Hillary's health care plan was being discussed, and the student wanted a universal health plan in place, because he was worried about all those people who couldn't afford health care.

Rush suggested, "Since you're so worried about people being unable to afford medical care, why don't you give your services away after you get your degree?"

By the tone of the student's "What?" you could tell he didn't like the sound of that idea one little bit. Obviously, he wanted everyone to have health care, but he still wanted to get paid.

Posted by: Karl Lembke at August 18, 2004 4:36 PM

From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. I know that's been tried somewhere before, and didn't work out too well.

Posted by: Ben Bateman at August 19, 2004 6:06 PM

I dont think it's that rich liberals think they don't deserve to be rich, or else they would just give their own money away. The rich liberals think that a lot of the other rich people they meet don't deserve to have as much money as they do. I'm inclined to agree that a lot of rich people don't really deserve to be rich. I've met a lot of undeserving rich people at Republican fund raisers among other places. They act like being rich confers some sort of automatic moral superiority. Just because someone is rich doesn't mean they inherently have any qualities that make them better then anyone else. Some people are just born rich, for instance.

And then, there are rich people who are very nice, honest, hard-working, and decent people. And not all of them want to give away other people's money for them. It's really a crap shoot to paint any group with as broad a brush as say "guilty wealthy liberals."

Posted by: Jeff at August 19, 2004 9:41 PM