Equality, Value, and Merit

A common argument against absolute equality is that individuals should be paid based on merit. Should somebody who works 80 hours a week earn the same amount as somebody who sits on their couch and watches TV all week? Even the most ardent supporter of redistribution would have a hard time answering yes. One of the alleged benefits of a free market economy is that it does a pretty good job allocating resources to those who work for them. Reading Hayek, however, I find it interesting that his defense of unequal outcomes explicitly denounces the idea of meritocracy. Value, not merit, is what should determine a person’s reward.

Some clarifications are in order. “Value” and “merit” are not well defined concepts. Let’s take an example to see the distinction between these two concepts. Imagine 2 students are studying for a math exam. One student studies 8 hours per day all week for the exam, but math has never been his strength and he ends up with a hard earned B+ on the exam. For the other student math has always come easy. He takes a quick look at his notes for a couple hours the night before and breezes through with an easy A. We might say that the first student deserves a higher grade than the second. If we graded based on merit we would want to give the higher grade to the student who worked the hardest. Of course, this grading system makes no sense when we consider that a grade is meant to represent a student’s knowledge of the material. Even though he didn’t work as hard, the second student knows math better and therefore deserves a higher grade.

The same arguments can be applied to an economic context. If two entrepreneurs each develop a product, a meritocratic society might suggest paying each based on how much work they each put into its creation. However, this criteria doesn’t consider the fact that consumers might place different values on the two products. If we want to maximize the benefits to society, we don’t actually care whether a product was created by a team of people and 2 years of strenuous research and development or by a guy coming up with ideas in the shower. All we care about is the value of the two products to the consumer. In Hayek’s words, “it is neither desirable nor practicable that material rewards should be made generally to correspond to what men recognize as merit…we do not wish people to earn a maximum of merit but to achieve a maximum of usefulness at a minimum of pain and sacrifice and therefore a minimum of merit” (The Constitution of Liberty, 157, 160).

It might seem unfair that talented people tend to earn more than the less talented. The handsome actor already gets good looks and fame. How is it fair that he also gets a big paycheck? And it’s not fair. But that doesn’t mean it’s not desirable. Because without that paycheck, without that incentive, maybe he wouldn’t have become an actor at all, and the opportunity to create a product that millions would have enjoyed is gone. It’s not fair that Tom Brady gets paid so much to play a game, but the only reason he does is because so many love watching him play. The alternative might not be that he gets paid less and still plays, but that he doesn’t play at all because his incentives to work hard and become a great player are diminished.

Another problem with a meritocratic society is that merit is hard to measure. Going back to the math example, I said that one student studied more than the other. But maybe his studying was not as efficient. Maybe he was actually on Facebook half the time, or didn’t focus on the right problems. And there are other factors. Maybe the second student paid better attention in class or had worked harder in previous classes and therefore didn’t need to work as hard now. Even if we wanted to reward the students’ merit, doing so would be a challenge. Similarly, looking at two products tells us little about how much work and how much effort went into the creation. What we can see is how much people like each product (by looking at how much they pay for it).

One of the greatest benefits of a market economy is that it pushes people towards the tasks that other people actually want them to do. In Hayek’s words, “If in their pursuit of uncertain goals people are to use their own knowledge and capacities, they must be guided, not by what other people think they ought to do, but by the value others attach to the result at which they aim” (The Constitution of Liberty, 159). By rewarding value over merit we ensure that people can only earn money by offering something that others desire. Everybody acts in their own self-interest, but the market usually ensures that that interest also aligns with the interests of others. Potential earnings act as a signal that shows what society values and attempts to regulate the market will almost certainly mess with these signals.

With this perspective, it is difficult to find a reason to care about others’ wealth. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg only got rich by offering a service that other people valued. Their contribution to society is likely far greater than any monetary compensation they received. Encouraging others to continue in their footsteps, to innovate and invent, is more important to the welfare of society as a whole than any attempts to redistribute their existing wealth. In fact, attempts to accomplish the latter discourage the former. I disagree with Ayn Rand on many points, but I think the overall theme in Atlas Shrugged is about right. When society feels like it can take anything it wants from the producers, they might decide that it’s simply not worth it any more, leaving no wealth left to redistribute at all.


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