As college students, John and I both subscribed to the philosophical doctrine of determinism. We differed, though, on what implications, if any, the doctrine had for the issue of income distribution.

I believed that because the traits that result in wealth are determined by causes beyond our control — the genetics lottery, for example — wealth is undeserved. Therefore, inequality is unjust and should be abolished

John understood that my conclusion didn’t follow from our premise. Even if high incomes are undeserved in some philosophical sense, there might be, and indeed are, utilitarian-type reasons to eschew radical income redistribution policies and accept income inequality. Rewarding excellence with income produces benefits for society at large, while government-imposed income leveling is a recipe for mediocrity and possibly repression.

Speaking of repression, I had repressed the memory of making such a sophomoric argument until I read this column by George Will. From it, I learned that a Harvard political philosopher, Michael Sandel, makes essentially the same argument that appealed so much to me as a 21-year old, until John tore into it.

Will summarizes Sandel’s argument this way:

“These days,” Sandel writes, “we view success the way the Puritans viewed salvation — not as a matter of luck or grace, but as something we earn through our own effort and striving. This is the heart of the meritocratic ethic.” Sandel objects to this because “expansive conceptions of personal responsibility” ignore the fact that no one “deserves” his or her natural attributes.

Furthermore, the “rhetoric of responsibility” and of being “masters of our fate” obscures the degree to which even virtues conducive to thriving in a merit-based society — diligence, industriousness, self-reliance, deferral of gratification — are learned. They are largely inculcated in families, which are the primary transmitters of social capital — the habits necessary for taking advantage of the opportunities offered by an open society.

Thus, whether we succeed due to “nature” (our natural attributes) or “nurture” (what we learn from our family), it’s all a matter of luck, not desert. We aren’t really responsible for our success. It is pre-determined.

Will dismantles this reasoning with largely the same arguments John used 50 years ago. “The talented reap rewards because the public freely benefits from their contributions to satisfying the public’s preferences,” Will explains. Regardless of whether this means, at some abstract philosophical level, that the rewards are deserved, they should be conferred to make sure the talented maximize their contributions to society. As Will says, “no society ever has too much talent.”

Will also highlights the undesirability of governments getting into the business of determining moral desert:

Because “natural talents” are undeserved, some progressives argue, the unequal rewards that the talented reap are, too, and are equitable only to the extent that they serve the public good. As defined by whom? There’s the rub. . . .

Equity, pursued through government-driven allocation of social rewards, drenches society with bitter distributional conflicts because wealth and opportunity are allocated by political power according to shifting standards contested by competing factions. Allowing the market to articulate preferences, without seeking to decide — who will decide who the deciders are? — the preferences’ moral worth, promotes domestic tranquility.

Will concludes with a point that not even John could have been expected to make 50 years ago when our only global rival was the plodding Soviet Union:

With America facing a future of intensifying commercial and military competitions of increasing sophistication, it is reckless to advocate retreat from meritocracy toward, inevitably, government-engineered mediocrity.

To me, such advocacy seems worse than reckless.

JOHN adds: As undergraduates, Paul and I debated many issues in the most cordial possible way. My recollection is that Paul won most of those arguments. I have no memory of discussing this issue back in our college days, but if I stumbled on the right argument I am happy to take credit for it. Blind pig, acorn.

I only add that, as we have remarked elsewhere, it is deeply ironic that the United States, supposedly founded on free enterprise and open competition, should abandon its meritocratic ethic at the very moment when China–a Communist country, supposedly!–has become, in all things that matter, a ruthless meritocracy. Meritocracy will always defeat mediocrity.

PAUL adds: Any victories in arguments with John I might have won in college, and I don’t recall many, were probably due to force of personality. My clear recollection is that John’s analysis was typically superior to mine.