Born with a plastic spoon in my mouth
Theories of desert and the distribution of wealth
An op-ed in The New York Times laments the existence of “dynasty trusts,” which allow rich Americans to provide generations of heirs with tax-free estates. The article argues that this will result in the rise of a new aristocracy, which is un-American.
Americans have always assumed that wealth comes and goes. A poor person can work hard, become rich and pass his money on to his children and grandchildren. But then, if those descendants do not manage it wisely, they may lose it. “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations,” the saying goes, and it conforms to our preference for meritocracy over aristocracy.
The assumption here seems to be that meritocracies are preferable because they only bestow wealth upon those who deserve it. What exactly does the concept of desert amount to? I will explore three possibilities.
The first possible conception of desert is the libertarian one. This is a natural place to start because it meshes comfortably with our free market system. Under our economic system, wealth is distributed according to market forces. In order for this to be morally correct, we have to assume that persons have rights to do whatever they want with their selves and their property, allowing them to engage in transactions between others. These transactions are permissible as long as all parties are in agreement.
Under libertarianism, desert simply amounts to the end result of a series of just transactions. However, if this conception of desert is correct, then there should be no barriers to gifting wealth to heirs, since this obviously passes the criteria of agreement between parties.
Thus, the intuition that rich heirs don’t deserve their wealth must be referring to some more robust conception of desert. Here, we think that a person deserves x in virtue of y. Intuitively, there should be some morally relevant correlation between x and y. So, paradigmatically, a person deserves her salary in virtue of her money-making work. This is an intuitive thought at first – it makes sense that persons who work at money-making activities deserve money. But this correlation is not as tight as it first appears.
Money is a stand-in for all material things, but “money-making activities” is not a stand in for all activities and talents (this is made more acute considering that different activities are worth different amounts). Why, to take an example from Warren Buffet, should the work of a great teacher deserve such a measly sum of material goods in comparison to the work of detecting the mispricing of securities?
The correlation here is based upon market forces, but how can market forces be this morally decisive unless something like the libertarian conception of desert is correct? Thus, I do not believe this more robust conception of desert can justify a free market.
There is a third option: to reject the concept of desert as a first principle of justice, and distribute material goods based upon on other moral principles and concerns like equality, dignity, efficiency, or whatever it may be. We organize our social institutions along these other moral principles and people deserve their goods because the institutions (and their motivating principles) say they do. On this view, there is no pure, abstract, independent concept of desert; it is an institutional artifact.
There are of course more than these three theories of desert and many shades of theory in between, but the arguments presented are some of the most important.
Photo by Flickr user Darren Hester used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.