Are Highly Paid People Just Lucky?
One of the most influential theories in contemporary political philosophy is “luck egalitarianism.” The late G.A. Cohen stated the position in this way, in his Rescuing Justice and Equality (Harvard, 2008):
People with greater-than-average talents and abilities should not in justice receive more wealth and income than others, even if their work is more productive and valuable than their less-fortunately-endowed coworkers. People do not deserve the abilities by which they surpass others, and my own animating conviction … [is] that an unequal distribution whose inequality cannot be vindicated by some choice or fault or desert on the part of (some of) the relevant affected agents is unfair, and therefore, pro tanto, unjust, and that nothing can remove that particular injustice.
In brief, if you earn a great deal of money in a free market economy, you “lucked out”: you happen to have a set of abilities and personal traits that enable you to supply consumers with what they want to buy. It is not that you deserve to have these desirable traits: you just happen to have them.
Faced with this argument, how have defenders of the free market responded? One approach is to challenge the luck egalitarian’s claim that you do not morally deserve to profit from your talents and abilities. David Schmidtz, a classical liberal philosopher at the University of Arizona, argues that if you work to develop your talents, you do deserve to benefit from them. In his Elements of Justice, Schmidtz attacks with great force the luck egalitarian’s notion of desert. According to the view he condemns, any element of luck in someone’s achievement renders what he has done undeserving. But why accept so demanding a view? On it, no one could ever qualify as deserving anything, since some degree of luck enters every chain of causes. We should adopt instead a “nonvacuous conception of desert, [where] there will be inputs that a person can supply, and therefore fail to supply.”
Schmidtz suggests it might be more useful to view desert as forward looking. If one is given an opportunity, why not ask, what can I now do that will make it the case that I have made good use of what I have on hand? If I do make good use of my opportunity, then in a defensible sense I deserve it. Another acceptable use of the concept is to ask, “What did I do to deserve this? ... the question will have a real answer” If, however, the question is, “What did I do, at the moment of the Big Bang, to deserve this, the answer is, ‘Nothing. So what?’”
Robert Nozick parried the luck egalitarian in another way. Even if you do not morally deserve to profit from your natural talents, you are entitled to your superior wealth and income, so long as you obtain these though a just system of property acquisition and transfer.
These responses are both in my view cogent, but they do not challenge the fundamental premise of luck egalitarianism. They do not question the contention that, to the extent possession of wealth or income stems from luck, that is at least a point against it. Schmidtz says that good luck does not prevent you from deserving what you get and Nozick says that entitlement makes luck irrelevant. But neither claims that there is nothing questionable about luck’s playing a major role in explaining why some people are much wealthier than others.
The great British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, who was not a libertarian, did exactly this: In an essay, “Prolegomenon to a Pursuit of the Definition of Murder,” she says: “inequality in respect of possessions or social status or prestige is not of itself something that needs justification. The idea of generally justifying it on grounds of merit is merely laughable. It is a matter of luck. Its existence neither has nor stands in need of justification, either in itself or prima facie. Thus where there is an objection to an inequality of advantage, we want to know what the objection is — it has not been given already in calling the inequality inequality.” (The essay appears in her Human Life, Action and Ethics, pp. 253–54.) Her comment unfortunately is not developed further but rather given as a passing remark.
Anscombe has here penetrated to the heart of the mater, with her characteristic incisiveness. Even if luck is responsible for inequality, so what? What is the matter with that? I called the passage to the attention of a well-known philosopher, strongly egalitarian in his views, and he commented; “The remark is typically clear and forceful — and plausible.” As his response was made in private correspondence, I will leave it to readers to guess who said it. I will add only, “you’d be surprised.”