Thursday, March 26, 2009

Just deserts

Norman Geras ruminates here on the difference between entitlement and desert: the runner who trained hardest and sacrificed the most might deserve to win the race, but the person who crosses the line first is entitled to the medal. He goes on to say:

I find it startling that anyone could believe - even before the latest crisis - that capitalism distributes material rewards according to desert. This claim is not one that even a 100-per-cent defender of free market capitalism (with minimal restraints) could make with a clear head. That the idea is entertained at all must be the result of confusing desert with entitlement.
I think there are a couple of mistakes there. The first is a confusion about what winning the race means. If it means crossing the line first, then whoever does so deserves to win. If it's about effort, the the person who tried hardest deserves to win. If a runner trips and loses only because of that, it's immaterial to either of these considerations.

Unless, that is, you consider "deserve" to mean "meets whatever arbitrary qualification I personally choose to set". If that's not what you mean then the person who fulfils the criteria for winning - crossing the line first - deserves to win. They are also entitled to the medal.

But while I'll admit the above is debatable, this isn't: Norm has conflated capitalism with the free market. These are not the same thing. Capitalism has existed in very unfree markets and it's entirely conceivable that a free market could exist without capitalism. If Marx was right in his dating of the origins of capitalism to, roughly, the time of European colonialism*, then a free market did exist, prior to that, without capitalism.

In fact, it's not at all uncommon today for the success of a company to depend not on whether it is entitled to it by dint of success in the market, but rather as a result of some or other spender of public money deciding the company deserves to be employed. That might be because of its equalities program, for example, rather than the merits of its products. Anyone bidding for public projects has become used to the tedious wibble they are expected to produce in order to be deemed deserving of a contract.

Such companies are, in the main, capitalist - this is merely a type of ownership - and yet they win though deserts rather than entitlements.

And that is a very Bad Thing.

* He wasn't, but let's keep this brief.


Mark Wadsworth said...

I'm disappointed now.

I was hoping this would be a post about the ravages of global cooling on the Sahara and so on with the punchline "Who cares, they are just deserts".

Mark Wadsworth said...

I'm glad to see you've taken off comment moderation.

Peter Risdon said...

Well, my pet troll has got bored and wandered off, but I have a strong suspicion he'll be back after this weekend (stay tuned) so I might have to put moderation back on again temporarily.

I just got bored with scraping him off my shoe every morning.

Peter Risdon said...

Good pun, incidentally.

Anonymous said...

"If it means crossing the line first, then whoever does so deserves to win." I'm not sure that I see what that means. Surely, "if it means crossing the line first, then whoever does so has won" is more to the point. "Deserving" has nothing to do with it. I wonder whether talk of "deserving" makes sense only when dealing with children, either as a means of encouraging or consoling them.

Peter Risdon said...

True. I'm not sure what it means either. You just put it more succinctly.

Unknown said...

A little too Black and White I think. Capitalism isn't about winning every single contest, it's about winning more than the other participants.

Rather than a game of Chess with the idea of destroying the opposition, a better analogy would be the game of Go. In Go, the game isn't about wiping out the opponent, it is about winning more than them. Choose your battles. Abandon areas which require too much investment for too little profit and concentrate on making as much (territory) as possible with the smallest and most efficient investment.