Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Arthur Brooks: true fairness means rewarding merit, not spreading the wealth

Arthur Brooks is an economist, a Christian and the President of my third favorite think tank, the American Enterprise Institute. He has been making a push lately to convince conservatives to become more articulate when making the case for the free enterprise system. One of his major ideas is that happiness is not related to the amount of money you have, but it’s related to how well you can achieve your own prosperity and independence by your own labor. His research shows that people are happiest when they feel in control of their own prosperity, even if they have less wealthy than people who depend on the government to take money away from others so they don’t have to work.

Here’s an article he posted on AEI entitled “True fairness means rewarding merit, not spreading the wealth”.

Excerpt:

There are two main ways to define fairness: fairness in terms of opportunity, and fairness in terms of outcomes. The first means leveling the playing field, and the second means spreading the wealth around. The first means lifting people up on the basis of merit, and the second means bringing successful people down.

[...]In a 2005 Syracuse University poll, researchers asked a cross-section of Americans if they b14elieve that “everyone in American society has an opportunity to succeed, most do, or only some have this opportunity.” Some 71 percent of respondents said that all or most Americans can get ahead.

This is consistent with most of our experiences. It’s almost impossible to argue that American success is not earned. We can all think of times when our hard work has gotten us ahead or when we’ve been punished at work or in life for making poor decisions. Even if America’s not perfectly meritocratic, we all see how hard work pays off.

Now, of course, America is far from perfectly fair. But that‘s because life isn’t fair. For instance, all other things being equal, taller men and prettier women make higher salaries than their shorter, plainer counterparts. Believe it or not, there are studies that show these things (as if we needed them). More seriously, some people have substandard elementary education or childhood nutrition, which creates a lifelong disadvantage. Worse still, some children are born into families that don’t emphasize the values that beget opportunity: honesty, hard work, and education.

We need to address these inequities. Still, we shouldn’t abandon the idea of meritocratic fairness just because not everybody has completely equal opportunity. But this is what the president appears to be asking us to do.

America is built around the shared values and aspirations of mobility, opportunity, and merit. Even if only, say, half the outcomes in our life are due to merit, that’s still the half within our control. We should focus on increasing the role of merit, not dismiss the idea because it’s imperfect. Without a belief in meritocratic fairness, we have little incentive to work hard, be honest and optimistic, and create value in our lives and the lives of others. Fatalism and envy are simply not American values.

We need to make the case for the free enterprise system now, using moral arguments like this, otherwise we are going to find ourselves treading the path of countries like Greece, where almost no one works and almost everyone depends on the government to take care of them. It’s not sustainable.

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