Being a leftist is about rewarding merit

Tommaso at CalJunket articulates something I’ve often thought:

Liberalism is based on the idea that merit should be the prime reason for advancement in a society, not luck.

Unlike conservobots, who assume that government intervention is the only source of unfairness, liberals understand that inequities can come from multiple sources. And let me be clear, by inequities I do not mean unequal income. If a person works hard and wisely, that person deserves more money than a person who is lazy and foolish. By inequity, I mean forces that reward or punish people randomly. For example, an inheritance from your super rich parents (say, one worth more than $675,000) is not deserved money in any sense. Basically, giant outsized inheritances are randomly assigned to a number of children born each year without any meaningful competition.

The founding fathers understood the problems with unearned wealth whether it be inheritance or the naturally outsized political influence of money. They had escaped a land of aristocracy and class privilege to a comparative paradise of equal opportunity and merit. They aimed to keep it that way and so, among other things, they instituted estate taxes (first at the state level and later on the federal). This ingenious means of ensuring fairness was noted by no less than Alexis De Tocqueville in his book Democracy in America.

I don’t agree with Tommasso about everything – his rudeness to conservatives, for instance, and his faith in the founding fathers. But he’s got it right about liberalism.

To expand on his point, consider race. Conservatives often criticize liberals for seeking “equality of outcome” rather than “equality of opportunity” on race issues. But here’s the thing – if you believe that people of different races are fundamentally equal, then the distinction between equality of outcome and equality of opportunity fades away. Put another way, since all races are equal in ability, unequal outcomes are proof of unequal opportunity.

Conservatives are happy to let the status quo – one in which whites are unfairly advantaged – go on. In this way, conservatives oppose merit. Leftists want to let merit determine outcomes – which requires measures to fight unfair white advantage, including affirmative action.

This entry posted in Affirmative Action, Class, poverty, labor, & related issues, Economics and the like, Race, racism and related issues. Bookmark the permalink. 

16 Responses to Being a leftist is about rewarding merit

  1. 1
    Joe M. says:

    You’re confusing two different senses of “equality of opportunity.” In the first, “equality of opportunity” means that all races have an equal opportunity to succeed — as far as the government and other institutions are concerned. In other words, no one is allowed to discriminate on the basis of race. (In the real world, some people still do manage to discriminate on the basis of race, but this may just be an ineradicable feature of human nature. The point is what the official policy should be.)

    In the second sense of “equality of opportunity,” all races have an equal opportunity to succeed based on all other circumstances in their lives. I.e., all races have an equal proportion of two-parent families where the parents read to their children, all races have an equal proportion of wealth, etc., etc.

    What’s important to note is that equality of opportunity in the first sense does not necessarily lead to equality of outcomes. Even if there were no racial discrimination anywhere in society by any business or government, there would still be unequal racial outcomes, due to the history of past discrimination (leading to unequal distribution of wealth), or due to the fact that blacks have a lot more children out of wedlock, etc., etc.

    What’s more, even if you had equality of opportunity in the second sense, you still might have “unequal” racial outcomes on some measures. You’d still find that all Olympic sprinters are black, for example, because for whatever reason, hardly any whites are capable of being world-class sprinters these days. Or you might have more whites in classical music, if it happened to be the case that blacks were less interested in playing the music of 200-year-old white Europeans.

    So no matter what sort of “equality of opportunity” you’re talking about, there is no guarantee that you’ll get “equality of outcome.”

  2. Yeah, that tone of the post was rude. A conservative commenter called me on it and I apologized. My rudeness was supposed to be directed to a particular right-wing kook who runs another blog but I used too wide a brush.

    It’s important to reiterate that conservatives share the same values of oppurtunity as Liberals. The difference is that they have difficulty understanding how non-government forces could make the world unfair. To me, that’s the key.

  3. 3
    Larry says:

    Tommosso” “For example, an inheritance from your super rich parents (say, one worth more than $675,000) is not deserved money in any sense.”

    There is so much wrong in this statement alone, let me start by asking who the hell are you to determine what is “deserved” and what isn’t? By what standards is one “deserved”? Maybe I don’t think athletes “deserve” any more than $1,000,000 dollars per year. Maybe I don’t think you “deserve” that new car you were going to buy. After all, I am sure you have some people in your area that “deserve” that money more than you. Lets take a little walk through your house to see if you have more stuff than you “deserve”. If you have more than one computer I am afraid you are going to have to give one to your more deserving computerless neighbor. Hell, lets set up a committee in congress to determine who deserves what. *shivers at the thought*

    Secondly, where is the line drawn on “super rich”? $675K isn’t a lot of money if its all tied up in farm equipment, cattle, land, drilling rigs, bulldozers, and other assets used for productivity. There are people worth several million dollars that have can only live a middle class life because most of their wealth is tied up in assets. Those assets provide jobs for millions of people. Taxes are the bane of small businesses.

    Liberals never seem to understand this point very well as exemplified by the horrendously, ignorant luxury tax that cost a lot of middle class people their jobs and lively hood. Hey, here’s an brilliant idea: “lets tax those rich bastards extra for buying yachts and other luxury items they don’t ‘deserve'”. The result, of course, was the people that suffered were the people that: made the yachts; that delivered the yachts; that sold the yachts; that cleaned the shop buildings; that sold the lumber, electronics, and other supplies to the yacht builders; that delivered the lumber and supplies to the yacht builders, the truck mechanics for those delivered the lumber and supplies to the shops; the retail store owners that sold to the yacht builders, and so on and on down the economic chain.

    Thirdly, Supposedly we are a relatively free country. If the government took %100 of our income we would be slaves. We don’t have a system where everyone works for the government. The money I make is mine, its not the governments. I owe a portion to the government in the same way as I owe my landlord the rent. I don’t owe them a damned thing after I am dead. Why is it any of your business if I work hard all my life and create a small business that I want to pass down to my children?

    Lastly, the federal government is an incredibly wasteful place to send a dollar. Think about the ridiculous welfare system. John sends $1.00 in tax money to the federal government. After the bureaucracy takes it’s cut it sends about a quarter back to John’s neighbor Sally who is on welfare. Its insane how wasteful the federal bureaucracy is. The less the federal government is responsible for the better for us all economically. (Of course they have to do what ONLY they can do like defense, foreign affairs, interstate commerce and the like)

    Ampersand: “But here’s the thing – if you believe that people of different races are fundamentally equal, then the distinction between equality of outcome and equality of opportunity fades away. Put another way, since all races are equal in ability, unequal outcomes are proof of unequal opportunity.”

    Knowing that the population of poor white Appalachians don’t have equality of outcome of other whites (an indisputable fact) doesn’t mean you have to view that population as fundamentally unequal to the other white populations. There are cultural and geographical differences that account for the inequality of the outcome. Look at Asian immigrants; they are extremely successful. Do you have to believe they are fundamentally better then whites and blacks because they are so successful? Do they have more opportunity than the whites and blacks they outperform? Maybe they do, but only in the sense that one has more opportunity if they are raised properly with attitudes, and disciplines that lead to success.

  4. If you aren’t willing to make a determination of who deserves what, then you don’t really have any way of figuering out if one system is fairer If you aren’t willing to make a determination of who deserves what, then you don’t really have any way of figuring out if one system is fairer than another. Sure, let’s go communist, who’s to say if it’s fair for the government to have all the money? I tell you who: The American people.

    I can understand getting into an argument about the minutia of exactly how much each person deserves, but I can’t understand how you fail to see that people should work for their money instead of just getting it for free. Our society has decided that people who rob banks don’t deserve the money they get. Conservatives have decided that welfare recipients don’t deserve the money they get. So too can the American people decide that those who didn’t lift a finger their whole lives should not be rewarded just because they were born to rich parents.

    Your 100% taxation argument is just a restatement of the full blown Laffer curve scenario. You will find I already addressed it at my blog. If you have a problem understanding being taxed after your death, just think about it as taxing the son upon inheritance.

    Yes, you remember your Reagan speeches well. A lot of Republicans made a big brew-ha over illiquid family farms getting taxed out of existence. Funny thing though, they were never able to come up with a single actual example because the law had already made allowances for family farms. Check out Personally, I think the phrase “lie” is too harsh. Bush probably didn’t know any better.

    My thoughts of Affirmative action are still in flux and your point about white Appalachians is well taken.

  5. 5
    Hestia says:

    I like to call this the bootstrap argument, a pet peeve of mine. We’re still stuck on the belief that to succeed in America, all you need to do is work hard. Many people don’t recognize the fact that obstacles–especially race, class, and gender–exist for some Americans and not for others, making the “hard work” requirement much, much harder, and not necessarily surmountable in the end. And the whole system seems to be self-perpetuating, which frustrates me. (I’m guessing that there’s very little class mobility in America, a prime indicator that something’s wrong with the bootstratps belief.)

    How can we fix it, or at least make it more fair, without relying on programs like welfare and affirmative action and estate tax? I mean, if there were an alternative that made everyone happy I’d be all in favor of it. Any suggestions?

  6. 6
    Decnavda says:

    “There is so much wrong in this statement alone, let me start by asking who the hell are you to determine what is “deserved” and what isn’t? By what standards is one “deserved”?”

    The traditional Enlightenment – let’s call it “classical liberal” – deffinition of ecconomic “dessert”. or justice, is the labor theory of ownership. I deserve to own what I produce. The best – not perfect, but best, determiner of whether what you take from society is equal to what you contribute is the free market, that is, how much labor other others are willing to voluntarily expend to exchange for what you produce with your labor.

    The problem is that in our current form of capitalism, the government give some people control over wealth that they did not produce. Prominant among these is inheritences. The reciever did nothing to produce the wealth. You claim, “I don’t owe them a damned thing after I am dead.” This is a facinating thought. True, once you are dead, you cannot owe anything. You also cannot own anything. You are dead. You have ceased to exist. Your rights to what you produced while alive have ceased, because you have ceased. How can a non-existent person have rights? In a free country, we cannot allow the dead to control the living. Once you cease to exist, what you produced becomes part of nature, to split among the living as all nature rightfully should.

    “There are people worth several million dollars that have can only live a middle class life because most of their wealth is tied up in assets. Those assets provide jobs for millions of people. Taxes are the bane of small businesses.”

    Why should the lazy heir live a middle class lifestyle while others toil for him? Taxes can be structed so as to not disrupt the business, such as considering a 100% estate tax to be a 30 year, variable interest mortgage loan from the government. The heir then pays society the ecconomic value of what he has recieved, the business continues, and the heir is rewarded with ownership after 30 years of successfully managing the estate. If he runs it poorly, he will have to sell the business to pay the mortgage, presumeably to someone who, due to their interest in buying it, is morely likely to run it better.

    “Lastly, the federal government is an incredibly wasteful place to send a dollar. Think about the ridiculous welfare system. John sends $1.00 in tax money to the federal government. After the bureaucracy takes it’s cut it sends about a quarter back to John’s neighbor Sally who is on welfare.”

    Most of us on the left welcome proposals to transform the welfare beuacracy into an equal ownership society, leaving government the steamlined task of collecting and distributing ecconomic rent on privledge.

  7. 7
    Terry31415 says:


    Actually, I think the primary way people get control over money they didn’t earn is through the government. Goverment projects, government handouts (marriage benefits?), grants, welfare(corporate or personal), etc.

    The property of the dead person is their’s to dispose of as they wish, through their will. Unworthy heirs won’t keep the money long (they will waste it on junk), and justice is served. The inheritance tax is not just, in my non-humble Libertarian opinion.

    Hestia raised a more interesting question–How do we change it? First, I think we need to decide what we are aiming for. Should a non-working person be able to live essentially the same lifestyle as a working person? Should someone who mortgages their house to start a new business (taking lots of risks) earn more than someone who decides not to?

    I suggest the way we change it is by paying attention to the way we spend our money. Recently, I found out that a chain of auto oil-changers had large numbers of female mechanics. I’d go change my oil there, if I paid anyone to do it. You get the idea.

    Vote with your dollars!

  8. 8
    Terry31415 says:

    Dah. I thought of this right after I posted….

    Contribute to organizations that are working on the cause of poverty, not so much the effects (ie, training people to have skills, as opposed relief for being poor).

    Oohh…another idea–get rid of laws that make it extremely difficult to get out of being homeless. In my city (Minneapolis, MN) the financial jump from being homeless (under a bridge) to having a place you rent/own is HUGE.

    Imagine trying to save up enough money for a place while going to work daily when you: can’t shower daily; don’t have an address or a bank account; can’t lock up your stuff anywhere. (Assuming you don’t have a mental illness, a physical disablity, or kids.) Ugh.

    Laws in Minneapolis prevent really cheap housing because non-related adults can’t share bathrooms or kitchens in multiple occupancy housing situations. (Plumbing is often the most expensive part of housing.)

    Even if they could neighborhood groups certainly wouldn’t allow affordable housing to be put up in “their” neighborhood (who’s property is it?).

  9. 9
    Raznor says:

    See, the concept of voting with dollars is the very antithesis of modern popular democracy – since people with fewer dollars get fewer votes.

    The other problem I have with your post is you seem to believe that a free-market economy exists. You ignore corporations and their power over workers. Also, corporations exist for one incentive – profit. Without a social safety net there is nothing keeping them from paying grossly small wages for demeaning work. A worker has no power, since a worker cannot quit. However with a social safety net that allows a person to survive at least without a job, that gives the workers a trump card that puts a balance in the power separation between the employer and the employee.

    You say, “Should a non-working person be able to live essentially the same lifestyle as a working person?” The thing is it’s logically impossible for this to happen. If an employer offers a job that pays only as much as an employee can make by remaining unemployed, there is no incentive to take the job. As such, employers must offer more benefits to people than they would get for not being employed.

  10. 10
    Terry31415 says:

    Well, the organic food movement has been expanding a double digit rates for the last decade (at least). The big, bad corporations aren’t happy about this, and haven’t been able to stop it, even with the help of the USDA (knock on wood). So I still believe voting with your dollars has a substantial effect on what businesses and products stay around. It would be preferrable if the government not interfer with the process of consumers deciding what is valuable (through tariffs, taxes, subsidies, tax breaks, etc).

    A free-market economny in America would be nice, but we definitely don’t have one now, and we seem to be getting further away from it all the time. I have the impression that some European countries make it possible for a non-worker to live essentially the same way a worker does, and this is not good–it’s not a step towards a world where merit is rewarded.

    Mostly I think it is true that most workers prefer the devil they know to the ones the don’t (quitting and getting a different job). Keep in mind the primary reason people get jobs is PROFIT–same as those pseudo-people corporations.

  11. 11
    Hestia says:

    First, I think we need to decide what we are aiming for.

    This is what I’d like to see: food (two healthy meals every day, according to nutritional guidelines), clothing (weather-appropriate, in good condition), and shelter (private; access to electricity, water, indoor plumbing, heat; relatively well-constructed). I think everyone should have such things, no matter how lazy or stupid or mean they are. The only “luxury” I see here is privacy–and I really hate that we have to buy time alone, so I call it a necessity.

    The problem I have with “paying attention to the way we spend our money” is that I have little faith in rich people–well, people in general. Very, very few people would choose to buy a used car if they could buy a new one and give the difference to charity.

    I disagree that the primary reason people get jobs is to make a profit. I think it depends on who you are. Many people need job(s) to pay for food, clothing, and shelter; I sincerely doubt you’ll find an unemployed “lucky ducky” among the lower classes who doesn’t want a job. And among the rich, non-workers live much better than the average worker. They didn’t earn their money. If we actually rewarded merit instead of family connections, I have a feeling the country would look a whole lot different than it does now.

    There’s got to be a way to get the government out of the corporate world. Safety and pollution regulations make sense, but beyond that state and federal governments should be prohibited from helping companies through tax breaks, subsidies, or laws favoring business over the common good.

  12. 12
    Terry31415 says:

    There’s got to be a way to get the government out of the corporate world.

    I suggest we stop taxing businesses, and change our legal system from one “If there isn’t a law against it, its legal.” to “If you violate someone’s rights, you are guilty.”

    Since businesses do one of two things with their money (pay employees/owners more, or invest in the company to make it more profitable), we just need to tax the individual citizens. This would also make it clear exactly how much the government is taking from us.

    Changing our legal system like I’ve described would allow us to prosecute (for example) chemical companies as soon as it is deternmined that the chemicals released harm people (or that inappropriate protections where in place to prevent chemical releases). They would be much more conscientious(sp?) about testing before releasing products. This would get rid of several tons of regulations, and make it clear to a grade-schooler what is legal and what is not.

    Everyone needs a pipedream…

  13. 13
    Hestia says:

    Stop taxing businesses? I don’t know about that. Those taxes actually go somewhere, like schools that are already hurting and Social Security that’s in kinda big trouble right now–and I seriously doubt Employee X will see any of a company’s increased revenue. (Unless, of course, Employee X is a lobbyist.)

    I was thinking more along the lines of not giving businesses tax breaks

    I don’t understand how eliminating income tax for companies will allow us to go after companies that are harming people or the environment. If the government doesn’t do it now, with the “several tons of regulations” already in place, how can we possibly expect they’ll do it later, when they’ll have less money and less of an incentive?

  14. 14
    Raznor says:

    My solution is always to abolish all world government and establish a totalitarian Raznor-centered Monarchy, or Raznarchy. Or at least a Raznocracy. In any case, problems would be solved.

  15. 15
    Jake Squid says:

    Since my attempts at taking over and implementing a Squidocracy have, to date, failed, I’m getting behind the Raznocracy.

    All hail the good & wise Raznor!

    (Yes, it’s your first horde of minion)

  16. 16
    Joe says:


    As soon as I read his gibberish – I started to check him out.. he tried to disguise his identity with
    a yahoo email addy – despite, we traced him back to Berkley (LEFT COAST) CA.. and he truely
    is a Penquin and does write for a local rag.. LMAO .. I check because often those who are
    “mouths” are also wannabes or former VVAW…

    “Tony C.” wrote:


    The two loudmouths in this post didn’t get the rest of the Story…. The explosives were gone before we got there


    The NYTIMES urgently reported on Monday how the Iraqi interim government has warned
    the United States and international nuclear inspectors that nearly 380 tons of
    powerful conventional explosives are now missing from one of Iraq’s most sensitive
    former military installations.

    Jumping on the TIMES exclusive, Dem presidential candidate John Kerry blasted the
    Bush administration for its failure to “guard those stockpiles.”

    “This is one of the great blunders of Iraq, one of the great blunders of this
    administration,” Kerry said.

    In an election week rush:

    **ABCNEWS Mentioned The Iraq Explosives Depot At Least 4 Times
    **CBSNEWS Mentioned The Iraq Explosives Depot At Least 7 Times
    **MSNBC Mentioned The Iraq Explosives Depot At Least 37 Times
    **CNN Mentioned The Iraq Explosives Depot At Least 50 Times

    But tonight, NBCNEWS reported, once: The 380 tons of powerful conventional
    explosives were already missing back in April 10, 2003 — when U.S. troops arrived
    at the installation south of Baghdad!

    An NBCNEWS crew embedded with troops moved in to secure the Al-Qaqaa weapons
    facility on April 10, 2003, one day after the liberation of Iraq.

    According to NBCNEWS, the HMX and RDX explosives were already missing when the
    American troops arrived.

    It is not clear why the NYTIMES failed to report the cache had been missing for 18
    months — and was reportedly missing before troops even arrived.

    “The U.S. Army was at the sight one day after the liberation and the weapons were
    already gone,” a top Republican blasted from Washington late Monday.

    The International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors last saw the explosives in
    January 2003 when they took an inventory and placed fresh seals on the bunkers.


    Tony C.

    Once a Marine… …Always a Marine OOORAHHH !!!!!

    Saepe Expertus – Semper Fidelis – Fratres Aeterni
    “Often Tested” – “Always Faithful” – “Brothers Forever”
    Vietnam Veterans of Florida Inc., State Coalition

    JB Williams wrote:

    Well done Joe!I have had a few rounds with good old George myself. He seems like a nice enough guy, just
    talks in MoveOn speak having long ago lost the ability to think for himself. Every exchange was the same,
    regurgitated DNC sound bites surrounding 40 year old thought patterns. We can’t save them all…some are
    committed to being wrong. Be well!JB

    Jim Boldebook wrote:

    Dear George, you horses ass, something you should know.. The liberal media is out to get President Bush.
    SLIMES was trying toslam our President by reporting on something that happend 18 months ago. Believe none of
    what you hear.. and only half of what you see. Don’t be sucked up in the lies of the press trying to defeat a President
    thatour troops admire and support. Jim


    Kerry’s the son of a top.. he was born spinning …he is trying to convince over 29 million vets,
    not counting their families and friends that 4 months and a 3 purple heart ace in the seff inflicted
    hole(s) – killing a wounded cong, among other spins makes him fit for command? dahhhhhhh and
    a War Hero? I wonder what kinda mirror this silver spoon fed wannabe John F. Kennedy has..
    Certain;y looks good to himself, Threasa doesn’t care about any TAX BREAKS – with 57 ( 2 in
    Red China ) company’s internationally.. it will be a windfall…

    whats amazing is how the left and commies preach agaist the bougwasee ( what ever ) and here
    they are kissing their arse..

    Jeffrey Price wrote:

    Hey Joe,
    I thought it was funny of Kerry to say that the soldiers in country are doing a great job but Bush let them down by
    letting those explosives get away. Did I miss something? I don’t remember seeing any footage of the President
    standing watch outside any warehouses :)

    Keep up the good work.

    Original Message
    From: Joe Oliver
    To: ; A News & Views
    Sent: Tuesday, October 26, 2004 5:55 AM
    Subject: Re: Check out EYE ON POLITICS: Vietnam veterans in ‘Stolen Honor’ deserve to be h

    Dear George..

    you speak with such authority – please do share ( other than a biased
    news media ) the basis of your allegations below?

    can I tell you what you sound like… or would that upset you?

    FOLK IT!! I’ll tell you any way…

    You sound like the Captain of The Space Penguins, a group of nutty
    penguins searching space for a really big ice flow… and a middle aged guy,
    who works for a local newspaper.. either/or or both..

    am I right george..?

    Come out of the cabin – me thinks you got dat fever.. and there is help…
    .. W’s still president, will remain president and all you wannbe captains
    of space programs will have to remain in your bizzare worlds.. hey —
    maybe you could be the FIRST captain of a fantasy island in outer space?

    or.. if that doesn’t work out try your hand at writing fiction.. your off to a
    great start.

    and thats the way it is…

    Joe Oliver
    News & Views
    (Never Politically Correct, Never Spiell Chicked, & Grammatics? Whats Dat?)
    Houston, TX

    George Johnson whined:

    Dear Russ:

    Turns out that the big news was about the 380 tons of
    high grade explosives Bush allowed Osama and his boys
    to take free of charge.

    Kerry ain’t a saint, but I doubt he would have given
    380 tons of high grade explosives to Osama.

    Yes Bush is commander in chief, but one must wonder of
    which army?


    George Johnson whined(and) whined:


    A little hard to follow. Seems like some woman who is
    super rich is objecting to the tax breaks she is
    getting. Let’s see, if she keeps quite she let’s Bush
    be elected and makes a lot more money. Maybe she is
    concerned about the wellfare of our troops in Iraq.
    You know 380 tons of high grade explosives given to
    Osama and friends.

    Might she just be a Patriot without the act?