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.