Namit Arora on What we Deserve for our Talents

What do we deserve
In this talk Namit Arora gave at Thinkfest 2015 he explores the concepts of “merit” and “success”, and what we can take credit for or not. He presents three models of economic justice by which a society might allocate its rewards—libertarian, meritocratic, and egalitarian—and considers the pros and cons of each model using examples from both India and abroad.

The opening inquiry:

A pivotal question in market-based societies is “What do we deserve?” For our learning, natural talents, and labor, what rewards and entitlements can we fairly claim? This question is particularly relevant in market-based societies in which people tend to think they deserve both their success and their failure. ‘What rewards and entitlements are just?’ ‘How much of what we bring home is fair or unfair, and why?’

Those with privilege among us tend to view the world as just and fair, says Arora. The list of conditions that explain our different outcomes in life includes race, gender, role models, and also lucky breaks, market shifts, personal relationships, family work ethic, and nutrition/health, which is often not appreciated.

The three models of economic justice by which a society might allocate its rewards he presents are: liberty, equality, and justice. These are often not available in equal measure. The price of a free society is that we must choose, and we often make bad decisions.

Three Models of Distributive Justice as described by Arora based on ideas by American political philosopher and Harvard University professor Michael Sandel’s Justice:

The libertarian model of distributive justice favors a free market with well-defined rules that apply to all. ‘Citizens are assured equal basic liberties, and the distribution of income and wealth is determined by the free market.’[1] It offers a formal equality of opportunity—making it a clear advance over feudal or caste arrangements—so anyone can, in theory, strive to compete and win. But in practice, people don’t have real equality of opportunity due to various disadvantages, for example, of family income, social class, gender, race, caste, etc. So while the racetrack may look nice and shiny, the runners do not begin at the same starting point. What does it mean to say that the first to cross the finish line deserves his or her victory? Isn’t the contest rigged from the start, based on factors that are arbitrary and derive from accidents of birth?

Our background greatly shapes our ambition and self-confidence. The second model:

The meritocratic model, often associated with the United States, recognizes such inequities and tries to correct for socioeconomic disadvantages. At its best, meritocracy takes real equality of opportunity seriously and tries to achieve it through various means: Head Start programs, education and job training, subsidized healthcare and housing, and so forth.

Meritocrats admit that market-based distribution of rewards is just only to the extent to which we can reduce endemic socioeconomic disadvantages and bring everyone to the comparable starting points. But thereafter, they believe that we are the authors of our own destiny and whoever wins the race is morally deserving of the rewards they obtain from the market—and its flip side, that we morally deserve our failure too, and its consequences. Swiss writer Alain de Botton looked at this phenomenon in the United States in his 2004 documentary film, Status Anxiety.

See also Alain de Botton's TED talk where he ask — is your idea of success truly your own? Is meritocracy fair? 

Even if we somehow leveled socioeconomic disparities, the winners of the race would still be the fastest runners, due in part to a natural lottery. People are often born with certain talents and attributes—for instance, oratory, musical acumen, physical beauty and health, athleticism, good memory and cognition, extroversion, etc.—that give them unearned advantages.

How can we compensate for natural gifts that happen to be valued at a certain time and place, then? Arora cites American political philosopher John Rawls' 1971 book, A Theory of Justice, in which he developed his egalitarian model:

Since we can’t undo the inequities of the natural lottery, he writes, we must find a way to address the differences in the rewards that result from them. We should certainly encourage people to hone and exercise their aptitudes, he says, but we should be clear that they do not morally deserve the rewards their aptitudes earn from the market. Since their natural gifts aren’t their own doing, and are moreover profitable only in light of the value a community places on them, they must share the rewards with the community.

What about the role of the personal drive and effort we put into cultivating our talents? 

Even the accident of being firstborn among siblings can be a factor in how hard we strive. Each year, Sandel reports, 75-80 percent of his freshman class at Harvard are firstborns. Besides, effort may be a virtue but even the meritocrats don’t think it deserves rewards independent of results or achievement. So, in short, we can’t claim to deserve the rewards on the basis of effort either.

The talk includes powerful questions about our public and private success narratives. At minute 55:42 to 1:01:56 you will find an illustrated segment on the ideas of John Rawls. Arora concludes by outlining the choices we can make to change the rules of the game.




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