Philosophy, Top Stories

Liberalism, Classical and Egalitarian

Few reactions against postmodernism and identity politics have been as noticeable as the surging interest in classical liberalism. Against a hyper-egalitarianism concerned with safe spaces and achieving equality of outcome for all, modern classical liberals emphasize the importance of freedom of speech and meritocracy. Perhaps the most famous representative of this trend is Jordan Peterson. A self-described classical liberal, Peterson has offered scathing critiques of postmodern intersectionality and its concern with achieving equality of outcome for all people regardless of their inclinations and natural talents. He enjoys a lot of company these days. In a recent article for Quillette, Andrew Kelman condemns the influence of post-modern philosophy on the law via critical legal studies, and calls for a return to classical liberal principles in legal analysis. Recently fired Atlantic author Kevin Williamson has bemoaned the turn to radicalism on the Right and Left, lamenting that there is “no political home for classical liberalism at all” in contemporary society. Patrick Deneen of the University of Notre Dame has written a dour book entitled Why Liberalism Failed diagnosing why a seemingly healthy ideology, triumphant in the Cold War and ascendant across the globe, seems to be collapsing without warning. And so on.

These modern classical liberals have a diverse array of opinions on a wide array of issues. Summarizing them all would be impossible. Instead I will focus on the two most prominent concerns modern proponents of ‘classical liberalism’ point to as harbingers of what happens when we abandon individualistic and meritocratic fundamentals.

The first major concern highlighted by modern classical liberals is the rise of intolerance and virulent identity politics on university campuses. Many have noted the paradoxical tendency of highly insulated students to demand protection from politically incorrect material by aggressively chilling the speech of those who disagree with them, sometimes even through violence. The moral justification for this is frequently an appeal to group identity; appealing to postmodern philosophy, campus radicals argue that intersectionally marginalized groups should be protected from information that reminds them of dark histories of prejudice towards them. I largely agree with many of the criticisms levelled against these groups, so will not discuss them at length here.

The second major concern highlighted by classical liberals is the decline of meritocratic standards. Because this issue is more central to my overall point in this article, I will elaborate on it in considerably more detail. Modern classical liberals feel that postmodern identity politics has engendered a culture of victimization where far too many individuals feel they have been denied social positions and resources due to alleged discrimination in the past or present. Given this, postmodern activists want society to invest time in achieving greater equality of outcome for all, especially by giving individuals from historically marginalized groups a leg up through providing resources, greater access to opportunities, and so on.

Modern classical liberals usually point to two problems with this position. Firstly, as Peterson observes, classical liberals are concerned that the state will have to engage in massive intervention to achieve authentic equality of outcome across the board. This might even involve interfering in life choices individuals would otherwise make based on natural propensities; for instance, the tendency observed by Peterson for more women to enter the medical field. The second and more pressing problem with the decline in meritocratic standards is also more ambiguous. Modern classical liberals find the culture of victimization and group identity politics engendered by postmodern philosophies unappealing. They feel that, given equality of opportunity for all, individuals should then be largely responsible for their private “pursuit of happiness.” As it is sometimes articulated, identity politics is seen as making people far too concerned with demanding rights to equality of outcome, and far too blasé about taking responsibility for self-improvement and development. Indeed, the major orientation of Peterson’s latest bestseller 12 Rules For Life, with its injunctions to “stand up straight with your shoulders back” and to “set your house in perfect order before you try to change the world,” is that individuals should stop concerning themselves so much with removing perceived social barriers to their success. Instead, they should put some effort into actually trying to achieve success through hard work and merit.

The Classical Liberal Veneration of Labour and Meritocracy

Now we get to the positive dimension of the classical liberal argument. If classical liberal principles were adopted consistently, advocates admit this would lead to an unequal world where some individuals would climb further up the social hierarchy than others. But, so long as such inequality is a consequence of differences in natural talents and work ethic, it is morally justifiable because the inequities are based on merit. Indeed, many classical liberals believe that it is wrong to take resources from those who worked to become successful to pursue equality of outcome on behalf of self-described victims who have few actual talents or the drive to work hard. At the core of this claim is an emphasis on individual merit; people should be valued for what they contribute as individuals, rather than as arbitrary members of a given group which collectively demands compensation for wrongs long past.

The modern articulation of the classical liberal conception draws on deep intellectual roots in Western culture. The most influential formulation of the meritocratic principle characteristic of classical liberalism comes from John Locke. In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke develops an argument for the state based on the need to protect legitimately acquired rights to private property. Qua Hobbes, Locke argued that in the state of nature, before government and civil society, “all the world was America”-signifying that all objects in the world were held in common.

For Locke, property rights first emerged because individuals fundamentally own themselves. Because they own themselves, when they mixed their labour with objects in physical space and transformed them from raw matter into goods, they come to own those goods. Locke’s paradigmatic example was the right of individuals who till the soil to obtain property rights to the land and its bounty. To deny individuals full rights to goods produced by their hands by giving them to another would in effect make that individual a slave. This is morally wrong. But though they have moral property rights to the goods they have produced through their labour, individuals in a state of nature recognize that these rights are insecure. They therefore establish a representative government and political institutions to enforce their property rights. As Locke put it unambiguously, “The reason why men enter into society is the preservation of their property.”

What makes the Lockean argument appealing to many modern classical liberals is this strong association between labour, property, and freedom. For Locke, labour is what morally entitles individuals to property rights. If a person doesn’t work hard, and exists in a state of idleness, he is unlikely to merit a great deal of property. Idle people may well come to resent those who do work hard, and violently demand an unearned share of what the latter has earned through concerted effort. But, to invoke Kant (another classical liberal), this is deeply wrong because it treats the individual with property rights as a means to the immoral ends of another.

While Locke’s account might seem a bit primitive today (and it is worth noting that he himself had little respect for the property rights of Native Americans, and profited from the slave trade), it has had a prolonged influence. Many modern classical liberals, such as Peterson, Kelman, and others appeal to fundamentally Lockean arguments in their polemics against identity and group politics. They feel it is wrong to give certain groups advantages due to alleged historical mistreatment because. It will necessarily involve forcing individuals who have worked hard to acquire property and position to give some of that up to compensate those who have not labored to develop marketable talents or build up their resume. This takes from those individuals who merit having a great deal and gives it to those who do not merit it purely on the basis of group identity. As many have observed, the Declaration of Independence—deeply influenced by Locke’s ideas—highlights that all individuals have a right to the “pursuit of happiness,” not its achievement. Whether or not you merit achieving ‘happiness’ should depend on your character, effort, and drive. Many modern classical liberals dislike postmodern identity politics because they see it as fundamentally illiberal. Oriented around group identity and demands for equality of outcome based on past wrongs, it undermines the belief that any individual can make it in society if they try.

I have some sympathy with the arguments classical liberals make against postmodern philosophies, albeit for different reasons than those articulated here. But there is an odd gap in their analysis. Very few of them acknowledge that there has been a fundamental shift within liberalism itself that has nothing to do with the advent of postmodernism. Many modern liberals believe that liberalism, consistently understood, is not conducive to the meritocratic arguments discussed above. As I shall observe, the claims of these egalitarian liberals are far more problematic for proponents of meritocracy than those of the postmodernists. They argue that taking individualism and merit seriously means eliminating morally arbitrary inequities that enable many to get ahead due to advantages for which they can take no credit.

Rawls’s Egalitarian Liberalism

The original egalitarian liberal is John Rawls, widely acclaimed as the most famous political theorist of the twentieth century. In his seminal book A Theory of Justice, published in 1971, Rawls enacted a transformative shift in the way liberals understand individualism and individual merit. Prior to Rawls, the classical liberal argument for meritocracy was already being complicated by Utilitarians, who argued that society should focus on maximizing the welfare of each person. This might mean adopting robust redistributive policies, such as those found in an advanced welfare state. But the Utilitarian argument for redistribution was based on the idea of maximizing aggregate pleasure. It “did not take seriously the differences” between people as Rawls observed, and the classical liberals would agree. The latter would argue that redistributive policies were unjust because they effaced differences in effort and individual merit. Rawls took a different view. He argued from a liberal standpoint that individual merit was a deeply ambiguous and heavily mythologized principle which discriminated against disadvantaged individuals for “morally arbitrary reasons” which had little to do with merit. Therefore a ‘fair’ liberal society would adopt robust redistributive policies to compensate for the moral arbitrariness in the distribution of goods.

Rawls raises two arguments for this position. The first is an argument derived from what he termed the “Original Position.” Summarizing very briefly, Rawls asks us to imagine what hypothetical society an impartial individual would feel safe entering if they were unaware who they would be in that society and what kind of distributive principles would orient it.  Such impartial individuals, behind what he termed a “veil of ignorance,” would not know if they would end up a Doctor catering to wealthy patients in Manhattan or a cashier working at Wal-Mart in Mississippi. Rawls argued that individuals would not feel safe entering into a society oriented by the meritocratic principle, because they were far more likely to wind up swiping groceries over a scanner for minimum wage and few benefits than discussing the latest issue of the American Journal of Medicine over martinis. Therefore, an impartial person who had to decide what kind of society he would feel safe entering would want a more egalitarian principle orienting the distribution of goods. This would guarantee that if he did wind up working as the Wal-Mart cashier he would still have enough to get by.

This first argument of Rawls’s is quite controversial, even to those—myself included—who are sympathetic to his overall position. Many have observed that he seems to assume impartial individuals would be deeply cautious and unwilling to gamble that they would wind up as a rich Doctor paying low taxes. But the first argument isn’t especially germane here. Rawls’s more powerful argument is a purely moral one: the argument from moral arbitrariness.

Rawls observes that when one looks closely at many of the reasons people get ahead, very few of them actually have to do with their individual moral merit. Most individuals get ahead for reasons that are “arbitrary from a moral point of view.” But, as Rawls observes, this is antithetical to liberal individualism. If many individuals get ahead for reasons that are arbitrary from a moral point of view, this means that those left behind are not there through any fault of their own. They were left behind for reasons that are similarly arbitrary. For Rawls this is deeply unfair from a liberal standpoint, since one of fundamental beliefs of liberalism is that arbitrary hierarchies that enable some to get ahead are unjustifiable.

This is where Rawls gets truly radical. Simplifying somewhat, Rawls observes that there are effectively two sets of morally arbitrary advantages which enable some individuals to get ahead for reasons that cannot be justified from a liberal standpoint. The first set are social advantages. The second set are natural advantages, such as genetic talents. We will discuss both in some detail.

Social advantages are those which individuals enjoy due to the persistence of arbitrary political, institutional, cultural, and economic hierarchies which benefit some over others. Social advantages can include everything from getting to go to elite private schools because one’s parents are rich, to being read to as a child where others are placed in front of a television set. In both of these cases, and many others, individuals are given social advantages which give them a head start in the race for position and resources. These have nothing to do with merit since no individual can claim credit for these social advantages. If one’s parents are wealthy enough to send their child to the Phillips’s Academy for $41,900 a year, the advantages the child accrues have nothing to do with their relative merit. The inverse is true for the disadvantaged. Is it the fault of a 10 year-old in Flint that their studying might impeded by a lack of safe drinking water at their underfunded school? Subsequently, is it entirely as a result of merit that the former child acquires an A+ average before his parents shell out $46,000 a year for Harvard University, while the latter child ends up a B student taking out significant loans to go to community college? These narratives are hardly unrepresentative. In a 2010 study, Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl’s observed that only 14 percent of undergraduates at elite colleges come from families at the bottom half of the income hierarchy. There seems to be little way of justifying these inequities along meritocratic lines.

Some more centrist classical liberals respond to such claims by softening their position.  They agree to redistributive policies necessary to ameliorate unearned advantages and provide opportunities to those who were socially unlucky. Peterson himself has made this point recently, calling rampant income inequality a problem. But modern classical liberals argue that these policies should only go so far. Once morally arbitrary social advantages are ameliorated, the inequalities which would then emerge as a result of individual’s natural advantages and talents shouldn’t be interfered with. But this is where Rawls brings up his arguments about the second set of reasons individuals get ahead for morally arbitrary reasons. This has to do with the morally arbitrary distribution of natural advantages.

Natural advantages are those which individuals enjoy at birth due to fortunate genetic heritage and other scientifically determined circumstances. They can include advantages like being born with a higher IQ than average, being born with an exceptionally healthy immune system, or a capacity to achieve at a high level of academic ability. In none of these cases can individuals claim that they merited being born intrinsically smarter, healthier, or stronger, than others. The inverse is true for those who may have been born with a low IQ, with a significant physical disability, or a tendency to be small and frail. This is a problem for the meritocratic conception. Since natural advantages are distributed in a way that is morally arbitrary, the achievements and goods of those who enjoy them are not entirely merited. A naturally handsome, healthy, highly intelligent man enjoys a significant and unearned edge over a less attractive, sickly man with a lower than average intelligence.

Now critics may claim that natural advantages don’t mean much in themselves. They may remain undeveloped if a person doesn’t commit the effort needed to refine them. But as Rawls observes, even a tendency to commit effort depends in part on fortunate natural (and social) factors. Healthy individuals brought up in a family which values work and achievement are more likely to commit effort to developing their natural advantages relative to individuals suffering from inherited and acute depression who are growing up in dysfunctional families.  Finally, having natural advantages and talents worth developing depends a great deal on what society chooses to value. A ‘talent’ is only such because others decide to ascribe it significance. An individual with an acute talent at chess can only profit from it when they are born in a social setting where such an ability is valued. The same is true of an individual with a genetic propensity to develop the talents needed to achieve greatness in American football. These talents would not be as meaningful in societies that didn’t care about chess or football. So individuals who posses such talents are fortunate again to be born in the right place at the right time. They cannot take credit for such fortune. A just society would therefore attempt to ameliorate the consequences which arise from the distribution in natural talents, and not cop out by claiming that nature is simply unconcerned with fairness. If we can act to rectify unfairness, it is the liberal thinking to do. As Rawls puts it in Chapter II of Theory of Justice:

We may reject the contention that the ordering of institutions is always defective because the distribution of natural talents and the contingencies of social circumstance are unjust, and this injustice must inevitably carry over to human arrangements. Occasionally this reflection is offered as an excuse for ignoring injustice, as if the refusal to acquiesce in injustice is on a par with being unable to accept death. The natural distribution is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts. Aristocratic and caste societies are unjust because they make these contingencies the ascriptive basis for belonging to more or less enclosed and privileged social classes. The basic structure of these societies incorporates the arbitrariness found in nature. But there is no necessity for men to resign themselves to these contingencies. The social system is not an unchangeable order beyond human control but a pattern of human action.

Conclusion: Postmodernism Isn’t Meritocracy’s Main Adversary

Rawls’s point is not that any one of these morally arbitrary advantages is determinative.  There are individuals from wealthy families who go bust. Individuals with a very high IQ may suffer from a range of mood and anxiety disorders that can hold them back. But the aggregated impact of such morally arbitrary social and natural advantages is that many individuals get ahead due to factors for which they can claim no credit. From a Rawlsian standpoint, this is deeply illiberal since it allows for a distribution of goods, social honors, and opportunities which has little to do with moral merit and a great deal to do with arbitrary advantage. A just liberal society would therefore be concerned with establishing a more fair distribution of resources to compensate the least well off for the disadvantages they endure through no fault of their own. To Rawls’s mind, this does not mean striving for strict equality of outcome. But it does mean that any inequalities which do emerge in a liberal society must work to the advantage of those who are poorly off for morally arbitrary reasons.

This argument has been massively influential in analytical political philosophy, especially amongst liberals. Indeed, one of the odd characteristics of modern self-described ‘classical liberals’ is an at times myopic focus on postmodern philosophy and identity politics to the exclusion of other intellectual trends. If they looked more carefully at modern liberal philosophy, they might not like what they see. Contemporary liberal thinkers like Ronald Dworkin, Martha Nussbaum, Thomas Nagel, and others are firmly committed to liberalism while also arguing that our current society is unjustifiably riddled with unmerited advantage. They draw our attention to the fact that, far from becoming a society where merit is not valued, there are still an immense number of morally arbitrary factors allowing some individuals to get ahead while other undeservedly fall behind.

In fact Rawls’s argument has been so successful that even sophisticated critics largely cede his point about moral arbitrariness. In Anarchy, State, and Utopia the great libertarian thinker Robert Nozick conceded many of the Rawls’s points. Nozick argued that Rawls is right to claim that moral arbitrariness plays a large—maybe even primary—role in the distribution of advantages which allows some to unfairly get ahead. But, rejuvenating Lockean arguments, Nozick argued that we should not establish a state powerful enough to rectify all such moral arbitrariness. A state that powerful would inevitably clamp down on human freedom and become deeply unjust.

Perhaps there is something to this argument, perhaps not. My goal in this essay hasn’t been to challenge all tenets of classical liberalism. It is merely to observe that the claim that liberal meritocratic arguments are primarily challenged by postmodern identity politics is misleading. While that may be true in the public sphere, the deeper problem for classical liberals are issues within liberalism itself. If Rawls and his descendants are right that liberal principles orient us to reject most meritocratic claims, it is far less clear what intellectual legs it stands on.


Matt McManus received his L.L.M in International Human Rights Law from the National University of Ireland and his PhD in Socio-Legal Studies from York University. He is currently Visiting Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC de Monterrey and is writing his first book “Overcoming False Necessity: Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law” for the University of Wales Press. He can be reached at


  1. I see no real rebuttals to what Rawls is saying. If the cost of standing at step one (a college degree) is lifelong debt, already a ‘meritocracy’ is unreasonably cruel. Add any potential medical debt to that situation and it becomes absurd. None of that is based in merit, only familial class privilege, and luck of the draw in health and disease.

    Throwing in IQ only makes the situation more impossible, and looking at group differences and claims of structural racism, one has to concede serious biases against and for certain groups in meritocratic capitalism. If IQ and conscientiousness are the primary traits of success in capitalism, and are largely hereditary, and even Ezra Klein admits they vary along populations (whether environmental or genetic, the damage is done), then there is no equality of opportunity at all. It is a fiction. Meritocracy, in the ultimate irony, does become a white-Jewish-Asian ideal. Jordan Peterson himself wrote a blog post about how higher Ashkenazi Jewish IQ explains higher Jewish achievement in a meritocratic society. That argument, if true, seriously opens the floodgates to identity politics in ways we are not equipped to reckon with. Consider the overlap between exposure to lead poisoning, which lowers IQ, and majority-black American neighborhoods produced via redlining, racist housing policies and Jim Crow. Environmental racism is an extremely robust concept.

    Whether we wish them to be or not, social democracy and reparations are the price capitalism will have to pay to continue functioning. If that price is not paid, a high-IQ high-familial wealth population will continue to win, and those who cannot win will not be satisfied for long.

    • RMC says

      Our capitalist system has reduced abject poverty world-wide to a degree unknown in history.

      Being born into a single parent family is the greatest predictor of a failed life outcome.

      Prior to President Johnson’s “Great Society” programs meant to defeat poverty, the illegitimacy rate in the black community was about 26%.

      Half-a-century later it’s over 70%.

      The programs were targeted at blacks, and at the time government bureaucrats actually went door-to-door informing poor blacks about the programs.

      The hitch? The father couldn’t live in the home if the mother wanted to receive aid.

      FTA – “Utilitarian argument..redistribution was based on the idea of maximizing aggregate pleasure.”

      The Welfare state incentivizes destructive behavior that increases misery.

      The politics of envy and promises of government largesse are an easy sell to the lazy and the poorly informed but are a disaster for our culture and economy.

    • Pizza Pete says

      Oh enough of this.

      “Whether we wish them to be or not, social democracy and reparations are the price capitalism will have to pay to continue functioning. ”

      How many times has this trope been trotted out over the past hundred and fifty years while all evidence supports that nothing could be further from the truth.

      In the US in 2018 the only things one is responsible for to avoid poverty are: 1) completing high school, 2) abstaining from high levels of perpetual drug and alcohol consumption, and 3) waiting until you’re married to have children.

      We already have a broadly redistributive society with everything from Medicaid, food stamps, Obamaphones, and all sorts of other goodies.

      Material wealth has never been higher for the poor.

      The author is right that much of what we have is unearned by ourselves, but that does not mean that it is unearned. If I spend time reading to my child instead of having him watch TV that is labor that I have performed. That other parents don’t read to their kids, and, specifically, that other fathers abandon their children are moral failings not to be solved by technocratic socialist initiatives. I will resist, for example, having my children put in to schools with children whose parents don’t work to prepare them academically with whatever social and financial means I have available.

      The problem of course with the American Left is that it has always been preoccupied with welfare for the upper middle class: creating meaningless jobs administering “justice” for technocrats while not doing a particularly good job of taking care of the poor.

      This is the reason public school costs $26k per year in Newark, NYCs subways have many times for financial resources than those in Europe but are a disaster, and the state of California likely has $1 trillion in pension debt but shitty road and water infrastructure even by 20th century standards.

      Like Charles Murray I have sympathy for low-IQ people who work hard and do the right thing. I have no problem expanding the EITC and providing other DIRECT subsidies to that these people can enjoy a reasonable, comfortable lower middle class lifestyle.

      But the people arguing for reparations and socialism are arguing for something very different: jobs and power for themselves.

    • Robin says

      The person who is blessed with a wealthy family, high IQ, robust body and opportune environment has as little responsibility for her blessings as the person who is cursed, so to speak. Considering that redistributive ‘justice’ places the burden of making society equal on the blessed by using the state to run its egalitarian institutions using their taxes and limits their rights via disparate impact and affirmative action legislation. It seems that Rawls has merely substituted one inequality for another.

      • “The person who is blessed with a wealthy family, high IQ, robust body and opportune environment has as little responsibility for her blessings as the person who is cursed, so to speak. ”

        Who cares? A functioning society focuses on how to best make use of such people to improve and advance that society through their talents.

        A loser society seethes with envy because someone else didn’t get those talents. And pursues “equality” through pools of blood.

        Yes, the Equalitarian argument has been as consequential as the postmodern attack. Accommodating it has led us to our present situation. The solution is to reject it at its root.

        Equality is a fiction. It does not exist. People who try to sell you things based on equality are ugly people inside, and lying to you. See Van Creveld, Martin:

        “…This survey of the history of equality demonstrates that the vast majority of human societies have not only survived, but thrived without equality. And it appears that despite its popular appeal, if carried too far, equality will present a threat to justice, liberty, and even truth. More problematic still is the observable fact that the various versions of equality tend to be contradictory. For every form of equality achieved, another must often be sacrificed. That is why the attempt to establish it on a lasting basis has, in every previous instance, proven ephemeral.

        Equality, especially absolute equality of the form Plato, Rousseau, and their modern successors are seeking, is a dream. When one takes into account the costs it involves, the contradictions to which it inevitably leads, and the tremendous quantities of blood that have been shed in its name, it is hard to conclude that the dream of equality is a beautiful one.”

  2. Thanks to the writer for taking the time to write, and to Quillette for publishing, this piece.

    I’ll add a quote from Deneen’s book that speaks to the battle between the two poles of liberalism that is really at the heart of the Death of Western Civilization that is so often mistakenly blamed on “Cultural Marxism”, the cant phrase of the millennium thus far.

    “Individualism and statism advance together, always mutually supportive, and always at the expense of lived and vital relations that stand in contrast to both the starkness of the autonomous individual and the abstraction of our membership in the state. In distinct but related ways, the right and the left cooperate in the expansion of both statism and individualism, although from different perspectives, using different means, and claiming different agendas.”

    Why Liberalism Failed p.39 (in my epub version)

    • James says

      Hi mjw51,
      I also couldn’t help thinking of Deneen’s work whilst reading this piece by McManus. McManus falls in to one of the traps that Deneen describes; the trap of “presentism”. McManus believes that the social advantages enjoyed by some are morally arbitrary but this fundamentally ignores the relationship between generations and the deal that parents make with the future on behalf of their children and expect their children to make in turn when their time comes to be responsible adults and upstanding community participants. The whole point of social capital is that it is hard work to pass on and completely non-arbitrary. McManus suggests that the isolated individual that acquires this social capital does so in a morally arbitrary fashion but this requires us to imagine an individual that has never existed; a individual isolated in space and time who is not part of a larger family group, community and finally culture that allows this person to survive and indeed, to flourish.

      McManus imagines a world where a completely isolated individual wandered in from the cold without any knowledge of the society in to which he/she was entering. This scenario is simultaneously an abstraction of limited use (because of its poor analogue to the way real people live in the world) but also allows us to observe an everyday proxy that provides examples that both validate and contradict McManus – the third world immigrant arriving in a modern liberal democracy. Time and again, those immigrants or refugees who “make it” in their new society demonstrate two things:
      1. They bring with them some highly useful good qualities that are human universals which are transferable between cultures and societies. These qualities are recognised and appreciated by the new host society (sometimes belatedly) which then offers a path to prosperity for the new comer (albeit, one that often requires a great deal of hard work).
      2. They recognise those societal and cultural traits within their new culture that are useful and commendable and then decides to play by that set of rules (with acknowledgements to Jordan Peterson).

      There is a valid argument to be made that some individuals born in to an otherwise successful culture do not benefit from naturalisation in to this culture because of deficiencies within their family group (parents who can’t or won’t accept their responsibility to future and past generations) or community group (deeply fractured neighborhoods). But the state is ill-equipped to correct this injustice at the scale of the individual and, more importantly, this would be to treat the symptom and not the cause. The symptom is the comparatively disadvantaged individual (child) but the cause is harder to glean; why or how was he/she let down by his or her family and community groups? And how can the state ensure that families and communities understand their obligation to future generations to pass on social capital? I contend that the state is incapable of doing this as it would be contradiction to try and legislate good morals – culture is the only vehicle that transmits moral behaviour and usually requires religion to grant it authority.

      A further observation is that the examples provided about the arbitrary assignation of talent and its relative usefulness are invalid. Chess and football are very narrow activities which may call on only one or two desirable traits at most and have never ensured success or prosperity of an individual or a society of time. McManus should have considered that combination of qualities valued by cultures over time and space because of their causal relationship to sustained peace and prosperity. Taken like this, it becomes reasonably obvious that the transmission of social capital has been far more revered than natural talent over time excluding the last 300-odd years.

      My thanks to Quillette and this community!

      • I can’t help but point out that in a discussion of meritocracy vs aristocracy, which is of course the root of classical liberalism, any tendency to ascribe merit to an individual when that “merit” is in fact nothing more or less than social capital bestowed by family membership is a defense of aristocracy and nothing to do with the much-vaunted individualism and meritocracy of classical liberal dreams.

      • “There is a valid argument to be made that some individuals born in to an otherwise successful culture do not benefit from naturalisation in to this culture because of deficiencies within their family group (parents who can’t or won’t accept their responsibility to future and past generations) or community group (deeply fractured neighborhoods). But the state is ill-equipped to correct this injustice at the scale of the individual and, more importantly, this would be to treat the symptom and not the cause. The symptom is the comparatively disadvantaged individual (child) but the cause is harder to glean; why or how was he/she let down by his or her family and community groups? And how can the state ensure that families and communities understand their obligation to future generations to pass on social capital? I contend that the state is incapable of doing this as it would be contradiction to try and legislate good morals – culture is the only vehicle that transmits moral behaviour and usually requires religion to grant it authority.”

        Very astute. May I borrow this – I believe it succinctly sums up a tremendous amount of writing and thinking.

  3. Caste Away says

    I am continually amazed that there are people who believe in meritocracy who do not favor an Estate Tax. The extreme meritocratic position would be for a 100% Estate Tax. Could it be that some of the loudest advocates for pure meritocracy owe some of their “merit” to mommy and daddy’s money and like it that way?

    As to the other type of unearned advantage, if current predictions about the direction of AI prove true, a lot of brain-powered jobs are about to become redundant very soon. Legions of accountants and programmers may find themselves in a similar position to your hypothetical professional chess player in a post-Deep-Blue world. The jobs left over after the next automation revolution may not favor the same traits that translate to money in our current moment.

    We may many of us find ourselves in some form of Rawls’ thought experiment soon enough, not knowing whether our own particular qualities will translate into advantages or deficits in the society of tomorrow. So his admonitions to try to construct a society as though you didn’t know what position you would occupy within it may end up working towards the self-interest a lot of people who currently take it for altruism. What goes around may come around, so even people who can’t bring themselves to care about those less fortunate might want to consider the possibility that it may one day be them.

    • RMC says

      I created substantial wealth over the course of a lifetime.

      It is not yours to dole out in the belief that you will do better with the proceeds of my estate than my family.

      Apparently, you don’t understand that a driving force in assembling that wealth was the ability to pass it family at my death.

      You remove that incentive at all our peril.

  4. Butter Balls says

    The idea of combating natural advantages to create a meritocracy is a rather chilling one. I’m not sure many would see it as a part of liberalism. It sounds more like a very sinister aberration of communism to me and would be equally disastrous. Such ideas would make many current ‘classical liberals’ conservatives and make them run screaming to the comforting arms of Thomas Sowell.

    • italofoca says

      This is because many ‘classical liberals’ are actually conservatives to begin with. Using Locke to justify a few positions regarding property rights and statefare does not make your ideals liberal.

      • EK says

        You’re right.

        Locke was restating the mid-17th C. English Grandee position first formally articulated by Gen. Henry Ireton, Cromwell’s son-in-law, at the [New Model] Army Council debates at Putney in October 1647. In opposition at the debates was Col. Thomas Rainborowe, a Leveller and John Winthrop’s last brother-in-law, who argued for essentially universal suffrage and whose position was expanded upon by Gerard Winstanly.

        As Christopher Hill has abundantly demonstrated, that exchange at St. Mary’s Church in Putney establish the poles of the debate to this day.

        The Soviet historians of the 1930s correctly saw the New Model Army as a workers and soldiers soviet and our contemporary “classic” liberals have unwittingly adopting Ireton’s and James Harrington’s position (Oceana) that political power must follow wealth.

        Between the two poles, two permanent factions have emerged in the liberal West; the leveller democratic republicans who tend towards the Rainborowe/Winstanley pole and the whigs who tend towards the Ireton/Locke pole.

        We’d all do better if we understood the dimensions of the field between the poles.

    • Pizza Pete says

      That’s right.

      Clearly if you are successful there is a high probability that you had an unfair advantage. The proper response if we go by socialist justice accounting is that the successful are to be punished by a strong central state that has final say in these matters.

      In particular I don’t like those privileged Asian immigrants who come here with nothing and work extraordinarily hard for decades to achieve intergenerational success. They should have to give up even more spots at Ivy League schools to less well prepared students. And the Jews whose success, based on the logic of intersectionality, can only be due to their conspiring – they should also be punished.

      At the end of the day I don’t approve of Stalin’s methods but the general concept of punishing the kulaks was right. If someone has 12 cows that’s clearly not fair. They should be punished, have most of those cows taken away, and be forced to atone for their privilege.

      American society is very economically and socially complex. This will be a big undertaking. We need a robust technocratic public sector to determine who to punish and who to give handouts to.

  5. Gary Edwards says

    The key question here, I guess, are:

    (1) Does “classical liberalism” necessarily committed us to the right-libertarian idea of the individual as ‘owner of her own talents’?

    (2) “Classicism” aside, what ‘metaphysics of the self’, if any, does liberalism in general demand?

    • Gary: 1) Yes, I believe it does.

      2) Liberalism appears to demand a public/political’economic self that is all about reason and
      striving and self-interest and that is separate and distinct from a self that my have squishy
      feelings of love and responsibility toward family and friends, pets and pornography.

      The metaphysics of the classical liberal self seems to rest heavily upon what is obviously an impossibly theoretical dichotomy between these divided selves.

      • It would seem you take a very different view to me. I would deny that liberalism entails ‘individual ownership of talents’. At least not complete ownership. I thereby view liberalism as compatible with some taxation for welfare, social democracy and even instances of democratic socialism.

        I also see ‘the liberal self’ as rooted in the natural history of the passions, rather than the eternal dictats of abstract reason. I also understand ‘the voluntary self’ as a cultural posit which admits the greater political plurality, and greater economic complexity, of modernity.

        I would nevertheless count myself as liberal on issues of power. When it comes to institutionalised violence and the threat thereof, liberal values are preferable to what right-identarians and left-identarians often have in mind.

        • You were asking about “classical liberalism”. To talk about how classical liberalism views just about anything at all, one needs to talk about Locke and Smith in contrast to, say, Hobbes and Rousseau, and the tradition, not our particular take on a question.

          So I’ll be sticking with Locke and the lads.

          I’m not a liberal myself, so I don’t have a choice.

  6. Andrew K says

    “Social advantages can include everything from getting to go to elite private schools because one’s parents are rich, to being read to as a child where others are placed in front of a television set. In both of these cases, and many others, individuals are given social advantages which give them a head start in the race for position and resources. These have nothing to do with merit since no individual can claim credit for these social advantages. If one’s parents are wealthy enough to send their child to the Phillips’s Academy for $41,900 a year, the advantages the child accrues have nothing to do with their relative merit.”

    This entire statement ignores the fact that it is the parents whom have spend a lifetime building social and economical capital for which they must invest in their children. Far form being unearned advantages, it is the responsibility of any parent to prepare their children for the world of adulthood the best way they are able. It is beyond me how anyone could even attempt to call a parent reading to their child, or leveraging the resources they have available to provide their children with opportunities ‘unearned’. Where do you think the time or money came from to start with!

    If you are a parent and you want your children to have these so called ‘privileges’, YOU must earn them by investing in providing them to your children yourself. You the parent can spend the time reading to them, take an interest in their education, do not let them take anything for granted, and make them work for it.

    Outside of overt arbitrary discrimination. We are all born in different situations, genetically, culturally, economically, these you cannot control for yourself, some of them you can control for your children, ultimately it is up to you to make the best of the advantages you have at your disposal and minimize the disadvantages.

    • italofoca says

      It is ‘unearned’ by your children even if it’s earned by you. This is very clearly a morally arbitrary advantage.

      Your last paragraph is in no way a response to Rawls’s egalitarian liberalism. In no way it’s established that people shouldn’t make good use of opportunities they have and work around the disadvantages.

      What is beign argued against is the expectation that individual compotence (which, as you admit is not really individual at all) should be the sole determinant of wellbeign.

      • augustine says

        No, what is being argued against is this (Rawls):

        “The natural distribution is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts.”

        One’s own abilities and outcome could never be solely self-determined.

        To imagine the State as the exhaustive arbiter of what we owe, in a moral sense, to ourselves, to those close to us, our countrymen or to anyone else in the world is simply nightmarish. That the State should be invoked in some moral-economic capacity– more or less the system we have now– has some merit, but the rebellious liberal spirit is never satisfied with less than Utopia. It is their driving force.

      • Pizza Pete says

        “It is ‘unearned’ by your children even if it’s earned by you. This is very clearly a morally arbitrary advantage.”

        Fine, but why should my work go to the state? It’s my work and I should do with it as I see fit.

        Whenever technocratic schemes fail (and they always do), the response is to harangue the successful for handouts.

        “You didn’t earn that!”

  7. POC says

    Thanks for the thought provoking article.

    Maybe it’s a necessary limitation of a short article, and I haven’t read the original sources quoted, but it seems to me that Rawl’s argument is based on loose and emotive appeals to ‘morality’ and ‘fairness’. A bit like how young children claim ‘it’s not fair’ when they don’t get what they want.

    Rawls condemns gains he sees as flowing from social and natural advantages as immoral. The article does not say why he thinks this wrong. And what does Rawls propose in it’s place? Surely his logic leads to a massively intrusive state, very high levels of taxation, and ultimately to a society lacking in initiative, risk-taking, innovation and hard work.

    • italofoca says

      Morality is hardly a loose emotive appeal. It is the root of many political philosophy, specially liberal and libertarian theories. Locke, Smith, Mill, Bentham where all moral philosophers to different degrees.

      About fairness, it is not a primitive but the result of his theory. Rawls does not assume fairness is important – he demonstrates it. Unlike all conservative and libertarian thought who simply assume it’s important at face value.

      I challenge you to justify any conservative, liberal or libertarian position without appealing to some notion of fairness.

      About your last paragraph, the point of the article is not to show that adherence to meritocracy is wrong, but to show it is inconsistent with the principles of liberal philosophy.

      • avoiceinthewilderness says

        “I challenge you to justify any conservative, liberal or libertarian position without appealing to some notion of fairness.”

        Easy: In the absence of some shared understanding of enforceable boundaries, we will fight. We can (mostly) agree fighting is a costly affair, and none of us has a very good chance of success against everyone else, so we have good reason to come to some terms we can all (mostly) agree to abide by. These need not be enforced by any sense of “fairness” (though it probably will be for some of the participants) but simply by the reasonable expectation that one cannot hope to defect from this arrangement without great cost to one’s self. The system of boundaries approximated by liberal rights outperforms alternatives well enough that it wins in the competition among political regimes (both internal competition and international competition). Fairness need never enter into it; selection red in tooth and claw will do just fine. Nor does this account need any obscure metaphysics of the self or conception of the good life. The whole point is to find something we can agree to despite deep and abiding disagreements on those matters. It’s important to remember that liberalism arose precisely in the context of trying to find peace in a time of bloody religious wars.

        I say this account is “easy” because it is rather commonplace and not novel. This is actually deeply similar to the argument Rawls himself offers in his later (and more mature) work, _Political Liberalism_, Randy Barnett makes an argument basically like this in his _Structure of Liberty_, and it also bears a deep resemblance to certain arguments made by Hayek and many others.. (The astute reader will recognize a family resemblance to Hobbes. Pace Hobbes, however, I think we can agree that liberalism has outperformed absolute monarchy.)

        To summarize the argument in a single sentence: Liberalism offers us the opportunity of a positive sum game in voluntary exchanges (cultural as well as economic) in lieu of the negative sum game of endless conflict. Moralism is not needed to make this argument work. It relies on certain potentially controversial empirical claims, but I regard this as an advantage not a disadvantage.

        To head off a common confusion, it is worth emphasizing that this is not a utilitarian argument either. It does not rely on any aggregation of the overall good. Each individual has reason to participate in the system (or not), based on what is best for him/her and what he/she cares about.

        You’re welcome, of course, to your thicker conceptions of morality and fairness, but it is a great virtue of liberalism that it does not stand in need of these, relying instead on a merely “political not metaphysical” system of rules deriving from an “overlapping consensus” in conditions of “permanent reasonable pluralism” with respect to comprehensive doctrines of the true, beautiful, and good (the phrases in quotes come from Rawls’ _Political Liberalism_).

        All this nonsense I’m reading here about “meritocracy” can be handled in exactly the same way–and was handled in exactly that way by Nozick. No one has to think those with merit are more deserving of their advantages to agree they are entitled to those advantages in the system that works best for (most) everyone involved.

        • augustine says

          @ avoiceinthewilderness

          Based on this statement

          “You’re welcome, of course, to your thicker conceptions of morality and fairness, but it is a great virtue of liberalism that it does not stand in need of these…”

          I wonder if you would agree that _the people themselves_ must in fact exhibit morals and fairness in order for the liberal system to work? Cf. separation of church and state.

          • avoiceinthewilderness says

            @ augustine

            Great point.

            It’s an empirical question whether such a liberal society could survive without individuals being committed to comprehensive doctrines, but I judge it to be mostly moot. Whether the people themselves MUST exhibit morals and fairness does not matter if we agree that all the evidence indicates they most certainly WILL. (Readers here will be familiar with Haidt’s summary of the evidence.) The “thin” liberalism I sketched above accepts that humans will have moral commitments, but doubts any of these can achieve sufficiently widespread acceptance to ground a commitment to the political system in conditions of “permanent reasonable pluralism.” Fortunately, we do not have to agree about the ultimate nature of the true, the beautiful, and the good to get along well enough to establish a system of basic rules for the profitable intercourse of (most) everyone.

            For what it’s worth, my own comprehensive doctrine is inspired by the deep individualism of Emerson, so I am enthusiastic about the rich and profoundly diverse society that emerges from “thin” liberalism giving space to a wealth of complementary excellences. In tune with this, I am also deeply suspicious of finger-wagging universalistic morality declaring once and for all with respect to “justice,” and I certainly don’t believe anyone needs such a thing to endorse liberalism. My hope: Let’s set aside any moralistic crusaderism and enjoy peace and prosperity instead, each in our own ways and before our own gods.

            So my own motives at least are indeed informed by a specific conception of “morals and fairness,” and I am content to let others speak for themselves.

        • Pizza Pete says

          @ avoiceinthewilderness

          Very nice comment. Thank you.

      • Thanks italofoca. It seems that many of our commenters here either cannot or refuse to understand what classical liberalism is all about.

        The insistence on “family” somehow equating to “individual” is odd to say the least.

        And the dismissal of morality and fairness is of course a dismissal of the whole liberal project from day one.

        Such folks should come out of the closet asap so a real discussion can take place.

        • avoiceinthewilderness says


          I gave an argument above that shows why you’re wrong to assert that the liberal project requires a comprehensive moral view. The argument I gave is not obscure or unusual in the liberal tradition, as I documented. Of course, it is not uncontroversial either. There has been a longstanding debate among liberals regarding “thick” vs. “thin” versions of the project. If you would like to understand what classical liberalism is all about, I suggest you should have a look at that long debate. (You are ironically correct to assert that some of the commenters here either cannot or refuse to understand what classical liberalism is all about.)

          Your comment in no way engages the argument I sketched, and instead assumes the aspect of the scrunch faced moral scold. Sneering dismissal is not an argument.

          “Such folks should come out of the closet asap so a real discussion can take place.”

          What on earth does that mean? Why do you wish to play the person instead of playing the ball? You can engage my arguments without knowing who I am. Clearly, you do not wish to engage the arguments, but you want to engage me. Creepy.

          • There are indeed long-standing debates about many aspects of the liberal project, but as this part of this thread is talking about “classical liberalism” those long-standing debates are neither here nor there. There are obviously different strands in the 300 years of liberal tradition, some of which would like to see morality & fairness left to scrunchy-faced moralizers. That, however, does not include “classical liberalism”.

            Hard right libertarianism might want to veil itself in the “classical” cloak, but that doesn’t really make it something it isn’t.

          • augustine says

            @ avoiceinthewilderness

            Thanks for your thoughtful reply. You write

            “Fortunately, we do not have to agree about the ultimate nature of the true, the beautiful, and the good to get along well enough to establish a system of basic rules for the profitable intercourse of (most) everyone.”

            This sounds like a contractual arrangement across international or cross-cultural boundaries. As far as it goes it is sensible and something we subscribe to already. But for any particular culture it is moving in the wrong direction I think.

            If we do not, as a group of people connected by a shared understanding of common ancestry, history, language, values, etc., enjoy a meaningful understanding of what is the good, then on what basis can we say how we should act toward one another, or toward other groups? By what values do we progress together? Personally I feel liberalism succeeded against other ideas because it did not (even if it sought to at times) obliterate competing world views. That may have been more of a bug than a feature.

            Is sharing a “profitable intercourse” at the limit of what enjoins us to establish strong (not to say fixed) foundations for exchange? There is a need for separating philosophy and spiritual matters from more practical concerns but ultimately the separation is false since they are interdependent realms that affect the same individuals and societies.

            I am also wary of moralistic crusaderism but as individuals and as groups we depend on moral understandings to develop successful philosophic or practical schemes such as liberalism (s.l.) and its relevant mechanisms, or to maintain and adapt older systems. Your own “morals and fairness” can only succeed, can only have relevance, where there is some critical number of others who share your thinking. This is where at least some strands of libertarianism go seriously awry.

  8. Darren, Nottingham says

    Unearned “natural advantage” has two aspects, the individual and the collective. The author doesn’t mention the latter. The earth, the land and its natural resources, the commons and how we share it/them used to be central to classical liberal reformism.
    What happened? Until we release the commons from private monopoly this discussion is fatally incomplete. Only by sharing the commons via geofiscal reform can we have a meritocracy.
    What happened to the centuries long battle for the commons? And who’s afraid of Henry George?

    • Darren, Nottingham says

      I was a little unfair to the author – he does mention Locke and his discussion of labour and land. However, I feel that Henry George’s (and others) accurate distinction between earned and unearned wealth clarifies this issue. In other words, all of this was thoroughly discussed in the decades up to WW1. Progress and Poverty – still the largest selling work of political economy ever – remains the core text here.

  9. AC Harper says

    “Rawls observes that when one looks closely at many of the reasons people get ahead, very few of them actually have to do with their individual moral merit. Most individuals get ahead for reasons that are “arbitrary from a moral point of view.” ”

    This may be well true – but is the ‘moral point of view’ a justified view? Peterson refers to evolutionary processes that underpin social attitudes. A man or woman who leaves more ‘fit’ descendents is ‘fitter’ whether they are judged to have arbitrary reasons from a moral point of view or not.

    The problem I have with discussions about ‘morality’ is that it is very much a collective view. To create a philosophical or political view incorporating ‘morality’, and whether individual advantages are arbitrary or not, is to already accept a ‘collective bias’ in one’s thinking. Such a view is not necessarily *wrong* but it is not necessarily fundamental either.

  10. These are very interesting arguments and their sentiment is shared by many liberal and liberal-conservative thinkers. Peterson and Murray reiterated that many times in regard to IQ and the deepening of talent-based inequality.

    But there is a side to this that’s rarely discussed. Why are we always talking about forced redistribution of goods when discussing inequality?

    It is incorrect to focus entirely on personal outcomes of advantaged or disadvantaged people ignoring the impact they have on each others’ lives. People don’t live in a vacuum or isolated bubbles. If you’re born into a wealthy family or possess a great talent, your “unfair advantage” affects people on all the levels of society.

    Taking your example of a doctor living in Manhattan discussing medical science over martinis, it’s unfair to say that the doctor himself is the only one benefitting from his advantaged position. For example, his discussion may lead to a great medical discovery or invention that will benefit all of the society. The prerequisite for this discovery though is that the talented high-IQ doctor should have free time to pursue his research.

    What we should strive for is a society that maximises the benefits the society in general has from highly successful people. If done properly, it will work much better than penalizing smart people for being born smart. Yes, more productive people will be able to personally benefit from their talents, but the amount of public goods they will create in the process (thus reducing inequality) will be tremendous.

    This is the actual moral argument for meritocracy. It’s about structuring the society in such a way that the contribution of advantaged people is much greater than the (still substantial) personal benefit they get. It is less obvious and more subtle than direct redistribution — which no doubt will still be necessary in some cases — but it doesnt strip people, both advantaged and disadvantaged, from their dignity and sense of personal achievement.

    • In order for this ‘law of the vital few’ to succeed, society must also structure itself to impede or eliminate obstructive rent seekers. This is the constant struggle that institutions should be engaged in – paring out the corrupt, including corrupt rent seekers that prevent the vital few from creating public good.

  11. dirk says

    In nature, every particular seed of a tree or plant (of the 10 or 100.000 yearly) has the capability to grow out to an impressive tree or plant, but only 1 in 10 or 100.000 succeeds (depends on winds, rain, soils, shade, other plants around, etc (read also the tale of the farmer who went out to sow, in the New Testament, Jesus knew this by experience, and not from nature, but from primitive agriculture). I think (having traveled a lot), that the same is the case for humans (about 7 billion of them). But if I tell such things to friends and colleagues, they always disagree. Because, I think, they have no idea what it’s all about in nature, biology. and, at least for a large part, humanity.

  12. Charles White says

    Thank you to Dr. McManus for an informative background article.

    A few points:

    First, the children of conscientious parents who want their children to succeed are a product of meritocracy. This is true regardless of socio-economic background, race, culture, etc.

    Second, the role of an economy needs to be considered as a variable. A strong economy allows for a greater equality of opportunity leading to a greater equality of outcome than does a weak economy. An examplar case study of this opinion is Alberta, Canada over the last three years.

    Third, the phrase, “unjustifiably riddled with unmerited advantage”, would apply to unionized public service workers. Clearly they should have compensation reduced to packages based upon industry standards for similar jobs in the private sector so that there is equality of outcome.

    These are just personal, unresearched opinions.

  13. ChrisH says

    The fact that an advantage is “morally arbitrary” means that an individual has it only by good fortune. Such is life. The question should be what provides the most benefit to society, not what is morally justified. Long experience shows that societies work best which maximize personal freedom, while not ignoring the well-being of those with fewer advantages. This means rewarding those who provide the most benefit to society – capitalism, together with some “social safety nets” (we are also a democracy, and everyone votes). It’s useful to discuss where to draw lines from a practical standpoint (how much safety net, and how organized? how best to limit the capitalist economy, and why?), but moralistic arguments become almost religious; nobody wins, everybody becomes angry, nothing is accomplished.

    • Daniel says


      I fully agree with your points. The perspective Rawls is coming from is not helping people who need it, but in observing the inherent unfairness of inequality. Louis CK, carving time out of his busy schedule of making inappropriate statements to women, had a show where he was talking to his daughter at the dinner table, saying, “Don’t look at someone else’s plate to see if they have more than you; you only look at their plate to make sure they have enough.” It is unacceptable that the discussion is not focused on helping people in need.

      Another problem with Rawls: there weren’t any examples of talents, virtues or earned advantages that were NOT morally arbitrary. Is everything we set our hand to a result of exploiting an unfair advantage? I am not a super-conscientious person, but I am quite focused, organized, diligent, attentive, and reliable in some areas of life — it is a habit of conscientiousness that has been built. Why? Because I crashed and burned at one point years ago, and I decided I didn’t like it. Apparently I am exploiting the unfair advantage of having had a negative experience that motivated me to learn, right Rawls?

      I’d also like Rawls to explain the results of LBJ’s War on Poverty, and how it hasn’t actually reduced poverty. If he has a compelling reason why redistribution didn’t work in this case, I’m happy to listen. But I don’t think he does.

  14. Iskander says

    Where do you draw the line with moral arbitrariness? Could’t ones preferences (including risk aversion) be considered morally arbitrary? your life? Nozick makes this point in ASU. Why wouldn’t the distribution of kidney’s (or sex, to follow Robin Hanson) also be considered morally arbitrary and therefore up for grabs?

    It seems morally arbitrary that I decide to have pasta for dinner, but am I not entitled to have it? Most things in life are morally arbitrary, that does not mean that they shouldn’t be allowed.

    Rawlsianism is fundamentally illiberal.

  15. dirk says

    Anti-Locke anecdote: I am now 1 month on this blog and appreciate the type of articles and discussions a lot (minus the antisemitic remarks of some), and would like to bring in here an experience I had as a consultant for the Worldbank in Zambia, not told before (not in reports, not in scientific or popular journals, for not being politically correct enough). We had to report about the situations of parcels of land (1000 acres) bordering the Chinese Railway and given out by government (and FAO?) to farmers to farm. Of course, the parcels of whites (british, greek, southafricans, dutch) were all well done and productive, but those of the locals was a joke. No tractors or broken ones, work with 3 wives and 15 children with oxpower on 3 acres and the remaining 997 under bush, with some goats and meagre cows running on it. What to report? We (myself and a Zambian counterpart) often didn’t know how to react and what to say, one visit I still remember very well. The plot owner first was rather polite, but suspicious (he had reasons for that, because the government, pressed by the Worldbank, wanted to disposses unproductive landowners ). After some time, he burst loose: “What the hell do you want me to do, and what rights do you have in my own country and on my own land, I have a title deed!!. Not everybody wants to grow Tobacco, soybean and sugarcane for export, besides, that it is not even healthy. What you white people (that was to me, not to my counterpart) do with your land is your sake. For me, land is more like…. like…….a beautiful woman, that you love, and that provides you with children, to whom you want to give a future, with land, grazing possibilities, wood for the stove, a casual gazelle, palmleaves, construction material.” His oratory was impressive, his sons and wives listened with pride, and we both applauded for a long minute, laughing, amused. I did not know very well how to react, This was Locke revisited, was he right? were we right?? What was I doing here?? I still don’t know, was not able to share it with superiors or colleagues or even not with journalists, nobody can use such stories. Because….because…. Locke is the legacy that makes the world go round, and not the African Chiefs, no more, same story for Australia and Canada, US, Argentine, of course. There are winners and loosers in this world, he did not feel a looser, that was for sure, and I had to leave soon, after finishing my report.

    • I don’t think your story is politically incorrect at all; a Zambian chief would be at the intersection of so many disadvantaged identities (according to Westerners) to even start disentangling them. I wish you could go back to Zambia and interview him for a book on un-liberalism and un-capitalism, he is so far off he is not even anti. Thanks for sharing. Great, great story and of great significance.

      • Daniel says

        We’re trying to label this Zambian chief; understandable, given the benefit of categorizing thoughts to better analyze them. Wouldn’t his position just be that it’s his land, and he wants to use it as he pleases? Sounds like my libertarian friends.

    • avoiceinthewilderness says

      Thanks for sharing this, but wait, I’m confused. How was this “anti-Locke”? The plot owner’s argument is right out of Locke, and I am convinced he was in the right. What the hell were you doing there? Why should anyone have any authority to tell him what to do with what is rightfully his (“I have the title deed!”)? (Aside: If the state meant to merely lease this land on condition of some productivity, that should have been the explicit understanding. Even if made explicit, however, it would be hard to avoid giving the impression that this was _property_ and not merely a conditional lease.)

      What you discovered is that Locke’s views were not, after all, some arbitrary special pleading on behalf of well-to-do English gentlemen, but rooted in a deep intuition shared across peoples. That’s what makes them “natural” rights, on Locke’s view. Political systems that do not respect these sorts of instincts will not be long for this earth. Contrary to Locke, we should probably acknowledge it is an empirical matter what these intuitions are, but it is the height of arrogance to suppose they can be easily discarded or remade by state fiat.

      I sense that you are conflicted about this, as well you might be. I submit there is some deep wisdom in Locke to be learned from all this, but I acknowledge it is very hard to make out what to do with that wisdom, especially in the concrete. Thanks again for sharing this!

      • Locke affirmed the natural right of ownership of land because having worked it that land became an extension of the owner. Sitting back and loving it because some government gave to me and therefore it’s mine is the instinct of an aristocrat, not a liberal.

        • dirk says

          @ mjw, Rosa,Daniel, Voice, Augustine: thanks for commenting, it was an encounter I’ll never forget, for being rather uncomfortable. Of course, the situation was more complicated than presented as such, the plots (for large scale, mechanised agriculture) were given out (for bordering the new railway) for production, to feed the nation and to earn devise, the Zambian slipped through for being a politician that had to be rewarded with something (quite normal there), plots not really owned, but longtime leased (as in our dutch recent Zuiderzee polders, won on the sea). I saw Locke’s uneasiness in the way the chief looked at land, he did not really work it, but he certainly used it, as was the case with the prairies and forests of the Native communities in Canada, US, also not seen as used land (“they just run around on it”), but, as ecologists and anthropologists teach us, certainly make use of it ( and even more sustainable than we do). Locke even mentioned it the American way of landuse (= bad use, non-use). This type of controversies is going on everywhere in Africa now, the nomads and hunter gatherers and common land community (for free running goats, cows, chickens) are the loosers, German philosophers would call it lower Stufen of land use, where modernity is seen as a great leap forwards, not so by my Chief of course, I wonder what his sons are doing now, I am pretty sure they live in the city now, because that is the trend there, there are enough crazy whites (or yellows) that like digging the soil. Even if you chase them away (as in Zimbabwe) they come back like peregrine birds as soon as the tide affords.

        • avoiceinthewilderness says


          You may be getting some Hegel mixed in with your Locke. For a more extended treatment than I can give here, have a look at Nozick’s Lockean account, which does not rely on any special attachment to the self. In any case, such an attachment would make exchange highly peculiar. To regard something as justly mine and therefore to feel entitled to use it or dispose of it as one sees fit does not require it to be an “extension of the owner” in any stronger sense than that.

          In any case, I was referring to the deep and ubiquitous instinct humans have to defend what is theirs. Property is “natural” in at least that sense.

          • Unless Locke was channeling Hegel proleptically, this is pure Locke:

            26. Though the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a “property” in his own “person.” This nobody has any right to but himself. The “labour” of his body and the “work” of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state Nature placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men. For this “labour” being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good left in common for others.

            Locke, John. Second Treatise on Civil Government (Kindle Locations 256-262). Kindle Edition.

  16. Tim says

    Why is arbitrariness bad? Is it all arbitrariness, or only certain kinds?

    It is useful to encourage people to make the best of what they’ve got. Looking for ways to declare as much as possible of their results “unearned” and so immoral for them to keep, does not help with this.

    There need to be incentives for people to behave in socially useful ways. Given the sort of incentives that humans seem to generally respond to (status as a positional good, making descendants better off), both immediate inequality of outcome and the ability to pass that inequality on to the next generation are useful motivators. Things looking completely hopeless is a strong demotivator, and pushes people towards other means, sometimes including things like violent revolution.

    A safety net to keep anyone’s situation from being hopeless is useful.

    Attacking people for doing well, is not good.

    Allowing people to buy social status with generosity is delightfully clever.


    Trying to normalize what people “deserve” is a fools’ errand. Instead of trying to assign people various moral weights and then assign outcomes in accordance, figure out what policies and incentives have a history of working well, and why they’ve worked well, and try to find what will work even better.

  17. Victoria says

    Another piece that conspicuously fails to broach immigration/migration or the potential impact of new findings in population-level behavioral genetics. Let me know when you “classical liberals” reach the 21st Century.

    • Charles White says

      Can you please give a definition of “population-level behavioural genetics”? Never heard that one before. After 40+ years in biochemistry, I am trying to catch up with the new research. The new lingo in particular.

      • Victoria says

        @Charles White

        I’m referring to research findings that challenge the long-standing orthodoxy that meaningful genetic differences among humans exist only at the individual level and not the population (i.e. geographic ancestry) level. This isn’t solely a matter of genetic influence on behavior, but that’s where all the controversy arises.

        This recent article by David Reich in the NYT broached this topic within mainstream discourse:

  18. Caste Away says

    So you’re not a believer in meritocracy then?

  19. Joe Bob says

    There is a bigger problem with Rawls thought experiment than is mentioned in this article. In Rawls hypothetical egalitarian society (world 2), he assumes a certain standard of living acceptable to his modern Western audience. However, actual real world experiments organized around his egalitarian principles have actually produced poor living conditions *for everyone*, just with less inequality. So the choice isn’t between a hypothetical world 1, where you may be a doctor or a janitor, and a hypothetical world 2, where everyone is doing equally fine in the middle of the wealth distribution- the point is that the middle is exceedingly poorer in wealth, medicine, resources etc. in his hypothetical world 2. As I’ve heard said about Venezuela, everyone has an equal opportunity to go hungry (except of course for the handful of ruling technocrats who guide the system with their rationality.)

    Also, as has been mentioned by other commenters, the key point is: what are the basic organizing principles that help support beneficial human activity that can then be redistributed to the rest of humanity? Of course there is going to be arbitrariness, unfairness, etc. But a society where hardworking and talented people are preferentially rewarded and thereby further encouraged is a society where there will be greater innovation, and where things like the Polio vaccine can be far more easily discovered and disseminated to the entire population.

    “A just society would therefore attempt to ameliorate the consequences which arise from the distribution in natural talents, and not cop out by claiming that nature is simply unconcerned with fairness. If we can act to rectify unfairness, it is the liberal thinking to do.”

    This goes to the crux of the issue. What if many approaches to ameliorating the unfairness of nature actually lead to *more* unfairness and suffering? One look at the how the Kulaks were treated in Communist Russia, in an explicit effort to redistribute wealth in a “fair” way, demonstrated incredible cruelty, savagery, and profound unfairness. The key problem is that humans are simply not wise enough, smart enough, we don’t know enough, and the world is simply too complex and opaque to us to radically engineer society in some ideal way predicated on human abstractions like “fairness” without creating a new and typically worse society- often profoundly worse. For the committed unconstrained leftists, this is cop out and “contributing to the problem.” Of course, those with a more constrained vision see those folks as full of hubris and a delusional overestimation of their ability to manipulate and manage human nature and thereby society. (See “A Conflict of Visions” by Sowell for a full treatment of these competing visions.)

    Peterson has also pointed out an important principle that has not gotten much attention. In any highly complex and reasonably well functioning system, it is far more likely that any significant intervention will introduce instability and have negative consequences than it will actually improve the system. There are a million ways you can negatively disrupt the human organism. There are maybe a handful of ways to optimize that organism (eat well, sleep well, exercise, and don’t smoke.)

    History contains examples of radical interventions explicitly designed to improve human society and make it more egalitarian. The vast majority of them are nightmarish cautionary tales, but we don’t learn from them, because we aren’t that smart.

  20. The rebuttal to Rawls is by Thomas Sowell in his book The Quest for Cosmic Justice. It is a fool’s game to try and correct for every inequality caused by the cosmos itself. This is a different concept from traditional justice. (Due process and so on.)

    One man is born on the side of a mountain with good rainfall. Another man is born on the other side of the mountain with less rainfall. Their crop yields vary accordingly. It is not a matter of justice to “correct” this inequity. Nor is it a matter of merit for one to have more. But the one who has to work harder might innovate more and then end up in the more advantageous position. But then some other revelation can turn the tables once again. And so on.

    The rise of Rome itself began when it’s citizens realized it was not prepared to secure it’s lands. It was a small vulnerable city state in Italy at first. So they worked to improve their armour and tactics. In doing so they became the empire we still recall today. But it started because they were repeated victims of raids. And yes it collapsed under it’s own weight when it reached it’s own point of hubris.

  21. Daniel says

    Why should Rawls be favored with publication of a book? His research and prose are mere exploitations of morally arbitrary favors of Fate. He didn’t make himself intelligent. He didn’t provide himself with a quality Western education. He didn’t make his genes that gave him the diligence to learn what he needed to. He didn’t manufacture the serendipitous events that gave him motivation. Especially significant, he didn’t have anything to do with the values that society arbitrarily placed on the kinds of abilities and experiences he had that allowed his book to be accepted. That he might have chosen to direct his growth in the direction of those values, so that he would be able to get a book published just shows that his talents, situation, and experience were all arbitrarily handed to him.

    I speak sarcastically, of course. But why is this ridiculous conversation about morally arbitrary talents even happening? Why not attempt equality by making the road to success well-known and providing 13 years of free, mandatory training to everybody to give them the best possible chance to succeed?

  22. “This is a problem for the meritocratic conception.”

    No, it isn’t. This person doesn’t understand what meritocracy means (for classical liberals). It doesn’t mean rewarding effort. It doesn’t mean compensating for natural advantages either. It simply means absence of SOCIAL — not natural! — privilege. That meritocracy ought to mean compensation for natural privilege is PRECISELY the Cultural Left’s postmo argument that classical liberals utterly REJECT.

  23. Morti says

    What if meritocracy and “equality of opportunity” is as utopian as communism?

    One thing that comes up in response to Rawls is that it’s impossible to objectively and accurately measure when this fair state lies and how much compensation a particular group needs in order to not be disadvantaged anymore.

    Maybe we should drop the whole notion of ordering our society based on some moral principles by accepting that it is inherently unjust and all the state can do is to manage it, so the unjustices don’t grow large enough to threaten the stability? Kind of libertarian “night guard” state.

  24. dirk says

    Inherently unjust, that’s what I meant above with the seeds, yes or no growing out into a nice tree, but then, what to do with the human rights? Can we forget that too? Anyhow, it would be a great step forwards in the growing instability of the world, because the poor in Africa ( they also have I-phone and know about the UN) and elsewhere now think that they have the same rights on happiness and prosperity as humans born in the rich North.

  25. Fran says

    No one commenting here has seen how different individuals use opportunity in the raw. I grew up on a Quaker-funded village development project in mid-20th Century India. My father was into safe water, sanitation and what is now termed “appropriate technology”. His documentation of methods is still, unattributed, in UN methodological material. He recruited landless labourers – outcasts- and taught them how to dig wells for 1/20th the cost of the traditional methods. One man had had to send his wife back to her parents and marry again because she could not carry water and care for her children after a leg amputation (Her maintenance was outside his financial capability). With a very small amount of help, in about 8 years, he had set up as a contractor, retrieved his first wife and built another house for her and her children, and pushed the children of both marriages into the best education available. Another family of 3 brothers from the same community were still digging wells, and much more secure and better off than before. But they still all lived in a two-room mud hut, and the education of their children was left to the wives who were illiterate. While they could work for wages, they were unable to dig wells without someone to organise the process and handle the financial aspects.

    Making things better for everyone here involved increasing the inequalities. This is a direct result of individual differences. In the long run, the inequality may have become greater. However, the whole community was pulled out of food insecurity by the project. It is also probable that the education of children generally improved by the one family doing best valuing it. Certainly water supply for the community itself improved when the contractor had a well dug next to his new cement floored house. Eventually the taxes paid by the contractor will become part of a social net that is developing in India.

    By the next generation, the “equality of opportunity” in the original conditions will have disappeared, and the social differences exaggerated. However, over generations, there will also be regression toward the mean for some of the offspring, and some of the labourers children will do better than their parents. This is the pattern of life. One of my grandparents went from blacksmith’s son to clergyman with and Honorary Doctorate and married a ship captain’s daughter. Another built up wealth, married into old wealth, and committed suicide when his business failed. After this, my grandmother went to work for the first time in her life and educated three children – sure she was not reduced to abject poverty, but coping with life’s unfairness rather than giving in to grief and anger is the only constructive action.

    There is a ballance between the dictum of each to his own and equality of outcome. This is why a large proportion the people on my small island are involved in some sort of community service and why I expect to pay higher taxes than many of my neighbours. But the bottom line is still there: each of us needs goals, something to reach toward, because, as Jordan Peterson says, society is made up of individuals. And, for those goals to be constructive for oneself and a functional society, each of us needs to overcome envy, resentment, anger and a host of other negative emotions that inevitably build up as life’s unfairness unfolds. We need to learn to build on what we have, not to expect to receive just because some nasty things happen.

  26. doug deeper says

    As the author quotes Rawls, “A just society would therefore attempt to ameliorate the consequences which arise from the distribution in natural talents, and not cop out by claiming that nature is simply unconcerned with fairness.”

    My first concern would be that if we had the means to redistribute natural talents, implementing the redistribution would likely remake homo sapiens into something very different than what we have evolved to be today. The elimination of significant diversity might very well limit our adaptability, possibly endangering the species. Rawls might say our current diversity already endangers us; but at least we know the current dangers. The dangers from re-engineering humans would be unknown.

    Secondly, innovation in all areas would likely suffer if we were all of the same IQ, height, athleticism, artistic talents, anxiety levels, etc. Sameness would reign. One could question if such a humanity would progress as swiftly. Perhaps the innovation to solve humanity’s most pressing problems would be lost because we would all think so similarly with similar IQ, temperament, hormonal and creativity levels. For that matter if we had the technology to make everyone have an IQ of 125, why not make it 200? Why not make us all “perfect?” But then the question of happiness might come up. What if we are “perfect” and unhappy? What qualities make one happy, just knowing no one on earth is better in any way than me? I once had a company with facilities on both sides of the US/Mexican border. The employees on the US side had a far higher standard of living. We would have a Christmas party in each local. I often marveled at the apparent unequal happiness at the two parties – the Mexicans seemed so much happier.

    The coercion from the state to enforce this re-engineering might result in terrible violence against those who see diversity as an inherent quality of humanness and will not accept themselves or their offspring becoming all equal. The essential freedom for these people to remain unequal would have to be curtailed.

    And who would be the ones to select the qualities, talents and physical attributes to be reengineered? The state would have to use force to quell those who might disagree with their masters.

    Lastly, how many people might find life so limited and uninteresting that the will to live might be diminished?

    • dirk says

      Maybe a subject for another essay: how often, when, what for and by whom is the concept ” NATURE” used as a legitimation for this or for that, and what actually is nature? Sometimes, it is as if nature now means what in history was called God Given. Or, more appropriate maybe, Deo Volente.

  27. Andrew Tidgwell says

    Isn’t it interesting that “impartial individuals” in thought experiments always have the same value system and biases as the one running the experiment?

  28. cardiffkook says

    This entire essay operates on a set of false assumptions about classical liberalism. It also falls for the zero sum bias.

    Classical liberalism does not concern itself with fairness when fairness is defined as * equal outcomes regardless of contribution.* Nor does classical liberalism focus on rewards commensurate with MERIT, whatever the heck that is. The concern with fairness is RULE EGALITARIANISM. In other words, it is that we all play by the same rules. From this the next question is what should those rules be? Rawls’ (actually Hersanyi’s) impartial veil exercise is great at sussing this out.

    Let me elaborate. Classical liberals assume that there will be vast differences in skills, interests, values, conditions, environments, genes and so on. IOW, their assumptions match reality. The question now is behind a veil not knowing what your characteristics (or those of your great grandchildren) will be, what kind of society and rules would you support?

    The answer, of course depends upon the values of the person making the decision. And these can differ too. In addition, it is a really complex question, because we may not intuit what complex society will lead to best results for us or our descendants (who almost certainly will differ from us in values). In addition, a society is a population or network phenomena, so part of what makes a good society determines not just what we choose but what others choose as well. IOW, it is a complex and dynamic decision with feedback effects.

    The more successful societies in terms of human outcomes have tended to have some things in common. The rules are fair and impartial. The same rules apply to Steph Curry as the benchwarmers.

    Second, people are rewarded commensurate not with merit or equal shares, but based upon contributions to others adjusted for supply and demand. This is a mind blowing distinction for those (like the OP author) not getting the power of positive sum games. The system is set up as a network where people are rewarded commensurate to the value they create for others. Thus any advantage or skill possessed by an individual is converted into value for others. This is how markets work. Jobs and Gates and Curry and Oprah are rich in great part because of (and commensurate with) the value they have contributed to others in the network. Thus the path to success is not to equalize talents, it is to capitalize upon them in a positive sum way. This amplifies value creation and makes it mutualistic.

    Rawls’ errors (or at least the errors of those oversimplifying his work) were to assume a zero sum world, assume people all have the same values (or risk aversion), and assume that rewards only go to the person with the talent. None of these is remotely true.

    So, what society would this classical liberal choose for himself, his family and his descendants? I would choose a society with impartial, fair rules where people were rewarded commensurate with the value they create for others adjusted for supply and demand (free markets). I would choose a society which promoted development and investment and even diversity in skills and talents, because these talents can be leveraged to create value for the person with these values and those who choose to voluntarily interact with them in positive sum, mutually beneficial ways (again, that is what a market transaction is).

    I would avoid any society with privilege, reverse privilege (attempting to re-engineer past luck extensively), outcome based equality and those promoting these types of zero sum mind sets.

    I would also choose a society which supplemented markets based systems with intelligent safety nets for those facing catastrophic calamity. The word intelligent implies safety nets which do not promote free riding, parasitism, dead end traps and bad behavior (having babies without marrying a good dad for example). I would fund the safety nets using a portion of the value creation produced by the people, proportionate to their value added (income). This allows the less capable to draft on the substantially greater contributions of the more capable and talented.

    I totally support people’s freedom to choose other types of societies either due to different values, or because they expect different results. They may be right, and I also choose to keep the freedom to change or adjust societies if either of us changes our mind, learns over time, or has a new good idea on how to do it better.

    Every successful society as measured by living standards, freedom, education, health and so on, tends to approach the classical liberal model of free markets, representative governments and science. They all use a mixture of markets, safety nets (private and public) and science.

    In summary, Rawls is no challenge to a Classical Liberal. Indeed, I take his veil seriously. We should create institutions which allow us to choose what kind of society we will belong to. This logically leads to impartial societies structured in positive sum networks.

    If someone else due to their values or models of how the world works wants to join a society which seeks equality of outcome around some foggy notion of just desserts, then they have my best wishes. My guess is their grandkids will be trying to jump the wall erected by their own government and get to my society. But I really could be wrong. I haven’t been yet, but we will see.

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