Libertarianism

Another commonly held view is that people should be rewarded for their labours and punished for their misdeeds (or their laziness), and that the size of those rewards or punishments should be proportional to their intentions, or their actions, or the outcome of their actions. This is the classical notion of 'just deserts', updated by Enlightenment thinkers with the Christian notion that everyone is of equal worth, and therefore that the poor deserve the opportunity to improve their lot in life and to have their basic needs met. The political and media debate about the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor sometimes reverts to the classical understanding and leaves out Enlightenment refinements to the concept, just as it did in Victorian times.

Many people on the right claim to believe in just deserts and proportionality, but actually subscribe to a very different philosophy – libertarianism. According to this worldview, justice is achieved by guaranteeing each individual 'negative liberty' (the absence of obstacles that block human action, as distinct from ‘positive liberty', which is having the power and resources to choose one’s path and fulfil one’s potential). For libertarians, the idea that the state should allocate or redistribute resources on the basis of merit or ‘desert’ is unjust, because it would restrict the liberty of individuals to use their abilities to acquire property rights (including wealth). Libertarians acknowledge that their preferred approach will lead to large inequality, but they argue that wealth created by the ‘tall poppies’ will trickle down to benefit everyone else, and that attempts to distort free markets by intervening to redistribute this wealth will simply cut down the ‘tall poppies’ and thus impoverish everyone by reducing the amount of wealth that is available to trickle down through the economy, as well as being a coercive and unjust attack on liberty. However, we now know beyond doubt that ‘trickle-down economics’, exemplified by policies such as tax cuts for the rich, does not work.

Proportionality or desert is undoubtedly popular with the public, much more so than libertarian ideas that people’s life outcomes should be governed by the ‘law of the jungle’ of untrammelled free markets. But how can we reliably measure people’s intentions or actions so as to judge what they deserve? In particular, how can we assess whether people have the same chances of achieving their goals? This is where the notions of meritocracy and equal opportunities come into play.