Just Deserts

Currently cropping up on the more philosophical blogs is discussion of the book Liberty, Desert and the Market : A Philosophical Study by Serena Olsaretti. From the description at Amazon:

Defenders of the free market argue that inequalities of income are "just" because they are deserved, and that they are what free individuals are entitled to. Far from supporting free market inequalities, this book argues that, when we examine the principle of "desert" and the notions of "liberty" and "choice" invoked by defenders of the free market, the conception of justice that would accommodate these notions calls for their elimination. The book will be of interest to readers in political philosophy, political theory, and normative economics.
Will Wilkinson did an initial post on Olsaretti here; Bryan Caplan was at the same meeting and commented here; Will responded here. Comments in Bryan's article pointed to a two part review of Olsaretti's book by Anthony de Jasay here and here. All good and thought-provoking, and (to my mind) making very effective arguments against Olsaretti's thesis.

Here's my four cents (I have two main points, each worth maybe two cents). Bryan states:

Olsaretti relies heavily on the Rawlsian premise that no one deserves to profit from inborn talent.
… and goes on to rightly ridicule this as being counterintuitive and counterproductive. Let's look at a weaker and slightly less ridiculous claim:
No one deserves to profit solely from inborn talent.
At least this is more superficially plausible.

But does anyone, anywhere, ever profit solely from inborn talent? I don't think so. This is an argument I made back in my Usenet days a couple of times, which I'll update here: consider two universes: (a) this one; and (b) one which is identical in every respect save that Serena Olsaretti chooses to spend her college days partying, squandering both her parents' cash and her prodigous intellect. Afterwards, she alternates between welfare, getting more handouts from Dad, and working at McDonald's. The difference in the Olsarettian 2006 salary between Universes (a) and (b) is six digits, and it therefore follows quite directly that ALL six digits of that salary are a result of Olsaretti's choices and effort—the only difference between the two universes—and also presumably a result of a mutually voluntary arrangement between Olsaretti and her employers. Unless personal effort and mutually voluntary agreements are devoid of moral significance--which seems absurd to me--clearly she is entitled to whatever difference exists between what she is and what she could have been.

But maybe even that is thinking about it the wrong way. Yes, a lot of our success (and failure) is predicated on some things over which we have little or no control: heredity, luck, some health issues, etc. But as I'm sure someone has pointed out somewhere: I may not "deserve" two healthy kidneys; that doesn't imply someone else "deserves" one of them. Even less does it mean that some third party "deserves" the power that would force me to give up one of my healthy kidneys to someone who "needs" it.

I think Jasay is making a similar point when he says:

The whole "entitlements" theory of justice is going about it the wrong way round. The point to prove is not that each individual is entitled to the fruits of his efforts (or to what he has exchanged them for), but that somebody else is entitled to take such fruits away from him.
It would be interesting to see someone try to justify that.