Reading Time: 4 minutes

Opportunity and Obligation

One of the driving notions behind libertarian political theory is that society should be a meritocracy. By removing all restraints on competition, we will create a system where the hardest-working, most talented, most creative people succeed. And this is a good idea which I agree with. We need to encourage effort and innovation to create a healthy society; we should not punish motivation, nor reward laziness. We should give people an incentive to work and to strive. However, where I think libertarians err is in assuming that if we eliminate all or most regulation, the most talented, motivated people will naturally and inevitably rise to the top. This is an oversimplified view of reality, which overlooks the institutional forces and natural barriers that can prevent individuals from succeeding through no fault of their own.

Libertarians often point to examples of people who overcame difficult circumstances to become successful as proof that no social safety net is needed, that the deserving will always stand out. But this conclusion does not follow from a few anecdotal cases. The fact that some people have escaped poverty does not mean that everyone has an equal opportunity to do the same. The few who did escape might simply have been lucky, or had opportunities not available to everyone, while even more talented or motivated people languish in circumstances they cannot escape.

This is why I support social welfare programs created through taxation. The point of redistribution, in the classical liberal philosophy, is not to create equal distribution of wealth, but rather equal distribution of opportunity. Where nature has created an inequality, we should use the power of society to remedy that inequality. By guaranteeing universal access to basic goods like health care and education, differences in natural ability and talent have the best chance to manifest and are less likely to be cut short by bad luck. In this sense, a classic liberal society, rather than a libertarian society, is the truest form of meritocracy.

Inevitably, programs like these will be funded primarily by tax contributions from the wealthy. To fund them most equitably, I advocate a progressive tax code where the percentage of taxed income rises with the individual’s level of income.

This is not, as many libertarians seem to think, a desire to punish the wealthy for their success. Again, this is the wrong paradigm by which to approach the issue: a better view is as the repayment of an obligation. All people who live in a society owe that society a debt in exchange for the services it provides and the standard of living it makes possible. And the wealthy, who have been able to achieve so much more than most thanks to the resources society provides, owe society a particularly significant debt which it is right that they repay.

The resources which society provides go beyond basic goods like public utilities, police and national defense, laws against force and fraud, and a system of free speech and free enterprise – although it does provide those. More fundamentally, society institutes and maintains the very economic systems that are arranged so as to reward people who have certain skills and abilities. Except in very rare cases, “talent” is not a universal currency, convertable into wealth in any system in which the bearer happens to live. On the contrary, people are generally talented at certain things, and our society is structured so as to highly reward certain things. When those two overlap, the people who succeed rightfully owe society a debt of gratitude for that.

Even members of the super-rich classes acknowledge this. Warren Buffett has said the following (quoted from p.164 of Janet Lowe’s Warren Buffett Speaks: Wit and Wisdom from the World’s Greatest Investor):

I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I’ve earned. …I work in a market system that happens to reward what I do very well – disproportionately well… I do think that when you’re treated enormously well by this market system, where in effect the market system showers the ability to buy goods and services on you because of some peculiar talent – maybe your adenoids are a certain way, so you can sing and everybody will pay you enormous sums to be on television or whatever – I think society has a big claim on that.

Or Robert Crandall, former chief executive of American Airlines, as quoted in a recent New York Times article “The Richest of the Rich“:

The nation’s corporate chiefs would be living far less affluent lives, Mr. Crandall said, if fate had put them in, say, Uzbekistan instead of the United States, “where they are the beneficiaries of a market system that rewards a few people in extraordinary ways and leaves others behind.”

Or, from the same article, American industrialist and steel titan Andrew Carnegie:

“Carnegie made it abundantly clear that the centerpiece of his gospel of wealth philosophy was that individuals do not create wealth by themselves,” said David Nasaw, a historian at City University of New York and the author of “Andrew Carnegie” (Penguin Press). “The creator of wealth in his view was the community, and individuals like himself were trustees of that wealth.”

Again, this is not to say that innovative, hard-working individuals should not be able to reap the rewards of their effort. We should have a society based on merit; I find no fault with that. What I do find fault with a system where a few people are given the enormous opportunity needed to become successful, while billions more have little or no access to the same opportunity. People who do become wealthy have a moral obligation to reinvest some of that wealth back into the system so that other people can enjoy the same opportunities it has given to them.

The great insight of capitalism is that wealth, unlike matter and energy, is not a constant but can be created. Ironically, it is libertarians who have forgotten this, implicitly assuming that the amount of wealth in society is fixed and that taxation is a zero-sum game, that one person must lose for another to prosper. On the contrary, by wisely reinvesting the proceeds of taxation, we can create a more prosperous society in which everyone is healthier and happier. This sums up my core objection to libertarianism: its central ethic is “every man for himself”, while I believe the superior ethic is “we’re all in this together”.

Other posts in this series:

Avatar photo

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...