Welcome to our NDPR review forum on Thomas Mulligan’s Justice and the Meritocratic State (Routledge 2018), recently reviewed in NDPR by Peter Dietsch. Please feel free to comment on any aspect of the book, the review, or the discussion below!
From the book blurb:
Like American politics, the academic debate over justice is polarized, with almost all theories of justice falling within one of two traditions: egalitarianism and libertarianism. This book provides an alternative to the partisan standoff by focusing not on equality or liberty, but on the idea that we should give people the things that they deserve.
Mulligan sets forth a theory of economic justice—meritocracy—which rests upon a desert principle and is distinctive from existing work in two ways. First, meritocracy is grounded in empirical research on how human beings think, intuitively, about justice. Research in social psychology and experimental economics reveals that people simply don’t think that social goods should be distributed equally, nor do they dismiss the idea of social justice. Across ideological and cultural lines, people believe that rewards should reflect merit. Second, the book discusses hot-button political issues and makes concrete policy recommendations. These issues include anti-meritocratic bias against women and racial minorities and the United States’ widening economic inequality. Justice and the Meritocratic State offers a new theory of justice and provides solutions to our most vexing social and economic problems. It will be of keen interest to philosophers, economists, and political theorists.
Excerpt from the NDPR review by Peter Dietsch:
At the core of Thomas Mulligan’s theory of justice lies the idea that one deserves social advantages — jobs and income in particular — on the basis of one’s merits. These merits depend on context, and thus the perfectionism of Mulligan’s theory is formal rather than substantive: “meritocracy remains agnostic about what is good and instead establishes a framework under which the good — no matter what it be — can best be pursued.” (p.37) The only obvious constraints that Mulligan puts on this framework are the aboutness and fitness principles: I only deserve something if the desert basis is about me in the relevant sense, for instance if I wrote this essay rather than copying it from a friend; and the social advantage I receive must fit, or be proportional to, the achievement or contribution in question. In addition, the notion of desert defended is pre-institutional and, as most but not all conceptions of desert, backward-looking.
At the level of distributive principle, Mulligan translates this core intuition into two steps. First, fair equality of opportunity is a necessary condition for a meritocracy; for example, when Daisy gets into Yale because of her privileged background rather than because of her academic excellence, then fair equality of opportunity is violated, and Daisy’s desert-claim to that Yale spot is undermined. Second, against the backdrop of fair equality of opportunity, we should judge people strictly on their merits. The project of the book is to spell out what this means in different contexts. The final two chapters of the book discuss some of the policy implications of this meritocratic ideal.
How does desert relate to other values? Mulligan declares that he is a pluralist about the morality of economic life — justice, need, and efficiency all represent relevant ideals, even though he regards justice as primus inter pares — but a monist about justice, which is grounded in desert alone. He also suggests that justice as desert happens to be particularly apt at promoting efficient outcomes.
Throughout the book and in chapter 3 in particular, Mulligan highlights the intuitive appeal of his approach. He cites studies showing that meritocratic ideas are widely accepted across the political spectrum. Therefore, Mulligan not only sees the potential of overcoming the traditional theoretical divide between egalitarians and libertarians, but of actually obtaining public support for meritocratic reforms.
The book has many virtues. First and foremost, it makes a welcome contribution to a still underdeveloped field of research. With some notable exceptions (e.g. Olsaretti 2004; Miller 2001; Sher 1987), desert-based theories of justice have not been getting the positive attention they deserve (!). Second, it is refreshing to see a book that does not shy away from attempting to bridge the gap between theory and political practice, with all the dangers and contingencies that this endeavor entails. Third, whether or not one is ultimately convinced by its arguments, the book is written in a clear and engaging style. Mulligan’s position on the many issues he addresses is never in doubt.
Having said all this, the bulk of this review article will critically discuss some arguments where Mulligan’s reasoning appears perhaps less convincing or where more development is needed. Doing so will also provide the reader with a flavor of the details of Mulligan’s case for meritocracy.
The most fundamental worry about the proposed theory is that Mulligan’s theory of merit remains underdetermined. We can see why this is so by distinguishing two conceptions of meritocracy. The first, thin conception of meritocracy is the one advertised in the book. It amounts to the basic idea that everyone should get their due. This idea is relatively uncontroversial, which strengthens Mulligan’s claim that it is indeed robustly anchored in people’s intuitions about justice (see chapter 3). The second, thick conception of meritocracy is one that provides the substantive criteria of desert necessary to ascertain people’s desert claims in particular contexts. Here, people regularly disagree. Just how much money does a CEO or a music star deserve to make? Who is the most deserving candidate for that job? As can be gleaned from the quote in the opening paragraph of this review, Mulligan eschews such a conception. However, without it, the practical import of his theory arguably remains limited.
Think of an analogy. All theories of justice agree on the importance of equality. However, their agreement is limited to a thin conception of equality as equal consideration. It does not extend to distributive questions. While utilitarians, libertarians, and egalitarians all endorse equal consideration, they disagree on its implications for the distribution of social advantages. I fear that Mulligan might face a similar challenge. Scaling up the meritocratic norm from relatively simple contexts such as the ultimatum game to complex social issues forces one to take a stance on issues that invite controversy.