Monday, August 22, 2005

Egalitarian philosophy

Asymmetrical Information links to an interesting post on egalitarian philosophy, and how it is applied:
What if some students had more opportunities than others? It makes no difference. A student who does not know labor economics fails my class, even if the reason he does not know it is because he had to work two jobs to support his grandma. Should we take Olympic gold medals away from the children of parents who supported their dream from the cradle on? I think not.
Maybe I deeply misread them, but I suspect that even most left-wing professors grade as meritocratically as I do. They may give extra help to students who come to office hours, but if a student spends 2 hours in your office every week and still fails the exam, you can't let him slide.
To me, this reveals a basic inconsistency in egalitarian philosophy. If you assign grades based on merit, and merit depends on performance unadjusted for opportunity, then why shouldn't the same principle hold for income and wealth? Just because you feel sorry for someone, why does that entitle them to a share of the riches of the more successful? And if you do not adjust for unequal opportunities when you grade, why should you adjust for unequal opportunities when you contemplate redistribution?
Though I hate the stress of taking exams, I cannot but agree. Megan McArdle adds:
I find it odd, too, that so many academics profess to be egalitarians, yet academia as a whole has produced one of the most radically inegalitarian societies to be seen since Louis XVI fled Versailles. Many academics of my acquaintance profess to be aghast at the "status seeking" in which their neighbours engage--and yet I have never met anyone as obsessed with collecting professional merit badges as an academic. Nor have I experienced any other organisational culture, even in hyper-competitive consulting or investment banking, in which professional success is so readily confused with personal worth.
Since all the happiness research currently captivating left-wing intellectuals purports to illustrate that it is one's place on the relative rank-order, rather than the absolute amount of income one earns, that makes people happy, why hasn't academia moved to obscure the status-markers which make the life of a low-ranked academic so much less happy than it could be?
In other words, as I have always longed to ask John Kenneth Galbraith, "if you think that we should equalise the distribution of income, why do you not think that we should equalise the distribution of PhDs?"
I find these arguments very compelling. Most Europeans would say this is typical American cruelty - over the top, Anglo-Saxon market capitalism (horror of horrors). Most Europeans live under the absurd illusion that state-funded health care is free (where do you think the money comes from?) and are convinced beyond any reasonable argument and evidence that there are no welfare and social programs in the United States. Funnily enough it is precisely in the vaunted European "social-economies" that people are worse off:
But what about equality? Well, the percentage of Americans living below the poverty line has dropped to 12% from 22% since 1959. In 1999, 25% of American households were considered "low income," meaning they had an annual income of less than $25,000. If Sweden--the very model of a modern welfare state--were judged by the same standard, about 40% of its households would be considered low-income.
As they say, the facts speak for themselves.

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