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September 11, 2011


Luis Enrique

I want to know how quantitatively important all these effects are. How much worse do students reminded of their athletic ability do on maths tests? What proportion of variation is explained by these funny biases and psychological quirks? i.e. is this stuff really important?

We may overestimate the extent to which "top people" have done something to justify their success, but that does not tell us that top people have not generally done anything to justify their success. Even if what they've done is work hard, curry favour, be in the right place at right time etc.

Every child is told: "life's not fair" and we all know socioeconomic background and other forms of luck play a huge role in how things turn out.

To what extent is inequality tolerated or "legitimated" by the idea that life is never going to be fair, and as Tony S would say: whaddya gonna do? If you don't think there's anything you can do about it, what's the point in getting worked up about it? What people "tolerate" or not is conditioned on whether they expect "not tolerating" to get them anywhere.

What I mean is, maybe a good deal of what you see as legitimation and toleration is explained by things far more crude than this smorgasbord of biases etc.

I'd be interested to know more about the extent to which people really do think inequality is legitimate, whatever that means.

It's not a clear cut binary sort of thing.

I've got a rich friend who is a banker. Now in a sense that's legitimate - he worked very hard, is good at what he does (I know: he was my boss) and has generally dedicated his life to getting where he is and I'd confidently say he's where he is on merit. (As it happens he came from a very disadvantaged background, but I think that just makes his ascent harder, not more "legitimate").

On the other hand, that does not mean the economic structure he operates within is legitimate, it doesn't mean that it's right that success in a banking can lead to such great wealth etc. He certainly doesn't think he "deserves" his money, in any other sense than these jobs pay that much and he's doing that job.

Given the way the world is, given that people get different endowments (in every sense), given how the world works, can you then distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate inequality? Or do you regard the way the world works as illegitimate and therefore everything outcome it produces is too?


«he worked very hard, is good at what he does (I know: he was my boss) and has generally dedicated his life to getting where he is and I'd confidently say he's where he is on merit.»

It looks like that the conclusion follows from the premises, but it does not, and this is because of a commonly used fallacy.

Suppose that there were another 3 people who worked harder, were even better at the job, and dedicated even more of their life to it, but only him of the 4 got the big paying job because of vagaries of life, like being in the right promotion slot at the right time, favourable prejudice on the the part of his boss, whatever.

Can you still say that his wealth is based purely on merit?

Being *qualified* for something is not exactly the same as deserving it, as perhaps "merit" involves a notion of fairness.

Consider a specific made up example.

Suppose that for every Oxford place there were 4 exactly equivalent candidates, any of which would make their colleges proud. Certainly in this situation after the places are assigned you can look any one winner and then say they got their place on merit.

But let's add an interesting detail: let's imagine that of 400 equally qualified applicants for 100 places it so happened that 200 were black, but that all 100 winners of were white.

Regardless, all of the 100 white winners got their place on merit, because they are fully qualified for it and deserve it.

Doesn't it smell wrong?

Will Williams

Dictator of the whole world, or just one country?

Luis Enrique

Blissex, I merely meant he's good at his job. I didn't say nothing except merit played any role.

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Norm suggests one reason for this. If you give people jobs that require articulacy and intelligence, such people will cultivate articulacy and intelligence, and so appear more meritorious than people in drudge work whose intellectual capacities atrophy through under-use.


I totally agree with you

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