Monday, 18 January 2016

What is the problem with desert?

In my previous post I pointed out that specifying the underlying basis desert raises difficult questions for supporters of desert theory. However, they can (and do) just bite these bullets. However, there is a more fundamental problem with the desert-based approach to economic justice.

This argument is best put (and as far as I know originated from) by economist and philosopher Amartya Sen in a 1982 NY Review of Books article “Just Deserts.” The relevant part of the article is behind the paywall so I will summarize and quote it.

Sen accepts that if people are independent producers—where each consumes what they have made without coming across others—then we would accept that each could be seen to deserve what they have produced. However, in a society where lots of people contribute to the social product in all sorts of ways this simple link breaks down.

As Sen puts it “the personal production [desert] view is difficult to sustain in cases of interdependent production, i.e., in almost all the usual cases of production. Production is based on the joint use of different resources, possibly provided by different people, and it is not possible to separate out who—or even which resource—produced how much of the total output.” (Sen, 1982 p4)

Sen considers whether marginal product can really do the job and argues that while marginal product is “useful for deciding how to use additional resources so as to maximize profit…it does not “show” which resource has “produced” how much of the total output.” To support the argument he highlights that relative incomes received for producing different goods will depend upon the arbitrary difference in prices of the products. Therefore two people might produce “the same two goods in unchanged amounts in exactly the same way, but a change in the relative prices of our respective products…can make our relative incomes change without any change of anything that you and I are, in fact, doing or producing.” (Sen, 1982 p4)

Sen’s article is a review of P.T. Bauer’s book on international development and so he illustrates his example of the difference between workers in rich and poor countries. He points out that and “Indian barber or circus performer may not be producing any less than a British barber or circus performer—just the opposite if I am any judge—but will certainly earn a great deal less.” (Sen, 1982 pp 4-5)

Put differently, we can say that the link between even the productivity/economic contribution desert base and incomes determined in the market is too tenuous to justify anything. If the market determines that a banker needs to be paid £1m a year while a nurse is worth £27k this does not mean that one deserves more than another. In a complex economy each person occupies a position where their income depends upon numerous variables, most of which are morally arbitrary.

The desert theorist needs to find a way to bridge between the desert base and people’s incomes. Most desert theorists are supporters of the market as a means to calculate what people deserve. They wish to build a bridge from market incomes to desert to show that these incomes are deserved. However, I think that such a bridge would be built on very shaky foundations.

The alternative is to use a desert base as a foundation and from there build to a deserved share of social resources. That is, to start from a desert base and build a bridge to the income that people deserve. This could be seen to ignore market outcomes altogether and focus on the desert base directly, though the productivity/contribution desert base is sometimes assumed (wrongly) to ring the two together. So if we could measure people’s effort or sacrifice we would just divide the product up accordingly. But this would then make the concerns I presented with those desert bases all the more pressing.

I am sceptical that it is possible to rescue a desert theory of economic justice from these concerns. However, in my subsequent blog I will present what I think would be the most plausible available desert approach to justice.

* You might get the argument that the doting daughter or niece deserves the large inheritance because they tended to their relative when others did not. However, this fails to distinguish between the carer who helps a billionaire from one who helps a pauper. 

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