The Income You Deserve

I Get Money

I Get Money (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the previous essay, I wrote about the notion of a person having the body he deserves. In response to this T.J. Babson inquired about replacing “body” with “income.” As such, the question raised is whether or not a person has the income he deserves.

In the case of whether or not a person has the body he deserves, I argued that this is generally the case. After all, laying aside unfortunate accidents and illnesses, a person has (or is) the body that he has earned by his choices and actions. I also noted that the luck (good or bad) of birth can also be factored out in terms of what a person has earned-after all, a person would still get what he has earned given his circumstances.

Naturally, it can be contended that the same would hold true when it comes to income. After all, if unfortunate accidents are laid aside and the luck of birth is factored out, then a person surely gets the income that he deserves. After all, a person gets the income he has via his choices and actions, just as is the case with getting the body he has (or is). Thus, we all make what we deserve.

Or so it could be argued. However, there is the obvious question of whether the two situations are analogous. That is, whether the matter of deserved income is adequately similar to that of having the body one deserves.

One obvious difference is the nature of the how earning works in regards to the body and income. In the case of the body, getting the body one earns is a purely mechanical, objective and automatic matter. For example, if I choose to take in more calories than I burn, then I will start storing fat, thus altering my body in a way that I have clearly earned. As another example, if I do more speed work on the track, this will alter my body in ways that result in greater speed when running. As a third example, if I do more pushups and pull-ups, the strength of my body will increase. I get these results based entirely on what I do and they correspond perfectly to my actions and choices. As such, these results seem to be exactly what I deserve. After all, what I get stems from what I do.

In the case of income, getting what one earns is a matter of human decisions, is subjective and is not automatic. For example, my income is based largely on what other people who control the funds elect to pay me based on what they think I should be pay. This is presumably based on a subjective assessment of what I should be paid—most likely based on such factors as what they think is the lowest amount that will keep me from accepting another job and what they think it would cost to replace me with someone that could do what I do. My income is also not an automatic matter—I would not get an income just for teaching and so on. There has to be the conscious decision to provide me with the income. In the case of income, what I get might have little or even no connection to what I actually do. Thus a person might not get the income that he deserves.

A second obvious difference is that what a person gets in regards to his body is always perfectly proportional to his choices and actions. If I run X miles per week at an average pace of P, then my endurance will be E. If I spent H hours strength training at intensity I per week, then my strength will be S.  Or, if I pack in E extra calories, then I get F fatter. As such, what I get from my choices and efforts is exactly proportional to the nature of my efforts and choices: what I do and what I receive are in perfect harmony.

In stark contrast, what a person earns in terms of income can (and often is) significantly out of proportion to the nature of her efforts and choices. For example, a professor might devote considerable effort to teaching her students and be very effective at this, thus creating educated citizens who go on to add considerably to society. This teacher might receive a rather low income. As another example, a professor might be clever at making connections and hit an academic fad at the right time and become a star. This star might spend his career pontificating at conferences and on talk shows, yet contribute little of lasting value to society all the while enjoying a rather nice income. As a third example, a person might develop a cunning way to create a financial instrument to hide toxic assets and engage in clever deceits when ranking said instruments, thus making a fortune for herself while contributing to a massive recession. In such cases, these people would not seem to be getting the income they deserve.

It could be countered that a person does get the income he deserves by definition. That is, one earns what one gets, thus it is earned. Being what is earned, it is what a person deserves. This is, obviously enough, what philosophers are often accused of: mere semantic trickery.

Also, to use the obvious analogy, this would be rather like claiming that a prisoner deserves her sentence on the grounds that it is the sentence she was given and it is thus just. Obviously, the mere fact that a person has been sentenced to a certain punishment or has received a certain income is not proof that either is earned.

It could also be argued that employers decide what a person deserves and that a person can decide if he agrees. If he agrees and accepts the income, then he gets what he deserves. While this has a certain appeal, it assumes that the person is not tricked by fraud or compelled to accept the income. To use an analogy, if I agree to give a person something based on a lie or because he points a gun at me, I do not thus get what I deserve when I lose my property.

In some cases, people do get to select their income without any fraud or compulsion and they have many opportunities available to them. In most other cases, people are at a considerable disadvantage relative to those who offer income. For example, a person who works for the state is often subject to the whims of those above them in power. If a newly appointed director decides that he would prefer to relocate his department in a city near his second or third house then the employees have to choose between uprooting their lives (and often families) and losing their jobs. If they lose their jobs, then they need to find another employer and hope that their new job will last.

It might be replied that people get what they deserve even in these cases. After all, if they were smart enough to see through the fraud or capable enough to avoid being compelled, then they would have a better income.

While this has a certain appeal when it comes to economic matters and matches the ideal of the rugged individual making her fortune, this would require accepting that a person who is deceived by another is responsible for his failure to detect the deceit and that anyone who is compelled deserves the results of that compulsion. To use an unpleasant analogy, this would be rather like blaming the victim of a date rape for being raped. After all, if she had been smart enough to see through his deceit to his true intentions or strong enough to protect herself, then she would not have been raped. As such, if she is raped, then she would have gotten exactly what she deserved. Likewise, if someone was smart enough to avoid deceit or strong enough to avoid being compelled economically, then she would not have a low income.  After all, she should have been able to command a better income or start her own company. As such, if she does have a low income, she must be getting exactly what she deserves.

As such, while each person generally has the body he deserves, the same does not hold for income.

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  1. I was hoping you would touch on whether 7 figure folks deserve their income. I wonder if you have any thoughts on that specific piece of the puzzle.

  2. If we ought to reward people according to two factors: their contribution to society and the effort involved, then in no society that I know of are people rewarded according to their deserts.

    Women are paid less than men for the same job in most societies; people with darker skin make the same effort as those with whiter skin and are paid less; people with good family or social connections get better paid jobs than those without them; tall people earn more than short people even with the same effort.

    What’s more, lots of jobs which, far from contributing to society, damage it are very well paid: CEOs of companies which push cigarettes or junk food or products which contribute to global warming, etc.

    On the other hand, some jobs which make a genuine contribution are very badly paid: for example, the men who pick up the trash in the morning or who clean the streets.

    Nurses aides make a huge contribution to our welfare, but receive low salaries.

    Teachers and nurses are not well paid at all, yet perform vital social roles, etc.

  3. “To use an unpleasant analogy, this would be rather like blaming the victim of a date rape for being raped.”

    This is precisely what happens. It’s called the just-world fallacy. A belief that the world is ultimately just, for divine or cosmic reasons. So if you have the good fortune to be wealthy it is because of some intrinsic goodness on your part, and if you’re poor, it is because you are intrinsically wicked and deserve all you get (or more precisely what you don’t get).

    You don’t need to be religious to have this belief. In a philosophy forum elsewhere I had the discussion with some right-wing “libertarians”. Now, many libertarians are piss poor, but these were privileged and educated. They admitted that their economic opportunities in life had been due to the fortune of their birth – they agreed the race was rigged – that they were not playing on a level pitch BUT…..BUT…..They had a justification (it seems everyone has justification). Their argument went that in some previous generation (they were very vague about this – in many places wealth stretches back hundreds of years) a primordial father had struggled evenly and fairly and pulled themselves up in the world – where others with equal opportunity hadn’t. And they were now justly enjoying the fruits of this labour.

    The wing-nuts argument went it would be completely “unfair” for them to share these fruits.

    When the just-world fallacy manifests itself with religious people, God is brought in. The rich in someway have pleased God and they are being rewarded – the poor have displeased the lord, and their poverty and suffering is just, because they are wicked people. It’s a toxic belief for many reasons. People are blamed and extra injury is added to misfortunes that were completely beyond their control. And then people believe God is singling them out for some punishment when some terrible misfortune befalls them.

    The answer is in the Book of Job. God makes terrible things happen to Job, and Job and his friends sit around trying think of what it is that Job has done to upset God.
    And it shouldn’t be interpreted as Job undergoing a test of faith – but that bad things happen to good people, and that people should never be judged for their misfortune.

    Reverend Phelps never got around to reading Job. Or maybe he divines his theology exclusively from the Book of Fred.

  4. I didn`t read your essay about the deserving of the body that one has, but I think you may be ignoring the genetics and environmental factors outside of your control. There is great variation in metabolism and even the degree of rewards such as endorphin highs. The same amount of effort by different people will not reap the same idealized body type. The two problems converge when you consider that people of lower income do not have the same access to higher quality foods, fitness studios or liesure time. You cannot ignore these variables.

  5. JMRC,

    Ah, the “ancestor defense.” Apparently they did not get that they no more earned their inheritance than a child earns a gift at Christmas.

  6. Laura Creighton

    I think that what you have discovered is the natural tendancy of many people to want to believe that they deserve what they get. There are other people, who have a natural tendancy to want to believe that they _never_ get what they deserve. Both of these groups have a belief in an objectively measurable ‘just world’, which allows them to say that it is _possible_ to say whether somebody does or does not deserve an outcome. Now, limited knowledge and bounded rationality and all that, we may find that concluding what it is that people deserve is difficult, much as knowing anything is difficult, but it is _in principle_, at any rate, possible.

    I’m in the other camp. I don’t think, except in extremely limited circumstances, anybody can be said to deserve anything. One circumstance is when we have made a formal agreement. If one side has kept their end of the agreement then they can say that they deserve whatever it was that the other side agreed to do in exchange. This has nothing to do with whether the agreement was fair or just in the first place, and confusing _deserve == it is just_ with _deserve == it was agreed upon_ is a great source of confusion.

    Another common way to look at things is to list all the ways that you could have things that ‘you do not deserve’ — cheating, stealing, blackmailing … and then say in the absense of this, you deserve what you get. You could use your experiment site to find out how common this belief is. I’d be very interested in finding out. The practical problem with this way of defining deserving, is that people keep coming up with new reasons to say that people did not deserve what they have — they did not deserve to be born female, poor, rich, with diabetes, schitzophrenia or just plain stupid. Every day more things are added to this list. I am in enormous sympathy with this position, to the point where I think that it is much more accurate to say that nobody deserves what they get — they just get what they get, and we are better off listing the limited cases where one can legitimately say that person X deserves Y.

    This means that we will have to stop framing questions of wealth redistribution and the like in terms of reaching a state where everybody gets what they deserve, and instead in terms of reaching a state which we want, pure and simple. For those of us who find ‘means testing the poor’ and dividing them into ‘the deserving’ and ‘the undeserving’ morally and ethically repugnant, this will be no bad thing. There will be plenty of opposition from those who find the idea of abandoning the notion of a just world as evil, as well as threatening.

    When it comes to ‘a body you deserve’ — before very long now, it will be possible to use gene therapy to give people new bodies — ones slightly different than they were handed out naturally. Getting rid of polycystic kidney disease this way would be a wonderful boon to humanity. From there where can we go? Better immune systems, better metabolisms, better memories, immunity to Alzheimers and other diseases. It’s going to be hard to argue that people deserve to suffer with these now preventable and correctable limitations. So, no I don’t think I believe in ‘the body you deserve’ either.

  7. Mike LaBossiere,

    “Ah, the “ancestor defense.” Apparently they did not get that they no more earned their inheritance than a child earns a gift at Christmas.”

    Child do believe they deserve their Christmas gift. They know words to Santa Claus is coming to Town better that any work of song in the English language. It may not be a good idea to bribe kids to be good, but that is what happens.

    The “ancestor defense” is something people really believe. They need a justification. You’ll rarely find someone who is greedy and bad without some deep seated sense of justification. There has to be an innocent, honest, hardworking rugged individual in their past – so like a Tibetan prayer wheel – they don’t have to be.

    The “ancestor defense” is ludicrous, which why Ayn Rand is so popular with many of these people. They believe she gives their selfishness a moral justification.

  8. The difference between the raped and the employee is of size :
    Rape is a matter of pure chance.
    There is almost nothing you can do to prevent that, luck has high power.

    Employees are differents.
    You are free to test several jobs, work for yourself, be your own boss, or find a better boss.
    Chance happens. You can find a great job the first time. But nothing hold you to provoke luck by trying more.

    Take the coin analogy. Finding the income you deserve is about being once even.
    If your first throw and get odd, you can throw your coin again. Chance happens, but limits are predictable : By flipping coins 10 times you have less than 1% of chance not having any even.

    For raping, if you throw a coin and get odd then you can’t retry one more time to change the result, you stay raped.

    It is dangerous to make people believe they are not responsable of their income.
    It is like making your employer responsable of your freedom, and that is not different from slavery.
    And it happens as soon as you say : “I work for my employer” instead of “I work with my employer”, an employer is nothing but one of the several possible sources of money, not your slave master, and not your mother.

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