In a comment on SlateStarCodex today the author (“leoboiko”) advocates a programme of socialism under the assumption that intelligence and ability are inherited, rather than earned, by their possessors. She said,

For one thing, this means that the idea of “meritocracy” is inherently unfair. Giving people access to wealth and resources based on their IQ-related achievements is as unfair as making people richer when they’re born taller. We would want some sort of social program to guarantee everyone access to a decent life according to their needs, not according to their abilities.

And went on to illustrate the unfairness of a world in which wealth was allocated according to height.

I do think intelligence and ability is mostly genetic, and I agree that’s unfair. My response is,

What we are rewarding (and want to reward) is success in helping society progress – materially, culturally, etc. Helping other people. Making the world a better place to live.

Our society is not meritocratic in any sense. We don’t reward merit. Or intelligence. Being meritorious, well-intentioned, hard-working, intelligent, and capable gets you…nothing. What gets rewarded (imperfectly, of course) is actually delivering the result – benefits to other people, as evaluated by those people, by their willingness to voluntarily trade wealth for those benefits.

Intelligence is associated with wealth because we reward pro-social activity, and intelligence makes success in such activity more likely. Height doesn’t (except in basketball).

Steve Jobs wasn’t wealthy because he needed it, or because he was a nice guy (he seems to have been an asshole). He was wealthy because he created great things that benefited billions of people.

That’s as it should be. It’s not, and never has been, about fairness. It’s about incentives.

Without such incentives, capable people wouldn’t try very hard. And wouldn’t control large amounts of capital for use in their projects. And we all would be far worse off.

Of course I’m not claiming our society does this perfectly or consistently. There are lots of ways to cheat the system, and lots of people who become wealthy in ways other than “making the world a better place” – most obviously, monopolists and power brokers. I advocate fixing that.

But the basic system works. Making the world a better place to live is more important than fairness.

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