What sort of “Meritocracy” would a libertarian endorse, if he had to?

The first attempt to answer this question should say: “none.” Notwithstanding that this is the correct approach, we can’t help but feel uneasy about it. Libertarians have had to deal with this uncomfortable truth for so long. In respect to my own personal experience, I remember where I was when I read, for the first time, “Equality, Value, and Merit,” the title of Chapter 6 in Friedrich A Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty. I was attending a weekly reading group about that book, and we were gathered in a cafê in Buenos Aires. The number of attendees was enough to find every kind of reader you could expect (and not expect) to meet in such a group:

  • There was the one who had already studied and condensed each chapter and then was re-reading and re-assessing the whole book; the one who did his “homework” without any effort;
  • the one who the embarrassment of failing to accomplish the reading requirements for the meeting overcame the pleasure of any type of procrastination (i.e. me, mostly because I was one of the promoters);
  • and the one who gave to the group the enthusiasm to last for six months in a row and finish the whole book. The latter, in this case, was a truly “natural Libertarian,” the one who had the pure Libertarian position for each subject by not showing an excessive regard for what Hayek was actually saying.

I remember that I arrived to the “Equality, Value, and Merit” meeting with a feeling of uncertainty. Hayek argued that there is no merit to acknowledging in a market process, none of any sort, a just compensation for the value of one’s apportation – a value whose magnitude depends on the relative scarcity of the marginal product. The reader who always accomplished his reading duties without any effort shared my sentiment of awe. Almost the whole meeting was conducted by our companion who was reading the book for a second – or perhaps third – time. In effect, Hayek left no place to meritocracy, since it is impossible to decide democratically among any scale of merit (remember Kenneth Arrow’s theorem on the impossibility of democracy, cited later on the third volume of Law, Legislation and Liberty), so retributions based on value enable the system to adapt spontaneously to the changes in the environment with more efficiency. The explanation was a bit of an unpopular one, but accurate. Not without reluctance, almost all of us accepted it. All of us but one: our true spontaneous Libertarian. She would under no condition surrender her convictions on the merit of the retributions that the market process assesses spontaneously to each one in accordance to the marginal value of their activity. While we acknowledged no merit to the results of the market process, she was prone to endorsing a moral value to the blinded results of the allocation of goods adjusted to the changes in their relative scarcities.

Many years after our debate took place, I am now starting to acknowledge that there might be a particle of truth in the statements of our natural Libertarian and, what is most outstanding, that these statements could be deducted from other chapters of the same book (The Constitution of Liberty), particularly the one which concerns on the definition of liberty (“Liberty and Liberties”). I said a particle of truth, not the whole truth, but at least that particle which is needed to start an intellectual quest.

In The Constitution of Liberty, written in 1960, Hayek made a quick outline of the different notions of liberty that were popular at that moment in time. Positive liberty, negative liberty, inner liberty, individual liberty, freedom from, freedom to, and freedom of were some of the categories mentioned. He made it clear that an in-depth discussion of each notion was not his main aim, but instead that was trying to make a quick account of them in order to give a conceptual frame to the one of his choice: a variant of the individual negative liberty defined as “the absence of arbitrary coercion.”

Slavery is the subjection to the will of another person, without boundaries of any kind. A slave could be subject to a good master who allows him to keep a normal life, but he could lose all of his freedom on a whim of his master at any time. On the other hand, the boundaries to the freedom of a free man are imposed by abstract and general laws and by contracts and the judicial decisions based on those contracts. The ordinary experience of a man enables him to discover principles and patterns of what would be regarded by others as just conduct, and to form in such way expectatives on how a given conflict could be solved. This concept of individual liberty as an absence of arbitrary coercion stated by Hayek in 1960 finds a strong resemblance today in the notion of liberty as an “absence of domination” by contemporary republican authors such as Quentin Skinner, Philip Pettit and, here in Argentina, Andrés Rosler.

The outcome of such a system is that every individual is enabled with a set of possible actions to be taken at his sole will, which we call an “individual sphere of autonomy.” In principle, these spheres are delimited by general and abstract laws and any controversy on the limits between two of them will be solved by an impartial court whose decision will be based on principles expressed by these norms. These judicial decisions would be in accordance to the patterns of just conduct that everyone had previously formed by ordinary experience, so they will prove correct the expectatives of most people and then will be regarded as non-arbitrary.

Of course, we could find that some judicial decisions would be taken by equity or that some administrative decisions would be based on expediency. But such a system could stand some exceptions, most of them aimed to solve an unexpected situation. Some of these new “precedents” are compatible with the principles which inform the existing laws and then their formulation will be a sort of “discovery” of new norms that until that moment were “implicit” in such a normative system. A criterion to distinguish the discovery of new norms from a decision based on expediency might be that the universalisation of the former brings about stability to the system; it makes the law work as a negative feedback system while the universalisation of the latter would only cause an increasing process of disorder.

Friedrich Hayek developed his theory of law – savagely summarised in the previous paragraphs – in Law, Legislation and Liberty and it provides us with an accurate modelization of how it would work a legal system that could not be experienced as “arbitrary” by the individual. In Hayek’s legal model, the fulfillment of the law would imply the respect of individual freedom as the absence of arbitrary coercion, since all boundaries to one’s will are previously known or reasonably expected and, then, our individual plans are conceived and accomplished regarding such limits.

After such a long digression we may come back to our initial enquiry: if a Libertarian had to “do meritocracy,” what sort of meritocracy would it be? The usual answer is, as we noted above, “none.” But I suspect that the wrong statements of some intuitive Libertarians carry within them a kernel of truth: the assignment of functions and subsequent retributions are expected not to be arbitrary, because even the changing value of the marginal products implies (1) some sort of predictability, (2) an impersonal process, and (3) a learning feedback system that fosters increasingly correct pattern predictions.

If we state that liberty is one, be it political, economic or social, we cannot use a definition of liberty in the political realm and another notion of it in the economic one. The “none answer” implies just plain individual negative liberty (absence of coercion) in political economy issues, while our definition of individual liberty is “absence of arbitrary coercion,” and this should be applied to the definition of economic liberty as well.

Therefore, I dare to state that a non-arbitrary distribution of functions and its subsequent remunerations should be a central problem to economic liberty, if we define it as “absence of arbitrary coercion.” Since our spheres of individual autonomy are delimited by a system of norms of just conduct, general and abstract, which distinguish arbitrary from just coercion, the economic liberty is expected to be found in such a framework.

Usually, the legal framework of a free market is regarded to be a neutral one: general and abstract rules, whose source could be the legislation sanctioned by an assembly of deputies of the people and notable citizens or the customs acknowledged as mandatory by the judiciary courts. In any case, general and abstract rules that are not conceived by a single will but have the impartiality of a plurality of legislators or juries. In this sense, “absence of arbitrary coercion” is identified with “absence of coercion by discretionary powers of the state.” Nevertheless, we consider that this is not enough: we should be conceptually endowed to do an evaluative judgement about the outcome of such economic system. We need to determine if the result of a neutral legal framework produces a non-arbitrary distribution of functions and retributions.

A neutral legal framework works like a peaceful, predictable, and secure Lockean Civil Society – i.e. the opposite of a Lockean Civil Society. Since we accept that legal norms express rules of just conduct whose obedience brings about a rightful delimitation of each individual sphere of autonomy, the remaining normative conflicts will be related to moral and social norms. But these normative conflicts will not occur among competitive orders, such as legal order against moral order or against social order, since we acknowledge the preeminence of the rule of law over any other source of obligations. Modernity relegates moral and social norms to the inner of each individual sphere of autonomy or, at most, to conflicts among different individuals which will never escalate and balloon into physical violence. That means that morals and social customs will not bring about an alternative order to society, but that they will enable the individual with an order to rule the inner aspects of his personality and a limited scope of his interactions with other individuals. These sets of moral and social rules will not integrate the formal institutions – to use the categories coined by Douglass North – but will be embodied in “packs of precepts of life” that we usually name “virtues” (a term cherished by the republicans mentioned above and by libertarian authors such as Deirdre McCloskey.)

These “virtues” are expected to contribute to the fulfilment of most individual plans in a system of inner stability. What we regard as good and wrong are a set of received values accrued after generations of trial and error processes. “Being honest,” for example, might be considered as a pack of precepts of life which successfully spread all over the members of the society structured by a neutral legal framework. The unit of evolution is neither the society nor even the individuals, but the “virtues” that are spread among the individuals that compounds that society.

At this stage, we must admit that what we regard as “neutral” is just an analytical category that means a set of fixed elements that work as a framework for other elements which change their respective relative positions. This framework is what Hayek named “order” (we can find in his Sensory Order the most accurate definitions of this concept: more than one). These notions allow us to do a clear distinction between the concepts of “evolution” and “change.” Change occurs among the relative positions of different elements given a stable framework – a Hayekian “order” – while “evolution” – in our terms – is related to a modification in the framework where the ordinary events occur. In the words of Douglass North, “evolution” is an incremental change in opposition to a disruptive change – or revolution. Notwithstanding this use of the terminology at hand, only Hayekian orders “evolve,” while their elements (or events) simply “change” their relative positions.

Nevertheless, to use an Arthur Schopenhauer image, events are the eyes of the blind machine which is the spontaneous order. Given a certain abstract order, the population with some types of virtues extended among the individuals will prevail over other ones. For example, Max Weber, in his Protestant Ethic, showed how the habits of frugality, self-confidence, hard work, and so on, were once considered by most people as eccentric but eventually took over whole communities and changed the meaning of good and evil in a process that ended up in an “iron cage of liberty”: the dissolution of the transcendent values that had previously given a religious sense to those habits into a neutral framework of standard moral duties immanent to the social system.

Another classical book that illustrate a process of “natural selection” of virtues might be The Prince by Nicoló Machiavelli: from the very beginning, the author warns us that a different set of virtues would be needed to be develop in a Republic and that he treated that matter in another book, The Discourses on the First Decades of Titus Livius. The Prince, instead, is focused on determining which virtues is a Prince to be enabled with in order to survive in a realm where no one has the sense to be bound by any moral or legal obligation, i.e.: in a set of non-cooperative games. The whole book can be read as a succession of mental experiments about which virtue could make the Prince survive over his competitors. In Richard Dawkins terms, the ones which are competing are the virtues, and the politicians who struggle with each other are the “vehicles” of those virtues. A very well-known example shows how the population of the ones who seek to be feared at the risk of being hated will displace the population of the ones who seek to be loved at the risk of being scorned. To put this another way: in the “ethical pool” the trait “seek to be feared” will outshine the trait “seek to be loved.” Finally, at the last paragraph of the book, the very virtue of the Prince rules supreme among the other ones: the initiative.

Besides the fact that The Prince – as Quentin Skinner pointed out – should be regarded as a satire (but see Barry here and here for a contrary account) , the emergence of the virtue of the initiative as the inner quality of a political leader of a non-republican system scraps any moral sense of the term “virtue.” Virtues are a compound of personality traits that conditions the agent’s decisions from the inner. But certain virtues depend on the legal framework to spread over the “ethical pool.” As we have said, the virtues that will prevail in an authoritarian regime will be different from those which flourish in a republic. The “republican virtues” described by Machiavelli in his Discourse on the Decades can only proliferate among people within a given set of procedural rules. A similar distinction was made later by David Hume: “natural virtues,” such as empathy, can emerge at any given circumstances, as they are embodied in human nature, but artificial virtues such as “justice” will depend upon a determinate legal framework.

Virtues will erode or shore up a formal institutional framework by incremental change (D. North), yet this will occur only as a response to the change in the environment (virtues as the eyes of the blind machine of the spontaneous order). For example, Gutenberg’s press discovery allowed the evangelical movement to gain force since anyone could then start to count with a Bible. Within the Evangelical movement took place a Puritan one, which at its turn changed the sense of morality in the people for whom it took place. This resulted, for example, in the anti-slavery political movement in certain states of the US or cities of the UK such as Bristol, even at a price of high economic cost.

Nevertheless, while spontaneous changes in virtues lead to incremental political and legal change, a disruptive change of the latter could bring about a dramatic shift in uses and customs of the people involved. This need not to be a violent revolution, since democratic institutions are enabled to issue the required laws to make a significant change for the good – or for the bad – in the said virtues to spread among the society. Sound money is a condition for the virtue of frugality to appear, for example. On the other hand, the Adam Ferguson’s book When Money Dies shows how the people change their main traits due to the phenomenon of hyperinflation.

Since virtues are – in the definition stated here – a mere pack of ethical traits that condition the individuals who are their vehicles from the inner, allowing them to survive and pass their virtues to the next generation of individuals, on what basis should we endorse some virtues over other ones? Our theory cannot provide us with a normative answer by itself, since it leads us to the conclusion that what we regard as good and evil comes from a process of blind evolution. As we have said, a learned libertarian would not endorse a meritocracy of any kind.

However, the complex order compounded by the legal framework and the moral and social virtues extended in society might be “neutral” for each individual involved in such society, but the legal framework will not be neutral to the moral and social virtues that are spread in that society. Different types of frameworks will deliver different sets of virtues to be spread. An authoritarian regime will deliver the set or virtues described by Machiavelli in The Prince, while a republic will spread the virtues of The Discourse on the Decades of Titus Livius. Moreover, the difference between the former and the latter is found in the proportion of decisions taken on the basis of expediency and the ones taken on the basis of principles. The whole message of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom might be exemplified in the transition from a system of public decisions based on principles (i.e.: a republic), to a system of public decisions based on expediency. Each system will deliver a different set of “virtues.”

Thus, we are now in a better position to answer the question “what sort of meritocracy would a libertarian would endorse, if he had to?” A natural libertarian will expect that the distribution of functions and retributions will correlate with the virtues most expected to be found in a legal and political system in which most decisions are taken on the basis of general and abstract principles. Such a system of norms and values will be experienced by the individual as “non arbitrary” and then the ideal of negative individual liberty as “absence of arbitrary coercion” will be achieved, not only in the political realm, but also in the economic and social ones.

In a “Keynesian turn,” we could point out that a system whose decisions are taken purely on the basis of principles is an “especial case” and that we usually find mostly the opposite. In most constitutional systems the “macroeconomic policy” is not a matter subject to the courts and we have to acknowledge that the spreading of some virtues over other ones are more conditioned by monetary or tariff policies than by a neutral legal framework. Nevertheless, this reality is not a reason to disregard the value of the virtues that would arise should those policies be neutral (i.e. not being policies at all, but legal norms). Moreover, these objections just pointed out are good reasons to claim for a republican system of liberties as a fairer system.

To summarize: natural libertarians are not so wrong when they aim to achieve a special kind of meritocracy – the one in which the functions and retributions would correlate with the virtues spread in a society where liberty as absence of arbitrary coercion is respected. In such a system, most political decisions will be taken on the basis of general and abstract principles. After all, the dissatisfaction manifested by a natural libertarian when most of the wealth of a society goes to the rent seekers is rooted in a well founded claim for a “free and virtuous society.”

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