This morning my manager asked to step inside a conference room with him and his manager. The company hadn’t been doing well, my division in particular. The former was mostly because of disorganization, the latter because there simply wasn’t enough work for all the employees. The fat needed to be trimmed. I knew I hadn’t been pulling my weight both because so little was assigned to me (I was the new guy after all) and because I had grown lethargic and lax in what little I did. I was told my sort-of-manager (to whom I’d been making unfulfilled promises to get my shit in order) was let go, as was another employee on loan to our sister company. The second I had gone to college with, though we weren’t in any of the same classes. He remembered seeing me on campus, I had no memory of him. I was replacing him because I had just been given responsibility over one feature of our software. I hadn’t shown any special competence at it and if I had been in charge I would have canned me (or my analogue, since being in charge is generally incompatible with being entry-level) a while ago.

To receive a boon you do not deserve, even if is merely the avoidance of a loss, is known as “grace”. The example my pastor gave a little while ago was of a traffic court in session near the holidays in which a judge simply voided everyone’s ticket so they could go home to their families. Grace is then a violation of justice. It is getting better than you deserve. The Christian conception of undeserved bounty owed to God rather than self was the starting point for Rawls’ moral philosophy as a young man, and that disregard for desert survived the purging of God from his thinking. Desert has tended to lose its luster as we entered a more scientific age in which God plays less of a role. A rare outspoken atheist who forthrightly defends desert is Bryan Caplan. This should not be terribly surprising as he also believes in objective morality, Cartesian dualism and genuine free will. Even he is offended by the undeserved good fate of first-worlders, and likely would be for those born after Malthus if he considered it.

What are the implications of abandoning desert? Joshua Greene & Jonathan Cohen explain when it comes to our conception of legal justice here. It does not mean we absolve people of their acts because they couldn’t help it. It may mean punishing people for things they didn’t do. A good example of someone who jumps to unsupported conclusions based on grace is Lew Daly of the Demos Institute. I’m not really a fan (I’d have to take Rawls specifically and moral philosophy in general more seriously), but I have to acknowledge that Will Wilkinson cuts to the nub in his response to Daly’s egalitarianism. That I do not deserve my good fortune does not imply that everyone else deserves any of it either. We cannot even conclude that it is better for me to have less even if nobody else receives more as a result. Even when he have conscious knowledge regarding the workings of the brain and its determination in genetics, we intuitively think there must be a residual “Ghost in the machine” somewhat like a God of the gaps, and so when we trace causality back and find something other than the Ghost, we deem the lucky sod a recipient of stolen goods. But if there is no Ghost then there is no theft, and once we abandon desert we cannot use it as a standard to indict the graced.

If we are to set up a system of rewards and punishments we are left with the guidelines of ensuring more of what we want and less of what we don’t. If you are to be upset at the high compensation of investment bankers it should be because they were not raking in millions sitting on their asses and writing software that we could get some use out of. I’m thankful that so many people are willing to create innovations whose surplus value they are greatly uncompensated for, but I don’t have much faith in supply-driven ludic or “gift” economies separated from the winner-take-at-least-a-good-deal rewards of market demand resulting in an efficient allocation of human capital. I certainly wouldn’t count on the benevolence of the garbageman and dog-catcher. I don’t think we’ll need to worry so much about our random goofy video needs though.

UPDATE: What a coincidence, Jeffrey Friedman has an article on non-profits titled “There is No Substitute For Profit and Loss“. Hat tip to commenter Current at the Austrian Economists.