Happy Friday the 13th! We now proceed with our review of some of the essays published in the new Routledge Handbook on Libertarianism. In this post, we will review Thomas Mulligan’s erudite essay “Libertarianism vs. meritocracy.” (Mulligan, a political theorist/philosopher and faculty fellow at Georgetown University, is the author of Justice and the Meritocratic State; see book cover below.)
In his essay, Dr Mulligan compares and contrast a meritocratic approach to justice with a libertarian one. Although both approaches share many things in common–for example, both theories “believe that markets are the right way to organize economic activity, thereby promoting broad prosperity” and “… both reject the egalitarian’s call for equal economic outcomes”–Mulligan emphasizes the differences between both theoretical frameworks. To simplify, each approach employs a different core criterion to measure justice: the meritocratic perspective prefers merit to liberty, while libertarians, in contrast, prefer liberty to merit. As a result, for libertarians, “firms allegedly are at liberty to discriminate, in hiring and compensation, however they like. Under libertarianism, there is no moral requirement to hire, promote, or reward meritorious people.” From a meritocratic point-of-view, by contrast, “hiring and salaries should purely be functions of merit. It is unjust to deny a meritorious woman a job on account of her sex. It is unjust to deny a meritorious man a job in order to promote ‘diversity’. The same goes for discrimination on the basis of race, appearance, sexual tastes, religion, and all the rest. Merit, and merit alone, is what ought to count.”
Unfortunately for Dr Mulligan, however, his distinction between libertarian and meritocratic conceptions of justice is more apparent than real, since most libertarians would most likely take some type of merit into account when making decisions. But in any case, a more difficult problem–perhaps an intractable one–for Mulligan is that he is simply unable to provide us with a viable working definition of “merit” that everyone could agree to (i.e. beyond one at a high a level of generality). In the absence of a universal definition of “merit”, shouldn’t people be free to choose their own conceptions of merit?