Liberals, conservatives have more in common than they think
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Our country is broken. This proposition is so uncontroversial nowadays that it is regarded not with a sense of shock or tragedy but as a banal fact. Many worry that we are beyond repair — too divided politically; too different in our views about morality and culture; too unwilling to compromise.

Call me an optimist. I know that, despite all the bickering, Americans across ideological lines share a common ideal. We all want to live in a place where people get the things that they deserve.


Consider affirmative action. Liberals reason like this — the best-qualified applicant deserves the job, but minorities are at a disadvantage owing to racism. Affirmative action helps ensure that best-qualified applicants get the jobs that they deserve.


But conservatives, too, argue on grounds of merit — the best-qualified applicant deserves the job, but affirmative action provides less-qualified minorities an advantage over better-qualified white people.

While liberals and conservatives disagree on this issue, it is only about a superficial fact — whether affirmative action does, in fact, distort merit-based hiring. On the tough question — the underlying, moral question — there is no disagreement: the best-qualified applicant deserves the job.

Or consider the state of our economy. We have all heard the statistics — the top 1 percent of Americans have the same share of national income as the bottom 50 percent, and the top 0.1 percent has the same total wealth as the bottom 90 percent.

Is this just? Conservatives say “yes” because they believe that meritorious and hard-working people deserve the fruits of their labor. They also believe that the rich in America have shown merit and effort in this way.

But liberals who say “no” rely on the very same moral premise — meritorious people do deserve the fruits of their labor, but in America today, they point out, you get rich through family influence, cronyism, or by exploiting the system; not through merit.

Again, all we disagree about is a factual question — whether wealth is tied to merit or not. That we can answer. When we do, and when we adjust public policy accordingly, liberals and conservatives alike will feel that justice has been done.

This is all well-known. Researchers have tested how human beings think about justice, and a deservingness principle like the one described reigns supreme across contexts and cultures. For example, if you pay a person less than she thinks she deserves for her work, or more than she thinks she deserves, she is less satisfied with her job than if you paid her what she thinks she deserves.

We know that the deservingness principle has an evolutionary origin. According to Political Scientist Michael Bang Petersen, it helps us distinguish “cheaters” from “reciprocators.” We have also discovered that it is hard-wired into the striatum — the part of the brain that regulates moral decision-making. We have even seen evidence of the principle in other species, like capuchin monkeys.

In this way, liberals and conservatives are united, deep down, by a powerful moral premise. Both sides should think about what it would mean to take the deservingness principle seriously and rebuild our country around it.

Liberals should recognize that conservative opposition to affirmative action, welfare and taxation is not due to racism, callousness, or greed. The truth is that conservatives worry that these programs penalize merit and effort and reward the undeserving.

As evidence of conservatives’ good will, consider the Earned Income Tax Credit. It is a payment to poor Americans who work, and one of the largest components of our welfare system. It was enacted under Gerald Ford, expanded under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and has always enjoyed strong support from Republican legislators. Why? Because these welfare recipients show that they are deserving through their work.

On the other hand, conservatives need to understand that our economy is failing to give people what they deserve. Intergenerational mobility in the United States is now the worst in the developed world. Roughly 60-80 percent of a young person’s income potential is predetermined by his parents’ wealth. Merit and effort matter little. The top 1 percent richest Americans inherit, on average, $3 million.

Moreover, corporate executives have gained power over their own pay-setting, reaping rewards whether or not they are deserved. A prime example is Stan O’Neal, the former CEO of Merrill Lynch, who posted a $2.3 billion quarterly loss — the worst in Merrill’s history — and then floated away on a $162 million golden parachute.

We are rewarding failure, enriching the incompetent at the expense of the talented, and undermining competition, and that should worry all of us.

The deservingness principle is neither a liberal nor a conservative ideal. Therein lies its potential — to unite Americans once again, around the common cause of justice.


Thomas Mulligan is a postdoctoral fellow at the Georgetown Institute for the Study of Markets and Ethics at the McDonough School of Business.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.