Russell’s qualified repudiation of the idea that all those with a six-figure salary are on their way to hell has got me thinking about wages and what one can deserve.
Russell argues that one can still make it through the eye of the needle so long as (1) one doesn’t think that one needs the six-figure salary; and (2) one doesn’t believe that one deserves the salary.
I find the second proposition more interesting. I am curious as to what it might mean to “deserve” a salary. Here are some possible ideas:
1. You could think of deserving a salary by virtue of a legal contract. I agree to perform a certain set of services for my employer and she agrees to pay me a certain amount of money. Offer, acceptance, consideration, contract. I perform the services, so I now deserve the salary.
2. You could think of deserving a salary on the basis of the work that one performs. The entitlement, in this theory, comes not from agreement but from the fact that by virtue of doing some particular kind of labor one is entitled to some particular level of compensation. An honest wage for an honest days work.
3. You could think that you deserve a particular salary on the basis of your needs. The bread winner(s) of a particular family deserve a living wage, etc.
I am not sure which notion of desert Russell is repudiating for the soteriologically sufficient six-figure salary earner. I will let him comment on that (if he wishes). What I find more interesting is that a market economy does not deal out economic rewards according to any of these criteria (except, perhaps, 1).
Markets reward those who satisfy the expressed preferences of others. Period. By expressed preferences, I don’t mean the desires that people profess to have or even the desires that people even think that they have. I mean simply the desires that they are willing to back up with a commitment to alienate rights to scarce resources, e.g. money, labor, assets, etc. Markets are wholely indifferent to the worthiness (or not) of those preferences. They are also brutally indifferent to the labor performed or the needs of the person who claims a salary. Markets do not reward a person with an honest days wages for an honest days work. They do not reward those of great moral worth. They do not reward those whose work is of great valued when measured according to some rubric other than the rubric of the market. To repeat myself, markets reward ONLY those who satisfy the expressed preferences of others.
Now for some the exclusive emphasis on expressed preferences is evidence of the moral bankruptcy of the market. There are a number of forms that this criticism could take. One might say that the mere fact of expression tells us nothing about the underlying value of the preference expressed. Markets reward those who satisfy the desire for adulterous and anonymous sexual intercourse as well as those who satisfy the desire to learn about the good, the true, and the beautiful. One might argue that the emphasis on expressed preferences is improper, since the ability to express preferences through economic transactions is a function of one’s wealth, and the underlying distribution of wealth in society is unjust.
There are, of course, powerful arguments to be made in favor of markets. Given expressed preferences, they are likely to allocate resources quite efficiently, certainly more effeciently than alternate institutional arragments. There is also a sense in which markets might be desireable because of the way that they are brutally indifferent to narcissism and reward only behavior that is in some sense (if only accidentally) other regarding. You are only rewarded in a market to the extent that your labor is of benefit to others. Those who pour their energies solely into things of value only to themselves will be punished by the market. This is hardly charity, but there is a powerful bias in favor of sociability.
Given that we live in a society in which many, many people have desires — and hence expressed preferences — that are unworthy or immoral, we can be certain that these desires will be expressed in the price of particular goods. Hence, the price mechanism can never be a reliable indication of the underlying moral worth of any given activity. Lawyers are relatively well paid. However, this is because they satisfy the expressed preferences of others who desire legal services. However, those desires may be good or evil. The same is true of academics and others.
There is thus a sense in which everyone who works within a market society is implicated in the moral decisions that others make. I am not entirely sure how significant this implication or complicity. Furthermore, I am deeply skeptical that one can avoid it through one’s personal decisions. The ubiquity of the price mechanism as an allocative device makes this virtually impossible. Furthermore, the complexity of the inputs into the price of anything makes it highly unlikely — in my opinion — that we can know enough to ever fully understand the nature of all of the desires upon which our wages are predicated.