The many problems with just desert theory.

Capitalists routinely argue on the basis of just desert theory, that people deserve to be compensated according to what they produce. It’s hard to explain how nonsensical it is to use this as a defense for capitalism, which is pretty much the exact opposite of just desert and where a small minority owns most of the resources, but Matt Bruenig takes a crack at it.

Desert theorists who endorse laissez-faire capitalism confuse “what a person produces and what is produced by resources that he happens to own.” It is quite possible for a person to never work a day in their life while still enjoying a multi-million dollar income resulting from investment holdings (e.g. trust funds). We can make it even more ridiculous than that. Imagine that in 2009, Mitt Romney had conveyed his blind trust to a pet cat. In 2010, that cat would have “made” $21 million in capital gains from the blind trust. Conservative desert theorists would have to hold that such a cat deserves $21 million due to the productivity of the investment assets the cat owns.

Even if one thought that economic justice required the adoption of a just deserts framework, that framework does not support the laissez-faire capitalist conclusion that right-wing conservatives seem to think it does. When actually applied, desert theory renders unjust the very foundation of capitalist economies: income earned from capital investment.

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