Speaking of Agnes Callard…

I happened upon a podcast Callard did with Ezra Klein. Of course, I was looking for another podcast in his suite of options at the Ezra Klein Show, but when I saw her name, I clicked on play and had my attention diverted for the next hour and twenty minutes. Serendipity.

The bonus of jumping into the flow of internet information is that you may discover the most wonderful things. In this episode, Agnes, in her causal yet laser-focused manner, explains the motivations behind what I call public sphere transactions. Here’s a link to the podcast. I think you have to be a NYT subscriber, so for those who aren’t I’ll excerpt some bits.

The conversation starts around the topic of status, which Callard defines as ‘how much value other people accord you.’ After some explanation of the games people play and how they are played to assess value, the topic transitions to meritocracy.

EZRA KLEIN: And so, in a way, that’s in contrast to what we have or think we have or talk about having, which is a meritocracy, which is the idea that where you get is a reflection of your virtue, of your work ethic, of your talents, and how you’ve used them. And you’ve done a lot of writing about this. And there’s been, particularly on the left, in recent years, a real questioning of meritocracy.

The thought that if you work hard and live a good life, you will advance into good things, is the explanation of how to achieve based on merit. It works really well in explaining how things work in the private goods market. You go to a job and make more or better widgets than the next guy. You gain in proportion to your output. Goods I consider prime for private production and consumption are all those things that are easy to count and trade without long term obligations.

But things that dwell in the more complex territory of lasting relationships appear to need an adjustment to the meritocracy model. It’s great when people succeed, yet when they fail, your duty as a supporter in their network, is to cushion the blow.

AGNES CALLARD: Yeah, so one thing I’ve argued for is that, at least, ideally, what would be nice is a non-punitive meritocracy, right? So you could think that the rewards that people get are the products of their efforts without thinking that the people who don’t get the rewards are culpable or blameworthy.

And this is actually how we interact with people. People find this weird to think about it this way politically, but it’s exactly how we interact with our friends, right? So when our friends have some achievement, we don’t say, oh, well, you started off lucky. Of course, all our friends have various forms of luck, but we don’t emphasize those when they achieve something. We say things like, well earned, you deserved it. This went to a great person. I say this all the time on Twitter when I see people getting things, and I’m happy for them. And I think it’s great, right?

On the other hand, when I have a friend get a paper rejected from a journal or — it happens to me all the time — we have various failures, and we might try to give them suggestions about how to improve for next time. But we don’t say, well, this is your fault. 

The example of helping an academic friend is non-controversial. But we use this same reasoning for helping those who are down on their luck. If a person loses their job, their employer has no further obligation to them. The relationship is severed. But the greater society evaluates this in a non-punitive meritocratic manner. Everyone can suceed to their ability, but if you fail, unemployement insurance is in place to cushion the blow. The same motivation support victims of natural disasters, or support for those who have suffered under oppressive circumstances.

Callard and Klein delve much deeper into interesting aspects of human inclinations in this direction (very much worth the listen). What I’m just trying to point out here is that out there in the marketplace of resource allocation, there are two environments, or categorizations, or (my preferred word) spheres. The private sphere swims in meritocracy and competition whereas the public sphere is cushioned by altruism and network entanglements. They coexist and are both alive and well.

Because Callard likes color