A flawed sense of entitlement
It has long been thought that to account for the widening inequality gaps that meritocracy creates, Singapore must make the starting points for its people more equal, while being conscious of the possibility of destroying the competitive environment that meritocracy offers.
This thinking undergirds many policies that attempt to provide equal opportunities for every child regardless of family background.
But while desirable in itself, this may not be the critical change Singapore needs if it wants to resolve the growing inequalities and fault lines within society.
In his social contract theory on “justice as fairness”, American philosopher John Rawls argued that there are certain basic principles that people would choose, if we were put in an original position of equality and able to judge impartially (from behind a “veil of ignorance” of our own personal circumstances).
These would include the difference principle: The only social and economic inequalities permitted would be those that work to the benefit of the least advantaged members of society.
The meritocratic conception corrects for certain morally arbitrary advantages, such as children born into poor families. But it is still inherently unjust, as it bases distribution of rewards on factors that are equally morally arbitrary, such as natural talent.
There is an alternative: A society where the gifted are encouraged to develop and exercise their talents, yet at the same time it is on the understanding that the rewards reaped belong to the community. In this, a more inspiring vision of equality can be realised.
IS BOTTOM BETTER OFF?
Singapore has strived to manage inequality by providing equality of opportunity and levelling the starting points, as evidenced by compulsory schooling and bursaries given to the poor. Yet, the Gini coefficient has increased over the last decade and is one of the highest among developed countries.
It is clear this strategy is inadequate. Re-thinking Singapore’s fundamental philosophy and conceptions of justice is crucial.
Two possible objections may be made against the difference principle: One, that talented people may be disincentivised to enter demanding lines of work given the high tax rates or small pay differentials; and two, that it may be unfair to deny successful people their rewards, given the hard work they have invested.
Rawls, however, has raised two compelling counter-arguments. Firstly, there exists a distinction between allowing wage differentials for the sake of incentives, and arguing that the successful have privileged moral claims to the rewards of their labour.
A narrow focus on increasing the gross domestic product by paying the top-earners more or cutting taxes is not enough, unless such policies also generate economic growth that make the bottom better off than they would be under a meritocratic system with equal starting lines. In short, income inequalities are acceptable only insofar as they incentivise efforts to ultimately help the disadvantaged.
Secondly, Rawls rejects the argument of hard work and deserved rewards on the basis that effort may be the product of a favourable upbringing and dependent on social circumstances for which hard-working people may claim little credit.
Rawls’ argument may lend weight to the common perception — whether empirically substantiated or otherwise — that many students who come from well-to-do families or have well-educated parents strive harder than others in their quest for success.
“Justice as fairness” therefore rejects the notion that income and wealth should be distributed solely according to virtue. Rather, it is about the expectations that arise once the rules of the system are in place. Changing the expectations is fundamentally more important than merely tweaking the rules.
Rawls’ difference principle reminds the talented that the qualities valued by society currently are morally arbitrary: It depends on the contingencies of supply and demand, and whether one is “talented” would depend on the qualities Singapore happens to prize.
Revamping our institutions therefore calls for a closer look at our governing philosophies of meritocracy, including beliefs about levelling the starting points, and the type of ideals we inculcate in our youth. Do we want a generation that is brought up solely on meritocratic ideals instead of a stronger sense of social justice and equality?
A strong sense of self-entitlement based on inherited talents or even birthright should be rejected, if Singapore wishes to stem or reverse income inequality.
Dickson Lee is a final-year law student at the Singapore Management University.
1. In what way does meritocracy widen inequality?
2. How can we make society more equal even as we adopt meritocracy?
3. What are some ways to "level the starting points"?