Reader’s correspondence: Reply to Libretti on inequality

I read Professor Libretti’s syllabus on inequality myths in the United States and found myself heartily agreeing with his reading list (see “Widening wealth gap exposes America’s cultural commitment to inequality,” People’s World, June 27, 2016).

However, while agreeing with Libretti’s placing of the myth of meritocracy on the reading list, I strongly disagree with his interpretation of that myth. 

Like Libretti, I believe that the U.S. is a lot less of a meritocracy than myth would have it. However, he then goes on to attack meritocracy theoretically, which I think is a big mistake.

Libretti argues that doctors, custodians, lawyers, postal workers, politicians, cashiers, bankers, and fast food workers all perform socially necessary labor. While that certainly is true, it is also quite misleading. Doctors, lawyers, politicians, and bankers all add more social value to society than do custodians, postal workers, and fast food workers.

This concept is important for any Marxist analysis of society. You and I may not be very happy about the contributions of most lawyers, politicians, and bankers to society, but the society as a whole has decided their value, through the market. Granted, the market has distortions (there may be just a wee bit too many lawyers in our country), but in general, the majority of U.S. citizens, residents, and visitors have determined the prices these professionals receive for their work. Again, by voting through the market.

Some readers may reply that the capitalist system is completely rigged and that the market does not function as classical economists would have us believe. Yes, I understand that, but in the big picture, again, with significant distortions, the market determines the price each of us receive for our labor. And, more importantly, the whole foundation of Marxist economics is based on the classical interpretation of how supply and demand work.

The classic example is the professional athlete. Many of my left-wing friends bemoan the high salaries that, say, professional baseball players receive. But if we were to lower their salaries, we would only be benefiting the owners of their team who would reap greater profits without doing any of the work. For it is the baseball players we pay to see, not the owners sitting in their luxury suites. It is the baseball players who generate almost all of the social value of professional baseball. If you think professional baseball players receive too much money, then don’t go to baseball games and don’t watch baseball on television. And convince your friends and coworkers to do likewise. Also, remember that the poor baseball player, no matter how well paid for his services, only receives a portion of the social value he adds to society. The owner, who does little or no work, skims off a huge portion of what the player contributes to society for him or herself in the form of profits.

Even under socialism, doctors and lawyers (I am not so sure about politicians and bankers) will receive higher salaries than custodians, postal workers, cashiers, and fast food workers. Lenin talked about the importance of differentiating wages between skilled and unskilled workers. While under socialism there might not be a market economy (although some socialists have argued for having one; see the great debate in the book Market Socialism – The Debate Among Socialists, edited by Bertell Ollman), it will still be important to pay skilled workers more than unskilled workers. 

Even in a fully planned socialist economy we would want to do this for two reasons. First, we want to give workers in the socialist economy an incentive to work hard and to have something to strive for. By creating higher salaries for skilled workers, we give all workers something to strive for, namely, a promotion to a higher-paying job. Second, the more highly skilled workers in a socialist economy make sacrifices to learn their skills, giving up time they could be working and earning money to attend school and learn their skill. This second point is only compounded in a capitalist society where workers give up their time AND boatloads of money to attend school.

The problem in U.S. society is not so much that highly skilled workers earn too much money but more that unskilled workers earn far too little. This is compounded by the extreme weakness of the U.S. safety net provided to low-income individuals.  I think doctors, lawyers, politicians, and bankers who come upon their earnings honestly, should be paid more than less-skilled workers. At the same time, all of us, doctors, postal workers, lawyers, and custodians, must fight to increase wages for less-skilled workers and increase the strength of our safety net.


Laurent Ross
Laurent Ross

Laurent Ross is a professor of philosophy and mathematics at the Technological University of Santiago in the Dominican Republic.