Earning our place, more or less: responsibility’s flexible relationship with desert in socioeconomic standing

Abstract

I use a nationally representative survey to determine whether and which Americans associate personal responsibility with economic desert. Philosophers actively debate this relationship, but social scientists routinely take it for granted, foisting this assumed relationship on the people they study. Respondents, I find, generally want their economic fates to rest on criteria for which they are (or appear) personally responsible, but they express this belief with varying levels of conviction and with two notable exceptions. The first involves specific determinants of economic status. Respondents are divided on whether individuals exert control over their intelligence, creativity, health, and educational pedigree, but they are generally comfortable with the first two affecting peoples’ economic standing. The second concerns who considers personal responsibility morally relevant to economic status. Neoliberals, chiefly concerned with economic growth, are significantly less insistent that individuals be personally responsible for their economic standing. Same for non-white, lower income, and older respondents, and respondents from elite schools, though to a lesser degree. At best, ideal paths to economic success and ruin are moderately associated with personal agency, though many are weakly correlated. So it goes with respondents’ overall correlations between perceived control over economic determinants and the ideal-importance of those factors to economic standing. Researchers must look beyond their preferred philosophical dispositions and investigate justice as it is envisioned and lived by their subjects.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Ironically, public funds covered around 62% of the costs to build the 2012 Republican Convention stadium (Sirota 2012).

  2. 2.

    Economists continue to investigate the private productive value of public infrastructure (e.g., Cohen and Morrison Paul 2004), and they know well the importance of familial background in determining individual economic wellbeing (e.g., Bowles et al. 2005).

  3. 3.

    Conservative Protestant writers often take a three-pronged approach to the question of female economic activity. As practical but secondary matters, they encourage women to consider whether and when employment is beneficial or detrimental to themselves, and to society broadly, but at root is the idea that economic matters are the purview of God and husbands, to whom women submit (Sherkat 2000). Similarly, farmers take into account environmental, legal, and economic factors when apportioning their farmsteads, but even land-hungry farmers will stay their financial interests and not bid on acreage that is “inappropriately” available for purchase on the market (Rogers and Salamon 1983, 545). In both examples you see moral notions of deservingness alongside more apparent, baser-seeming manifestations of self-interest. I say “more apparent” and ”baser-seeming” because I will argue momentarily that, as social institutions, desert and related moral considerations are themselves observed, in part, out of self interest.

  4. 4.

    Fong (2001) is a laudable exception on all counts.

  5. 5.

    I will stick to the singular “basis” when speaking in general, but please keep in mind that there can be multiple desert bases. Similarly, I may write of deserved objects, but am referring to rewards, punishments, treatments, and responsibilities apportioned on specific conditions of worthiness.

  6. 6.

    Lowe (2002, 201–202) addresses both concerns and is especially clear regrading determinism, the debate over whether agency (i.e., the meaningful authorship of actions) is compatible with a naturalistic conception of human beings, or whether it is reducible to event causation. Carnap (1966, 221–222) provides a brief and helpful explanation of indeterminacy’s relationship with free choice and human behavior.

  7. 7.

    “The fundamental idea of retributivism is that responsibility is a moral property of agents that consists in or supervenes upon underlying facts of agency and upon agents’ connections to the world. Such facts uniquely determine the moral desert of the agent [...]” (Kutz 2004, 550).

  8. 8.

    Although usually reserved for discussions of equity, particularly in market settings, ‘merit’ also applies to matters of equality. This is because merit is simply another term for desert basis (or bases), one that usually is meant to convey some quality or characteristic that can be measured in ordinal or continuous terms. An egalitarian may say that everyone deserves an equal share of national wealth, which seems to ignore merit altogether. In fact, the criteria that make someone meritorious in this egalitarian’s eyes are probably (1) being a human, (2) adulthood, and (3) citizenship. These are her desert bases, and they are sufficiently universal that she did not bother to state them. Moreover, they are usually conceived of in dichotomous terms, although you could distinguish between shades of adulthood and citizenship, and even person-hood (Hofstadter 2008). Conversely, what may appear an inclination towards equality may actually be an exercise in equity, wherein “the scrutineer perceive[s] the relevant inputs to be equal” (Reis 1984, 39). See Bower-Bir (2014, chap. 2, 2020a) for an extended discussion.

  9. 9.

    Think of the seemingly innocent conflating of the formerly broad ‘interest’ with the narrower ‘material wellbeing’, which was crucial in the academic, and eventually the social, triumph of capitalism (Hirschman 1977).

  10. 10.

    See Crawford and Ostrom (1995) for an untangling of institutional types. Norms and rules are especially relevant because they have a deontic built into them and thus take on a moral flavor.

  11. 11.

    Alternatively known as “iterative proportional fitting” and “sample-balancing.”

  12. 12.

    Figure 2 shows density curves of perceived control over economic factors and their ideal importance to economic standing plotted on the same axis. The space under each curve defines 100% of all probabilities. The percentage of this area between any two points along the curve coincides with the probability that an observation falls within those bounds.

  13. 13.

    Quadrant assignment is a fundamentally subjective exercise and I invite readers to scrutinize my categorization by interrogating Figs. 1 and 2. There exist statistical measures of consensus and dissension for ordinal data (e.g., Tastle and Wierman 2007). Interested researchers could propose thresholds for such measures, although setting those thresholds would be arbitrary and quadrant assignment would remain a fundamentally subjective act.

  14. 14.

    In Figs. 3 and 4, the darkest tiles are in the rightmost columns of the relevant heatmaps. In Fig. 2, the bulk of the area under the dashed curves are to the right of the center lines in the relevant density curves.

  15. 15.

    In Figs. 3 and 4, the darkest tiles are in the uppermost columns of the relevant heatmaps. In Fig. 2, the bulk of the area under the solid curves are to the right of the center lines in the relevant density curves.

  16. 16.

    Elite university administrators and alumnus do not necessarily consider this a problem. Ivy League schools and Co. (and to a lesser degree, flagship public research universities) have, over decades and by design, positioned themselves as selectors of the “meritorious” national (and state, and industrial) elite (Lemann 1999). This new elite is preferable to the Episcopacy it overthrew in that it can draw ranks from the broader population, but elite selection remains the paramount goal and the self-tasked universities are only so willing to alloy that goal with related but secondary objectives like underclass upward mobility.

  17. 17.

    Mounting evidence, however, indicates that which and what type of college you attend (e.g., liberal arts, large research, public, private, Ivy, etc.) matters little for your longterm success and satisfaction (Gallup and Purdue University 2014).

  18. 18.

    Whether or not you believe there is any public benefit to elite universities depends on whether you consider their anointing and training of a ruling class (see footnote 16) as a beneficial civic function, a threat to democratic rule, or something in between. Moreover, many elite students believe themselves to be preparing for public service and leadership, but soon parlay their educational status into lucrative private ventures (Lemann 1999, chap. 16).

  19. 19.

    To see the effect on the dependent variable of a single unit change in a a normalized, ordinal, independent variable, simply divide that independent variable’s coefficient by the number of possible responses (e.g., 7 in the case of ideology). See Table 3 in Appendix 2 for relevant information about each variable.

  20. 20.

    Future researchers may want to further investigate the effects of school prestige by expanding the Ivy League variable to include closely related schools (e.g., Stanford, University of Chicago, etc.).

  21. 21.

    But suggest is all they do. While the constant term gives you an idea of the average value of the dependent variable when all independent variables are equal to zero—and while zero is a possible and observed value for all predictor variables in these models save age—the constant also serves as a receptacle for any bias otherwise unaccounted for in the model, as specified. While potentially revealing, interpret the constant with caution.

  22. 22.

    Based on previous research, I would conjecture that for most respondents, the “diligent poor” do not deserve their poverty, but neither are their labours enough to win them moral claim to a glamorous economic station, even if they work harder than those (supposedly more meritorious) few who inhabit that enviable realm. See Bower-Bir (2014, chap. 5) for more on the “undeserving poor”.

  23. 23.

    Despite medical procedures that allow for sex reassignment and racial/ethnic modification, matters of sex and race are still largely about how others perceive us and are thus partially outside of our purview. Recall, for instance, the debate over whether citizens and civil rights leaders considered President Obama black, which he considered himself to be (Desmond-Harris 2014). Even if such characteristics were firmly in our control, acting on that control in pursuit of our self-identification often results in new social hostilities, such as those facing transgender and transracial advocates (Tuvel 2017).

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Acknowledgements

Special thanks to Elinor Ostrom, who started me on this path, and to Zach Wendling, who encouraged me to keep walking it.

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Appendices

Appendix 1: Demographic breakdown of survey sample

See Table 2

Table 2 Demographic breakdown of survey sample

Appendix 2: Summary of independent variables

Table 3 summarizes the types and values of independent variables included in my regressions. More complete information pertaining to these variables can be found in the codebook that accompanies the publicly available dataset. Moreover, interested readers may freely download all Stata and R code used in data cleaning and analysis (Bower-Bir 2020b).

Table 3 Summary of independent regression variables

Appendix 3: Additional regression results

See Table 4

Table 4 Regression on the correlation between perceived control over economic factors and their ideal importance to economic standing

Appendix 4: Theoretical grounds for independent variables

In this appendix, I provide the theoretical motivations for including the independent variables I use in my Sect. 4 regression analysis. I also outline my hypotheses surrounding those variables. I pay special attention here to those variables for which I find no statistically significant effect. I give expanded treatment in the main text to variables for which I uncover evidence at traditional levels of statistical significance.

Ideology, political party, religiosity, and theology

I predict that certain philosophical considerations—especially ideological and religious viewpoints—will explain an individual’s association of personal responsibility with economic desert. It is unclear, however, whether Democrats and liberals or their Republican and conservative counterparts will be more likely to restrict their ideal factors of desert to those qualities over which they believe people exert control. On the one hand, personal responsibility is central to Republican and conservative American rhetoric (Schram 2000), such that they may more firmly equate agency with economic desert. Indeed, the Horatio Alger, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality seems particularly ingrained among denizens of America’s right. But so are long-standing, still prevalent, social and economic prejudices based on race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. As such, conservative susceptibility to status-quo biases might lead right-leaning respondents to be more relaxed than liberals on responsibility’s relationship to desert (Jost et al. 2003). Members of America’s left, while certainly not immune to economic and social prejudices, are the traditional promoters of policy safeguards for people whom fate has placed at the unpleasant end of economic bigotry. Democrats and liberals, then, might be specifically looking for desert criteria that allow for individual agency, whereas Republicans and conservatives may be happy to support status quo and even outdated desert criteria.

As for religion, I expect that regular churchgoers and those who identify with a fundamentalist theology will be less attached to the notion of economic agency. Compared to their fair-weather counterparts and those who subscribe to a liberal doctrine, the highly devout and religious fundamentalists are content to judge others based on characteristics beyond personal control, such as gender and sexual preference (Bendroth 1999; Emerson and Hartman 2006; Fulton et al. 1999). These people care less about their personal actions and desires and more about the interventions and dictates of a Higher Power (Pargament et al. 1988).

Findings. As discussed in Sect. 4.2, I found no statistical support for these hypotheses in my regression analysis.

Nonwhite, female, and gay

I expect that members of social and economic outgroups will be more likely to include agency as an integral part of economic desert. I specifically control for whether a respondent is female, non-white, and homosexual. Individual female, non-white, and homosexual respondents may not consider themselves the subject of personal discrimination, but “indeterminate classes of persons” can also be the victims or perpetrators of injustice (Blackstone 1975, 255; Khatchadourian 2006), and each aforementioned demographic has long been the target of economic discrimination. In each of these cases, broad classes of people face economic hurdles because of demographic characteristics over which they either have no control, or where exerting control leads to additional prejudices. Having been so long deprived the ability to dictate their own economic fortunes, I predict their definitions of economic desert will place special emphasis on factors that people can control.

Findings. As discussed in Sect. 4.2, none of my hypotheses pass statistical muster, and the direction of the regression coefficient for nonwhite respondents actually runs in the direction opposite my prediction.

Income and change in socioeconomic class

I expect that the correlation between agency and economic desert will be strongest among respondents who are currently facing either very favorable or very unfavorable economic conditions. Such an association, if uncovered, is likely an internal face-saving measure, an instance of motivated reasoning, whereby the brain converges on judgments that minimize negative and maximize positive affect states (e.g. Westen et al. 2006). The well-to-do want to claim credit—or at least believe themselves responsible—for their high status, and thus see agency as an important factor of economic desert. Believing themselves personally responsible for their success, their ideal economic factors will be those over which people exercise control. The economically worst-off, wanting consciously or unconsciously to eschew responsibility for their destitution, will figure themselves to be the playthings of a cruel and arbitrary system. Believing that they have been denied economic agency and suffered for it, their ideal measure of desert will also feature a prominent role for personal responsibility. Respondents of middling incomes have less to justify. Whether they earned their middle status or lucked into it, their economic position is unremarkable, albeit comfortable.

The relationship I posit between a respondent’s income and correlation coefficient is nonlinear. Specifically, I expect a ‘U’ shape to characterize the relationship, with demand for agency highest at extreme incomes (although not necessarily reaching equally high at the ends). I am able to test for this nonlinearity two ways. In one class of models I treat income as a polynomial. In another class of models I fold the variable for income about the median value, so that high and low incomes are of the same sign. It is possible, however, that rather than exhibiting a quadratic relationship, income has a simple linear relationship such that moving up economic echelons makes you think differently about agency’s ideal relationship with economic desert. A positive linear relationship between desire for agency and income is still suggestive of motivated reasoning, whereby respondents feel the need to justify only what they have, as opposed to the nonlinear scenario where they must also justify what they do not have. Rather than comparing their income to a median value, respondents may be thinking about their income relative to a floor. If so, they would want to attribute high income to themselves, which in turn inclines them to assign a healthy role to agency in their definition of economic desert.

If at work, I hypothesize that this psychological mechanism will also express itself in respondents whose current economic standing is notably better or worse than it was in a prior time. It is not just about what you have, but where you came from to get it. Someone who has ascended the economic ladder will frame her journey as one of will, determination, and personal triumph. Someone who has plummeted in economic standing, the professed victim of misfortune, will be all the more desirous of an economic system that differentiates desert from stochastic factors. Accordingly, I included in my models a variable that measures a respondent’s perceived change in socioeconomic status from childhood to the present, expecting respondents who climbed or fell several socioeconomic rungs over their life to be particularly attuned to agency’s role in economic desert.

Findings. As discussed in Sect. 4.2, only my linear treatment of income produced statistically significant results indicative of motivated reasoning. I ran separate models wherein I treated income as a polynomial and another set of models wherein the variable was folded about the median value to test for the nonlinear relationship I posited above. Incremental Wald and F tests failed to provide support for my prediction of nonlinearity. Regression coefficients and p-values for the other independent variables were largely unchanged regardless of how I modeled and measured income. As such, I have opted to show only the more easily interpretable linear models in Table 1. Moreover, my variable measuring a respondent’s perceived change in socioeconomic status offered little in the way of explanatory power, never achieved statistical significance, and standard tests indicated that its removal from my various models did not result in omitted variable bias. As with my nonlinear measures of income, I have chosen not to display the regression results for this variable, though I do introduce the class-change variable in Table 3.

Education, age, urban, and southern

I account for the potential effect of education, age, and place on an individual’s association of economic desert with agency. As an individual advances in her schooling she is exposed to diverse ideas and people and is socialized to be inquisitive and tolerant. Such characteristics are essential to a fruitful course of study in organizations of higher learning. The higher the degree sought, the more internal these qualities become, and the more likely the respondent is to judge others on merits they can control rather than those they cannot. Conversely, older Americans, and Americans from rural communities and southern states may subscribe to outdated economic norms that emphasize the role of gender and race (and thus de-emphasized the role of agency) in economic desert.

Findings. As discussed in Sect. 4.2, only age has a statistically significant effect on the dependent variable. Age’s regression coefficient has the predicted sign, though its magnitude is rather small.

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Bower-Bir, J.S. Earning our place, more or less: responsibility’s flexible relationship with desert in socioeconomic standing. Econ Polit 38, 131–170 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40888-020-00201-9

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Keywords

  • Justice
  • Morals
  • Social institutions
  • Responsibility
  • Desert
  • Luck

JEL Classificaton

  • B4
  • B41
  • D6
  • D63
  • Z1
  • Z13