George Scialabba wrote this essay in Commonweal. It is worth your while to read it and think about it. It might help explain why so many red states are unwilling to fund public schools and prefer to spend public money subsidizing the tuition of children already attending private schools, transferring public funds to private and religious schools.

Unless we have reached the end point of humankind’s moral development, it is pretty certain that the average educated human of the twenty-third century will look back at the average educated human of the twenty-first century and ask incredulously about a considerable number of our most cherished moral and political axioms, “How could they have believed that?” We do it every time a movie like Twelve Years a Slave or a novel like The Handmaid’s Tale or a play like Angels in America or a work of history like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee or of journalism like Michael Harrington’s The Other America prompts us to ask, “How could decent, intelligent people have believed they were entitled to treat other human beings like that?”

So let’s interrogate some of our beliefs about political morality with the eyes of our descendants. Two four-letter words lie at the heart of contemporary America’s public morality: “free” and “fair.” “It’s a free country” is every American’s boast; “I only want a fair shake” is every American’s plea. I doubt I need to remind many Commonweal readers of the more flagrant forms of unfairness in our national life—that one American child in five lives below or near the poverty line; that somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of our economy’s productivity gains since 1980 have gone to the top 10 percent of the income distribution; that the top twenty-five hedge-fund managers earn more than all the nation’s kindergarten teachers combined; that 100,000 Americans will die for lack of health care over the next ten years in order to give a large tax cut to Americans with incomes above a half-million dollars; and so on and so on, down the long and shameful catalog. You all read the newspapers. Our twenty-third-century descendants may ask—they will ask—how we could have tolerated such unfairness; but they won’t ask how we could have believed such inequalities to be fair, because we don’t, most of us, believe them to be fair. Let’s instead consider a different question: whether our present-day ideals of fairness and freedom, even if we lived up to them, would satisfy our descendants.

The average CEO now earns around three hundred times as much as his or her average employee. Many people are dismayed at the contrast with the good old days of the Eisenhower administration, when CEOs earned only thirty times as much as their average employees and paid a far higher tax rate, and yet the country didn’t exactly seem to be going to the dogs. But let’s put aside our reaction to this striking change and ask more generally whether and why some people ought to earn more than others.

The usual answer, I suppose, is that people deserve whatever they get through the operation of supply and demand. The competitive marketplace quantifies the value that one’s efforts have for others. Some people (like doctors) employ vital skills; some people (like baseball players) give exceptional enjoyment; some people (like corporate executives) assume extra responsibilities; some people (like investors) forego luxury consumption. All such people are rewarded in proportion to the satisfaction they furnish others, as measured by others’ willingness to pay, directly or indirectly, for those satisfactions. No payment, no service. As Adam Smith wrote: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

Of course, it’s not that simple. Consider those doctors, baseball players, and executives I used as examples of economic agents who exchange services for money. In fact, they—like you, like me—live with only one foot in a market economy and the other in a gift economy. Any doctor or scientist or athlete or nurse or teacher or carpenter worth her salt feels at least occasionally that she is making a gift of her best efforts; and as with all such gifts, the chief reward is internal: the pleasures of giving and of exercising one’s faculties at their highest pitch.

Nowadays, the gift economy leads a precarious existence, appearing mostly in commencement-day addresses in which graduates are exhorted to follow their dreams, while most of the poor things are worrying frantically about how to pay their debts. The family is a gift economy, and so is culture, including both the arts and the sciences, as well as the shrinking public and nonprofit spheres. Ever since that most fateful of innovations, industrial mass production, has become virtually universal, the market economy has progressively squeezed out the gift economy. In a mature capitalist society, competition grows in both extent and intensity—that is, both between and within economic units. Creativity and generosity are not forbidden but they are no longer self-justifying; they are, on the contrary, subordinated, like all activity in the non-public sphere, to the goal of increasing shareholder value. In the private economy, you can do whatever you like—create beauty, pursue truth, help others—as long as what you like to do makes someone a profit.

I said earlier that people in a market economy are rewarded in proportion to others’ willingness to pay. That willingness to pay is the measure of value in a market economy; and so, to say that a person deserves what she earns is to say that there is at least a rough correspondence between the value of what she produces and the value of what she receives. As Milton Friedman, the high priest of American capitalism, put it: “The ethical principle [underlying] the distribution of income in a free-market society is, ‘To each according to what he and the instruments he owns produces.’”

This notion of desert rests on the assumption that two distinctions can be made rigorously: first, that one person’s input—to any output or outcome at all—can be sharply distinguished from all other inputs; second, that merit can be distinguished from luck—that is, that diligence, good judgment, talent, and other productive qualities and character traits are not fully attributable to biological endowment, early environment, education, and other contingent and therefore morally arbitrary sources. I don’t believe those distinctions hold up.

Let’s take that CEO, and let’s assume we know somehow that she produces thirty or three hundred times as much as her average employee. Causation is a transitive relation, and production is a kind of causation. If A is a cause of B, and B is a cause of C, then A is a cause of C. If A contributes to the production of B, and B contributes to the production of C, then A has contributed to the production of C. Now, who has contributed to the production of our CEO and, therefore, to the production of whatever she produces? Clearly, her parents, spouse, teachers, fellow students, predecessors, colleagues, rivals, and friends, along with all their parents, spouses, teachers, fellow students, predecessors, colleagues, rivals, and friends, along with all those who created the physical, organizational, and cultural resources employed in the production of whatever our CEO produces, along with all their parents, spouses, teachers, fellow students, predecessors, colleagues, rivals, and friends, and, it goes without saying, all their parents, spouses, teachers, and so on through what is, if one wants to insist on the point, an infinite chain of causes.

I do want to insist on the point. Einstein famously wrote: “I have all along been standing on the shoulders of giants.” So has our CEO. Exceptional contributions, whether to art, science, or the Gross National Product, are prepared for by the whole previous development of the field. People who make brilliant, courageous, and illuminating mistakes, which may be indispensable to the ultimate success of a rich and famous artist, scientist, or entrepreneur, are not, in a competitive market system, retrospectively and proportionately rewarded for their contributions, even though Friedman’s definition of justice would seem to require it.

My point is that all production is social production. The productive assets of every age are the joint product of all preceding ages, and all those born into the present are legitimately joint heirs of those assets. And the same arguments for joint rather than individual inheritance of wealth created in the past apply to the distribution of income in the present. If this seems counterintuitive, it is perhaps because there persists a deep and ancient distinction between luck and merit, according to which we deserve praise and reward for our good actions, though not for our good fortune. But what if our good actions are the results of our good fortune?

Philosophy assimilates scientific discoveries slowly. As a result, it is always riddled with archaic concepts and images, survivals from an earlier scientific epoch. One such survival, it seems to me, is the concept of merit. It has always been partly recognized (it is, indeed, implicit in the word “gifted”) that talents and aptitudes come under the heading of luck rather than merit. But the inescapable implication of modern genetics, neurobiology, and psychiatry is that character, no less than talent, is inherited or else formed by very early experiences. Diligence, decisiveness, initiative, coolness under pressure—all these entrepreneurial virtues—are, no less than intellectual or manual abilities, part of one’s natural endowment. And from a strictly moral point of view, no one deserves a reward for being born luckier than someone else. I imagine the twenty-third century will ask: “Why did you make talent and character the measure of an individual’s desert rather than of her obligations? How could you have overlooked what is to us the obvious and elementary principle of fairness: from each according to her abilities, to each according to her need?…”

If we could speak with our nineteenth-century counterparts, we might ask questions like: “Why did you believe it legitimate for one person to own another? Why did women seem to you incapable of self-determination? Why did you consider that political authority could be inherited, for example by monarchs or aristocrats?” If they defended their morality against ours, we might learn a good deal by trying to rebut them and vindicate our own moral intuitions.

Similarly, we should try to imagine which of our current beliefs might seem benighted to our twenty-third century descendants. I suspect they will want to ask us questions like: “Why did you base desert on performance, which can’t be measured and is in any case a function of one’s endowments? After all, no one deserves her endowments. Why did you make that strangely artificial distinction between the political and the economic? It looks as though your only purpose was to prevent economic democracy. Why did you define freedom so narrowly, as the absence of constraints on one person’s right to employ her capital but not on another person’s right to realize her capacities? Why did you assume that contracts between parties with radically unequal resources could be free?”

You should read it all and ask yourself: Why do we tolerate such radical inequalities?