How Should Societies Allocate Their Stuff?

One of my favorite novels is The Phoenix Guards by Stephen Brust. Brust writes this novel from the perspective of one Paarfi of Roundwood, a scholar from the fictitious world Brust created. Paarfi begins with a little preface about how he came up with the idea for the historical novel, based on some reading he was doing of a manuscript by another (also, of course, fictitious), author. He writes:

One thing that caught our eye occurred in the sixty-third or sixty-fourth chapter, where mention was made of a certain Tiassa who “declined to discuss the events” leading up to the tragedy.

From this brief phrase, Paarfi/Brust produce a story of magic and adventure that stretches to over 350 pages and bears a singular resemblance to The Three Musketeers but set in a world with sorcery to go with the swords.

The only reason that I mention this is that the rest of this post is a meditation on a recent editorial by Bryan W. Van Norden about free speech, but I’m not going to focus on the editorial per se, but I was struck instead by two sentences in the piece, and my remarks are, like The Phoenix Guards, a lengthy reaction to a short part of the whole. Van Norden writes:

Access to the general public, granted by institutions like television networks, newspapers, magazines, and university lectures, is a finite resource. Justice requires that, like any finite good, institutional access should be apportioned based on merit and on what benefits the community as a whole. (My italics.)

I think it’s worth contemplating this claim for two reasons. First, the question of who gets invited to speak on campus – and ultimately is allowed to speak on campus, which is not always the same thing – is an important and contentious issue that bears close scrutiny. Second, there is a much broader question about how finite goods – which is basically all goods (and services) – should be apportioned, whether because justice requires it or for any other reason.

Let’s take the second piece first.

If it’s right that “institutional access” should be apportioned – just like any other good – based on merit and social welfare, then we should be able to put any other good in that sentence and it should still make sense. (I use “social welfare” as a shorthand for “what benefits society as a whole.”) Here are a few examples.

Like any finite good…

…chocolate bars should be apportioned based on merit and social welfare.

…sexual partners should be apportioned based on merit and social welfare. (I add this only because of Robin Hanson’s recent discussion about this.)

…first class seats on airplanes should be apportioned based on merit and social welfare.

…medical care should be apportioned based on merit and social welfare

…admission to colleges should be apportioned based on merit and social welfare.

.             …kidneys should be apportioned based on merit and social welfare.

To most Western readers, some of these claims probably sound a lot more sensible than others, with the ones toward the bottom sounding more reasonable than the ones toward the top.

Indeed, again for most Westerners, we have a fairly strong sense of how goods (and services; hereafter just “goods”) ought to be apportioned, and far and away the basis is neither merit nor social welfare, but rather prices. Who gets the chocolate bars? Whoever is willing and able to pay for chocolate bars.

The overwhelming majority of goods are indeed allocated this way, and historically arguments have been required to justify deviating from this allocation system. (Karl Marx produced such an argument…) The current medical care system in the U.S. and debates surrounding it is an obvious example. Everyone agrees that medical care is finite; people disagree (strongly) about the right way to allocate it. But examples such as the medical care system illustrate the broader rule: by and large the capitalist West has decided that markets and prices will determine allocations. In cases in which prices aren’t used, the decision has to be made another way. For example, at water fountains, access is decided on a first come, first served basis. For medical care, it is the baroque system of providers, insurers, and the state, all serving up a stew of allocations all but impenetrable to we mortals.

So why does Dr. Van Norden assert that institutional access ought to be apportioned in some other way?

Well, first, I should confess I don’t really know. But second I should lay my cards on the table about how I generally approach the question of how people come to think about how scarce resources ought to be apportioned. A number of years ago, some colleagues and I conducted a study in which a scarce resource – money, in this case – was to be divided between two participants in an online experiment. The two participants were told the rules of the interaction – one person would have to work a bit harder than the other – and then asked how the money that was allocated by the experimenter ought to be divided. Before players knew whether they would have the easier or harder task, they more or less agreed on how to allocate the money. However, after they learned which role they would have, the person who worked harder came to believe that the allocation ought to be based on effort, rather than simply split evenly between the two participants. The player who worked less came to believe an even split was a more sensible idea.

In short, the answer to the question about how scarce resources ought to be allocated depended exquisitely on what allocation regime worked to the best interests of the person making the judgment.

Of course self-interest is not the only determinant of people’s views on allocation regimes. The worlds of psychology and economics are never so simple. But as the expression goes, the race is not always to the swift, but… that’s the way to bet. (Attributions vary.)

And, indeed, in some cases, what matters is not individual differences, but the good or service to be allocated. To return to the example I drew on in my last post, kidney allocation seems to most people to be best done based on factors such as urgency of need and place in line. But we would recoil at the idea that sexual partners should be allocated that way, or indeed by prices. And these views seem to be relatively broadly held.

So the moral of the story to this point is, first, that it doesn’t seem right that people broadly think merit and social welfare should dictate allocation of goods. Second, people in fact differ on how they think we should divvy things up, and at least sometimes they do so in a way that tracks their own interests. Third, intuitions depend on what the good is, exactly.

Which brings us back to the question of institutional access. How should a university allocate its finite speaking slots? The answer to that, to me, depends on what you think the function of those slots are. If they are solely to do with the financial health of the institution, then those making invitations ought to invite those who will maximize that health. This might be entertaining, famous people, who seem to contribute to that end. I recall that Penn had Lin-Manuel Miranda speak at commencement in 2016. I’m as devoted a fan of Hamilton as anyone, but I’m not sure he guided or inspired the Class of 2016.

A different goal of university invitations might have to do with maximizing its educational goals, which would somehow contribute to financial goals as well. In that case, entertaining, famous people might not be as desirable as those who contribute to education and learning.

Might those who invite speakers take merit and social welfare into account? Sure. I’ll have more to say about that down the line, but it doesn’t seem to me that those criteria ought to count as first principles. In the end, it could be that there are no general principles about how to allocate scarce resources or, at least, no principles so general that the answer about how to allocate them is the same answer that one tends to see across the social sciences: it depends.