Redistribution of Grades

Andrew Breitbart has posted a video (HT: Phil Arena) showing liberal, pro-income-redistribution students rejecting out of hand the concept of redistributing grade point averages (GPAs) from the best-performing students to those less fortunate, saying things like “It’s not fair” and “I worked for my grades.” Does their position constitute hypocrisy, and does this experiment show that something like the libertarian conception of property rights (“from each as she chooses, to each as she is chosen”) is somehow more “natural” to us humans? One argument might go something like this: Being committed to income redistribution requires being committed to redistribution of grades. Being committed to redistribution of grades is unlikely to be justified. Therefore, being committed to income redistribution is unlikely to be justified.

To put some flesh onto the problem, it’s useful to narrow down possible justifications for redistribution, so I’ll focus on John Rawls’ Difference Principle, which states that all inequalities in a society must work to the advantage of the representative least well off person in that society. In other words, the baseline assumption should be perfect equality, and deviations from equality (in income, wealth, prestige, and anything that might constitute “social bases of self-respect”) have to be justified by their benefit to all. One common objection (see, e.g., Lomasky’s Persons, Rights, and the Moral Community) to Rawls’ Difference Principle is that it would require the more physically attractive or talented to compensate the less attractive or talented. Rawls’ prior Equality Liberty Principle potentially prohibits actual redistribution of body parts, but Rawls is certainly open to redistribution of wealth from those who enjoy psychic benefits from their natural abilities and characteristics to those who are less well off psychically. There is nothing in Rawls’ Difference Principle that limits unjust inequalities to uncompensated financial inequalities.

Breitbart’s experiment seems to me to raise similar concerns. One’s intelligence and hard work may yield financial rewards, but they also yield psychic benefits. Obtaining a high GPA confers prestige, status, and a greater sense of self-esteem. No one “deserves” intelligence or a penchant for hard work, since these are things we’re either born or raised with. So should GPAs be redistributed? One might object on practical grounds. Redistribution of GPAs might discourage student effort (but redistribution of income also discourages worker effort). Redistribution of GPAs might interfere with correct productivity assessments in the marketplace (but so might redistribution of income, since it is always accomplished through a highly complex tax code). Even if these practical objections decide us against redistributing grades, if we are committed to the Difference Principle, we must remain in principle committed to compensating those who earn lower GPAs for their “unfair” disadvantages (perhaps financially). If we find this conclusion absurd, then so must we find the Difference Principle.

6 thoughts on “Redistribution of Grades

  1. The most basic reason for these students’, objection to grades redistribution is, of course, pure selfishness. They stand to benefit from income redistribution and therefore support it, whereas they stand to lose from grade redistribution and therefore oppose it. Although this will not hold true for every single redistributionist (as I’m certain you’ll find some students who wouldn’t mind redistributing their good grades for the greater good of establishing a workers’ paradise like North Korea), it’s a pretty good rule of thumb.

  2. I’m not trying to imply that the students discussed in the article actually thought this out, but consider this:

    Let’s start with the premise that redistribution of both grades and income is unfair. However, receiving grades you haven’t earned doesn’t really help you. It won’t make you feel better about yourself since you know you didn’t earn the grades, and you can’t eat grades nor exchange them for goods or services. It could theoretically get you into a better college, but unless the redistribution continued, you would not be very successful, and if the redistribution of grades did continue, it would devalue the whole university system.

    On the other hand, if you give someone money they didn’t earn, they can eat. Sure it’s not fair to give someone money they didn’t earn, but if keeps portions of a population alive and productive I think that’s probably, on balance, a good thing even if it’s not fair.

    Therefore, I don’t think that being in favor of some level of income redistribution necessarily means that one must support all other forms of redistribution.

    (note: this is not a comment on the structure of any existing redistribution scheme, it’s a hypothetical.)

    1. That’s a clever argument, and a persuasive one. But it would tell us only that we shouldn’t redistribute GPA itself – it doesn’t tell us that we shouldn’t redistribute income to those with lower GPAs. After all, a little cash can assuage the sting of feeling stupid when I open my report card!

    2. I would add that the higher your GPA, the more likely you are to get a high-paying job. GPA is not necessarily correlated with ability, however: one can have a low GPA and do a better job in the workforce than a person with a high GPA. In this sense, GPA is more than a measure of qualification: it’s a rite of passage. To some who are not, shall we say, academically inclined, but nonetheless are capable of performing the duties of a typical day job, grade redistribution may actually give them the opportunity to get a job that otherwise would have been technically closed off to them. Like income redistribution, this would occur to the detriment of students whose grades are redistributed. In fact, another real world correlation can be made between inflation, which favors those who get the inflated money at the expense of those who don’t get it or need it, and grade inflation, which works similarly. In both cases, those who have earned something see their rewards transferred, in part, to others.

  3. Wouldn’t the difference principle also imply that we should give money to smokers. By smoking, people lower their expected lifetime income and lifetime utility significantly. They should be compensated, no?

    1. True! Although Rawls might say that by enjoying the smoking, they are already compensated. But that would be a remarkably antipaternalist thing for a progressive to say.

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