A properly functioning free market does not reward people based on merit; it rewards people based on output. If someone produces goods or provides services that are valued by others, then she will be rewarded for it. Perhaps this comes easily to her, or perhaps it’s difficult. There are some born with innate talents while others struggle to learn viable skills. Still others are born into propitious circumstances that make success easier, while others begin life in situations that hinder their future success.
If merit comes from striving, effort, or overcoming adversity, then a free market works to diminish the amount of meritorious action in order to increase productivity. Efficiency is preferred over toil. If holes need to be dug, then they should be dug in the most efficient manner possible, not in the most meritorious manner. Digging a hole is hard work, and digging a hole with only one arm is even harder work, but it would be odd if we determined the value of hole-digging based on these considerations.
Wealth is not a sign of merit, and poverty is not a sign of failure. As I’ve argued before, we should champion the free market as a system where productivity allows people to be artists, record store clerks, or even bums. We can personally praise or chastise anyone for their life-choices and values, but we should not argue that the market is there to do it for us.