Bryan Caplan  

Ethics and IQ

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I claim that IQ research makes libertarian policy conclusions more compelling, but Tyler Cowen isn't convinced:

When Bryan says "IQ matters a great deal" I hear "inelastic factors of production." IQ won't change much in the short run, and perhaps IQ -- rather than effort or environment -- accounts for more of good (and bad) outcomes than we used to think. But we all know that inelastic factors of production can be taxed and subsidized without much deadweight loss. More generally, the belief that value comes from inelastic factors will not favor markets or liberty. The historical correlation between IQ research and anti-egalitarian social engineering is not a complete accident.

Yes IQ matters for policy, but I see no particular reason why libertarians should welcome this conclusion. Libertarian philosophy does better under the traditional story of the self-made man.

To clarify our disagreement, we need to distinguish between two kinds of un-libertarian policies: government "investments in people," and simple redistribution. My original argument basically targeted the former. Tyler's doubt, however, focuses on the latter.

Is he right about redistribution? If, like me, you thought that labor supply was highly inelastic long before you studied IQ, then recognizing that IQ is also inelastic should not change your estimates of the deadweight costs of redistribution. The plain fact is the moderate redistribution is not economically devastating, whether or not you think IQ matters.

But more importantly, IQ research seriously undermines the moral case for redistribution. One of our most basic moral intuitions is that people who succeed because of their personal ability deserve what they have. "He won because he was the best" has a lot more moral authority than "He won because he got lucky." Indeed, "He won because he was the best," is practically as compelling as "He won because he worked the hardest." IQ research confirms that capitalism is, as advertised, a meritocracy.

Think of it this way: Why does IQ research make leftists so angry? Well, the strongest argument for redistributing Olympic medals is that the winners cheated, and aren't really better athletes than the losers. Similarly, the strongest argument for redistributing wealth is that the winners cheated, and aren't really more economically productive than the losers. It isn't impossible to defend redistribution after you admit that people are rich because they are smart. But it is a lot harder.


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The author at South(west)paw in a related article titled caplan vs. loewenstein re: psychology & policy writes:
    Here’s a post by Bryan Caplan, an economics professor at George Mason University that argues that psychology research supports the libertarian worldview. "But more importantly, IQ research seriously undermines the moral case for redistribution. One o... [Tracked on October 6, 2005 12:45 PM]
COMMENTS (36 to date)
Matt McIntosh writes:

Unfortunately, they'd just switch to a bullsh!t Rawlsian argument that you don't deserve your earnings because you got your good genes completely by luck. It's an easily dismantled argument (and Will Wilkinson in fact did dismantle it when Matt "I heart coercion" Yglesias made it last year), but people will suspend critical thinking for any BS story that makes them feel entitled to something.

dearieme writes:

"It isn't impossible to defend redistribution after....": there's a game here - fill in the dots. For instance "It isn't impossible to defend redistribution after people have found out how you treated your own children, but it's pretty difficult."

rakehell writes:

Since I don't have much money, I defer to the expert opinion of Paris Hilton on these matters....

Randy writes:

People aren't rich because they are smart. They are rich because they have created something of great value to someone else - often, but not always, because they are smart.

The moral argument for redistribution is that some have only a limited ability to create anything of value to someone else, but we "should" care about them anyway.

Aaron Chalfin writes:

To be fair, I think IQ research may, in fact, undermine the case for libertarian polciies to some degree. While many people might agree that those who have great ability deserve to succeed, I think there is an implicit understanding that success is, to a large extent, determined by factors other than those which are inherited and thus beyond our control. If it turns out that IQ drives success more than say, ambition or hard work, I think popular support for free market support will be undermined. In the extreme case, do you believe most people would agree that it is fair for a lazy genius to earn many times more than an extremely hard working individual who is not that bright?

Randy writes:

I wonder what it must be like to not feel confident. To not feel that I can solve any problem by an application of will. How would I reason, if my reasons were shaped by a need to be taken care of?

Would it be wise to create public policy on the basis of such reasoning? - or wise to ignore it?

eric writes:

Most hierarchies are pyramids and so the vast majority of people are dissatisfied, wishing they were higher up. Demagogues try to patronize the masses with the story that the whole structure is somehow `wrong'. Under a different system, a better system, the demagogue insists, you would be higher in status.

A pure meritocracy is just too ruthless in its realism to please a majority of people given we do value status. Further, a faint implication that an attained low station in life has been somewhat inevitable through genetic endowment is too depressing for most people to contemplate.

This suggests pure metitocracies are not an equilibrium

Randy writes:

Eric,

Re; "...too depressing for most people to contemplate."

I'm with you except on the word "most". I don't think most people have great difficulty in dealing with their station in life, because most are capable of reasoning outside of a "needs" paradigm. But as I touched on in my post above, some are not. And to these, the idea of a pure meritocracy would be nothing less than threatening.

Aaron Chalfin writes:

I agree with the suggestion that most people in the US are content with their respective stations in life. But I believe this is, in large part, due to the common perception that most of us are given an opportunity to succeed. If the perception becomes that one is doomed to mediocrity from the very beginning on the basis of heritable factors, meritocracy is probably unsustainable.

What binds together popular support for meritocracy is that there is a disconnect between heritable factors and success. Ingenuity, ambition, luck and a host of factors obscure our ability to project the winners and losers a priori.

Ultimately technology may render this discussion irrelevant. Once it becomes feasible to engineer high-IQ human beings, it becomes inevitable that such technology will be used. And people will ultimately demand that the technology be doled out in an egalitarian fashion.

Randy writes:

Aaron,

Re; the ability to engineer high IQ human beings.

The effect is already visible in the accumulation of wealth at the high IQ end of the spectrum. It has not required engineering and has been happening throughout human history. But I suspect that it has reached a climax. My reasoning is that in the past, intelligence has usually been coupled with aggression, making it difficult to separate the benefits of intelligence from the benefits of aggression (e.g., the conquest of the Americas). But in the last few decades, due to the shock of two great wars which were the direct result of combining intelligence and aggression, we have made a concerted effort to separate the two. Having studied a bit of history, I'm betting on aggression to win the day.

Randy writes:

P.S. So why can't we control our borders? Because we're too intelligent to respond to aggression with aggression. Or more simply stated, we haven't got the guts to do it.

Dave writes:
rakehell: "Since I don't have much money, I defer to the expert opinion of Paris Hilton on these matters...."
Randy: "People aren't rich because they are smart. They are rich because they have created something of great value to someone else - often, but not always, because they are smart."

Or because someone else created something of great value and chose to give it to the receipient, which is a prefectly just thing to do whatever we think of the "worthiness" of the recipient - it's their money to do with as they please.

Randy writes:

Dave - I agree.

Dog of Justice writes:

Ultimately technology may render this discussion irrelevant. Once it becomes feasible to engineer high-IQ human beings, it becomes inevitable that such technology will be used. And people will ultimately demand that the technology be doled out in an egalitarian fashion.

That's the future I am hoping for. However, the complete lack of liberal willingness to acknowledge the existence of heritable IQ differences scares me. I'm trying to optimize the same utility function they are, but as soon as I mention that genetic engineering will most likely have to be part of the solution to racial inequality, they're conditioned to treat me as a paleolithic bigot.

With the way things are going, with even a hint of a suggestion that genetics may relate to differing racial crime rates resulting in a massive media outcry, there is a real risk of genetic engineering becoming a force of unspeakable inequality by default (that's the expected free market outcome -- those able to afford genetic engineering for their children bootstrap them exponentially and establish an effective "monopoly" over the rest of the humanity). Liberals seriously need to wake up and realize they're actively destroying the future they should be aiming for. They need to work to ensure an egalitarian outcome before they lose the power to achieve one.

Randy writes:

Dog,

That was one scary post - with all that talk about "unspeakable inequality" and the "need to ensure an egalitarian outcome".

There are only two practical(?) ways to engineer equality. One is to bring the the above average down to the average. The other is to eliminate the below average. Both are an incredible insult to human dignity and freedom. If you believe in such things as good and evil, then the idea of equality can only have sprung from evil. Not from a mind that sees an inherent value in all, but from a mind which seeks to dominate all.

utro writes:

eric said:

Most hierarchies are pyramids and so the vast majority of people are dissatisfied, wishing they were higher up. Demagogues try to patronize the masses with the story that the whole structure is somehow `wrong'. Under a different system, a better system, the demagogue insists, you would be higher in status.

I wonder if the scarier point is that unequal pyramids based on power and status have been MORE stable over time than democracies. We forgot that liberal democracy is a very recent experiment and that in the long span of human history, monarchies of all sorts have had an easier time maintaining themselves than semi-liberal societies.

Demagogues have been most successful in democratic nations or in non-democratic nations that were trying to liberalize. There aren't many examples of successful revolutions in truly oppressive, truly unequal tyrannies and monarchies.

No idea how IQ plays into this, but it's not clear that an unequal pyramid held together by coercion wouldn't be more stable than a partially meritocratic democracy.

More nightmares for the future.

Dog of Justice writes:

There are only two practical(?) ways to engineer equality. One is to bring the the above average down to the average. The other is to eliminate the below average. Both are an incredible insult to human dignity and freedom. If you believe in such things as good and evil, then the idea of equality can only have sprung from evil. Not from a mind that sees an inherent value in all, but from a mind which seeks to dominate all.

If you speak of achieving equality NOW, you are correct -- the only ways we have to achieve it are evil, thus the goal must be rejected.

I thought it was clear that I was referring to a future where we have the technical capability to give all babies the intelligence-enhancing genes (as well as various other beneficial genes) currently possessed only by some.

Such a service would be very valuable, and command a high price. The free market would result in the poor being unable to afford it. The result would be that their descendants would be a much greater comparative disadvantage compared to the rest of the population, and thus it's likely they can't afford the service either... a permanent genetic underclass.

This is the outcome I am opposing. I think it won't be prohibitively costly to ensure everyone has access to the service, and that the investment would be worth it.

eric writes:

Brian Caplan: "It isn't impossible to defend redistribution after you admit that people are rich because they are smart. But it is a lot harder."

I would say things like effort, ability, even IQ, are positively related to income and wealth, the more so the more meritocratic the society. But it's all probabilistic. We have to avoid deterministic statements at all times to avoid the annoying "some rich are lucky and stupid" or "some poor are hard-working and smart" statement that many use to justify egalitarianism.

Randy writes:

Dog,

Re; ...The free market would result in the poor being unable to afford it. The result would be that their descendants would be a much greater comparative disadvantage compared to the rest of the population...

The rich are already socially engineering their children. I really don't have a problem with them if they want to spend huge sums to genetically engineer them as well, because I don't see that the social engineering is working out particularly well. They seem to be designing out aggression - and that is a huge mistake. Who owns LA? The socially engineered wealthy? Or the immigrant gangs? There are already large parts of that city the cops won't go to. Soon it will be the entire city. You see, I'm not really worried about the fate of the underclass. From what I can see, they are winning.

Dog of Justice writes:

The rich are already socially engineering their children. I really don't have a problem with them if they want to spend huge sums to genetically engineer them as well, because I don't see that the social engineering is working out particularly well. They seem to be designing out aggression - and that is a huge mistake. Who owns LA? The socially engineered wealthy? Or the immigrant gangs? There are already large parts of that city the cops won't go to. Soon it will be the entire city. You see, I'm not really worried about the fate of the underclass. From what I can see, they are winning.

You do have an interesting point about aggression.

That said, you refer to the second great war. I agree that it was mostly responsible for the decoupling of intelligence and aggression observed today. However, I also recall that a similar decoupling was attempted after the first great war. Many of Hitler's great victories were before September 1939. The war began when enough intelligent people finally ran out of patience. And they managed to win, despite being scientifically behind Germany initially. (Of course, it helped that Hitler forced out many of his best scientists.)

The underclass's relative power is not anywhere near what Nazi Germany's was.

Furthermore, the trend you describe is not occurring in East Asia to my knowledge. The last thing I want to see is a democratic America abdicating to an autocratic China. (Abdicating to a democratic China, I could live with; on the other hand, that's mostly because I'm ethnically Chinese.) If the underclass does "win" in America, it will be an awfully hollow victory in the long run.

So, I'm not sure it's wise to not worry about the fate of the underclass.

John Thacker writes:

Is it a lot harder? I think you would agree that it's easier to defend redistribution in an aristocratic system where an accident of birth determines your wealth than in a system where anyone of any birth can rise via hard work.

If IQ is mostly inherited and an accident of birth, can't people argue that, even if people win because they deserve it, that the situation is closer to the former than the latter?

John S Bolton writes:

Eric has paraphrased quite closely the words used in the initial paragraphs of W D Hamilton's Review of Dysgenics, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics. Hamilton may have misled by saying demagogue, when the danger is more that offcials and scholars will agitate each other, in the mad scramble for power, where there are scarcely to be found honest arguments, but almost all propaganda.

John S Bolton writes:

Is there a market for egalitarian theories in the absence of government schools, or of established religions in process of turning into something like public schools? Agitators have a vocation because people, especially towards the low end of IQ, wealth and status may tend toward passivity and fatalism. The most dissatisfied with the hierarchy of productiveness are not the poor, but a class of newly college educated, but peculiarly undeserving people; in that their specializations have no market demand to speak of. Sowell writes about the special propensity for divisive and socialistic agitation from this group.

Randy writes:

Dog,

Re; "If the underclass does "win" in America, it will be an awfully hollow victory in the long run.

It does depend on how you define a win. I'm thinking in terms of who actually owns the country. The assumption of the original post seems to be that the wealthy (intelligent) own the country. But an alternate method is to ask who pays the taxes and who benefits from those taxes, in other words, who has the power? In most of the western world, the rich pay the taxes and the middle class benefits. Who's working the long hours? - the rich. What does it take to get taxes raised? - a simple threat of violence. The middle class allows the rich to live their lives of privilege only so long as they keep working for our benefit. It is possible that the rich could turn this around by combining their intelligence with aggression. Throughout history, small groups of violent men have dominated large populations (The Aryans in India, the Mongols in China). This is especially effective when the violence is complemented by superior intelligence (the Greeks, Romans, and Europeans). But populations are much greater now, and those populations are organized. It is no longer the many who fear a violent few, it is the few who fear the violent many. Numbers equals power. So let the rich genetically engineer their children - turn them into productive machines. It is in our best interest.

Now, is this a "hollow win"? It depends on whether or not one believes in the possibility of equality. Specifically, that we can all be equally rich. I don't believe this. So I don't see this as a hollow win. I see it as the only possible win in this best of all possible worlds.

eric writes:

John Bolton: Good catch. I did read Hamilton's review, and pulled that riff from my recollection. The sincerest form of flattery.

Steve Sailer writes:

IQ realism argues for what I call "libertarianism in one country."

Since we don't live in Lake Wobegon, half of our fellow citizens have IQs below average. The problem with redistribution, however, is that it is morally undermining. What's best for the left half of the bell curve is that they earn a decent living through their own hard work. Traditionally in the U.S., that has been less hard than in any other country in the world due to the long term scarcity of labor in the New World, but the failure to control the borders is increasingly making that impossible. There are five billion people who live in countries with lower per capita average GDPs than Mexico! Open borders libertarianism condemns the left half of our bell curve of fellow citizens to penury, but libertarianism in one country allows them to make it on their own.

Randy writes:

Damn this is an interesting topic!

Steve,

Re; "What's best for the left half of the bell curve is that they earn a decent living through their own hard work."

First, why do we assume that? Because my personal experience is that what is best would be obtaining a decent living without having to work at all.

Second, the last I checked, only 49% of Americans work. If half the population is supporting the other half, it seems to me that what would be best is to keep the best qualified on the job, while applying the most efficient method of redistribution to the other half. My first choice of efficient methods would be family, but where the family breaks down, I don't see that forcefully employing the incompetent is necessarily the most efficient method of redistribution.

As for illegal immigration. This only poses a threat if we continue to give welfare benefits to illegals. We will have to choose, and soon, because while 49% may be willing to support 51%, it is unlikely that 40% will stand for supporting 60%.

Dog of Justice writes:

Now, is this a "hollow win"? It depends on whether or not one believes in the possibility of equality. Specifically, that we can all be equally rich. I don't believe this. So I don't see this as a hollow win. I see it as the only possible win in this best of all possible worlds.

Oh, I'm not rooting for everyone being equally rich. One of the big lessons of the 20th century is the futility of that goal. I'm just asking for a better biological approximation of equality of opportunity. Someone with an IQ of 120 who takes it easy and doesn't achieve very much economic success is much less likely to resent capitalism than someone with an IQ of 80 who tries rather hard and still can't get far.

The reason I called the underclass "victory" a "hollow win" is because that society would be economically (and thus eventually militarily) outcompeted by Asian countries in the long run. The only threat of violence that'll work against them is the nuclear one, and that can be retaliated...

Again, I think the underclass's relative power is much, much lower than you seem to think it is, so I don't think the above is relevant. But if you're right, you should be very concerned about the consequences.

Randy writes:

Honestly Dog, I think my train of thought jumped the tracks about 10 posts back. This is all getting very SciFi. It has been fun though.

P.S It won't surprise me if China does eventually become more powerful than the US.

Steve Sailer writes:

I wrote: "What's best for the left half of the bell curve is that they earn a decent living through their own hard work."

Randy replies: "First, why do we assume that? Because my personal experience is that what is best would be obtaining a decent living without having to work at all."

We have plenty of historical experience with this, such as in the 1960s when we made adequate welfare available to single mothers, allowing them to support their boyfriends without the men holding jobs. The crime, drug addiction, and illegitimacy rates shot upward.

Loafing is not what's best for your better self, your family, or your society. Not working rots men, leading them into dead end lives that cost the rest of us in ravaged cities and degraded cultures.

Illegal immigration reduces the wages available for low skill jobs, inducing lots of American citizens to forgo work, with bad effects for all of us.

John S Bolton writes:

There really isn't any moral case for redistribution; just propaganda that involves ignoring the aggression that is used to increase the redistribution. "Libertarianism in one country" or 'capitalism in one country' is advantageous insofar as it limits the increase in aggression on the net taxpayer. There needs to be strong moral indignation against the increase in this sort of aggression. Saying that the rich win because they're better is perhaps helpful, but not strictly necessary. There is no great advantage in saying that Americans should be richer throughout the scale of IQ and other factors, just because they're Americans. There has to be specific disapproval of the increase in net public subsidy arising from coercion used on the net taxpayer. Raising median income in the welfare society has advantages, for bringing a crucial few percentiles over the margin into net taxpayer status.

I confess that I'm flummoxed by the effort some seem to drawn to make to derive political policies from IQ research. I mean, none of it necessarily follows. You could derive your way from IQ research to arguing for an aristocratic society (the smartest breed with the best), a Marxist society (the smart ought to rule everyone else), or a free-market society (the smartest will have a better chance).

Taking IQ questions into account certainly seems like a worthwhile thing to do if you're musing about political policies, god knows. But tons of things need to be taken into account: a country's history, its makeup, its mood, its capabilities, its neighbors, at a minimum. A policy that might make sense for one country might not for another; a policy that might make sense for one country at one time might not make sense at another time. OK, the Golden Rule is a general good guide. But what putting it into operation in a specific case might mean is totally up for debate, no?

And besides, there are practical questions. Let's say that policies that make a country into more of an IQ meritocracy are put in place. Let's say that breeds resentment and opens up opportunities for demogogues. Let's say that leads to popular reactions against those at the top of the heap and agitation to change policies.

In other words, it seems possible that a pure IQ meritocracy, like a pure free market, might very well lead (and very quickly) to its own disruption. So it might make sense -- not so much as a moral matter but as a practical one -- to do some sugar-coating, some sandpapering of rough edges, some scattering-around of pillows. Why kill the goose that lays the golden eggs? But is the government the best vehicle for doing the sugar-coating? Well, that depends upon the specific case, no?

Carter Lo writes:

As far as IQ goes- The world, America, is way too stereotipical, classist, racist and even ignorant to correctly identify what an IQ tested
to be "smart" person should be truly made of.
A person that has historically known agriculture for survival wont fit anywhere into this argument, especially if it only for subsistency.
And markets were created for different brain patterns of people to succeed in. The whole notion of meritocracy is tainted- look at this economy and where and how it got its head start. Im sure the founding fathers had "high IQs"-right?
when it comes down to it all conspicuous consumption is not really a high IQ matter, but it may very well be the single idea that runs our whole economy- 500 hundred years strong. The idea that people are going to focus more on NOT feeding themselves, sheltering themselves, rearing their young, and just surving is a matter of self destruction anyways. I guess it takes a person of high IQ to figure that the norms of this society and economy is designed to send us straight to the "hell" we have created for ourselves to beleive in.

R.A. Leeper writes:

Ask not what justifies A's having more than B; ask what justifies taking for B some of what A has. Equality is as arbitrary a baseline as the status quo (and requires no force to impose, but that's a different and non-dispositive point).

John S Bolton writes:

The burden of proof is on the egalitarian to show why we need to force things away from the unequal result. Leaving out of acount the fact that aggression is needed to continually reequalize, like the repartitional commune of serfly times and places, still allows politics to be taken down to the level of ethical discourse. In ethics discussion there is resentment of a demand for rational support of claims which are made. It shouldn't still be that way; but if politics be the ethics of aggression, and aggression is needed to equalize, the subject is politics, where the burden of proof is the more clearly upon one who proposes that we increase the level of aggression in society.

osmosis writes:

"And markets were created for different brain patterns of people to succeed in. The whole notion of meritocracy is tainted- look at this economy and where and how it got its head start. Im sure the founding fathers had "high IQs"-right?

These markets were "created" for different brain patterns? What are brain patterns? Do brain patterns include intelligence? Why are some peoples' "brain patterns" malleable and quick, others slow. What causes different "brain patterns?" The brains themselves? If not, why not? Markets created by who? Why? Where? Which came first, the "brain pattern" or the market? What different types of people?

In the 19th c. the Irish were considered so different as to be un-assimilatable. Later on it was Jews, Slavs, Italians, Chinese, Japanese, Cambodians. All were considered to have come from very different worlds from that of the industrial U.S., and so they did. Their peasant/ghetto/fishing village market economies resembled 19th and 20th century modern American very little. Exposed to modern education and opportunities, their brain patterns all managed to express average or better iq.
If by brain patterns, you include cognitive ability, your Jared Taylor fuzzy-speak may actually mean something.

Calling it "racist" or "classest" because you don't like the results of intelligence testing is not going to change the facts. We are so deeply invested in egalitarian policy that we would like to take nature itself to court because it did not endow everyone with the same qualities.

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