Bryan Caplan  

Redistribution: Blocking the Revenge of the Nerds?

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One of my pet ideas is the Jock/Nerd Theory of History. If you're reading this, you probably got a taste of it during your K-12 education, when your high grades and book smarts somehow failed to put you at the top of the social pyramid. Jocks ruled the school. If the nerds were lucky, they did the jocks' homework in exchange for decent treatment.

According to the Jock/Nerd Theory of History, most historical human societies bore a striking resemblance to K-12 education. In primitive tribes, for instance, the best hunters are on top. If the village brain knows what's good for him, he keeps his mouth shut if the best hunter says something stupid. The rise of civilization gave the nerds a better deal, but as long as almost everyone worked in agriculture, brawn continued to pay well.

But then something amazing happened: Nerds got enough breathing room to develop and implement amazing wealth-producing ideas. The process fed on itself, devaluing physical ability and elevating mental ability. Nerds built the modern world - and won handsome financial rewards in the process. (Yes, I'm painting with broad strokes, but bear with me).

With the Jock/Nerd theory firmly in mind, this sentence takes on a deeper meaning:

We don't take steps to redress inequalities of looks, friends, or sex life.
Notice: For financial success, the main measure where nerds now excel, governments make quite an effort to equalize differences. But on other margins of social success, where many nerds still struggle, laissez-faire prevails.

It's suspicious - and if you combine the Jock/Nerd Theory with some evolutionary psych, it makes sense. When the best hunter in the tribe gets rich, his neighbors will probably ask nicely for a share, if they dare to ask at all. But if the biggest nerd in the tribe gets rich, how long will it take before the jocks show up and warn him that "You'd better share and share alike"?

Punchline: Through the lens of the Jock/Nerd Theory of History, the welfare state doesn't look like a serious effort to "equalize outcomes." It looks more like a serious effort to block the "revenge of the nerds" - to keep them from using their financial success to unseat the jocks on every dimension of social status.

P.S. If any jocks are reading this, please don't hurt me! I'll do your homework!

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COMMENTS (17 to date)
TGGP writes:

I've always been a rather extreme nerd, but I never got the antipathy many of them have to jocks (and I haven't seen the Revenge of the Nerds movies either). I guess I was barely aware of the other people and the social structures around me, so I just didn't care. It would be like worrying that a pack of dogs don't consider me an "alpha" or that World of Warcraft players aren't in awe of my high-levels or loot (I haven't actually played the game, but I believe both are indicators of high-status in it). I think a lot of nerds wish they were jocks instead of nerds and devote way too much time and mental effort stewing over them. In addition, I'd note that nerds are often interested in things other than simple pursuit of wealth. University professors like yourself are often nerds, but that's not where the money is. I think Tom Wolfe's stories have a lot of truth to them. Universities hand out scholarships to academically unqualified jocks because they are likely to grow up and make a lot of money which they will then give to the university.

I suppose with modern plastic surgery we could do more to address inequality in looks, but welfare supporters prefer needs-based aid like food-stamps and medical vouchers. Addressing inequality in friends and sex-life sounds ridiculous. Thanks to Milton Friedman's idea of withholding taxes many people barely realize how much they are robbed until April. Imagine if you were forced to be friends with or screw people you couldn't stand being around. I usually laugh at first world leftists who claim there will be revolt or instability if we don't redistribute to the masses, but I think that's a case where there really would be revolt if such action was taken.

Rue Des Quatre Vents writes:

Paul Graham's essay on high school status hierarchies is required reading here.

Marcus writes:

Actually, while there is a good correlation between intelligence and income that correlation begins to break down when it comes to converting income into wealth. Smart people, as it turns out, aren't as good in the market as their IQ would suggest.

I've read some of your stuff and I really don't think smart people have all that good of a track record. Smart people gave us communism. Communism demonstrates unequivocally that smart people can't run an economy.

Yet, the fast majority of smart college educated individuals that I know seem to think they can. They generally do very poorly in the market also.

I think being smart gives them an unwarranted confidence that causes them to over-reach their actual abilities or over-estimate the accuracy of the conclusions they draw on incomplete information.

John writes:

I have an equally Caplanian theory that posits a Coward/Thug Dichotomy rather than a Jock/Nerd Split. That is, our ancestors must have been, on average, either cowards or thugs to have passed their genetic material on down.

Females may be impressed by brave behavior, but too much bravery will lead, on average, to a shorter life span. The cowards who ran away from danger but survived will be left to spread their genes and the thugs who killed the brave or stole their women will also be around.

Jason Malloy writes:

This is cute, but it's disappointing to see the outdated Hollywood jock/nerd dichotomy taken as fact.[*]

In real life there is no trade-off between smarts and social-skills/brawn. In fact smart people are probably more popular and have better social skills; e.g. Roland Fryer found that high school grades and popularity were positively correlated. People with the highest grades were the most popular. Also Robin Dunbar argues human intelligence evolved in a Machiavellian social skills arms race.

"Nerds" aren't simply intelligent people, but intelligent people with social skill deficits. In history (and today) smart men with good social skills were the leaders.

[*] This whole fictional view of school is sent-up well by Conan O'Brien in The Simpsons where Homer goes to college. All of Homer's ideas about college are from the terrible 1980s movies we see him watching earlier in the episode (i.e. "School of Hard Knockers"): "Marge, try to understand. There are two kinds of college students: jocks and nerds. As a jock, it is my duty to give nerds a hard time."

Jason Malloy writes:

Also, contra Tyler, the same economic inequality folks do in fact tend to think very differently about inequality of looks. (see e.g. The Beauty Myth) For one, it is common to deny that inequality of looks even exist, or, more accurately, to believe that such inequality is socially constructed (that is that corporations invent mythical concerns so people will buy their products). Good looking people are simply the people that were rich enough to buy all the products that people have been brain-washed to think improve looks. (and I suppose its the same for people that have more sex and more friends as well - they just got more $$)

So it isn't that they ignore these issues, they just integrate them into their pet anti-Capitalist concerns. Once economic parity is achieved, all the other social inequalities, they believe, will fall with it.

Matt writes:

To become rich requires that you submit to the market and serve the customer. Think of artists who refuse to "sell out". The same thing applies in many fields, especially stock trading. If you are intelligent and willing to submit, you can get very far. I think the frustrated genius becomes that way because he secretly values fame and riches more than truth, and he hates that he cannot be both "right" and rich.

And the reason a lot of people who aren't super smart succeed is because they just focus on one or two small things that work and they do it well, while the smart are going in too many directions or getting too cute, trying to outsmart the customer.

Jason Briggeman writes:

It's just cheaper to redistribute material goods; you can't as well or as easily redistribute looks, friends, or sex. Tangible items can be itemized, divided, seized; so can women and "friends", I suppose, but not nearly as easily, and it's quite difficult to make the ensuing relationships mean anything. Politically, you can't make as reasonable a "need" claim about those items as you can about material goods like food, clothing, shelter, the car you need to commute to your job, and so forth.

Paul Graham required reading: agreed.

Nerds == Financial success. Strongly disagree. Nerds are good at creating things, not necessarily making money from their creations. The classic example is Woz. Where would he have been without Jobs? He really doesn't care about money, from what I've read about him. Same thing goes for other guys like Linus Torvalds or Andrew Tridgell.

Dr. T writes:

I agree with your theory, except that it isn't just the best hunters/top jocks demanding financial distribution, it's all the persons who identified with or sucked up to the best hunters/top jocks. These wannabes comprise a large proportion of our adult citizens.

Bruce G Charlton writes:

Brilliant posting from BC!

Ernest Gellner's pointed out that intellectuals (=nerds) in traditional, pre-modern societies were tolerated only when they were outsiders who were denied the hereditary privileges of the warrior ruling class: they were slaves (Roman), eunuchs (Islam), celibate (Medieval Christianity), Jews (Medival Christianity), Mandarins (China, selected by examinations, not on hereditary grounds).

The common factor was that intellectuals could not hand on their status to their offspring.

Maybe the High School equivalent is that nerds are tolerated by Jocks but only so long as they do not compete for the girls?

Brad Hutchings writes:

Your theory needs to incorporate some sense of class mobility. Also, you don't account for the losers, or as we used to call them, "the trogs". You know, the ones who would actually come to class baked.

I can think of several people that went from close to nerdy to athlete/popular over the course of high school. I remember one conversion from jock to nerd. And I saw plenty of nerds and jocks turn into plain old losers.

hmm.... writes:

This post is just silly. First, are the majority of top wage earners also the most intelligent? No. So, the whole theory breaks down there. (All you have to remember is that the MLB minimum salary would put every single MLB player in the top few percent of wage earners. And that's only ONE SPORT. They're the definition of jocks.)
And, even if you reply that ON AVERAGE the wealthiest people are more intelligent, that's far different from saying that they're the MOST intelligent. Plus, there's mountains of research (particularly cross-national research) that casts IQ tests in a less-than-flattering light empirically.

Buzzcut writes:

Income differs from beauty, or athletic performance, in that income is distributed via the power law, while beauty and athletic performance is distributed via the bell curve.

Thus, for a person of average beauty, there are very few people that are much, much more beautiful (or ugly) than himself.

But for a person with average income, there are LOTS of people that have MUCH, MUCH more money.

Essentially, there is no upper bound to income. There is an upper bound for beauty.

I speculate that people are more sensitive to inequality of things that are distributed by the power law.

TGGP writes:

hmmm...: Please provide a cite for you "mountains of research".

rmark writes:

I just remember the football team doing as many drugs as the freaks, but it was the freaks the administration checked up on.

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