Bryan Caplan  

Relieving the Extreme Tension in Caplanian Thought

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Tyler Cowen says he's found "the extreme tension in Caplanian thought":
Bryan loves to stress the heritability of intelligence, income, and even life expectancy, among other variables.  But how can your parents be your fault?

This is a fundamental tension in Caplanian thought, namely the desire to promote intuitions of both meritocracy/desert and facts about heritability.  Bryan can't have it both ways.

I say this "tension" is illusory.  Key points:

1.  While merit/desert and choice are related, the relationship is much more complex than Tyler admits.  No one chooses his raw athletic ability, but the fastest runner in the Olympics still merits the gold medal.  Choice almost invariably plays a role - no matter how great your innate ability in X, you have to actually choose to do X to merit any recognition or reward.  But choice is only one ingredient in our intuitions about merit and desert.

2. But doesn't empirical evidence on heritability of our choices show that we don't "really" choose anything - and thereby entirely undermine all notions of merit and desert?  Nope.  Predictability and free will are compatible; the former is a claim about what happens, the latter a claim about what can happen.  I've never chosen to cut off one of my fingers.  You can safely bet that I never will.  But my introspection tells me that I'm metaphysically free to cut off my fingers.

3. If predictability did undermine merit and desert, heritability would still be a red herring.  Why?  Because heritability research looks at why behavior is predictable, not whether it's predictable.  The point of twin and adoption studies isn't to show that human behavior is predictable; you can see that from naive family correlations.  The point of twin and adoption studies is to figure out what share of naive family correlations is due to nature - and what share is due to nurture.

4. If this is true, why do I think that income heritability studies should increase our estimates of how meritocratic the economy is?   Simple:  If separated identical twins both earn high incomes, the explanation almost has to be that the market rewards ability and effort.  If adoptees raised together both earn high incomes, on the other hand, the explanation could be that their parents raised them to be productive and motivated workers.  But this pattern is also consistent with nepotism - parents using their connections to place their underqualified kids in good jobs. 

The ultimate reason why Tyler's sees a tension and I don't, though, is probably that he takes for granted the Rawlsian view that, "no one deserves his place in the distribution of native endowments."   I reject the Rawlsian position as contrary to common sense.  Like Rothbard,
I must confess that I cannot make any sense of this position. What is more inherent in an individual, more uniquely his own, than his inherited ability? If he is not to reap the reward from this, conjoined with his own willed effort, what should he reap a reward from?

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COMMENTS (18 to date)
Doc Merlin writes:

Also, more importantly, even if genes decide most things ,acting as if merit is important and real is necessary because it creates incentives for acting according to comparative advantage.

rajeev writes:

I think the question about heritability is a red herring. I am a software engineer in India. In 1991, the Indian economy opened up to the wider world. By the mid-1990s, the Internet had become a major force in commerce. By the late 1990s, there we were, "outsourcing" away like crazy. I was an ignorant young man (as all young men are) and made my career choices for entirely unrelated reasons. Smarter, better people than me went off in other directions, and today earn much less than I do.
Think of Sergey Brin, born in the Soviet Union. If his father had fallen under a tram before they could emigrate, how different all our lives would have been.
Think of the pudgy, nerdy boy (like the one I used to be), who today can expect to inherit the world and whose counterpart, barely 500 years ago, would have been the butt of everybody's jokes all his life. The muscular workmen and fierce warriors of the day would have despised the clumsy, uncoordinated fumbling of the men like us. Well into the early/mid 20th century, we were an underclass of sorts.
The world is a large, highly distributed computation(an order, you say?), and it is childish to whine about what we deserve or do not deserve. We "deserve" nothing but are given everything.

rajeev writes:

Now that the earth has been won by those who earn their living by thought, rather than manual labour, we waste our time arguing about whether we deserve what we have.
I think Hayek put it well: "[The function of the price system] is not so much to reward people for what they have done as to tell them what in their own as well as in general interest they ought to do. …To hold out a sufficient incentive for those movements which are required to maintain a market order, it will often be necessary that the return to people’s efforts do not correspond to recognizable merit…In a spontaneous order the question of whether or not someone has done the ‘right’ thing cannot always be a matter of merit." (from here:
This is why I support the simplest kind of social security, a guaranteed minimum income, which recognizes that people make choices with limited information and that the "extended order" can overrule the best thought-out plans of humans. Is it perfect? No, but it recognizes the kind of world we live in, and gives us some limited freedom from the order we are embedded in.

rajeev writes:

Just came across Bryan Caplan's debate with Shikha Dalmia:
and the quote from Hayek: "It is probably a misfortune that, especially in the USA, popular writers like Samuel Smiles and Horatio Alger, and later the sociologist W.G. Sumner, have defended free enterprise on the ground that it regularly rewards the deserving, and it bodes ill for the defence of it which is understood by the general public. That it has largely become the basis of the self-esteem of the businessman often gives him an air of self-righteousness which does not make him more popular."
Bryan is not convinced by this, but it rings very true to me.

Kurbla writes:

"Predictability and free will are compatible; the former is a claim about what happens, the latter a claim about what can happen. I've never chosen to cut off one of my fingers. You can safely bet that I never will. But my introspection tells me that I'm metaphysically free to cut off my fingers."

If you are determined to, say, cut your fingers - it will not happen on the way your subjective feeling of the free will is broken. Quite contrary, at one moment, you'll start to perceive that your fingers started to transform into snakes. You'll realize that it is smart to cut them off. You'll do that - while keeping rock solid introspection that you're metaphysically free not to cut the fingers. If asked, you'll say - sure that I'm free, just cutting my fingers is the best choice I have.

Then you'll wake up in hospital and doc will say you that you ate hallucinogen plant. Work same with hypnosis, just it typically cannot change perception and motives so strongly.

Vangel writes:

Much of the 'tension' for most people comes not from the way the world is but the way they expect it to be. They look at human beings in ways that physicists see the behaviour of inanimate objects and expect outcomes to have 'fair' distributions. But that is not the way that society works.

Robin Hanson writes:

I want what I have even if I don't deserve it. I might choose to give some things away, but if so it will be because I empathize with others, not because I think they especially deserve more. I guess this "deserve" concept isn't very important to me.

David R. Henderson writes:

I'm with Bryan on these issues but I thought your first comment sang. It's one of the best, most-passionate-while-thoughtful comments I've read on a blog in months.

agnostic writes:

Most people equate the question of free will and the question of development. If there's a mostly deterministic answer for development, people think that goes against free will. But what's so special about predictable genetic influences on development?

You could think that genes don't influence development at all -- it's all due to how your parents raise you, culture that you breath in, or whatever. *Anything* that has a predictable influence on development goes against free will in the popular view.

"I blew that guy's head off because my daddy didn't hug me enough when I was little" is just as much an argument against free will / merit as "...because my daddy gave me genes for violence."

So anyone who singles out heritability or genes as provoking tension is not concerned about merit, fairness, free will, etc., since they would equally single out other predictable influences on development. Rather, they're just biased against anything that is morally contaminated by genetics.

Peter writes:

Deserve's got nothing to do with it. Either way. But enjoying your native endowments is another matter entirely. Being slower, dumber or weaker is not a moral claim to the effort and property of others.

Ray Gardner writes:

The use of the word "fault" belies Tyler's larger paternalistic world view.

rajeev writes:

@david henderson
Thank you for your kind comment! I have been following your posts on this blog for some time and while I may not always agree with your conclusions, I do appreciate the thinking behind your writing, and the exceptional courtesy you extend to those who disagree with you!


Pacemaker writes:

Mankiw's height tax seems to involve similar moral intuitions. A tall person doesn't deserve his height and the advantages that it confers, yet taxing height isn't very popular.

Jay J writes:

On the larger question, I'm not sure that there's such a fundamental tension in Caplanian thought or not...

BUT, I find #2 on the list puzzling. It seems like all that's been shown is that it is within the laws of physics and human capability for Bryan Caplan to cut off his fingers, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he's metaphysicaly free to do so.

Also I'm not so sure what introspection demonstrates here. I'm generally a fan of introspection, but the fact that we can imagine ourselves cutting off our fingers doesn't mean we're free to.

Finally, the fact that something didn't happen in the past should make us question how confident we are about claims that they could have happened.

I realize this all depends on what we take "freedom" to be, but insofar as the notion of 'just desert' is based on our talents and actions, this should constrain what it means to be free in this context.

Chuck writes:

"I've never chosen to cut off one of my fingers."

You are lucky that you did not inherit the gene abnormality that causes Lesch–Nyhan Syndrome in which people to BITE off their own fingers *against their will* (among other behaviors). Where does compulsion fit in the spectrum of free-will and robot?

Butter writes:

Let's be clear: genes and heritability don't determine any outcomes in life, rather they bound them. No one would deny the importance of circumstance and randomness in life.

That said, I don't see how the Rothbard quote is an adequate response to the Rawlsian position that you don't deserve your inherited abilities. Not sure Rawls ever denied that they make you who you are or that you should not be free to exploit those abilites, but do you deserve them? That is a very important point and one that libertarians need to better address when falling back on desert-based justifications for unequil outcomes.

eccdogg writes:

Didn't Rawls imply that you owed some of the product of your talents to others in society?

How can you be fully free to exploit your abilities when a portion of you abilities are owed to others?

I don't think I "deserve" anything I have in my life. I have been blessed by god in many ways. However, I also don't believe anyone "deserves" the product of my talents. They are mine, and it is up to me how I use them.

Jay J writes:

"I must confess that I cannot make any sense of this position. What is more inherent in an individual, more uniquely his own, than his inherited ability? If he is not to reap the reward from this, conjoined with his own willed effort, what should he reap a reward from?"

He should reap his reward from a system that doesn't punish the most talented or resourcful or otherwise lucky people so unduly that it makes the rest of us worse off. This has nothing to do with just desert, but big-picture practical thinking.

That the Rawlian position "no one deserves his place in the distribution of native endowments" is contrary to common sense is not a knock against it in my book. And it shouldn't be forgotten that of Rawls' two principles of justice, namely,

1) that everyone should be given a full range of liberty consistent with not trampling on the liberty of other people, and 2)that inequalities are just so long as they make the least advantaged better off,

only 2 is controversial. Of course 1 can be fudged quite a bit, since the word libery in this context seems to have at least as much to do with capabilites as it does with negative liberty. Anyway, 2 is so open-ended that some libertarians have taken on the name "Rawlsakians."

Whether someone *deserves* his place in the distribution of native endowments is a quesiton that can and should be considered independently of what kind of policy implications most people would draw from the proposition if they accepted it.

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