Meritocracy, Human Biodiversity, & Social Justice

In a recent thread on The Other Blog, I encountered the following exchange:

meh @ June 29, 2009 9:54 PM:

That blacks, on average, are less intelligent than whites and hispanics.

Turmarion @ June 29, 2009 11:21 PM:

Unless this is intended to be facetious, or a swipe at those who hold that belief, it is rather ugly. It is also the elephant in the room.

It boils down to this: While it’s fine and dandy to have totally objective and meritocratic criteria (we’ll assume for the sake of the discussion that such criteria exist), those who favor them tend to be quiet about the results thereof. What if the most rigorously neutral, color-blind, ethnicity-blind, objective criteria for school slots or hiring still produce egregiously disparate results? Is the philosophy that it’s just too damn bad for those who lose out? Should they set their sights on less demanding, lower-skilled, and therefore (usually) less well-paying jobs, resigning themselves to their fate? No one who supports meritocratic criteria ever seems to want to answer this.


So it’s sort of like this–a certain theme in areas of the right goes somewhat as follows: We must be meritocratic, even if fewer (fill in the race or ethnicity) get to school or get jobs. This is because of poverty and bad culture, not race. But we don’t support the government getting involved in poverty alleviation programs, since those (don’t work, aren’t the government’s business, etc.; again, fill in the blank); and, gee whiz, we don’t know what to do about the culture. So, the effect is that minorities get passed over, nothing can be done, that’s just the way of the world, too bad, the end.

Anybody see something wrong with this picture?

Reading Turmarion’s comment brought to mind an observation I once made in another blog’s comboxes:

A thought experiment:

— Premise:  IQ, for the American population, follows a normal distribution, with a mean value of 100, and an SD of ~15.

— Premise:  A person’s IQ score is largely a function of intractable factors – e.g., genetics – over which that person has no control.

— Premise:  Our society is currently structured such that IQ is a significant – and increasingly-important – determinant of socioeconomic success.  I.e., the higher your IQ, the more likely you are to be wealthy, upper crust, etc.  Our society has basically morphed into an IQ-based meritocracy.

In this sort of IQ Meritocracy, low-IQ individuals will almost inevitably end up filling the ranks of the working poor, the unemployed, those without health insurance, etc.  Note that these people wouldn’t be welfare queens or the “undeserving poor”; even if they work hard, are disciplined, go to school, etc., they still end up at the bottom, _through no fault of their own_, simply because, in our society & economy, rewards are doled out as a function of IQ.

Query:  As a matter of justice, is society not obliged to assist – perhaps via income-support programs – such low-IQ individuals, whose position in the bottom run of the socioeconomic ladder is almost entirely the result of factors beyond their control?

My point is that even if one accepts that

1) IQ does measure intelligence;

2) Some people are smarter than others;

3) IQ/intelligence is largely a function of genetic factors; and

4) IQ is a meaningful factor in socioeconomic outcomes

…”right-wing” public-policy recommendations do not intractably follow from such acceptance.

Confession:  The above argument was cribbed from one of the later chapters in “The Bell Curve”.

Those inclined to doubt the veracity of that last sentence are referred to p. 547 of The Bell Curve’s paperback edition:

To some, we will have made a case for increased income redistribution.


The data in this book support old arguments for supplementing the income of the poor without giving any new guidance for how to do it.


The evidence about cognitive ability cause us to be sympathetic to the straightforward proposition that ‘trying hard’ ought to be rewarded.  Our prescription…is that people who work full time should not be too poor to have a decent standard of living, even if the kinds of work they can do are not highly valued in the market place.

And again, in the Murray’s afterword (p. 554) to that edition:

When we began work on the book, both of us assumed that it would provide evidence that would be more welcome to the political left than to the political right, via this logic:  If intelligence plays an important role in determining how well one does in life, and intelligence is conferred on a person through a combination of genetic and environmental factors over which that person has no control (as we argue in the book), the most obvious political implication is that we need a Rawlsian egalitarian state, compensating the less advantaged for the unfair allocation of intellectual gifts.

Similar comments can be found in p. 43 of “Income Inequality and IQ” – a so-called “sequel” to The Bell Curve – wherein Murray presents an analysis showing a relationship between income & IQ:

People of different political viewpoints may legitimately respond to such data with policy prescriptions that are in polar opposition.  In many ways, the left has the easier task.  These data are tailor-made for the conclusion that a Rawlsian redistributive state is the only answer.  If we do not yet know howt to solve social problems by manipulating behavior, we can nonetheless eliminate poverty by giving poor people enough money to lift everyone out of poverty.  […]

For its part, the right must state forthrightly why it things that a free society that tolerates large differences in outcomes is preferable to an authoritarian society that reduces them.

A decade after The Bell Curve’s publication, Murray was still echoing this observation:

Talking about group differences does not require any of us to change our politics. For every implication that the Right might seize upon (affirmative-action quotas are ill-conceived), another gives fodder to the Left (innate group differences help rationalize compensatory redistribution by the state).

These don’t quite strike me as the type of comments a right-wing racist neo-Nazi might make, but perhaps I’m overly naïve.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: