22 August 2011

Ferdinand’s Big Mistake


Actually, there are three:

Let me explain. American conservatism is built on the myth of the American Dream – the belief that anyone can become financially successful so long as they work hard. This is the basis for conservatives’ masochistic worship of capitalism and small government – take away the American Dream, and the entire thing collapses. Unfortunately, hereditarianism professes that the key traits that determine whether someone is successful – intelligence, personality etc. – are largely pre-determined by genetics, which at the moment are almost completely impossible for humans to manipulate. In other words, if you’re born stupid, no amount of hard work is going to make you a success. Your fate was already sealed when your dad forgot to pull out that night.
Do you see the conflict here? If you truly believe that The Bell Curve got it right, you can’t in good conscience advocate for an ideology that presupposes that everyone is equally capable of making themselves successful. While I’m not a strict hereditarian, I’m a proponent of honest HBD research, and if HBDers are even half right, a free-market utopia would simply condemn one half of the bell curve to permanent poverty and ruin. And even if you’re a heartless libertarian who isn’t fazed at the sight of people starving to death on the street, you have to realize that allowing morons to run unchecked is bad for the economy.

I love Ferd, mostly because he’s an irascible diatribist with a generally keen insight into cultural decay. However, the afore-quoted post is simply nonsensical because it is founded on three fallacious assumptions.  (Note:  I’m a libertarian and an HBDer.)

Ferdinand’s first flawed assumption is that there is a connection between intelligence and economic success.  As Neil Postman once observed, there is no significant positive correlation between intelligence and economic well-being, on either a macro or micro level.  There is small but positive correlation between education and fiscal well-being on a micro level, but there is no way to tell whether there is a causal link between the two, and in which direction it runs.  Additionally, education is not a good proxy for general intelligence.  Quite simply, economic outcomes are dependent on more than simply general intelligence.

Ferdinand’s second flawed assumption is that Intelligence (at least of the general sort measured by the authors of The Bell Curve) is either solely or primarily related to success.  In one sense, IQ is not the only measure of intelligence, nor is it the only type of intelligence, which means that any attempt to link success to IQ is spurious because IQ cannot properly measure the full range and type of human intelligence.

But beyond that, as noted before, intelligence is not the only variable to explain success.  Personal motivation, opportunity, personal capital, networking abilities, and even government policy all play significant roles in determining one’s economic success.  Does intelligence play a role?  Definitely.  Does it play the only role?  Of course not.  Does it play the primary role?  Who knows.

Ferdinand’s third flawed assumption is that success (read: value) is objective.  Everyone is more than capable of making themselves successful if they all have different definitions of success.  For some, success in life is lighting up a crack pipe after a hard day of work at the 7-11.  For others, success may mean becoming a billionaire.  But to assert that not “everyone is equally capable of making themselves successful” is to either assert a blindingly obvious tautology or assume that there is some objective definition of success that conservatives have in mind.  If everyone has a different definition of personal success, then it becomes considerably more probable that people with below-average intelligence will become successful.

 Finally, note that Ferdinand largely ignores the effect of technology in increasing worker productivity.  Take spreadsheet programs, for example.  Spreadsheet functions make it ridiculously easy to perform complex calculations.  Even someone with a sub-average IQ can figure out how to type numbers into cells and click a couple of buttons.  Furthermore, their results are just as accurate (if not more so) than a professional mathematician’s would be if said mathematician was calculating manually.  Technology enables stupid people to approximate the intelligence of geniuses without having to be smart.  As such, even stupid people of today can be more productive today than the geniuses of two hundred years ago, if they choose to be.

Thus, the problem with stupid people today isn’t that they’re stupid; it’s that they’re stupid and lazy.  Thus, the veracity of hereditarianism is in many ways irrelevant to the question of whether the market should be free.

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