In the mail today, from a recent acquaintance, came a link to an excellent, informative, and even-handed article on inequality, social mobility, and the heritability of advantageous traits. The author is an Englishman named Toby Young, and he zeroes in nicely on the serious question one comes to once one has hacked through the thorny ideological thicket surrounding these topics. (The article seems to have been making the rounds; I see it was mentioned also in the latest Radio Derb.)
The question is one of justice: if innate (i.e. genetic and heritable) qualities such as intelligence and behavioral dispositions (the latter including time preference, conscientiousness, etc.) are causative with regard to socioeconomic status, and given that nobody does anything to deserve these inherited advantages, but simply acquires them as if by lottery, then how are the resulting natural inequalities ethically justifiable? If they are not justifiable, then what ought to be done about them?
Note that this is a far subtler question than what usually goes on in Left-Right political debate, in which the assumptions are either that:
A) All social and economic inequalities are arbitrary cultural injustices imposed by the strong upon the weak, and reflect no innate differences whatsoever, just contingent imbalances of power;
B) Such inequalities naturally reflect the differences in life outcomes between those who strive for the classical virtues of industry, thrift, self-discipline, etc., and those who don’t, with the difference being entirely a matter of voluntary choice.
These assumptions, and similar others, are the roots of that “ideological thicket” mentioned above. But it is increasingly clear that both of these blank-slatist viewpoints are largely false, and that how we do in life depends to a great extent upon our genetic inheritance. This is not to say that cultural and environmental factors aren’t important — they most certainly are — but it might be most accurate to say that our innate qualities set the upper limit of our potential, while environment, culture, “nurture”, and other externalities determine how likely we are to fulfill that potential.
Early on, the author offers a brief for meritocracy:
As Friedrich Hayek and others have pointed out, the difficulty with end-state equality is that it can only be achieved at too great a human cost. Left to their own devices, some men will inevitably accumulate more wealth than others, whether through ability or luck, and the only way to “correct” this is through the state’s use of coercive power. If the history of the twentieth century teaches us anything, it is that the dream of creating a socialist utopia often leads to the suppression of free speech, the imprisonment of a significant percentage of the population and, in some extreme cases, state-organised mass murder.
Having said that, I recognise that a lack of social mobility poses a threat to the sustainability of liberal democracies and, in common with many others, believe the solution lies in improving our education systems. There is a consensus among most participants in the debate about education reform that the ideal schools are those that manage to eliminate the attainment gap between the children of the rich and the poor. That is, an education system in which children’s exam results don’t vary according to the neighbourhood they’ve grown up in, the income or education of their parents, or the number of books in the family home. Interestingly, there is a reluctance on the part of many liberal educationalists to accept the corollary of this, which is that attainment in these ideal schools would correspond much more strongly with children’s natural abilities. This is partly because it doesn’t sit well with their egalitarian instincts and partly because they reject the idea that intelligence has a genetic basis. But I’m less troubled by this. I want the clever, hard-working children of those in the bottom half of income distribution to move up, and the less able children of those in the top half to move down.
In other words, I think the answer is more meritocracy. I approve of the principle … because it helps to secure people’s consent to the inequalities that are the inevitable consequence of limited government. It does this by (a) allocating wealth and prestige in a way that appears to be fair; and (b) creating opportunities for those born on the wrong side of the tracks, so if you start with very little that doesn’t mean you’ll end up with very little, or that your children will. If you think a free society is preferable to one dominated by the state, and the unequal distribution of wealth is an inevitable consequence of reining in state power, then you should embrace the principle of meritocracy for making limited government sustainable.
Good so far. But if your success depends upon your genes, and your genes are inherited, how is that any different from inheriting high status directly?
This is an argument against meritocracy made by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (1971): You’ve done nothing to deserve the talents you’re born with—they’re distributed according to a “natural lottery”—so you don’t deserve what flows from them.
…Now, Rawls’s argument isn’t a knock-down objection to meritocracy. For one thing, it’s too deterministic. Great wealth doesn’t simply “flow” from an abundance of natural gifts. A considerable amount of effort is also involved, and rewarding that effort does seem fair, even if some people are born with stronger willpower and a greater aptitude for hard work than others. Nevertheless, there’s a “gearing” difficulty—because some people are more gifted than others, the same amount of effort will reap different rewards, depending on their natural endowments.
Perhaps, but if attitude is as heritable as aptitude, then Rawls’s objection still stands, it seems to me. Mr. Young understands this too, and so he looks at another angle:
There’s another, more fundamental problem with Rawls’s argument, which is that it conflates desert with entitlement. A person may not deserve his or her wealth in a meritocratic society, but that doesn’t mean they’re not entitled to it. That’s a separate question that turns on how it was accumulated. As Robert Nozick points out in Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), provided a person’s acquisition of wealth hasn’t involved violating anyone else’s rights, they’re entitled to keep it and bequeath it to their children. The standard that Rawls judges meritocracy by is unrealistically high. Throughout history, people’s status has rarely, if ever, been deserved. Even supposing it was possible to reach agreement about how to measure desert, it would require an all-powerful state to ensure that wealth and prestige were distributed according to that metric and, as with end-state equality, we’d end up paying too high a price in terms of liberty.
Putting aside the issue about whether a meritocratic society is any fairer than the one we live in at present—or fairer than an aristocratic society—it’s hard to argue that it isn’t more efficient. All things being equal, a country’s economy will grow faster, its public services will be run better, its politicians will make smarter decisions, diseases are more likely to be eradicated, if the people at the top possess the most cognitive ability.
Young makes a very good point here: even if we were able to strip away entirely the concept of ‘desert’ (which would be, by the way, completely alien to our nature, and in my opinion would be fatally corrosive to the well-being of any human society), there are still sound and practical reasons to prefer meritocracy.
Next, Young draws our attention to another problem: that a pure meritocracy — that is, a society with free social mobility based entirely on merit — will be susceptible to increasingly rigid stratification, due to assortative mating and the departure of superior genes from the lower to the upper strata. This is exactly the effect I described in a post back in May, in which I discussed the Tulsa race riots of 1921. The point I made then was that prior to the civil-rights era, one reason that black communities were so much less dysfunctional than they are now is that there was nowhere for their best genomes to depart to — whereas now they can, and do, get up and out. This continuous “boiling off” of the genetically advantaged from these poor communities has the unwelcome effect of “concentrating” the underclass in the ghettos they leave behind.
What, then, is to be done? Mr. Young refers to a novel his father wrote in 1958, called The Rise of the Meritocracy:
In the end, the new social order he describes isn’t sustainable because there’s too little mobility in a mature meritocracy. Those at the bottom of the pyramid don’t simply resent having to eke out a living in menial, low-paying jobs, while the elite live in luxury; they resent being told that they deserve their inferior status. They also dislike the fact that their children have very little chance of rising to the top. The upshot is that they join forces with a dissident element in the ruling class and revolt, overthrowing the meritocratic elite in a bloody coup.
Could this happen in the advanced societies of the West? Is it fanciful to detect traces of this beginning to happen already in the “Occupy” movements, with their rhetoric against “the one per cent” and the popularity of insurgent, left-wing political parties in Greece and Spain? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that it could and it would lead to all the unspeakable horrors that most other egalitarian revolutions have resulted in. What can we do to prevent it? How can this shortcoming of meritocratic societies be corrected without straying too far from the principle of limited government?
(I have a feeling Mr. Young’s father may have read a book by Lothrop Stoddard called The Revolt Against Civilization (1922), which describes exactly this process, and quite a lot more.)
But what, then, is to be done? After pausing briefly to float the idea of a guaranteed basic income (something we will surely be hearing more about as AI and robotics displace more and more workers, without any new industries appearing on the horizon for them to join), Mr. Young takes up a topic that was a favorite of the Progressives of Stoddard’s era: eugenics. He gives it a 21st-century spin, however:
I’m more interested in the potential of a technology that hasn’t been invented yet: genetically engineered intelligence. As with so many of the ideas explored in this article, this crops up in my father’s book, where it takes the form of “controlled mutations in the genetic constitution of the unborn … induced by radiation so as to raise the level of intelligence”. This technology is still in its infancy in 2033, with successful experiments only carried out on “the lower animals”, but another version of it may be available sooner in the real world—within the next five or ten years, if the scientists are to be believed.
I’m thinking in particular of the work being done by Stephen Hsu, Vice-President for Research and Professor of Theoretical Physics at Michigan State University. He is a founder of BGI’s Cognitive Genomics Lab. BGI, China’s top bio-tech institute, is working to discover the genetic basis for IQ. Hsu and his collaborators are studying the genomes of thousands of highly intelligent people in pursuit of some of the perhaps 10,000 genetic variants affecting IQ. Hsu believes that within ten years machine learning applied to large genomic datasets will make it possible for parents to screen embryos in vitro and select the most intelligent one to implant.
Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at New York University, describes how the process would work:
Any given couple could potentially have several eggs fertilized in the lab with the dad’s sperm and the mom’s eggs. Then you can test multiple embryos and analyze which one’s going to be the smartest. That kid would belong to that couple as if they had it naturally, but it would be the smartest a couple would be able to produce if they had 100 kids. It’s not genetic engineering or adding new genes, it’s the genes that couples already have.
It’s worth repeating this last point, because it deals with one of the main reservations people will have about this procedure: these couples wouldn’t be creating a super-human in a laboratory, but choosing the smartest child from the range of all the possible children they could have. Nevertheless, this could have a decisive impact. “This might mean the difference between a child who struggles in school, and one who is able to complete a good university degree,” says Hsu.
My proposal is this: once this technology becomes available, why not offer it free of charge to parents on low incomes with below-average IQs? Provided there is sufficient take-up, it could help to address the problem of flat-lining inter-generational social mobility and serve as a counterweight to the tendency for the meritocratic elite to become a hereditary elite. It might make all the difference when it comes to the long-term sustainability of advanced meritocratic societies.
Mr. Young continues:
Hsu’s solution is to make it freely available to everyone, but that would only help to prevent it making existing inequalities even worse. After all, if people from all classes used it in exactly the same proportions, all you’d succeed in doing would be to increase the average IQ of each class, thereby preserving the gap between them. Wouldn’t it be better to limit its use to disadvantaged parents with low IQs? That way, it could be used as a tool to reduce inequality.
… In a sense, what I’m suggesting is a form of redistribution, except the commodity being redistributed is above-average intelligence rather than wealth. This is a way of significantly reducing end-state inequality that should be acceptable to conservatives (at least, non-religious conservatives) because it doesn’t involve the use of coercive state power. Participation would be entirely voluntary. Let’s call this policy “g-galitarianism”. (For those unfamiliar with the jargon, “g” is commonly used by psychologists and geneticists to stand for “general factor of cognitive ability” and is often used as a synonym for “IQ”. It was first given this designation by Charles Spearman, a British army officer, at the turn of the last century.)
A lot of the resistance to this idea will come from a visceral dislike of anything that smacks of eugenics, for understandable historical reasons. But the main objection to eugenics, at least in the form it usually takes, is that it involves discriminating against disadvantaged groups, whether minorities or people with disabilities. What I’m proposing is a form of eugenics that would discriminate in favour of the disadvantaged. I’m not suggesting we improve the genetic stock of an entire race, just the least well off. This is a kind of eugenics that should appeal to liberals—progressive eugenics.
Forgive me if I seem, well, dour, but here I must part company with Mr. Young. I have nothing, really, against eugenics — I don’t reflexively recoil from the idea the way all good and thoughtful people do in the postwar era (and as almost none of them did before the war). Mind you, there are moral and immoral ways to go about it, from assortative mating to extermination camps — but the idea itself is not unreasonable, and it’s hard not to see some upside to humans becoming, on average, smarter, stronger, more attractive, less impulsive, more conscientious, and so on. But here are my quibbles with Mr. Young’s idea:
First, the process he imagines involves a) planning to have a child, b) donating sperm and ova, c) waiting patiently while multiple conceptions take place and the resulting embryos are assayed, and finally, d) selecting the “pick of the litter” according to complex criteria. (One pup may be better at spatial perception, another at music, another more inclined to low time-preference, another might have the nicest teeth, hair, and cheekbones, yet another capable of reliably placing a two-seam fastball at the outside edge of the strike-zone, and so on.) But does doing all of this not already involve all of the things we are supposedly trying to select for, such as intelligence, low impulsiveness, future time orientation, and so on? Do we really think the underclass we are trying to improve will sit still for this?
Second, there is still the matter of differential birth-rates. Elites in all of the developed world are now having children at far below replacement levels. While we are busy convincing the teeming masses of the global underclass suddenly to reproduce by appointment, will we focus also on reducing their fecundity?
Third, Mr. Young proposes that the use of this technology be limited to “disadvantaged parents with low IQs”. In other words, there will be a method out there by which parents can improve the quality of their offspring ab initio, before they even begin to pour other resources into the child — and the rich and powerful aren’t going to find a way to take advantage of it? Not in this world, I’m afraid. All you’ll do is create a black market, or a brisk business in foreign countries.
Fourth, it’s nice to reduce inequality, but the idea — to lift the bottom while holding down the top — is the same as focusing educational resources solely upon the slowest learners, at the expense of the gifted. If we are getting into this business at all, don’t we want to elevate the peak of human potential as high as we can? We humans face an awful lot of difficult, perhaps existential problems, and they won’t be solved by those who have been lifted from imbecility to mediocrity, but rather by whatever geniuses and visionaries future generations can manage to produce.
Fifth, there are going to be a great many Americans who will see as inherently immoral the deliberate creation of millions of human lives fated only to be destroyed once they fail to “make the cut”. It’s nothing to some people, but to others it’s mass murder.
Sixth, I think this whole discussion focuses on what will be only a brief and intermediate stage of technical advancement. The field known as “synthetic biology” is advancing exponentially, and what will soon be possible is to skip all the dice-rolling described in this article — creating a litter of embryos at random and then picking the best of the lot — and get right down to designing your little Mozart or Newton, as it were, à la carte. No waste, no muss, no fuss.
Finally, as long as we are looking ahead at the future of genetic engineering, there’s another topic that is, most likely, even more fraught with world-altering potential: aging and mortality. Forget eugenics: what’s going to happen when we unlock the key to immortality? What will happen to the stratification of society once that genie’s out of the bottle?
That’s more than enough for now, I think. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”
Read Mr. Young’s article here. It’s well worth your time.