Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The Logic of Bell Curve Leftism #1

Andrew Sullivan is a popular political commentator. He recently resigned from New York magazine – not to be confused with The New Yorker magazine or The New York Times magazine – and started his own publication The Weekly Dish

His 9/11/2020 edition included The Logic of Bell Curve Leftism, much of it based on a recent book The Cult of Smart by Fredrik deBoer. I haven’t read the book, but Sullivan’s article and reading a few reviews on Amazon is enough to get the book’s gist. When writing for The New Republic magazine in 1994 Sullivan wrote about the controversial book The Bell Curve, about race and IQ, which resulted in a lot of controversy for him. 

My comments that follow will be mostly based on Sullivan’s article. I will put excerpts from his article in all italics followed by my comments.

DeBoer proclaims. “It is the notion that academic value is the only value, and intelligence the only true measure of human worth. It is pernicious, it is cruel, and it must change.”

Sullivan doesn't disagree. However, academic value is not the only value, nor intelligence the only true measure of human worth. The high incomes of pro athletes, movie and tv stars, popular singers or musicians, many business executives, and some politicians have a strong basis in other values – rarer kinds of ability, creativity, and hard work. Politicians obviously value political power and use it.

Also, neither academic value nor intelligence imply a high income or wealth. How many Nobel Prize Winners are in the Forbes 400 richest people? Physicists, mathematicians, electrical engineers, college professors, and some other professions rank high in IQ, but that doesn’t entail a high income.

“Critical theory leftists insist that everything on earth is entirely socially constructed, that all inequality is a function of “oppressive systems”, and that human nature itself is what John Locke called a “white paper, void of all characters” — the famous blank slate. Freddie begs to differ: “Human behavioral traits, such as IQ, are profoundly shaped by genetic parentage, and this genetic influence plays a larger role in determining human outcomes than the family and home environment.”

This shows a big misunderstanding of John Locke’s “white paper, void of all characters” or “blank slate.” Locke was an Empiricist, which means he held that all knowledge is based on experience. He was arguing against innate ideas, which were claimed to exist by Rationalists. This puts the emphasis on “void of all characters” and “blank.” It does not mean everyone’s paper or slate is identical. There are nature-given capacity differences – e.g. intelligence, athleticism, and musical.

What Freddie is arguing is that, far from treating genetic inequality as a taboo, the left should actually lean into it to argue for a more radical re-ordering of society. They shouldn’t ignore genetics, or treat it as unmentionable, or go into paroxysms of fear and alarm over “eugenics” whenever the subject comes up. They should accept that inequality is natural, and construct a politics radical enough to counter it.

For DeBoer, that means ending meritocracy — for “what could be crueler than an actual meritocracy, a meritocracy fulfilled?” It means a revolutionary transformation in which there are no social or cultural rewards for higher intelligence, no higher after-tax income for the brainy, and in which education, with looser standards, is provided for everyone on demand — for the sake of nothing but itself.

This implies that becoming a doctor – with all the time, effort and often a lot of debt – should not be rewarded with a high income. If an equal income could be made in work that requires less effort, fewer hours, less stress, or gives more personal enjoyment, why become a doctor? In other words, lower pay to doctors would also reduce the supply of doctors and patients’ access to them. DeBoer wants to have the cake and eat it, too. He wants doctors' income confiscated -- "no higher after-tax income for the brainy" -- but still wants the services they provide. 

What DeBoer endorses to end meritocracy is far more political power, the power to coerce others one envies or doesn’t like.

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