The case of Laura Spence highlighted the issue of equality of opportunity. But what if talent itself is substantially inherited, not the result of effort?by Ronald Dore / July 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
In recent contributions to Prospect Charles Murray and Marek Kohn offer us an exhilarating future in which genetic manipulation could make us all bright and beautiful. Kohn wonders (anxiously) what this will do for equality if only those who are already genetically blessed can afford the enhancements. Murray wonders what it will do for egalitarians. Or rather-for he is more given to knowing than to wondering-he relishes the prospect of their tying themselves in eugenicist knots.
The trouble with Murray is that even when he is seriously tackling a serious subject he is too easily sidetracked into his favourite sport of teasing the left. As soon as science gives us “the ability to manipulate human tendencies” through genetic engineering, he says, you lefties are the ones who will want to use it. You will be back where the Fabians were in 1900, before Hitler gave eugenics a bad name. As far as I understand him, Kohn reluctantly agrees. “We seem to be approaching the point where altering the genes of the poor looks like a more realistic project than transforming the environments in which they live.”
You can see why Murray likes a punch-up if you flick through The Bell Curve Wars (Steven Fraser, ed. 1995) or The Bell Curve Debate (R Jacoby and N Glauberman, eds. 1995), two collections of critical reviews of Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve. The scores of contributors to this passionate and almost wholly American debate (Keith Joseph and Cyril Burt are the only British figures quoted with any frequency) divide fairly clearly between the knee-jerk left and the open-to-evidence left. The former use every weapon at their disposal to defend what, in his Prospect piece, Murray called the “egalitarian premise”-that inequalities are (almost wholly) the product of the social system rather than of inherent differences in ability. According to one critic, The Bell Curve merely synthesises the work of “disreputable race theorists and eccentric eugenicists.” Another declares it “the most recent in a long line of efforts to prove the congenital inferiority of poor people in general… and black people in particular.”
More sober critics question the book’s underlying social philosophy but accept its main conclusions. These are, first, that IQ scores of the American white population, as they have been standardised in the US, correlate strongly with a whole range of social characteristics-occupational status, income, the likelihood of being involved in crime, and so on. Second, that the correlation between IQ scores and occupation/income is increasing over time, producing what some people have called a “cognitive elite.” Third, that a substantial portion of the variance in IQ scores can be attributed to genes-to the “nature” we were conceived with, rather than to the “nurture” we received in the womb or later.
It is by no means certain, as Murray supposes, that those who denounce these propositions as rubbish in the face of all his evidence will stop doing so when geneticists begin to uncover some of the micro-mechanisms which explain the heritability of intelligence, or rather “the bundle of characteristics IQ tests so consistently seem to measure.” After a lifetime in academe I am still amazed at the ingenuity with which evidence defers to political passion.
But we do not need genetics to accept the evidence about the heritability of intelligence. Nor is there any sense in arguing whether the heritability coefficient is 40 per cent or 80 per cent. It depends on the population. The Bell Curve evidence came from white America with an extreme heterogeneity of family environments. In more environmentally homogeneous societies such as Japan, nature rather than nurture would explain even more of the variance in individual abilities.
But how much does inheritance explain variances in the average abilities of different ethnic groups? Much of the hate directed at the Murray/Herrnstein book is based on its middle section. Following on from their analysis of individual differences in the white American population, they review the evidence that the median score of Americans of east Asian descent is some five points above, and that of American blacks 15 points below, that of Caucasian Americans; and that the difference in both directions comes more from scores on non-verbal than on verbal parts of the tests. They review the consistency of these findings, and mull over the question of whether their significance is altered by the proven improvements in average performance on IQ tests as education levels rise. According to some research this education-led improvement could account for the 15 point difference they find between contemporary whites and blacks. In the end, they duck out of any pronouncement on how far the difference in scores can be attributed to genetic causes. Parents give their children their family environment as much as their genes, and it’s only the former that public policy can do anything about. But the facts about the differences in scores remain, pretty much, unchallenged.
The question of the average IQ scores of different population categories does not always cause problems, but when the category is a racial one, it clearly does. Cyril Burt’s demonstration of the different average IQ scores of the British working and middle classes (with spurious but probably not too inaccurate figures) did not have serious consequences. Even if you are a vigilant snob, inclined to interact with other people in terms of categories rather than as individuals, you will not know the class membership of the man sitting opposite you on the Clapham omnibus until he opens his mouth. Even when he does, his cockney accent might be the cultivated, in-your-face variety of the television producer or newspaper editor. But if he’s black you can see it; and he knows that you can see it; and if you live in a society in which pop folklore says that blacks are stupid, he’s likely to assume that this folklore will affect your attitude towards him or will at least be sensitive to the least sign of it.
What is the best antidote to that pop folklore? Is it to insist that any evidence of racial differences in median IQ scores-or musical talent or dancing ability-is spurious pseudo-science? Or to acknowledge that there are group differences, but put them in perspective and point out that the difference between the average black and the average white is dwarfed by differences within whites themselves? And maybe, in civics classes in schools, to teach people properly about normal curves and standard deviations, so that they can understand what studies say about how many blacks are smarter than the average white. It would also mean working hard, in such classes, to teach what it means to treat people as individuals, how you learn about them from the evidence of your personal encounters with them, without endowing them with group stereotypes or thinking about IQ probabilities before you start.
In his Prospect article, Murray steered clear of this political minefield of group differences, and stuck to the explanation of individual differences and how far genes are responsible for them. Where he went wrong is in calling those who rubbish his evidence defenders of the “egalitarian premise.” They are not. They may be defenders of the “nurture not nature” premise-but as several of the more sober critics of The Bell Curve showed, it is perfectly possible to accept the book’s evidence and still be an egalitarian; that is, to care about developing a cohesive and inclusive society without too great a disparity in income, wealth and dignity
For such egalitarians, the need to come to terms with the facts of human variability grows, as the income and wealth disparities grow. When the difference between an intelligent peasant who could recognise the symptoms of wheat rust, and the not so intelligent peasant who couldn’t, was less than the difference between a diligent peasant and a lazy one, these things mattered less. But in our increasingly market-minded society, it is variability in characteristics more marketable than diligence-such as brainpower, beauty, persuasiveness, chutzpah-which has a more conclusive effect on our life chances.
The really big question is this. Suppose the chattering classes conclude that the “almost wholly nurture rather than nature” premise is neither true nor a sustainable social fiction? What will be the consequences-not just for arguments about social justice, but for the electorate’s perception of social problems, for welfare spending and for redistribution?
Murray and Herrnstein did tackle this question in the final chapters of their book, but they came to banal conclusions. Of course, they say, we must have social services for the genetically unfortunate. They endorse the equivalent of Gordon Brown’s working families’ tax credit. But we cannot do much about inequalities-of income, wealth, and dignity-that genetic differences generate. That’s the way the cookie crumbles. “People who are free to behave differently from one another in the important affairs of daily life inevitably generate the social and economic inequalities that egalitarianism seeks to suppress. That is as close to an immutable law as the uncertainties of sociology permit. To reduce inequality of condition, the state must impose greater and greater uniformity. That is as close to an immutable law as political science permits.”
So, what arguments are available to egalitarians who believe that the cookie could be made to crumble differently but who also accept the importance of genes in making us all so different and so variably attractive to the market? Try this. The clever, the powerful and the influential-the captains of industry, the “winners taking all” in the media and sports as well as in Silicon Valley-owe their highly enjoyable careers as much to their lucky break in the genes lottery, and in the family environment lottery, as to effort. That being so, it surely cannot be on “just deserts” grounds that they make claim to enjoy not only more power and admiration and job satisfaction than the rest of us, but also higher incomes.
So what can such claims rest on? They can only be justified-a variant on Rawlsian arguments-by the public interest in social efficiency. There would need to be a plausible demonstration that they need those financial incentives to supplement the intrinsic pleasures they get from their work-that otherwise they would not make the effort to do the job as well and as conscientiously as society needs to have it done. For the object of admiration which society must not cease to honour and reward is not so much talent as effort-whether it be the effort put into scoring goals, or running ICI, or doing conscientious homework as a chat-show host, or looking after incontinent old ladies, or flipping hamburgers-or, indeed, the effort to acquire the training to transform native talent into one of those practised skills.
Yet the market does not reward effort. The market is concerned only with how much consumers want to eat hamburgers or to see goals scored and how much shareholders think the captain of industry will add to their wealth-not with how much effort they have to put into doing it. So if you can remind people of the implications of Murray’s arguments-that it is luck in the genes lottery more than effort which distinguishes the captain of industry or the goal scorer from the hamburg flipper-and if you can persuade people that effort is the more meritorious quality, then you have the best justification for interfering with market outcomes to achieve greater equality.
In fact, it is not the egalitarians of old Labour who most need the “egalitarian premise”-the “nurture not nature” premise-that Murray is so anxious to scorn. It is the third way apostles of enterprise and meritocracy-those who argue that old Labour has been too preoccupied with envy and that social justice requires not greater equality of outcomes, but greater equality of opportunity, for Laura Spence and the clever children from non-privileged homes like her. If only, they say, we could have a truly level playing field as everyone starts on life’s competitive race, the differences in genetic endowments are of such little significance that, apart from a few safety nets for the real casualties, there would be no need to interfere with market outcomes. Let enterprise have its head; we can all make it. Give every young American $80,000, say Bruce Ackermann and Anne Alstott in The Stakeholder Society (to which Michael Prowse gave such an enthusiastic spin in last month’s Prospect), and almost all should blossom.
Those who find such Pollyanna-ish optimism specious, and at the same time care about fraternity (as well as liberty and equality), should be embracing, not rubbishing, the Murray line. The fact of significant genetic differences between individuals boosts the argument for a concept of social justice which pays talent its due but looks beyond it to an equality of regard which is our birth right.
My quasi-Rawlsian “only differentials that are needed to evoke effort” formulation begs many questions. There are no human universals in this, divorced from time and place. The motivation people need is an incentive which makes them feel they are treated fairly. By what criterion do they judge the fairness of any incentives they are offered? Why, by what they know other people are getting. And in a globalising world under US cultural hegemony, “other people” means not just the man at the next desk, but your peers across the other side of the world. American concepts of what is just and fair have influenced both Japan and Germany to lower their top rate of income tax from 55 per cent.
So the world is running away from the kind of social justice arguments I am proposing. It may be only social disorder, May Day riots in the city, and the gradual constriction of middle-class life to ghettos bristling with barbed wire that will reverse the tendency for the well-endowed to gobble all the market will give them. But if there are signs of such a turn-around, it would be as well to have some good social justice arguments ready to hand. The argument from genes and luck seems to me to carry more clout than the one used by Michael Prowse in last month’s Prospect article-that the rich and successful depend on our acquiescence in the system that makes them so, therefore they owe us. Surely it is precisely the decline in acquiescence which is most likely to prompt a rethink about redistribution.
The need for good social justice arguments will grow as genetically-rooted inequalities and social inequalities compound each other. Historically, it is only recently that meritocratic social mobility has began to dominate the genetic reassortment process. Only six generations ago, class membership seemed so fixed that when the Taunton Commission was appointed in 1867 to look at British secondary education, it assumed that its remit was about providing only for “children of the middle and upper classes.” We are only four generations away from the first state secondary schools with “the scholarship” to mobilise cognitive talent from the working classes to fortify the nation’s intellect. Only in the last decade has educational meritocracy of a kind got 30 per cent of the age group into universities.
The long-run effects of meritocratic selection are a matter of speculation. Obvious taboos, reinforced by Cyril Burt’s folly in cooking his IQ results, prevent much research into it. But it is logical to suppose that the social fluidity of a meritocracy, combined with assortive mating (the clever marrying the clever), will produce an increasingly skewed distribution of the qualities-brains, strength of character, sociability, beauty-that the market rewards. The polarisation between “work-rich” families where everybody works and “work-poor” families where nobody works may be the first signs of this process.
That would be strenuously denied by our New Labour welfare-to-work enthusiasts. They would blame, instead, cultural transmission and the experience of long-term unemployment. They desperately want to give dignity to the socially excluded and today, the way to dignity is through having work, showing that you’re not a loser who can’t get a job
Must it always be so? To see deserving merit as not-so-deserving luck requires a great shift in social perceptions. Might we not, in the future, see a similar shift, decoupling having a job on the one hand, from dignity and first-class citizenship on the other? No, wrote an American social scientist friend recently, “for in any future worth thinking about in this connection, self-respect and the respect of others is going to be intimately bound up with an occupation… Welfare mothers, when asked, seem genuinely to prefer to work for their cheques. When you ask your neighbour at a dinner party, ‘what do you do?’ you do not expect to be told that he or she uses leisure in a self-fulfilling fashion.”
I beg to differ. To me it seems something this side of utopia to imagine a society in which those who so choose can be respected, and live in decent sufficiency without having a job. That is the society which the advocates of a basic citizen income seek to hasten-a society productive enough, and in which there is a sufficient consensus in favour of redistribution, to devote, say, 40 per cent of GNP to giving everyone a citizen’s income, as of right. No dole, no means tests, no concept of unemployment. The market economy goes on. Those who want to work, and are genetically lucky enough to be able to learn skills which the market rewards, do so, and have more than the basic income to spend. Those who do not work include the genetically unlucky, the slow learners, who would find it hard to get a job, and those who are capable of almost anything, but prefer to write poetry or play chess-and nobody bothers much about who is which. Citizenship involves duties of community service as well as a right to the basic income. There is a wide range of voluntary choice in the form of community service, but you make an annual service return as well as an income tax return, and the safeguards against cheating are similar in both cases. You don’t have to tell people at dinner parties that you are using your leisure in a self-fulfilling fashion, but chatting about your community service is how you prove your good-citizen credentials.
It seems a long way from where we are now-but in half a century? Who in 1900 would have envisaged the welfare state of 1950 Britain? If we want to go in that direction, rather than on the road to perdition, coming to terms with Murray’s evidence about the role of genes in human variation can only be a help.