Friday, June 21, 2013

Richwine, Millman, and Meritocracy

In the interest of starting a new trend of posts about recent-ish pieces by conservative-ish bloggers, I'd like to say a few things about a post on the Jason Richwine affair by Noah Millman of The American Conservative. For those who have much better things to do than follow political blogs (other than this one, of course), Richwine was until recently an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. The release of a report he co-authored on the fiscal costs of a path to citizenship for all illegal immigrants led reporters to discover that he had argued in his dissertation that the U.S. should try to reduce its intake of Hispanic immigrants in part because they were genetically predisposed to have lower IQs, and he resigned amid the ensuing uproar.

Millman, however, questions whether the condemnation of Richwine was legitimate, writing that:
... there’s something very peculiar about believing that the worst thing you can say is that one group of people was born with a somewhat less-prevalent natural gift for manipulating three-dimensional surfaces in their heads, while saying “it’s all culture” – which means, in so many words, that the group is living wrongly, and, if they want to better themselves, are obliged to emulate our superior ways of doing things – is much more socially acceptable.
He goes on to make clear that he doesn't think the science on the possible genetic basis on IQ is at all settled, and then spends much of the rest of his piece discussing questions about how the implications of this issue for various policy problems, but the main point from the remainder of the post that I want to talk about here is his explanation of the purported mystery he identifies in the quote above (more on its supposed mysteriousness soon too). Millman sees our reluctance to accept that IQ might have a significant genetic basis is the result of the morally corrosive power of meritocracy. Our society's elites want to believe that their success is entirely earned because if this were true, they could claim the disproportionate share of wealth and influence they enjoy as a just reward for their talent which they need not use for the benefit of all, while if their success were in large part the product of genetic luck they would have stronger obligations to their fellow citizens.

I want to spend the rest of this post doing two things: challenging Millman's claim that the outcry over Richwine's history is a mystery that requires special explanation, and considering whether his claim about meritocratic ideology (regardless of its explanatory value) is correct.

On the first issue, I have a great deal of respect for Noah Millman (who I've been reading and learning from regularly for at least 6 or 7 years now), but his notion that there's any mystery about why the claim that some racial groups are genetically predisposed to be less cognitively capable than others strikes me as grossly ignorant at best. As Millman knows well, as recently as 150 years ago the idea that there was a "race" (a term whose scientific value is of course highly dubious) whose members were by nature less intelligent than others was used as a justification for buying and selling them like cattle and letting other human beings beat and rape them at will (to name only a few of the enormities perpetrated by American slaveowners). As recently as 50 years ago it was used as an excuse for denying them fundamental political rights and subjecting them to a brutal and degrading caste regime. The view that members of one group are (on average) naturally less intelligent than members of another may not imply as a matter of strict logical necessity the reprehensible idea that the latter group may legitimately enslave or subordinate the former, but they're clearly linked.

Furthermore, the specifically biological basis of the purported inferiority is important because it legitimates permanent oppression, as opposed to efforts to improve the situation of the supposedly inferior group through education and related methods which would make sense if it were the product of "culture" broadly defined. (Relatedly, I think Millman incorrectly supposes that defenders of the "it's all culture" argument view the culture prevalent in a given group as solely the product of its members' voluntary choices; in fact, most people who make this argument [plausibly, in my view] think that any given member of a group should be viewed as in large part a victim/beneficiary of its culture, since that culture began to affect him or her before he or she could consciously shape it, is only weakly responsive to his or her individual choices, and is substantially shaped by political and economic forces in the larger society.) In light of the history and the obvious prima facie reasons for doubting any genetic explanation of observed racial differences in IQ (the groups that have lower IQs are usually much worse-off economically than those with higher ones and also tend to have higher rates of family disruption and a history of oppression), we properly attach a quite substantial moral stigma to anyone who tries to offer such an explanation in the absence of extremely powerful evidence (which Richwine seems to have lacked; as Millman notes, his dissertation appears to have been largely a literature review). I realize this is all obvious and apologize for boring readers with it but think it's important not to let anyone get away with making the sort of claim Millman does.

But even if Millman's reasons for invoking his point about meritocracy are misguided, the point itself is still quite interesting. I'm writing this post primarily because of a long conversation that Josh and I recently had about Millman's piece in which he challenged the idea that meritocracy is uniquely corrosive of elites' sense of social obligation. He noted that the idea of elite status as the product of unearned genetic privilege has been the organizing principle of most human societies but is usually used to justify not noblesse oblige but rather two quite pernicious notions: an even more exalted sense of elites' superiority (and the contemptible wretchedness of ordinary people) borne out of the thought that their respective traits were not the transient products of individual achievement but rather deeply entrenched in their very bodies, and the idea that the genetically inferior masses actually enjoy their squalor because it's suited to their underdeveloped faculties. Josh used this point to argue that the corrupting effect Millman imputes to meritocracy has nothing to do with meritocracy but rather with the nature of elites, who will twist any dominant ideology to suit their interests. Furthermore, he contended that meritocracy is an improvement over earlier, more determinist views because it involves a less paternalistic and more respectful view of non-elites and concedes the basic premise that one's privileges must be justified in a way that treats one's fellow citizens as in some sense moral equals.

I'm not completely sure yet what I think of Millman's point or Josh's argument, but there are a couple of points which bear on them that I want to note here. First, I think both define the possible set of social ethoses (ethoi?) a bit too narrowly, at least in the specific contexts I'm discussing here. It seems as though rather than seeing elites as having the right to rule either in virtue of their genes or their achievements alone, one could think that they have the right to rule because they've developed certain talents (that perhaps ultimately have a genetic basis but require significant cultivation) but that they've had the opportunity to develop those talents because of social circumstances. This view would respond to both Millman's complaints and Josh's concern that an elite ethos of genetic determinism leads to a disrespectful and contemptuous attitude toward ordinary citizens, since if it's true then in some sense elites owe their talents to the generations of ordinary citizens who sustained the institutions that made their acquisition of those talents possible; I also think the idea that the traits we value in elites are the product of a combination of individual choice, genetic luck, and social circumstance is most likely correct.

This point might seem to be orthogonal to Josh's argument since (at least as I recall it) he makes no explicit claims about any view other than meritocracy or genetic determinism. However, I think it's relevant because it poses a challenge to his implicit claims that the mere existence of elites is a fundamental problem which no legitimating ethos can really alleviate and that the broadly liberal and egalitarian strains present in meritocracy are necessarily signs of progress.  Furthermore, my intuitive sense (and I invite him to correct me, since he's much more historically literate than I) is that a view like this one  has often played just as much of a role in the legitimation of historical elites as has pure genetic determinism; for instance, it seems like the frequently cited idea that aristocrats are "raised to rule" is an invocation of the view I have in mind. It also seems to me that this type of institutionally focused view would be less likely to lead to the negative consequences Josh ascribes (plausibly) to genetic determinism, and I'd be interested to hear any thoughts of his on that subject.

Second, I think there's some plausibility to a more restricted version of Millman's claim along the following lines: while meritocracy may not be more corrupting of elites on the whole than genetic determinism, a meritocratic elite will be prone to a specific form of corruption which will not afflict an elite that subscribes to genetic determinism. I think that, because meritocracy makes access to many important goods conditional on success in a competition which everyone supposedly has an equal chance in, it allows elites to be indifferent to the well-being of ordinary people in a distinctive way; after all, they had a fair chance to have a good life and they blew it. You can see this, for instance, in the way that it's often assumed in discussions of areas with concentrated poverty that our main concern should be enabling high achievers to escape from them, rather than making them better places to live for all of their residents. It seems to me that even if genetic determinism gives rise to all of the problems Josh mentions (as seems plausible), it doesn't provide the same sort of support to this idea; this is even apparent in his claim that elites in genetically determinist societies tend to argue that the poor enjoy their squalor, which while obviously awful is concerned with their well-being in a way that meritocrats often are not. This point doesn't necessarily imply that genetic determinism will lead to a better society than meritocracy on balance (and in any case I think we should reject it because it's unsupported by the best available evidence), but it does suggest that we have something to learn from genetically determinist elites.

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