Andrew Sullivan: The genetic underpinnings of IQ means we shouldn’t value it so much, that we should ditch the meritocracy, and that we should become more of a communist society

September 12, 2020 • 11:30 am

Andrew Sullivan has devoted a lot of the last two editions of The Weekly Dish to the genetics of intelligence, perhaps because he’s taken a lot of flak for supposedly touting The Bell Curve and the genetic underpinnings of IQ.  Now I haven’t read The Bell Curve, nor the many posts Sullivan’s devoted to the genetics of intelligence (see the long list here), but he’s clearly been on the defensive about his record which, as far as I can see, does emphasize the genetic component to intelligence. But there’s nothing all that wrong with that: a big genetic component of IQ is something that all geneticists save Very Woke Ones accept. But as I haven’t read his posts, I can neither defend nor attack him on his specific conclusions.

I can, however, briefly discuss this week’s post, which is an explication and defense of a new book by Freddie DeBoer, The Cult of Smart. (Note: I haven’t read the book, either, as it’s just out.) You can read Sullivan’s piece by clicking on the screenshot below (I think it’s still free for the time being):

The Amazon summary of the book pretty much mirrors what Sullivan says about it:

. . . no one acknowledges a scientifically-proven fact that we all understand intuitively: academic potential varies between individuals, and cannot be dramatically improved. In The Cult of Smart, educator and outspoken leftist Fredrik deBoer exposes this omission as the central flaw of our entire society, which has created and perpetuated an unjust class structure based on intellectual ability.

Since cognitive talent varies from person to person, our education system can never create equal opportunity for all. Instead, it teaches our children that hierarchy and competition are natural, and that human value should be based on intelligence. These ideas are counter to everything that the left believes, but until they acknowledge the existence of individual cognitive differences, progressives remain complicit in keeping the status quo in place.

There are several points to “unpack” here, as the PoMos say. Here is what Sullivan takes from the book, and appears to agree with:

1.) Intelligence is largely genetic.

2.) Because of that, intellectual abilities “cannot be dramatically improved”.

3.) Because high intelligence is rewarded in American society, people who are smarter are better off, yet they don’t deserve to be because, after all, they are simply the winners in a random Mendelian lottery of genes fostering high IQ (I will take IQ as the relevant measure of intelligence, which it seems to be for most people, including Sullivan).

4.) The meritocracy is thus unfair, and we need to fix it.

5.) We can do that by adopting a version of communism, whereby those who benefit from the genetic lottery get taxed at a very high rate, redistributing the wealth that accrues to them from their smarts. According to DeBoer via Sullivan,

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. DeBoer believes the smart will do fine under any system, and don’t need to be incentivized — and their disproportionate gains in our increasingly knowledge-based economy can simply be redistributed to everyone else. In fact, the transformation in the economic rewards of intelligence — they keep increasing at an alarming rate as we leave physical labor behind — is not just not a problem, it is, in fact, what will make human happiness finally possible.

If early 20th Century Russia was insufficiently developed for communism, in other words, America today is ideal. . .

Sullivan adds that the moral worth of smart people is no higher than that of people like supermarket cashiers, trash collectors, or nurses. (I agree, but I’m not sure that smart people are really seen as being more morally worthy. They are seen as being more deserving of financial rewards.)

6.) Sullivan says that his own admitted high intelligence hasn’t been that good for him, and he doesn’t see it as a virtue:

For me, intelligence is a curse as well as a blessing — and it has as much salience to my own sense of moral worth as my blood-type. In many ways, I revere those with less of it, whose different skills — practical, human, imaginative — make the world every day a tangibly better place for others, where mine do not. Being smart doesn’t make you happy; it can inhibit your sociability; it can cut you off from others; it can generate a lifetime of insecurity; it is correlated with mood disorders and anxiety. And yet the system we live in was almost designed for someone like me.

This smacks a bit of humblebragging, but I’ll take it on face value. It’s still quite odd, though, to see a centrist like Sullivan, once a conservative, come out in favor of communism and radical redistribution of wealth. So be it. But do his arguments make sense?

Now Sullivan’s emphasis on the genetic basis of intelligence is clearly part of his attack on the extreme Left, which dismisses hereditarianism because it’s said to imply (falsely) that differences between groups, like blacks and whites, are based on genetic differences. It also implies (falsely) that traits like intellectual achievement cannot be affected by environmental effects or environmental intervention (like learning). Here Andrew is right: Blank-Slateism is the philosophy of the extreme left, and it’s misguided in several ways. Read Pinker’s book The Blank Slate if you want a long and cogent argument about the importance of genetics.

But there are some flaws, or potential flaws, in Sullivan’s argument, which I take to be point 1-5 above.

First, intelligence is largely genetic, but not completely genetic. There is no way for a given person to determine what proportion of their IQ is attributable to genes and how much to environment or to the interaction between the two: that question doesn’t even make sense. But what we can estimate is the proportion of variation of IQ among people in a population that is due to variation in their genes. This figure is known as the heritability of IQ, and can be calculated (if you have the right data) for any trait. Heritability ranges from 0 (all variation we see in the trait is environmental, with no component due to genetics) to 1 (or 100%), with all the observed variation in the trait being due to variation in genes. (Eye color is largely at this end of the scale.)

A reasonable value for the heritability of IQ in a white population is around 0.6, so about 60% of the variation we see in that population is due to variation in genes, and the other 40% to different environments experienced by different people as well as to the differential interaction between their genes and their environments. That means, first of all, that an appreciable proportion of variation in intelligence is due to variations in people’s environments. And that means that while the IQ of a person doesn’t change much over time, if you let people develop in different environments you can change their IQ in different ways—up or down. IQ is not something that is unaffected by the environment.

Related to that is the idea that a person’s IQ is not fixed at birth by their genes, but can be changed by rearing them in different environments, so it’s not really valid to conclude (at least from the summary above) that “academic potential cannot be dramatically improved”. Indeed, Sullivan’s summary of DeBoer’s thesis is that the difference in IQ between blacks and whites (an average of 15 points, or one standard deviation) is not due to genes, but to different environments faced by blacks and whites:

DeBoer doesn’t explain it as a factor of class — he notes the IQ racial gap persists even when removing socio-economic status from the equation. Nor does he ascribe it to differences in family structure — because parenting is not that important. He cites rather exposure to lead, greater disciplinary punishment for black kids, the higher likelihood of being arrested, the stress of living in a crime-dominated environment, the deep and deadening psychological toll of pervasive racism, and so on: “white supremacy touches on so many aspects of American life that it’s irresponsible to believe we have adequately controlled for it in our investigations of the racial achievement gap.”

Every factor cited here is an environmental factor, not a genetic one. And if those factors can add up to lowering your IQ by 15 points, on what basis does DeBoer conclude (with Sullivan, I think), that you cannot improve IQ or academic performance by environmental intervention? Fifteen points is indeed a “dramatic improvement”, which according to DeBoer, we’d get by simply letting black kids grow up in the environment of white people.  (I note here that I don’t know how much, if any, of that 15-point difference reflects genetic versus environmental differences; what I’m doing is simply asserting that even DeBoer notes that you can change IQ a lot by changing environments.)

Further, what you do with your intelligence can be further affected by the environment. If you’re lazy, and don’t want to apply yourself, a big IQ isn’t necessarily going to make you successful in society. So there is room for further improvement of people by proper education and instilling people with motivation. This doesn’t mean that IQ isn’t important as a correlate of “success” (however it’s measured) in American society—just that environmental factors, including education and upbringing, are also quite important.

What about genetic determinism and the meritocracy? It’s likely that many other factors that lead to success in the U.S. have a high heritability as well. Musical ability may be one of these, and therefore those who get rich not because they have high IQs, but can make good music that sells, also have an “unfair advantage”. What about good looks? Facial characteristic are highly heritable, and insofar as good looks can give you a leg up as a model or an actor, that too is an unfair genetic win. (I think there are data that better-looking people are on average more successful.) In fact, since nobody is “responsible” for either their genes or their environments, as a determinist I think that nobody really “deserves” what they get, since nobody chooses to be successful or a failure. Society simply rewards those people who have certain traits, and punishes those who have other traits. With that I don’t have much quarrel, except about the traits that are deemed reward-worthy (viz., the Kardashians).

This means, if you take Sullivan and DeBoer seriously, we must eliminate not just the meritocracy for intelligence, but for anything: musical ability, good looks, athletic ability, and so on. In other words, everybody who is successful should be taxed to the extent that, after redistribution, everyone in society gets the same amount of money and the same goods. (It’s not clear from Sullivan’s piece to what extent things should be equalized, but if you’re a determinist and buy his argument, everyone should be on the same level playing field.)

After all, if “the smart don’t need to be incentivized”, why does anybody? The answer, of course, is that the smart do need to be incentivized, as does everyone else. The failure of purely communist societies to achieve parity with capitalistic ones already shows that. (I’m not pushing here for pure capitalism: I like a capitalistic/socialistic hybrid, as in Scandinavia.)  And I wonder how much of Sullivan’s $500,000 income he’d be willing to redistribute.

If you think I’m exaggerating Sullivan’s approbation of communism, at least in theory, here’s how he ends his piece, referring to his uneducated grandmother who cleaned houses for a living.

My big brain, I realized, was as much an impediment to living well as it was an advantage. It was a bane and a blessing. It simply never occurred to me that higher intelligence was in any way connected to moral worth or happiness.

In fact, I saw the opposite. I still do. I don’t believe that a communist revolution will bring forward the day when someone like my grandmother could be valued in society and rewarded as deeply as she should have been. But I believe a moral revolution in this materialist, competitive, emptying rat-race of smarts is long overdue. It could come from the left or the right. Or it could come from a spiritual and religious revival. Either way, Freddie DeBoer and this little book are part of the solution to the unfairness and cruelty of it all. If, of course, there is one.

Let’s forget about the “spiritual and religious revival” (I wrote about that before), and realize that what we have here is a call for material equality, even if people aren’t morally valued as the same. And why should we empty the rat-race just of smarts? Why not empty it of everything that brings differential rewards, like writing a well-remunerated blog? In the end, Sullivan’s dislike of extreme leftism and its blank-slate ideology has, ironically, driven him to propose a society very like communism.

121 thoughts on “Andrew Sullivan: The genetic underpinnings of IQ means we shouldn’t value it so much, that we should ditch the meritocracy, and that we should become more of a communist society

  1. Well, that was interesting. I’m always happily surprised by how interesting and bright children are, when you give them the space to display their interests and curiosities. I’d be curious whether the environmental IQ squashing factors are tied to squashing curiosity in children.

    1. I’m afraid I’m with Andrew on this one, Professor Ceiling Cat. The injunction “to each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities” isn’t a bad one, is it? And I find stirring and inspiring the society envisioned by that great socialist (and author of *The Rise of the Meritocracy*), Michael Young:

      “Were we to evaluate people, not only according to their intelligence and their education, their occupation and their power, but according to their kindliness and their courage, their imagination and their sensitivity, their sympathy and generosity, there could be no classes. Who would be able to say the scientist was superior to the porter with admirable qualities as a father, the civil servant with unusual skill at gaining prizes to the lorry driver with unusual skill at growing roses? The classless society would also be the tolerant society, in which individual differences were actively encouraged as well as passively tolerated, in which full meaning was at last given to the dignity of man. Every human being would then have equal opportunity, not to rise up in the world in the light of any mathematical measure, but to develop his own special capacities for leading a rich life.”

      1. “to each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities”

        It never struck me before, how strong a wishful thinking fantasy this memorable, anodyne phrase conjures up.

      2. Would we not end up with a class of unintelligent, unkindly, cowardly, unimaginative, insensitive people? Would we not have a class of smart, kindly, courageous ones who are sensitive and full of imagination?

      3. The injunction “to each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities” isn’t a bad one, is it?

        Yes, it’s terrible.

        Human nature is such that, when you have no incentive to do better, you’ll do the minimum you can get away with.

        1. And thus in the society imagined by Sullivan, surely the IQ-intelligent people would try to throw the tests to avoid the smart tax. Any attempt to investigate and prosecute this would be incredibly intrusive on one’s life, so has Sullivan actually thought through the consequences of his “communism.”

  2. Sullivan’s piece was very stimulating and stuck in my thoughts for hours. I’ll get the new book he described.


    Too many words with loose definitions, at least – like “smart”. And the anecdote of the student who “just can’t” do the problem -though indelible- betrays an ignorance or unwarranted conviction – a conviction that the student is … wasting everyone’s time?…

    That was bogus. All it means is, in that moment, neither party knew enough. Didn’t know enough about how persistence would work. How family support could work. Signs of mental or simple vitamin or hormone imbalance. Too many simple things to get answers to, in reasonable time, but financially problematic. The student deserves education – deserves teachers – who don’t give up on them.

    As such, all I could take away from Sullivan’s piece is that he’s really describing corner cases. Yet it was still unsettled in my mind.

    1. “The student deserves education – deserves teachers – who don’t give up on them.”

      Back in high school (early 60s) my math teacher taught both an advanced class and one for students who did poorly. Some of us helped him after school with those doing poorly. These kids couldn’t add or subtract large numbers. He taught them base 6 and base 12 and most got it – but couldn’t transfer this ability back to base 10.

      I imagine that Covid-mandated online teaching has led to sites sharing best practices, and this seems like a great resource for developing basic courses that suit many types of learning abilities.

  3. And I’m sure people smarter than I have pondered it, but does society really reward the high IQ folks? Where do things like savvy, cunning, ruthlessness and luck play in?

    1. I agree. While IQ may correlate with success, there are plenty of other characteristics that determine success and plenty of high-IQ types that don’t perform well in society by whatever measure one prefers.

      1. Persistence matters. I get from the article that IQ is a golden ticket to success. I don’t think that is particularly accurate in most cases. IQ is perhaps a measure of potential. What a person does with it is another matter.
        We all know bright but unmotivated people, and others who succeed through strong work ethic. I suppose people with both are mostly unstoppable, but I am fairly sure that work ethic and persistence are learned behaviors, which can make up for deficits in heritable IQ.

  4. I’m not an economist but de Boer’s thesis seems to be based on bad economics, especially the idea that the wealth of a community is a zero-sum game: if the genetic lottery winners get more of it, then the genetic lottery losers get less of it. But this is obviously not true to the extent that the winners generate knowledge or technology or improvements that make everyone’s lives better. If the economics of intelligence were truly zero-sum, then we would all still be living as primitives, but the smart people would have bigger caves and better stone tools. Just to be clear: I’m not a “makers/takers” conservative, and I think Piketty is right about pretty much everything. But I think it’s good to incentivize the smartest people in the culture to create and invent improvements in life.

  5. I agree with Sullivan on this one. Here’s a coupe of counter points to Jerry’s counter points.

    “If you’re lazy, and don’t want to apply yourself, a big IQ isn’t necessarily going to make you successful in society.”

    Except that “lazy” or “conscientious” are also genetic curses and gifts. They also should not make you more or less deserving of a good life. Also, when you say “successful in society” what you really mean is “Successful at capitalism.” Good moms are successful in and for society with zero pay! Financial success and life success are not and should not be the same thing.

    “the smart do need to be incentivized, as does everyone else. The failure of purely communist societies to achieve parity with capitalistic ones already shows that.”

    This is not true. Previous attempts at communism failed because they were totalitarian and murderous and did not equally distribute the wealth. There is no evidence whatsoever that they failed because smart people were not properly incentivized by the “higher wealth” carrot. If you have evidence for this claim that they failed because smart people were not properly incentivized I’d like to see it.

    As for great musicians and athletes, are you sure you want to make the claim that they would not produce great art or play public sports without the “wealth” incentive?

    You sell human nature short, Jerry. Everyone wants to contribute. It’s not a choice. It’s an evolved drive. You think Bill Gates would never have invented software without the incentive of being a billionaire? If Bill Gates, or take your pick of medical scientists, did not have financial incentives they would still be in the basement with their computers and beakers doing what nerds are driven to do. To use their nerdiness to make society better. The only incentive they need is the look of gratitude on the faces of the people’s lives they made better.

    This all comes down to whether or not you believe “wealth” and “money” are the same thing. Moms bring REAL wealth to society and get zero money for it.

    1. Tim, I want to believe that what you say is true. But I think a big part of the “evolved drive” to contribute is an evolved response to incentives. The desire to contribute doesn’t come from nowhere – it’s a response to the environment and the landscape of possibilities that we all see around us. I fear that for many of the smartest most creative people around us, if that landscape was flat and without incentives to climb, then for many (maybe not all) the “evolved drive” would stall. But I could be wrong.

      1. Like most aspects of the human condition, drive is partly environment and partly human nature. As I see it, the chief failing of Communism is that it doesn’t recognize how important drive is to personal happiness and a successful society.

      2. Recall a famous saying among the working class of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.

    2. I see that you want me to provide all the evidence but give none yourself. Could you thus give me the evidence that the failure of purely communistic societies was because they were totalitarian and murderous?

      Also, your evidence that Everyone wants to contribute. It’s an evolved drive.” I look forward to those data! Of course some people are driven by curiosity, but what did Bill Gates do when he invented his software. Did the wealth come against his will and against his actions?

      1. I cannot imagine a credible explanation of the failure of purely communistic societies that would establish the cause of the failure as the result of being totalitarian or murderous. (Like “intelligence?) Humans become convinced their explanations of causes of historic events are meaningful. Reality is more complex than human stories. Leaving the rest of that for another day, Reichert’s (& Sullivan’s) contention is unproven at best.

        [Not to indict studying history, but historic causes of events are not provable]

      2. You’re right we are both short on evidence for our claims. So let’s look at yourself as an example. I believe this forum is extremely valuable to society. And I believe your incentive to do it is not money but pleasure.

        Now let’s imagine a world where you don’t have to pay rent or buy things and so you have no need for money. Would you sip pina coladas by the pool all day or would you spend most of your time learning interesting things and teaching them to others? I believe the latter is true.

        We may need to incentivize plumbers and garbage men, but not highly intelligent scientists. Their drive to learn and teach is unstoppable.

        1. ” pina coladas by the pool all day or would you spend most of your time learning interesting things “

          You have to choose?

        2. Maybe but I think the highly intelligent would not like a situation where they couldn’t advance if they wanted to or where they have to spend most of their day trying to earn enough to feed themselves and the family. It’s far better if going for the money is an option.

    3. “Previous attempts at communism failed because they were totalitarian and murderous and did not equally distribute the wealth. There is no evidence whatsoever that they failed because smart people were not properly incentivized by the “higher wealth” carrot. If you have evidence for this claim that they failed because smart people were not properly incentivized I’d like to see it.”

      As von Heyek, Popper and many other authors have pointed out, being totalitarian and murderous is inevitable for a society that takes away property rights, which is the definition of a communist society. As for the destructive economic consequences of not encouraging smart (and simply good) workers with a “higher wealth” carrot, they have been discussed e.g. by Alexander Tsypko (and my compatriot Georgi Petrov, but he wrote in an obscure language).

      I am amazed by the willingness of many people to deny the doomed nature of communism in the fact of its failure in every single society where it has been applied.

      1. “I am amazed by the willingness of many people to deny the doomed nature of communism in the fact of its failure in every single society where it has been applied.”

        Yes, they always want to give it one more try but without the murder and totalitarianism this time.

        1. And always fail to recognize that, to get to a communist government in the first place, they had to use totalitarianism and murder. The totalitarianism and murder come first; they’re the only way to establish a fully communist modern society.

      2. As von Heyek, Popper and many other authors have pointed out, being totalitarian and murderous is inevitable for a society that takes away property rights, which is the definition of a communist society.

        I take it the reference to “von Heyek” is to the Nobel Prize-winning economist F.A. Hayek. Is the reference to “Popper” to the philosopher of science Karl Popper (an ardent anti-Fascist)? If so, I’m aware of Popper’s critique of “historical materialism” as being pseudoscientific. But I’m unaware of his having written at any length on Marxism in praxis. Can you direct me to a source?

    4. Great musicians, sportspeople, writers, scientists and others were allowed to be successful in the Soviet Union and other communist regimes only to the extent that they toed the party line. Look at, say Shostakovich as opposed to fifth-rate apparatchiks like Kabalevsky or Khrennikov. Or, even worse, look at Lysenko and his disastrous influence on Soviet science and agriculture.

      These were smart and educated people. They were not incentivised to tell the truth or produce good art, because their society demanded something else of them.

      The sort of society that allows some people the freedom to make a lot of money may also be the one that allows others to make great art. I can’t think of many state-sponsored artists or musicians from Russia or China who have created great works lately.

  6. I think Sullivan equates “meritocracy” with “financial success” and then attributes it all somehow to native intelligence. Things aren’t exactly like that, though. There are plenty of very smart people who don’t make it big. And many, many examples of dolts who inherit large sums of money. Some become president, even.

    So why not just keep it simple and skip the meritocracy and intelligence angles? Is it not enough that life is unfair, success is not a measure of virtue, and that taxing the rich on behalf of the rest is simply the moral thing to do?

  7. The whole approach by Sullivan and de Boer misses the point: clearly the problem is the genetic lottery itself. A real communist would propose to fix that.

    I can think of two approaches off the top of my head. One is to moderate the genetic variation that leads to the lottery. Find the major genetic predictors of intelligence, genotype everyone in childhood (before mating), and assign each person a mate such that the population-level variation in predicted intelligence (the differences between the winners at one end of the distribution and the losers at the other end) is as small as possible. This would help to turn the genetic lottery from a Powerball (few extreme winners, many extreme losers) into something like scratch-and-win tickets (many small winners etc.).

    The other is to eliminate the genetic variation altogether by selective breeding. As long all of the breeding individuals are chosen to have the same intelligence, then the resulting population of descendants will all have similar intelligence, and no lottery will occur. Could mate all the low-IQ individuals with each other or all the high IQ individuals, just not mixing them (or doing both and creating a mixed pool of offspring; this is more or less what happens in much of the culture now).

    Sullivan and de Boer really wimped out here by not thinking their proposition through to this much more logical solution to the real underlying problem.

  8. I read another piece on DeBoer yesterday, and have been thinking about it ever since. First, I wish authors would define fair/unfair. Life is full of unfair things like tornadoes, and as far as I can tell very few fair things (one being that we all die). Second, I think his argument makes a classic error of planning in thinking that everyone wants the same thing. Everyone is different in abilities and values. Not everyone wants the same thing, and for those who want things like being a CEO, there are lots of companies out there. Not everyone wants that, though. Some people can’t do what they want for reasons related to their abilities. Is that disappointing to them? Yes. Is it unfair to the person who wants to be a rock guitarist that he can’t be but another fellow can? I don’t see how. (Are we to abolish disappointment?) Third, if we say that these things are “unfair,” the only way to try and remedy them is through the most totalitarian government ever imagined. As Glenn Loury has pointed out, [trying to] guarantee equality of outcome means that government must know about and interfere in all aspects of life. Finally, if we abolish meritocracy, who will actually be fixing the unfairness? Apparently not people who are qualified to do so. This is just another piece of sophistry designed to undermine free society. No facts, no theories, no merit, and the outcome is supposed to be better. I don’t think we need that kind of “fairness”, or the famines associated with it.

    1. Spot on. “Fairness” is often used as Newspeak for ‘someone has something that I want’.

      Plus there is the unfortunate truth that no matter how ‘equal’ the opportunities are (and most developed societies could probably do better) some people will seize those opportunities and some won’t or can’t.

      Anyone arguing for ‘equality of outcome’ should be prepared to be operated on by a brain surgeon who has been ‘levelled up’. Although, strangely, in many ‘communistic’ societies there will still be an elite who still have access to better quality goods and recources.

  9. I don’t take the issue too serious because much of it is theory. Your intelligence or IQ comes to you as they say but so what. What the person does with it is the bigger question. Like the movie with Matt Damon doing janitor work and high math at the same time. And are we measuring success based on IQ or on dollars earned? Today the vast fortune of money pretty much stays where it is because that is the system we have. It is inherited. So even if the kids get dumber they still inherit the money. Also, IQ is not the only kind of intelligence and we cannot measure all of this just by how far you went in school. Certainly college degrees equal better, higher paying jobs on average but some people did quite well with no education. My grandfather grew up in the genreration of self-made people. He went no further than 8th grade in school. However, he managed to go to a good mechanics school, later had his own mechanics shop, became a pilot, bought land so he could build his own airport and so on. He did all of this with very little school education.

    On the idea of communism to equalize the income of everyone, I have never seen any county that practiced that in reality. Pure communism was only something that worked on paper but never in reality. Communism was another one of those theories than never worked in the real world.

    1. You could make an argument that ‘communism’ is the best social organisation – but for hunter-gatherer groups.

      Larger groups are too dependent on specialisation to make communism an effective way of organising things.

  10. Let’s ask the supermarket cashiers if they think they should make as much as doctors. Good luck finding any who say yes.

    I don’t think our innate sense of fairness is offended when people are rewarded for their intelligence, talents, years of training and experience, or for the quantity, quality, or economic value of what they produce. On the contrary, I’m pretty sure we would feel it was unfair if these things were not rewarded, regardless of how much they are due to inborn advantages.

    Our aim should be a distribution of wealth such that people feel that what they get is fair and that they are respected and treated like humans. I think this is achievable.

    1. Yes! Well put. What you describe seems to me to reflect the human condition best. We want a level playing field, opportunities for advancement (not just the career kind), and fair compensation for our efforts. Government, and society as a whole, should be judged on their ability to provide this.

      Even if society is optimal in this way, people will sometimes be unhappy with their position in life. Some will be born with disadvantages that they think are unfair. Others will not achieve what they think they should given their effort. That is also part of the human condition.

  11. Even with material equality, some will be very good looking, smart, and fun to be around, and others will be the opposite. Maybe virtual reality can solve the problem.

  12. I think Communism will always be attractive to some people. Many people feel remorse at the competitive nature of human society. As John Lennon sang, “Why can’t we all live as one?” They imagine a society in which everyone works together without the constant struggle to get ahead.

    Unfortunately, Communism ignores several aspects of human nature. 1. People don’t work as hard without the incentive of getting ahead. 2. Society still requires leaders to make decisions so the struggle isn’t eliminated after all.

    1. Social status is a zero-sum game, although I like to think treating people with respect makes this a little more tolerable.

      But it saddens me how much suffering is caused by genetic copying errors. Of course this is necessary for evolution, but the process seems pointlessly cruel to me.

      1. If you mean by saying social status is a zero sum game that a person’s self-worth and dignity is formed in large part by feeling superior (deserved or not) to other people or groups then I would agree with your assertion. This need for social status contributes greatly to our understanding of the world’s woes. For example, it helps in part to explain racism. People who have accomplished little in life retain a sense of self-worth that by the color of their skin they are somehow innately superior to people of another skin color. Another example is Donald Trump. For him, accumulating wealth affords him social status. The more he accumulates, the more social status he has, or at least believes. His need to accumulate wealth is indicative of what a broken and insecure person he is.

        1. Donald Trump accumulates wealth as his only ticket to acceptance within an elite that won’t let him in. On some days he probably feels he’s had the last laugh by becoming President. On other days he is unhappy because most of the elites still don’t like him and never will.

        2. From a variety of sources about Donald Trump, it would seem that he has not been successful in accumulating wealth; inheriting wealth: yes. But a great many of the endeavors he has done on his own have failed spectacularly. A number of his golf courses were failing even before Covid 19 added to his woes. His university and casino in Atlantic City bit the dust earlier.

          In addition to his inabilities as a great businessman, he keeps two sets of books, uses
          the law and courts to cow people suing him who have less money than he has, doesn’t pay certain employees in a timely manner, hires illegals when no one else is supposed to do so, etc. There are no rules for him; just for everybody else. No one should view the Donald as a success or a model to follow. He is an unintelligent, cheating, cowardly example of humanity as anyone can read in numerous newspaper and magazine articles about him, as well as books by a family member, a former employee and former government “associates”.

      2. It’s true that some variation in intelligence or other traits is caused by new mutations. But there is very good evidence that a lot of genetic variation in mental and psychiatric traits is caused by recombination of existing genetic variation, not by new mutations (“genetic copying errors”). One implication of that evidence is that many of those genetic variants may have beneficial effects when present in small numbers, but when combined by chance in large numbers within the same individual they together cause pathologies (in more severe cases) or more typical variation in function (in less severe cases). Much of the genetic variation that leads to autism-spectrum disorders or to schizophrenia seems to be of this sort, with non-clinical variation in ability and traits associated with less extreme combinations of genetic variants.

      3. It is indeed pointless in the sense that is is no way planned, and the universe doesn’t care if you think it is cruel. It is not malevolent, just mindless.

      4. I doubt it is truly a zero-sum game as there are happy societies and sad ones. It is still possible to make everyone’s life a living hell even if the opposite is unachievable.

        “But it saddens me how much suffering is caused by genetic copying errors. Of course this is necessary for evolution, but the process seems pointlessly cruel to me.”

        Ha. Evolution considers that a feature, not a bug. The fact that we have to kill animals in order to enjoy the pleasures of eating meat bothers me. Seems like we are on our way to solving that one.

    2. The communism of the Soviet Union was all based on corruption and favor. There was little incentive to do a good job at anything. Your only chance of success was a political party job. It was a place that sucked the life out of any morality or good work. It was an economic failure and often could not even feed the population. Across the globe communism failed and the overriding form of government that worked was liberal democracy.

      1. Much that happened in the USSR depended on
        corrupt connections, or блат. There was of
        course some residue of meritocracy—you had to know at least some engineering to get an engineering degree. But a large part
        of social “success” depended on блат, and on using the approved ideological buzzwords. It was, in short, a social set-up rather like the one based on connections and “Diversity Statements” which our woke ivory towers are attempting to create here.

        1. I think the woke ivory towers as you call them will be very disappointed. History should be looked at and liberal democracy is the only trend the world is on.

        1. All anyone need do is look at the numbers:

          In 1790 there were 3 liberal democracies. America, France and Switzerland if we need to list them.

          In 1919 there were 25 and 1990 about 61. If I recall, the Soviet Union came down about 1989. The only communism, so-called still hanging on is Cuba and N. Korea.

          1. I think you mean 1890 rather than 1790. In 1790 Switzerland was not a liberal democracy but a loose confederation of largely inependent states, some of them ruled by an aristocracy, some others by a sort of primitive democracy in which only the wealthiest had the right to co-decide.

            1. I know very little about Switzerland but got the country and approx. date from a book I read recently. My understanding is the Helvetic Republic was around 1798. Napoleon messed thing up for a while in Switzerland but they adopted a constitution based on the United States around 1848. Many of the 61 countries listed as liberal democracies in 1990 did not instantly become so overnight. For some there were many steps along the way.

              1. You are right, the Helvetic Republic was the first step into becoming a liberal democracy. But Napoleon soon realised that a centralised republic could not work for Switzerland and he remodeled the country into a confederation in 1803. It was a small civil war in 1847 that lead to the creation in 1848 of a federal, liberal, multilingual country, modeled on the example of the USA.
                In 1847 a group of catholic reactionary alpine cantons, unhappy with the growing influence of the progressive, mostly protestant, cantons, had formed a separated league but lost the miniwar that followed (I think that less than 100 people were killed; the separatists gave up soon). Interestingly, the man who lead the “protestant army” was a catholic.

          2. The People’s Republic of China still calls itself communist, although many doubt the label applies. The unavailability of One True Definition of Communism makes the issue a bit cloudy.

  13. > […] on what basis does DeBoer conclude (with Sullivan, I think), that you cannot improve IQ or academic performance by environmental intervention?

    The burden of proof should be on the other side. These environmental components of IQ are largely unknown, and exclude most of the fashionable suspects that have been proposed over the last 50 years or so (c.f. Plomin). I guess no amount of evidence will ever suffice as long as failing interventions are on the side of the angels.

    We should incentivize smart people and help them to fulfill their potential because we need them. Geniuses are not oppressing me. They could do well without people like me, whereas my modern living standard is largely the result of their insights.

  14. I expect the wealthiest are smart on average, with IQs around 120. But I also expect that few are geniuses. Really high IQ is probably an impediment to getting rich.

    1. No, it’s not. The relationship does not reverse as you move up the IQ scale. Right now, tech billionaires are typically in the 140+ range (e.g. Jeff Bezos). What impedes earnings are the meager salaries in academia. Apart from STEM, finance offers excellent salaries for smart people, for good or ill.

      1. You are probably right. I was thinking along the lines that wealth is greatly right skewed whereas IQ is bell shaped, but now I think about it, the bell shape of IQ is mostly constructed.

  15. I consider “meritocracy” a bogus idea that is more or less just the right wing view where success is deserved, and the not-so-successful lack something. We might call it Magic Pixie Dust that makes people rich, and those who have Magic Pixie Dust deserve it somehow. There is no more insight than this.

    It’s a technocratic update to the right wing idea where life is basically like in a rural town on a farm. Working harder means more get done, which means success, and there is always something to do. So if you get up early, and work, it’ll be rewarding, always. It’s a very romantic and fair view. But this isn’t true in modern life and where conservative views clash with urban reality. So to account for that, we abstract it a bit. The farm becomes networks and “opportunities”, and like before if you have the magic ingredient, you will make more of it, and like before, it all makes nice sense, it’s all very fair seeming, so there is an okay reason to think lesser of those who aren’t successful.

    The belief in this comes with an ensemble of views, like that if you don’t have Magic Pixie Dust, you are unworthy and should not receive much help, unless you restore your Magic Pixie Dust. American conservatives call this “tough love”. Another way to gain Magic Pixie Dust is to donate to televangelist of the “Prosperity Theology”. Either way, once your Magic Pixie Dust is improved, the universe (or God) will hand out the checks. Or, according to a bestseller book, “The Secret” may be that you just need to wish for more Magic Pixie Dust and it will be given to you.

    It’s a nonsense idea that immensely benefits from what’s trivially true that inability/disabilities/unwillingness etc lead to fewer/no opportunities, but the inverse is not really true (the effect is not strong enough).

    1. This reminds me of a colleague who worked in an onion field as a youth. Turns out, they were pretty terrible at picking onions, unlike many of the other laborers. They were promoted to the office, got a raise and began apprenticing as a bookkeeper. ‘Failing Upwards’ I’ve heard it called.

  16. As PCC(e) and some posters have pointed out, Sullivan is a hell of a writer. I have rarely seen the woke Left summed up as deftly as in this short sentence in his essay: “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.”

    There has been some discussion of Mr. Sullivan’s continued devotion to the Catholic religion of his childhood. He explains it himself with this evocative description of his simple, uneducated grandmother: “And she lived with a blithe serenity, an almost careless grace, and a steadying faith that I came to see as beyond my own reach.” What
    occurs to me is that her careless grace may have been deeper than, and independent of, her “steadying faith”. But who knows.

  17. The word “meritocracy” was coined by the British sociologist Michael Young in his political satire “The Rise of the Meritocracy”. He was astonished to see the word enter the English language with none of the negative aspects he intended. (Young was the lead author of the Labour Party’s 1945 election manifesto, which swept the party to power in a victory against Winston Churchill’s Conservative Party.) The concept of meritocracy was discussed earlier in the week on BBC Radio 4, with Michael Sandel arguing against it.

  18. I am having a resonation. This post’s /
    its article’s picture. This post somewhat
    upon persons’ intelligences ? The young man
    nearly front row … … asleep over his notes’ taking ?
    The lecturer continuing … … anyhow.

    Reminds me of when Dr Russell Mitten, now of
    New Zealand = his native land, taught me
    Radiology second year veterinary college.
    At 1:30pm in the afternoon. After lunch.
    In the dark. Cuz it was y1976, we still had
    developing chemicals and dark rooms and film
    and viewing screens all around the room so
    students ‘ad had to stand … … and stroll
    ’round these and learn stuffs pointed out
    from Dr Mitten.

    ‘cept sometimes afternoon after afternoon,
    I did not seem to move very far. And like
    a horse locks its knees, I seemed to do that.
    Standing up.

    Till … … I began to sway. At times.
    Cuz, wuuuull, I was sleeping standing up.
    Zachary The Eldest was born 16 days before
    second year began. Dr Mitten knew this,
    of course. So, he would keep on lecturing.
    About what was on these screens’ films.
    He would keep on walking around the room
    pointing out stuffs. Until he ‘ld see me
    swaying. Like that.

    Then ? Then he would quietly mosey on over
    to my back. And with his own back’s spine
    jus’ kinda sidle on up to mine. With his.
    He would keep on lecturing and pointing and
    darkened and just, … … well, make sure that
    I did not fall down. He never scolded me nor
    ordered me to wake up or a thing. Just held
    me up he did. Till the lights came back on
    fully. And class was over.

    He was one of The Good Guys. Dr Mitten’s
    story did not end well. Like it should have.
    That ? That for … … for another time.


  19. I think there are people that identify as communists that have decent criticisms of aspects of capitalism. The problem I always encounter is they do not provide good solutions (perhaps they do not exist yet). And to be fair a decent number of them are perfectly aware that they don’t have better answers.

    1. Vonnegut himself, however, was pro-socialism. As he said in the peroration of his famous 1970 commencement address at Bennington College:

      … I suggest that you work for a socialist form of government. Free Enterprise is much too hard on the old and the sick and the shy and the poor and the stupid, and on people nobody likes. The just can’t cut the mustard under Free Enterprise. They lack that certain something that Nelson Rockefeller, for instance, so abundantly has.

      So let’s divide up the wealth more fairly than we have divided it up so far. Let’s make sure that everybody has enough to eat, and a decent place to live, and medical help when he needs it. Let’s stop spending money on weapons, which don’t work anyway, thank God, and spend money on each other. It isn’t moonbeams to talk of modest plenty for all. They have it in Sweden. We can have it here. Dwight David Eisenhower once pointed out that Sweden, with its many utopian programs, had a high rate of alcoholism and suicide and youthful unrest. Even so, I would like to see America try socialism. If we start drinking heavily and killing ourselves, and if our children start acting crazy, we can go back to good old Free Enterprise again.

      And as he wrote 35 years later, near the end of his life, in his essay “A Man Without a Country”:

      “Socialism” is no more an evil word than “Christianity.” Socialism no more prescribed Joseph Stalin and his secret police and shuttered churches than Christianity prescribed the Spanish Inquisition. Christianity and socialism alike, in fact, prescribe a society dedicated to the proposition that all men, women, and children are created equal and shall not starve.

    2. The reference to Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” where everything was ‘levelled’ made me wonder why intelligence (and IQ) is usually the sole target of the Equality of Opportunity crowd.

      Why not physical beauty or tallness or fertility? Of course *visible* differences make the handicapping argument much more obviously absurd. Every adult must have plastic surgery to standardise their appearance? Every adult must undergo surgery to reduce or increase their height? Every woman must have at least two children but no more?

      No, I’ve concluded that the Equality of Opportunity crowd choose to believe that everyone is as worthy as anyone else (despite plentiful evidence to the contrary) and want to ‘trim’ untidy reality to fit their simplistic desires. Quite frightening really.

  20. Don’t take my meritocracy away. The people that excelled when I was in grad school, and later in biomedical industry and clinical practice, worked harder than others. It may be true they were on average smarter than others as well, but these were clear individual exceptions. The idea that, within a group competing to advance, “smart” is the main driver is absurd.

    1. The argument against meritocracy goes that the children of the rich get a better education, but thanks to meritocracy think that their success and higher salaries are earned and therefore justifiable. By contrast, the offspring of the rich in unmeritocratic societies are at least aware that their lifestyle is attributable to their privilege.

    2. @Jez both those things could be true: a meritocracy could be based on measurable things like smarts and hard work where brilliant industrious poor people have a chance to excel, and the stupid/lazy offspring of wealth could still have a leg up on others. The latter is not an argument against the former.

      One instance in the USA is the SAT and its utility in levelling the college admissions competition between wealthy and impoverished 18-year-olds. One widespread concern about skipping the SAT in 2020 (and possibly abolishing it altogether in the future) is that poor kids no longer have a chance to transcend the effects of their lousy schools by crushing it on the SAT. It’s still true that wealthy kids can get SAT tutoring, but the evidence is that tutoring has only small effects and that college admissions based on SAT scores tend to favor poor kids (relative to admissions that leave out SAT).

      1. I believe the elimination of the SAT is only the latest step in a long decline of meritocracy in the US. When I was a child, doing well seemed a lot simpler than it does now. The Left is at least partly to blame for this with their giving of awards to all participants and their general discomfort with meritocracy. It’s partly why some people rebelled against the system and voted for Trump. Of course, Trump tricked them and won’t help anyone but himself so, unfortunately, the joke is still on them.

  21. “and the other 40% to different environments experienced by different people as well as to the differential interaction between their genes and their environments.”
    There is almost certainly a third source of variation left out here, and that is random variations during development. Recent experiments with isogenetic fruit flies appear to show that this is important in determining behavior. Other lines of evidence with genetically identical animals suggest the same conclusion.
    For example, wiring of our neuron connectivity during development requires many, many orders of magnitude more information than could be contained in the genes.

  22. “But I believe a moral revolution in this materialist, competitive, emptying rat-race of smarts is long overdue. It could come from the left or the right. Or it could come from a spiritual and religious revival”.

    The DeBoer thesis is nothing if not provocative. He makes the case from the Left for the “moral revolution” Sullivan anticipates.

    Like our host, I think Sullivan’s assertion that such a revolution could come from a “spiritual or religious revival” to be arrant nonsense (depending, I suppose, upon how metaphorical an interpretation of “spiritual” one is willing to indulge Sullivan).

    I don’t know what form the case for such a revolution from the Right might take. But one feasible step in that direction that Left and Right might converge upon is a universal basic income. The progressive case for a UBI was made (some would say incessantly) by quondam Democratic presidential primary candidate Andrew Yang.

    And from the Right, I once heard the case for a UBI made in a lecture by no less than the infamous co-author of The Bell Curve himself — Charles Murray, a libertarian of Randian Objectivist persuasion — who proposed it as an alternative to the (what he sees as stifling and wasteful) bureaucracy that has enveloped the welfare state.

    1. Indeed. Although there are a lot of bureaucrats and politicians who would be out of a job if they weren’t employed to administer and manage the welfare state (as it is currently thrown together).

      1. The department in charge of UBI would also need management and administration. If you’re sending people money every week, you have to track where it’s sent, when people die, deal with fraud, etc..

  23. 1.) Intelligence is largely genetic.

    True. The variance in adult intelligence in the US (or western Europe) is about 80 to 85% genetic, with the remainder “unknown”, not environmental.
    In the US, this value is the same for both blacks and whites.

    It’s about 60% genetic for school children (< 20 years old), who are often the subject of published IQ studies.

    2.) Because of that, intellectual abilities “cannot be dramatically improved”.

    True. For example, the 1 std-dev IQ difference between blacks and whites was the same in 1920 as it is in 2020, despite a large narrowing in differences between diets and education, etc. Also children of Asian immigrants who don’t speak English and go to “ghetto” schools do better academcally (and financially) than the children of wealthy blacks raised in “good” environments.

  24. 3.) Because high intelligence is rewarded in American society…don’t deserve to be.

    False. They’re not rewarded for being smart, they’re rewarded for doing something useful (although the rewards and usefulness are complicated and perverted by gov’t interference and complex structures, e.g. people who get rich short-selling on Wall St. are smart but not useful).

    4.) The meritocracy is thus unfair, and we need to fix it.

    Trying to “fix” the result of voluntary interactions will probably result is poorer results for almost everyone involved, depending how much you want to “fix” – “meddle” would be a better word – it.

  25. 5.) We can do that by adopting a version of communism,

    “Poor” people in the US are better off than most people everywhere else in the world because our economic system works and communism doesn’t.

    6.) Sullivan says that his own admitted high intelligence hasn’t been that good for him, and he doesn’t see it as a virtue:

    Intelligence is not a virtue, doing something useful is a virtue, and intelligent people are more able and more likely to do something useful.

  26. I am very sympathetic to where I think DeBoer and Sullivan are coming from, although I agree that, to my mind, the framing is a bit off. I think, as you / Jerry (never sure which to use in comments) allude/s to, they may be thinking more that we are creating incentives for the wrong qualities, not that incentives are all around a bad idea. For example, if you envision a person who embodies just about every antisocial tendency a person can think of – a mean, violent, lazy, heartless, sadistic, joyless, sociopathic, etc., etc. person – my guess is that this is not who DeBoer and Sullivan are picturing (how we treat such a person is an interesting, but separate, philosophical question, I think.)

    I think there are many people, however, who embody a ton of qualities that we as a society really value, but are, relatively speaking, not compensated well compared to those in intellectually oriented professions. A health care aid who shows immense compassion and does a difficult job; a migrant worker who does backbreaking physical labor in all kinds of weather; or even someone who will never work at all – a person with intellectual disabilities who is not a candidate for a job site but is still just an example of a happy person getting joy from and valuing his or her life. It might not be clear that those are valuable traits with the way our current meritocracy is often framed, but I think they are. Those are things that I think traditionally would have been very valued in communities. Maybe this seems like a nitpick-y point but I think DeBoer risks a sort of nihilism with his approach.

    That’s not to say I think full-on communism is a good idea anyways. I don’t – I think there should be balance in all things, and creating a power void often just invites a worse power to take over. I’m sure the mores of Wall Street are often incredibly sleazy (I can’t claim to know much about them, but it does seem as if people can make a living without really producing anything, and be incredibly callous about the real world outcomes of those involved while chasing profit) but they are still a step above countries where people just poison their opposition or have them disappeared off the street. Whether there is an even better outlet for those human impulses I don’t know, but my view is that you find a replacement first, you don’t just leave a power void in place, because 100% egalitarianism never lasts long. Someone will pull themselves to the top, and the next time it might be based on force, not brains, as it often has been throughout history. That said, as DeBoer notes, we are living in a time of great material wealth, and while that has brought everyone’s standard of living up to at least some degree, it’s certainly worth exploring how that can be improved. I don’t know that this a matter of simply redistributing money at increased rates – things like the possibility of bankrupting medical bills after one mishap; higher education costs; and unfair fines in impoverished neighborhoods wouldn’t necessarily be helped by this. But as a general topic, I think we’re of a similar mindset that this should be at the forefront of our thinking when it comes to political issues.

  27. Every woke writer I’ve ever seen is a blank slater, and would never concede that there are differences in intelligent due to genetics.

  28. Meritocracy seems less the salient variable in the real world than the role of inherited privilege for elite institutions, the instruments of power and reinforced norms. While meritocracy operates at the loading dock skill set level, does it prevail inevitably in the board room or university classroom or halls of government?

    How many get into college because their grandparents built the stadium or library in privileged set-asides? Was the practice of giving gigantic rewards to CEOs for success, but giving them slightly less gigantic Golden Parachutes when they failed miserably an example of meritocracy on the skids?

    As for “intelligence” I’ve long thought IQ tests measure chiefly the ability to take an IQ test, a rough heuristic for aspects of “intelligence”, but hardly the isomorphic metric of it. One of the founders of Mensa believed the tarot deck was invented in 1200 CE at a convention of occult adepts (when it in fact originated as just a card game in the 15th century, and only appropriated as an occult tool in the 18th and 19th centuries). Being IQ “smart” doesn’t mean you’re not dull as a sack of hammers in fact.

    And for the ultimate measure of how meritocracy doesn’t apply at the top, remember who’s President of the United States.

  29. The real question is where is our experiment in democracy or more correctly, a Republic headed. Currently it is going through a rough patch, one that has been in progress since 1980 or so. Maybe we will get though it and move on to more normal directions of democracy. The backward movement of Trump will end soon but then the country needs leadership it does not seem to have. Lots of adjustments to our form of government need to be made and are long overdue. Just covering social issues like health care, abortion or day care for kids does not fix a government. It needs structural changes to the constitution to get it into the 21 century. Our election system must be removed from money. Our politicians must be removed from the money and idea that politics is a career. Currently the system is very sick and needs an overhaul. It is shot. People in America are so busy with there own self-interests they do not see how badly out of date this system is. We must stop thinking the Constitution was carved into stone and permanent. It is not and is very much in need of major change.

  30. Andrew Sullivan needs to read “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut. If he’s already read it, he obviously didn’t get it.

  31. DeBoer asks, “what could be crueler than an actual meritocracy, a meritocracy fulfilled?”

    Off the top of my head, here are three “crueler” scenarios:

    1. A hereditary aristocracy/caste system, such as have been prevalent throughout most of recorded history. Under this system, the King’s idiot firstborn son becomes King in turn, while the brilliant son or daughter of an illiterate peasant spends his/her entire life plowing fields and shoveling manure, with no opportunity to rise above his/her station.

    2. Anarchy: a state of chronic warfare among rival tribes/gangs/militia, where everyone is too preoccupied with not getting killed and hence has no time or mental energy for cultivating intellectual pursuits.

    3. Actively targeting the intelligent/educated for destruction, because they are bourgeois pig capitalist bloodsucker exploiters and Enemies of the People. See Khmer Rouge and China under Mao for examples.

    My point is: do not denigrate meritocracy. I want a meritocracy. Why wouldn’t I? I want my doctor to be good at what she does; when I drive over a bridge, I want it to have been built by someone who was good at his job. I want all the people who are now feverishly working on developing and testing Covid-19 vaccines to be as intelligent as possible. The problem with true meritocracy, as DeBoer correctly identifies, is what happens to those who cannot compete. I strongly support a good social safety net, possibly including a UBI, if such can be implemented without too many unintended consequences. But to oppose *giving a job to the person best qualified for that job* is bonkers.

  32. About a dozen posts above, Kurt Vonnegut is quoted as follows: “Socialism no more prescribed Joseph Stalin and his secret police and shuttered churches than Christianity prescribed the Spanish Inquisition.” This is an old chestnut which has a delightful self-contradictory quality. In point of fact, Stalin’s secret police did in fact achieve unrivaled power in a society dedicated to socializing everything in life under state control; and the Spanish (and earlier Roman) Inquisitions were indeed established by Holy Mother Church. Did Vonnegut imagine that the NKVD and the Holy
    Inquisition represented accidents?

    1. I think Vonnegut was pointing out the difference between socialism (and Christianity) in theory and in praxis. But I’m not here to defend Vonnegut, much less socialism — only to point out that the short story “Harrison Bergeron” is not the end of the story where Vonnegut is concerned.

      I’m a free-market man myself. But what I oppose is the concentration of capital in the hands of the few. The tighter the concentration, the less free the market, and the more likely we are to have fixed markets and anti-competitive cartels.

  33. Another book that touches on this issue is “The Meritocracy Trap” by Daniel Markovitz. It makes some similar arguments and ties it to the way in which US society has been deteriorating in terms of the well-being of most of its denizens over the last 5 or so decades. The illusory nature of contra-causal free-will is also part of this topic.

  34. “Sullivan adds that the moral worth of smart people is no higher than that of people like supermarket cashiers, trash collectors, or nurses. (I agree, …”

    As a supermarket cashier, I find this insulting and strongly object to you saying people working in these fields are not smart. There are far more intelligent people than jobs requiring intelligence, and why you would throw nurses into this group is confusing. Why would an intelligent person not want to be a nurse?

  35. Another random thought… it seems to me that communist-esque principles are, after a point, best reached naturally. I think a social safety net and some redistribution of wealth via taxes should happen through the government. But beyond that, it seems to me that the concept of wealth kinda becomes like the concept of fat in a society with a lot of resources. At one point, it was socially desirable to be plump, as it signaled that you managed to find abundant resources in a world of scarcity. Now, of course, not only is thinness considered the ideal but people make all sorts of moral assumptions about weight gain (not disciplined, not taking care of yourself, etc., etc.), to the point where we have whole groups standing up for those with weight problems.

    I think the same is likely true of wealth. I know that for me personally, excess spending already seems like more of a vice, or failure of impulse control, than a virtue (people in the past, I think, may have looked forward to showing off their material wealth to signal status – but now an excessive Target run really isn’t going to impress anyone.) This is particularly true against the backdrop of global poverty and global warming, which moving around goods contributes to. I think some amount of wealth redistribution is already being achieved via a reworking of societal standards (such as the top 1% pledging to give away their fortunes rather than pass them on,) and that trend will hopefully continue.

    1. I think the dynamic might be described a bit better in “Someday” by “Issac Asimov”:

      Nickie was a little afraid of Paul anyway, since Paul had special courses at school and everyone said he was going to grow up to be a Computing Engineer.

      Not that Niccolo himself was doing badly at school. He got adequate marks in logic, binary manipulations, computing and elementary circuits; all the usual grammar-school subjects. But that was it! They were just the usual subjects and he would grow up to be a control-board guard like everyone else.

      I think DeBoer has the start of an interesting idea in that our current values seem incredibly skewed towards intelligence, and that this dynamic is probably out of balance. I hope he develops this further. But I disagree with his hypotheses in it current form, as I also think it is a part of basic human dignity to feel as if one has something to offer the world, that one has something valuable to contribute to humankind. I think saying “Just sit back and let the smart people take care of it” could be incredibly disempowering in that sense. Besides, I think another strong human drive is fairness. We get irritated when we see people who appear to be unfairly compensated for their efforts on both ends of the spectrum – whether it’s too much or too little. It probably goes back to times when the best hunters or gatherers were rewarded with the choicest food so that they had the strength to continue their efforts. When a relationship in our life is skewed and we feel like we’re doing all of the taking and little giving, we start to feel uncomfortable and weird about it (Random aside – this is my current relationship with vector graphics from less developed nations. It’s so awesome that there are treasure troves of free stuff online, but one starts to think “How long did it take you to make this? Shouldn’t you be getting paid for this stuff? Am I taking advantage here? Etc.).

      1. As someone else noted in this thread: It’s not just intelligence.

        It’s also:
        Hard work
        Deferring gratification
        Motivation to follow the law and social norms

        Kind of like that list of “whiteness” that the Smithsonian put up and took down.

        Short of a system where a totalitarian government enforces equal outcomes, what (the heck) else would one want to reward in society? The opposites of that list of whitenesses? How (the heck) could that work out well?

        Yes, let’s reward stupidity, sloth, and improvidence. That’ll work well and be very stable. (/sarcasm)

  36. A meritocracy doesn’t necessarily mean that the “best” or “most intelligent” are also the “richest”. I think a scientist or engineer feels very thankful that they were born with enough smarts to be able to choose their profession. They also imagine they could have done otherwise (free will!) and still been successful.

  37. “Since cognitive talent varies from person to person, our education system can never create equal opportunity for all. “

    I’m not sure that’s the point of the education system…. in fact I’d say it’s not true. Then again, definitions are so loose here, we’re guaranteed to miss points.

    “Instead, it teaches our children that hierarchy and competition are natural, and that human value should be based on intelligence. ”

    No it doesn’t.

    Two … I hope… more thoughts:

    • if there were ever an institution such as a gym, but for training the abilities in the mind, an education system would be it. There are plenty of examples of university-trained degree holders with occupations not within the walls of the degree they took. For training the mind with the express purpose of filling a clearly defined job, vocational technical schools cover that.

    • an individual must learn somehow their weaknesses. If they took an IQ test and weren’t serious about it, the score would be bad. They “just can’t” solve textbook problems. If later, they look around at what is valued – mentally grappling with difficult topics – there’s nothing saying they might be inspired to change from within.

    … I hope I’ll stop thinking about this article right now, today!

  38. So let’s assume that repeated IQ tests is a proxy for intelligence, and that genetics and environment influences the variation (but not the intelligence that comes from developing a human brain in the first place).

    If it is anything analogous to height it is multigene and has a heritable component.

    Genes comes out as explaining 1 cm of the variation or about 0.5 % against a gaussian distribution (since multifactorial) with a standard deviation of 8 cm or about 5 %. Genes explains 10 % of height variation, and have little statistical power.

    Pulling that back to, say, the Stanford-Binet IQ score test it has a standard deviation of 15 score points [ ]. I would be surprised if Sullivan claims that genes explains all of that variation and that it is fixed during development, but it seems superficially as he does.

    Meanwhile we observe that IQ scores increase 3 point/decade [the Flynn effect, ], or about 6 points for every generation. (And of course we also observe that scores increase IIRC 1 point/year for university education, whatever that means in regards self selection.) That would be a very strong genetic selection that increase the trait with a standard deviation for every generation! More realistically, it has a mean heritability among complex traits or about 60 – 80 % [ ], and environment has a strong influence.

    1. “Genes explains 10% of height variation” – I can’t work out where you get this number eg
      eg Zaitlen et al (2013, PMID 23737753) gives 70% in Iceland, Yang et al (2015, 26323059) gives 60% (multiple populations), and multiple studies give “SNP heritability” of 25% – the latter approach not good at picking up the combined contribution of rare variants.

      Educational achievement is trickier, because parental genotype seems to have an effect independent of genetic transmission to children (“genetic nurture”, eg Kong et al 2018, again in Iceland)

  39. “Equal outcomes” is a pipe dream.

    If there is an agency/office/bureau that enforces equal outcomes for everyone, why would anyone work hard and practice deferred gratification*?

    (*The most important behavior for success in life.)

    Why would I put myself through the stress, hard work, deprivation, cost, and lost opportunity costs to get a college degree if it won’t translate into greater economic success in life? (A “higher after-tax income”. Not sure why most readers went to college; but a good income was my main motivator.)

    Only a stern, authoritarian power could enforce such a system that conflicts so badly with human nature and striving.

    This experiment was run in the 20th century and was a failure.

    And, if we aren’t going to reward people equally, regardless of the content of their character and their abilities, then what should we reward them for? How does it work to reward people for doing poorly in the competition of life (rather than doing well)?

    (Disclaimer: I am in favor of a basic social safety net. I oppose the GOP efforts to erode this. I am in favor of UK- or Canada-style single-payer health care in the US. I am in favor of progressive taxation (I’m not sure what DeBoer means by “high taxation” but since the object is leveling outcomes, I assume it is a mighty severe tax rate), since it seems right that the more well-off pay more (within some defined scheme that maintains motivation).)

  40. I don’t think that Sullivan embraces DeBoer’s position. Maybe I read Sullivan’s piece not carefully enough, but all he says is that DeBoer’s position appears to him more coherent than the flat-out denial of the heritability of IQ by large swaths of the left.

    Why is 60% a reasonable estimate? Any reference for that? Most researchers usually assume something closer to 80%, especially in later years when environment is a function of genetic preferences (Wilson effect).

    1. Seems odd that Sullivan doesn’t make his opinion of DeBoer’s thesis more clear. He seems to just throw it out there and see how his readers react. If I had to go one way or the other, I’d say Sullivan likes DeBoer’s idea but doubts many others will.

  41. Can’t help it:

    Found this interesting part of an article which nearly echoes the phrase from DeBoers’ indelible example:

    “Math is a language which builds on itself, and not understanding the foundations of math is like not understanding the structure of a language. This makes it very difficult for a student who struggled in math through middle school to suddenly reverse course and excel in high school. This is why it’s so essential that we address our students’ issues with math in middle school, before their self-esteem is so damaged that they decide they’re “just not good at math” and stop paying attention.”

    Eighth grade is asserted as a critical point for math education.

    Source :

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