The distribution is clear: the smarter you are (as measured by IQ), the more likely you are to be invested in the stock market. And this distribution is independent of wealth: it applies to the rich as much as it does to the poor. Or, as the paper puts it, “IQ’s role in the participation decisions of the affluent is about the same as it is for the less affluent. The definition of affluence—net worth or income—does not affect this finding.”
And similarly, at the other end of the spectrum, there’s huge amounts of research showing that if you’re particularly financially illiterate, or you’re not good at numbers, then you’re much more likely to be ripped off by predatory lenders or other scams, be they legal or otherwise.
There are various conclusions to be drawn here, one of which is that if we do a better job of financial education, then Americans as a whole will be better off. That’s true. But at the same time, financial illiteracy, and general innumeracy, and low IQs, are all perfectly common things which are never going to go away. It’s idiotic to try to blame people for having a low IQ: that’s not something people can control. And so it stands to reason that any fair society should look after people who are at such a natural disadvantage in life.
It seems to me that the current election campaign comes down in large part to a simple question: “who do you care about”? Do you care about the 1%, on the grounds that they are “job creators”? Or do you care about the bottom 40% — the people who have been left behind by US economic policy and who desperately need help and support? The Republicans clearly are the party of the 1%, and the Democrats are trying to paint themselves as the party of the middle class — of the 59%, you might say. But no one is standing up for the bottom 40%, the invisible poor, partly because they have a distressing tendency not to vote.
Read the whole thing. It really does speak to a massive blind spot in conservative ideology. We on the Right have meritocracy as a cornerstone of our thinking. In a just society, we believe, a man should reap rewards according to his natural abilities and willingness to study hard, work hard, and sacrifice for his own advancement. I think most Americans believe that, but it’s more of an article of faith on the Right. I certainly believe it. It’s why, for example, I am so adamantly opposed to affirmative action. For example, if the children of Asian-Americans score higher on admissions exams than my own European-American children, then I believe they should get into the top school ahead of my kids, even if they’re getting in in disproportionate numbers. It would strike me as deeply unjust for those Asian kids to be told that all their work and all the preparation their parents put into preparing them for higher education wouldn’t help them, simply because of their ethnic heritage.
But Salmon points out something the ideology of meritocracy doesn’t account for: people who suffer from such a natural intellectual deficiency that they cannot fairly be expected to compete. To put it bluntly, what do we do about dumb people?
A teacher friend of mine from California once told me that her instincts were conservative, but she couldn’t stand the Republican educational policies. She said she taught public school, and many of the children of the poor were in her classes. Some of these kids were poor students because of their chaotic family environments. Others, she said, were just dumb. They weren’t bad kids, but they weren’t intelligent enough to succeed in school, and they wouldn’t be doing much better if their parents were rich. They were simply at one end of the bell curve, and nothing was going to change that. As far as my teacher friend saw it, the Republicans had no plan for those people, because the Republicans falsely believed that everybody was equally capable of bootstrapping their way to straight-As and college. My friend also hated the way many liberal Democrats blamed society for the lack of achievement of these kids. I haven’t talked to her about this in many years, but I seem to recall her view was that the existence of natural stupidity was an ideological affront to Americans of both the left and the right, and neither party was willing to accept the fact of it, because it got in the way of their theories about who man is, and what keeps him from material advancement.
Anyway, the wealthy and dumb are fine; they have cushions. I’ve known some stupid rich people in my life, people who are blessed to have descended from intelligent, hard-working folks. I doubt they’ll have their money for long, but that’s another story. What about the people who are dumb and who lack the cushion of wealth and position? In the past, it was possible for people who didn’t win the genetic lottery in intelligence to find meaningful work using the strength of their backs (by “meaningful,” I mean work that enabled them to provide for themselves and their families). Now? With the loss of manufacturing jobs, it’s much more difficult for these people, through no fault of their own.
I mean, look, I’m an educated man, but if the difference between my having a job that allows me to raise my family in near-poverty and having a job that allows me to raise my family in a comfortable middle class way depended on my ability to do mathematics beyond a high school level, my family would struggle. My family’s own retirement savings plan only began to look good after we hired a professional financial consultant. My wife and I were both journalism majors. We are intelligent people, but we are close to being the kind of people Salmon calls financially illiterate. So we hired a financially literate man to help us, and he has been a godsend. I never bought the Republican idea that Social Security could be replaced by private investment accounts. The kind of people who think that’s a good idea are the kind of people who live in a bubble made up of people who are financially literate, or well off enough to be able to afford to hire financially literate people to “read” for them. The old man who works as a janitor at the elementary school, what does he know about mutual funds? What does the woman who works the checkout line at the dollar store know about IRAs? What can they be expected to know?
All this brings to mind Jeremy Beer’s provocative essay criticizing meritocracy from a traditionalist conservative perspective. I’m going to quote it at length, but it really does bear a full reading. Excerpts:
[Edmund] Burke’s assumption about individual differences has, at least in my opinion, been thoroughly confirmed by the psychological research of the last half century. We’ll come back to this, but it certainly seems true that there is “real inequality” among men that can “never” be erased; and that to contend that it can be erased is to inspire false hopes, which when dashed will no doubt lead to bitterness and resentment. For Burke, the old class structure humbled some and exalted others, but by making deliberately obscure the mechanism by which this separation occurred, it allowed the man of low social status to blame his estate not on himself, but on the randomness of birth, and it removed a major source of pride for the man of high social status.
A century and a half later, the Swiss economist Wilhelm Röpke insisted on the same point. It “deserves to be stressed,” he wrote, that if everyone is supposed to have
the same chances of advancement, those left behind will lose the face-saving and acceptable excuse of social injustice and lowly birth. The weakness of mind or character of the overwhelming majority of average or below-average people will be harshly revealed as the reason for failure, and it would be a poor observer of the human soul who thought that this revelation would not prove poisonous. No more murderous attack on the sum total of human happiness can be imagined than this kind of equality of opportunity, for, given the aristocratic distribution of the higher gifts of mind and character among a few only, such equality will benefit a small minority and make the majority all the unhappier.
Now, Röpke was no Spencerian social Darwinist who delighted in the social survival of the fittest. As a decentralist and ardent supporter of small-scale and peasant agriculture, Röpke holds much in common with Wendell Berry. But on individual differences and their primary source-nature-Röpke was what I would call a realist.
The same is true, I think, of [Wendell] Berry. In Life Is a Miracle, he assails the meritocratic lie propagated by our schools. In words reminiscent of Burke’s and Röpke’s, he writes:
Young people are told, “You can be anything you want to be.” Every student is given to understand that he or she is being prepared for “leadership.” All of this is a lie. You can’t be everything you want to be; nobody can. Everybody can’t be a leader; not everybody even wants to be. And these lies are not innocent. They lead to disappointment. They lead good young people to think that if they have an ordinary job, if they work with their hands, if they are farmers or housewives or mechanics or carpenters, they are no good.This is interesting. Berry is saying that a primary function of a healthy culture is to make important knowledge widely available by “submerging” and “embodying” it in “traditional acts.” In this way, a healthy culture democratizes intelligence. Conversely, the absence of such cultural functioning injures most those with the fewest intellectual resources, condemning them to survive more or less on their own.
The seemingly unassailable ideal of “equality of opportunity” demanded by the meritocratic regime has drawn scorn from thinkers such as those I have quoted in part because they have understood that in order for talent to triumph, it must be mobile. This, as we have seen, is precisely the aim of a meritocracy. It seeks to remove the barriers posed by tradition or culture — that is, barriers posed by institutions, texts, myths, habits, social forms, sensibilities, affections, characteristic practices, and the like — to the mobility of the intelligent. Thus, the more perfect the meritocracy, which we typically equate with justice itself, the more mobility — both geographic and social — is required, until talent is able to flow freely to where it can command the highest price. A perfect market for talent is the dream and goal of meritocracy: nothing must stand in the way of the rise of talent to primacy. Progress, understood both as the never-ending process of self-liberation and self-fulfillment, and as the indefinite expansion of our consumer economy, depends upon such mobility.
One consequence of meritocracy, [Christopher] Lasch argues, is that the elites in such a system become “dangerously isolated” from their neighbors. Because meritocracy requires that populations-and especially elites-be exceptionally mobile, loyalty to community, region, and nation become severely attenuated.
It is no surprise, then, that what Lasch calls the “new aristocracy of brains,” more mobile than ever and indeed committed to a “migratory way of life” as “the price of getting ahead,” has little use for Middle America, which they imagine to be “technologically backward, politically reactionary, repressive in its sexual morality, middlebrow in its tastes, smug and complacent, dull and dowdy.” America’s meritocratic elites, Lasch claims, “are at home only in transit, en route to a high-level conference, to the grand opening of a new franchise, to an international film festival, or to an undiscovered resort. Theirs is essentially a tourist’s view of the world-not a perspective likely to encourage a passionate devotion to democracy.”
The fact that our meritocracy rewards most those at home in the world of “abstractions and images” has further isolated our new elites from the rest of society by their insulation from manual labor. “The thinking classes are fatally removed from the physical side of life,” and indeed, only under such circumstances could such academic theories as “the social construction of reality” gain any purchase on the mind, concludes Lasch.
Another serious disadvantage to rule by the “best and brightest” is that, unlike the older, premeritocratic elite, with its codes of chivalry and concern for honor and family, the new elite, thinking that it owes its power to intelligence alone, has “little sense of ancestral gratitude or of an obligation to live up to responsibilities inherited from the past.” It “thinks of itself as a self-made elite owing its privileges exclusively to its own efforts.”
Read the whole thing. I have fairly strong feelings about meritocracy being the most just of all potential systems, but Salmon’s blog post, and Jeremy’s essay, remind me that meritocracy is only good as a means to an end — the just society — and not as an end in itself. To the extent that meritocracy leads to injustice, it is flawed and must be amended. What is injustice? A society in which people who do not have the cognitive capacity to succeed are expected to live off the crumbs from the tables of the cognitively gifted. If that condition is environmental — because of poverty, or violence, or lack of opportunity, etc. — it can be remedied. But there will always be people who simply do not have the intellectual capacity to earn more, or to manage their financial affairs effectively. As I said earlier, from the point of view of managing investments, I’m dumb — but I’m smart enough to know that I need to hire help, and well-off enough to be able to afford it. I live in a society and an economy in which my kind of intelligence and my skills allow me to hold a job that pays me enough to hire help managing my money. It may not always be that way. In fact, as I’ve noted here, the industry I’ve worked in all my life is in collapse. It is not inconceivable that I will find myself one day in the same position as a Pittsburgh steelworker after the mills closed. What then?
What do we have the right to expect from people who cannot effectively compete in our meritocratic economy? What do they have the right to expect from us?
How strange it is to reflect on how the old paternalism was in some ways more realistic and humane than the individualism that now goes unquestioned among both liberals and conservatives.