Social Justice, Libertarianism

Libertarianism for Luck Egalitarians

Luck egalitarianism is, roughly, the view that inequalities in life prospects resulting from luck are unjust. (There’s a lot to nit pick about that characterization, but it’s a start.) If Amy has better job opportunities than Bob because she happened to have parents who could afford to send her to a fancy private school, that’s unfair.

You might even think it’s unfair that Rob Gronkowski makes so much more money than, say, me simply because he was gifted with 6’6” height and fast-twitch muscle fibers that enable him to run a 4.68 40 yard dash. Even if we both work equally hard at our crafts, Gronk will earn more than me because his natural talents are more marketable than mine. But it’s not like Gronk earned those talents; he just got lucky and won the genetic lottery. So it’s wrong for him to make so much more money than I do.

Suppose, for argument’s sake, this account of distributive justice is correct. What institutional conclusions follow? Luck egalitarians suggest that the income disparities between people like me and Gronk show that free markets are unjust. It’s the job of the state to correct for these kinds of market-generated inequalities via regulation and redistribution.

As I detail in my book, luck egalitarians (and fellow travelers who might not apply the label to themselves) are nearly unanimous in their rejection of free market regimes. Here’s a small sample:

“Laissez-faire capitalism (the system of natural liberty) secures only formal equality and rejects both the fair value of the equal political liberties and fair equality of opportunity.” (John Rawls)

“Market allocations must be corrected in order to bring some people closer to the share of resources they would have had but for these various differences of initial advantage, luck and inherent capacity.” (Ronald Dworkin)

“Desert as a principle of justice, then, rather than justifying the distributional consequences of free market choices, requires precisely the elimination, or at least the minimization, of the differential brute luck that characterizes the free market […]. The adoption of desert as a principle of justice seems to result in a much more demanding requirement, as far as its implications for the regulation of the market are concerned, than a commitment to voluntariness as a legitimating condition for the imposition of obligations, even when this is suitably revised so as to square up with a defensible account of voluntariness and force.” (Serena Olsaretti)

I could go on, but you get the point: the market generates luck-based inequalities and the state reduces them.

One problem with this argument is that you don’t clinch the luck egalitarian case against free markets by simply showing that they create luck-based inequalities. What you need to do is show that the alternative is better. To use an old analogy of mine, showing that Steph Curry misses over half of his three point shot attempts doesn’t justify benching Steph Curry. To justifiably bench Steph Curry, you’d need to show that his replacement would do better. Similarly, luck egalitarians need to show that a highly regulated market with extensive redistribution will have less luck-based inequality than a libertarian regime.

Here’s a reason for doubting that claim: those who benefit from inherited wealth, elite education, and natural talent in the market also benefit from those factors in politics. Put very roughly, political power will concentrate in the hands of the rich—the very people the political power was created to regulate and restrain. Thus, we might naturally expect such power to be used to increase rather than decrease the advantages of the rich.

Interestingly, this is Rawls’s own view. He says that a

“reason for controlling economic and social inequalities is to prevent one part of society from dominating the rest. When those two kinds of inequalities are large, they tend to support political inequality. As Mill said, the bases of political power are (educated) intelligence, property, and the power of combination, by which he meant the power to cooperate in pursuing one’s political interests. This power allows a few, in virtue of their control over the machinery of state, to enact a system of law and property that ensures their dominant position in the economy as a whole.”

By Rawls’s own lights, the rich will use their “(educated) intelligence, property, and the power of combination” to acquire political power and “enact a system of law and property that ensures their dominant position in the economy as a whole.” But now we can see a problem for Rawls’s view. The people that Rawls wants the state to control (those with property, education, and so on) are the same people that Rawls thinks control the state itself. So how can the state control the rich if the rich control the state? Shouldn’t we instead expect state intervention into the economy to favor the rich? Indeed, this is exactly what we see in many cases: subsidies, licensing, trade restrictions, housing regulations, and so on tend to benefit the rich at the expense of the poor.

Of course, we cannot definitively establish a conclusion about the effects of regulation and redistribution on luck-based inequalities by doing a priori institutional analysis. But at a minimum, luck egalitarians shouldn’t rule out libertarianism as a viable institutional option at the level of philosophical theory. Perhaps libertarianism and luck egalitarianism are compatible after all.

  • Great post.

    There is also the problem of people who happen into political power by luck.

  • DBritt

    “And so we need empiricism” would be your conclusion, right? High level theory can’t look at a set of policies and definitely say “This one is an effective restraint on the powerful whereas that one is the powerful having their way with us.” But let’s say you incorporate that empiricism and now you know which policies are which with some fidelity. Aren’t we back to where we started, arguing over which normative goal is correct? Or if you found that luck egalitarianism were in fact achieved by certain specific authoritarian means would you support implementing them?

  • Sean II

    That the market wins a “compared to what” contest is very clear. And we know why.

    The by-product of inequality in a rent-seeking regime is deadweight loss. When the way to get ahead is by organizing factions, rubbing out rivals, Petyr Baelishing up a series of crises then trying to exploit them, etc., you can do that without making anything useful to anyone.

    The by-product of inequality in a market is innovation and growth. When the way to get ahead is building better mousetraps, writing iOS code, directing Jaws, etc. you’re always adding something to someone’s idea of value.

    Genghis Khan could gain and maintain his inequality over the peasants of his world without ever giving them anything more than a poke with a stick.

    But Steve Jobs could only realize his inequality by supplying the peasants with a series of new toys.

    The simple way to say it is: the market prevents people from keeping their talent to themselves.

    • efcdons

      “But Steve Jobs could only realize his inequality by supplying the peasants with a series of new toys.”

      And knowing the government would give a good poke with a stick to anyone who used Jobs’ intangible intellectual property, which only exists because of the implied violence of the state, to make something better or cheaper than Jobs could. Thus taking Jobs’ market share. Even if the person was adding something of value Jobs always had the government’s stick to threaten upstarts who dared to make something too similar to what Jobs claimed was “his”.

      It’s strange to use Steve Jobs, who built a fortune on rent seeking from “rights” that only exist because of the state, for the great example of how talent will always shine through because of the market.

      The luck egalitarian isn’t against the talented by luck from sharing their talent and obtaining a reward. They just believe the reward shouldn’t be so outlandish as it is today and that bad luck shouldn’t be as punishing as good luck can be rewarding since the state will be able to make sure that doesn’t happen.

      • Sean II

        Fine, plug in a different example.

        If you don’t like Steve Jobs, just imagine whoever it was that sold Gus Molinari his smartphone, and think of that guy instead.

        • Konrad_Lorenz

          All the other big fortunes come from monopolies too, though. It’s not possible for humans to accumulate giant fortunes any other way.

  • efcdons

    I don’t get the argument exactly. Because rich people will intrinsically take political power by virtue of their wealth, that means we shouldn’t use the state to minimize or correct economic outcomes that are the result of luck?

    But under the regime of the luck egalitarians the state will take away the wealth and redistribute that wealth more widely and then initiate policies and rules that will prevent luck based factors from letting people accrue more wealth in the future. So how will the wealthy due to luck be able to take political power in a system which would prevent them from getting wealthy because of luck in the first place?

    Is the argument that the people who get wealth based on non-luck factors will then rig the political system for their benefit? Why would that be a problem? The whole point is to make a system which rewards people for the contributions they make which aren’t based on luck but are instead due to non-luck factors.

    “The people that Rawls wants the state to control (those with property, education, and so on) are the same people that Rawls thinks control the state itself. So how can the state control the rich if the rich control the state? Shouldn’t we instead expect state intervention into the economy to favor the rich?”

    So that just seems to be an argument as to why it would be hard to move from the current system to one where luck receives less reward. I suppose the counter argument is that being rich in part due to luck doesn’t necessarily mean one will want to continue the system into the future. Therefore the “founding fathers (and mothers)” will need to want to purposefully create a state which would have prevented them from obtaining wealth and political power in the first place.

    But isn’t this an anti-libertarian argument too? Since the state and wealth are so intertwined right now, and the wealthy control politics, why would the wealthy people who control politics reduce the reach of the state if it would impact their wealth or their children’s chance at wealth etc.?

    • Chris Freiman

      Thanks for the comment. My concern with the luck egalitarian proposal centers on how, exactly, to get the state to function in accordance with the luck egalitarian conception of justice. The luck egalitarian has a dilemma. If, on the one hand, the fortunate are willing to exploit their good fortune for their own benefit, then we should expect them to do so in the market and in politics, in which case unleashing political power to counter market power isn’t a promising strategy. On the other hand, if the fortunate are committed to luck egalitarian justice as a matter of moral principle, then it becomes unclear why we need the state to intervene at all. For instance, a luck egalitarian millionaire would donate to those with less, thus obviating the need for coercive taxation in the first place.

      • Rob Gressis

        It may not be so all-or-nothing, though: imagine most fortunate people don’t want a redistributive state, and most unfortunate people do. But imagine further that a minority of fortunate people, convinced by luck egalitarianism, favor a redistributive state. If the fortunate people happen to be able to get control of the state, then they can force the other fortunate people to massively redistribute their assets. By contrast, if this distribution prevailed in a market setting, then the minority of fortunates wouldn’t have the same ability to right nature’s wrongs.

        • Chris Freiman

          I think this is certainly a possibility, but it could also go the other way too (that is, where a minority of fortunate people capture the state and widen luck-based inequalities). I only want to argue that the question of which institutional structure does the best job of satisfying a luck egalitarian criterion of distributive justice is an empirical one and that luck egalitarian rejections of free-market capitalism haven’t done the empirical work needed to justify that rejection.

          • Rob Gressis

            I certainly agree with you that it’s an empirical question. Here’s an idea that I have that I think is similar to yours:

            1. Assume that health care is a right.
            2. Assume that a free market in health care provides better health outcomes, for more people, than socialized medicine.

            If 1 and 2 were true, couldn’t the advocate of a right to health care be *against* socialized medicine?

          • Chris Freiman

            Definitely. I think that the right to health care imposes an obligation to arrange institutions in such a way that everyone has access to adequate health care. But this leaves open the question of which specific institutions actually do that. (I’m drafting a chapter for a forthcoming book on contemporary moral and political controversies where I discuss the right to health care; feel free to email me if you’d like to see a copy.)

      • Pajser

        Voters. If voters want luck egalitarian system, politicians must do what voters want. Politicians have some independence in issues for which voters do not care much. But if voters care, they immediately, or in very few iterations get what they want. If voters want luck egalitarian system, why they need state? To force those who do not want luck egalitarian system.

  • Octavian

    Another, I’d say more important, reason not to punish ‘good luck’ is because it inevitably disincentivizes productive behavior.

    If you gain no advantage for your parents sending you to a good school, your parents have less incentive to encourage and finance your education; they also have less incentive to be successful themselves.

    One if the strongest motives for productive behavior is to improve the lot of obe’s children. Equalizing the outcomes of all our children and grandchildren eliminated that incentive and destroys possibly our single biggest reason to save and reinvest our own wealth.

    Additionally, why not make it so a heart surgeon makes the same hourly wage as a janitor, if the main reason for their difference in occupation is hereditary IQ and upbringing? Of course, do that and smart people have no material incentive to make good use of their intelligence.

    Lastly, Rawls et al. Assume private property rights are basically nonexistent. It’s not self evident that the fortunate should be obligated to compensate the unfortunate, let alone a total obligation to do so. If a storm leaves my house untouched but my neighbors destroyed, do should I really be obligated to give him half my stuff to help him rebuild? And even if the storm was just a matter of luck, it’s rarely purely luck, and such an arrangement leaves me with no reason to prepare for or insure against bad luck.

    • King Goat

      Wouldn’t the idea that you’re going to lose a contest that you can’t possibly win provide a pretty big disincentive to not try much, if at all?

      If I had you race Gronk, would you even try? Why? But what if I said ‘you will race Gronk, and considering his natural talents we’ll give you X head start?’ I think most people would run harder in the second test than the first. Indeed, *Gronk* would run harder too (in the first race, he’d probably run backwards while blowing kisses to the prettiest girl in the crowd).

      • Octavian

        Or, if you and Gronk had an equal probability of winning, thanks to your head start, we’d (a rhetorical ‘we’; I don’t watch sports) as likely as not end up having to watch you play football and he’d end up having to work as a fry cook; you’d be less productive as a football player than you are doing whatever you do now, and he’d be less productive as a fry cook than he is as a football player. Sure, you get a nice job in the NFL (though your salary would be much much lower than his would be; people won’t pay as much to watch you play as to watch him), but Gronk and everyone else who has to suffer an inferior product/service for the sake of ‘fairness’ loses. Now apply the same principle to physicians, engineers, police officer, firefighters, etc.

    • Konrad_Lorenz

      If the society has institutions that obligate those whom the storm does not affect to aid those whom the storm does affect, then that society does have storm insurance. So you do already have insurance, with no incentive needed. Worry not.

      If you don’t prepare for the storm then the result was not a pure matter of luck. So the social insurance can maybe deny your specific claim after their claim investigators discover you failed to enact best practices.

      By the way, if you deliberately chose to accept the risk of storm damage in exchange for satisfaction of some other preferences (e.g. you really like Florida beaches) then te result of the storm is also not a pure matter of luck. So your storm insurance is maybe not as cheap, doesn’t pay out as much, or isn’t even available if you choose Florida.

  • Matthew Jeffers

    It’s an interesting response, but I think that it’s going to depend on the
    particular State. For instance, in Nordic countries life outcomes are
    nearly unpredictable based on your parents, e.g. everyone’s roughly got
    an equal shot of being at any socioeconomic level regardless of their
    parents socioeconomic status. So it seems, they’ve roughly achieved the
    luck egalitarian criteria, while in the United States, life outcomes are
    much more predictable based on your parents income level. (Let me know
    if you want the data and I can dig it up, but I think it’s from Roemer.)

    I think the answer to the question of what role
    the State should play, (assuming the starting point of luck egalitarian
    conception of justice,) might depend on whether you think it’s feasible
    for your particular state to achieve it. Maybe the answer for the United
    States is different than say Great Britain, or Germany, etc…

  • Fernando Teson

    The post is fine as far as it goes, but I think a better move is to deny luck-egalitarianism’s premise. The idea that natural assets are undeserved is a category mistake: they are neither deserved nor undeserved. a person could not have done the things to become deserving of her talents, for the good reason that she was not around before her birth!
    The post leaves an easy answer for statistics: unless you think the control of the state by the rich is a brute fact of nature, let’s address THAT pathology. This is done by allowing the virtuous statists to run the show.

    • Sean II

      “The idea that natural assets are undeserved is a category mistake: they are neither deserved nor undeserved.”

      That doesn’t work.

      You’re slipping in a definition of undeserved that means something closer to “stolen”. But that’s not the same thing as “undeserved” in common parlance.

      Imagine three dollar bills with three different origin stories:

      1. is a buck you earned by labor
      2. is a note you found on the street
      3. is a bill Dad gave you for being born.

      It’s not a category mistake to notice that dollar 2 is different from dolllar 1, even if we grant that dolllar 2 is different from dollar 3.

      Indeed most people use a definition of “earned” that says “won by work or value provided”, and a definition of “unearned” that means “anything other than that”.

      One may dislike those categories, but they are not invalid on the face of it.

      • Fernando Teson

        Sean II: I agree 1,2,and 3 are different, of course. But they are similar in that your possession of the dollar bill in each case is not unjust. Chris’ reports that luck egalitarians believe that “inequalities in life prospects that result from luck are unjust.” This assertion, I contend, is false. As you say, the dollar I found on the street is mine, even if I was lucky to find it. But the deeper point is that if we take luck egalitarians seriously EVERYTHING we come to own, including the fruits of our labor, is undeserved, because we use our natural talents to acquire it, and those, they think, are undeserved. If I may, let me direct you to my previous post on this issue.

        • Sean II

          I read that piece when it came out, though I was on a comment hiatus at the time. I found your argument very clever, but it has a flaw.

          You’re saying that if we empty the set [deserved] then everything ends up in the set [undeserved], and these concepts lose their meaning.

          One reply you seemed not have considered is: yeah, so what?

          There is no law of the universe that says we must rescue those concepts, after they’ve failed to describe the world accurately.

          In other words I think you committed an appeal to consequences fallacy there, saying “Put down the mounting evidence of biological determinism and slowly back away, or the foundation of traditional morality gets one in the brain box.”

          But of course the fate of desert theory should not be decided based on how reluctant we are to part with it, nor how important it is to the surrounding structure of ethics, justice, etc. Only on whether it’s true of false.

          The key line as I read it was this: “Any theory of desert that prevents us from distinguishing between [downwardly mobile] Kasey and [upwardly mobile] Akbar has to be wrong.”

          But that’s mistaken. There is at least one theory – biologic determinism – which can be a.) true and yet b.) still yield the conclusion that Akbar and Kasey are indistinguishable in the sense that neither chose his talents nor the personality that inclined him to apply or waste them

          But admitting this possibility needn’t be the end of morality. We can still prefer Akbar for a dozen reasons – he’s a better neighbor, a better trading partner, more fun to be around, etc. – without conjuring up the illusion that he willed himself into those happy attributes.

          And the same goes for Kasey. We can disprefer him just as much for being a mean-regressing schlimazel, as we did when we thought him a bad choice making schlemiel.

          We can still prefer a market that rewards productivity, without kidding ourselves that Wilt Chamberlain was a hard worker. It’s still better that we should be pay to see him play, and that he should get rich as a result, even if we have to do without the moral fairy tales we used to tell each other to make smooth the rough places of inheritance and chance.

          Most the argument still holds. Maybe it holds even better after we cut away the decorative bunting of lies.

          As i said before: the fact that talent is unchosen does not make an argument that talent should be suppressed.

          The only way we can benefit from Wilt Chamberlain’s gift is by letting him play.

          We don’t need to believe he deserves it, and we shouldn’t, because he doesn’t.

          Because, to repeat my own personal carthago delenda est, the thing we can measure best among humanity’s spiritual attributes, and the thing which matters most to being human, may be as much as ~80% heritable, ~20% chance, ~0% anything else.

          If anything “has to be wrong”, it’s a theory which ignores THAT.

          • KK KK

            Just out of sheer curiosity (off topic), how does you view on desert cohere with the rest of your libertarian views? From what I can tell you seem to be at least a minimal state libertarian, but probably an anarchist, right?

            For me, taking say 20% of Akbars income is wrong, because he earned it. So there is a modest presumption against it, only to be overwritten if there is a pretty strong case. Generalize that, and you get to libertarian conclusions.

            But if Akbar doesn’t deserve his income, why is there a presumption against the state taking 20%? And if there is no presumption, and we judge by consequences alone, how do we know it’s best for the state to leave him completely alone?

            Sure, there is good evidence that a big state leads to bad consequences. But how about a modest state, say Switzerland or Singapore? How do we know that reducing their size leads to a better world?

            We don’t have any empirical examples at that point (at least in today’s age). In your view, shouldn’t the moral case, at the very least, be extremely uncertain?

          • R.Levine

            I won’t presume to speak for Sean, but as a former more-deontological libertarian turned consequentialist, one possible answer is: well, the consequences are better.

            I got to my current perspective by arguing with a friend who’s much more deontological than I ever was (to the extent that he’d declare age-of-consent laws immoral if they deprive a 10-year-old of exercising his natural right to sleep with whomever he likes). At some point we we discussing arbitrariness of first principles and I challenged him to come up with a satisfying natural law-oriented justification for original property rights – it seems logically straightforward that if I already own something and then do something with it that I should own the results, but what justifies my owning a piece of land just because I happen to step on it first? And if we take that “finders keepers” mentality strictly seriously, shouldn’t we return the entire continental US to the ownership of Native American tribes?

            Maybe some would in fact bite that bullet, but to me the obvious response is “maybe initial seizure of property from native peoples was horrible and immoral, but the end results have ultimately been dramatically better than they would have been in a world without western European-style property rights.” So in the Akbar example he may not strictly deserve his income, but the consequences of a system in which he keeps enough of it to incentivize him to keep producing are preferable, especially if the consequences of taxing it are negligible or even negative. Note that adopting this stance makes the hardline libertarian position more difficult since you can’t just say “all taxation is wrong on principle” any more, but it hardly rules out arguing on consequentialist grounds that optimal taxation should be 0% if you’d like to try.

            I realize that in general there’s perhaps something less emotionally satisfying about consequentialism (probably because it feels less certain than having ironclad principles to always fall back on), but it seems to me to better reflect the world we live in.

          • Sean II

            Ha! I wrote a very similar reply above, before scrolling down to see yours.

            You said it better than I did.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Please forgive the self-promotion, but you are in effect throwing an 85 mph fastball, middle in, belt high to me on a 3/1 count. I just can’t lay off this pitch:

          • R.Levine

            (I realized just after posting that I didn’t really address your specific questions in P3 or P4, and indeed you’ve probably already considered the general case I made for consequentialism. Apologies if my response seemed patronizing or something, in that light)

          • Sean II

            Well, I should begin by admitting something unflattering: I’ve been a libertarian for 25 years, despite a complete swap-out of my original foundation. Used to be a free will/deontic rights/NAP guy, am now a determinist/consequentialist/just-how-much-force-are-we-talking-about-and-why-so-let’s-talk-price guy.

            That sort of thing is usually a red flag for fanaticism. You’re all set to burn a witch for causing a drought, but then it rains. So you decide to burn her anyway, for causing a flash flood. Very suspicious when people hold a conclusion constant while re-working everything else. If I weren’t me, I’d probably be jumping my shit for that. Feel free to level the charge of retconning, because here’s my all too convenient defense:

            What had happened was…I figured out I was really a consequentialist all along, but in my stupid youthful exuberance I’d talked myself into a deontic corner because I thought that was more likely to win. You must admit: to a battle-hungry sophomore, the NAP looks like Excalibur, the unanswerable weapon. I mean what are people gonna do, endorse violence? Likewise for a Randian version of free will. It answers every question. How do winos get to be winos? Bad choices. How do billionaires get to be what they are? Good choices.

            This type of thinking really simplifies things, and for a while the therapy seems worth the side effects – the worst being, you have to take your own critical thinking skills out to the woods and shoot them, so you end up arguing just as tediously for your good idea as as any dorm-room Marxist ever did for his bad one. Present company excepted, you know the type: [comic book guy voice] “Well ackchually Wal-Mart is an example of statism because they ship for free across roads built by the corvee of tax slaves.”

            Not gonna lie: one of the main reasons why I took the time to re-think my foundation was just to avoid being one of those guys. Not least of all because, although the whole magic of deontology is supposed to be the knock-down arguments it puts in your hand, these never seem to persuade anybody.

            So, why let Akbar keep his money? Because everything ends up better that way. Because Akbar does good things with his money, or at least better things than the government would if they took it. Because as a rule, goods things happen when people mostly keep their money. Even after controlling for the obvious confounds, you get better societies. It’s a potent effect: a 100 IQ nation with private property can feed the world, a 105 IQ nation without it can end up starving.

            That’s how we know. We’ve run the experiment many times now, with remarkably consistent results. Doesn’t matter if you’re the colossal Soviet Union or a tiny Owenite commune. The thing that fails, fails everywhere and always. The thing that works, almost always does.* Hell, even the Kibbutz movement ended up going capitalist. Because it’s better, by a far enough degree that even people who are determined not to sometimes have to concede in the face of results.

            It’s important to note why this seems to happen: people using crude empiricism to learn from painful mistakes. Also important to note why it doesn’t: people reading Kant and suddenly deciding no man should be a mere means, etc.

            Ask yourself what did more to undermine the Orwellian tyranny of the East Bloc (which remains the greatest threat humanity ever faced): Was it: a. Levi 501s, or b. the notion of individual rights?

            It’s not even close. At best…at best, you could say that the notion of individual rights is what ultimately made production of Levi 501s possible, but that sure as hell sounds like a consequentialist argument to me.

            Now, as you correctly point out, we DON’T yet have experiments for extreme versions of the idea. Deadwood and Saga Iceland raise interesting questions, but they are far from convincing test cases for An-Capistan Now! And even if some tech mogul manages to launch a seastead, it won’t be a valid proof of concept either, because sample size matters and the selection bias in such an experiment would be obvious. I don’t think anyone doubts we could keep an island of James Damores going without violence for a while. But that’s not the test we need, and it won’t produce a scalable model.

            A better approach, for all its flaws, is the one we’ve been half-heartedly trying since the 1970s. The one where we use an industry or sector as the unit of analysis, instead of a whole society. And those experiments have mostly gone well. Numerous cases of a good or service where private provision was supposed to be impossible, being – shock, shock – more or less successful privatized.

          • Rob Gressis

            None of what you wrote is incompatible with Hume’s moral theory. Or maybe even Aristotle’s.

          • Sean II

            Hume of course, but what’s the case for compatibilism in Aristotle?

          • Rob Gressis

            Wait … are you asking for evidence that Aristotle thought free will is compatible with determinism? I thought you were talking about how, if you’re a hereditarian, you couldn’t believe in desert? (I mean, you can be a compatibilist about free will who denies desert and instead focuses on forward-looking criteria for determining who should get what.)

            I grant that Aristotle is an agent-causal libertarian about free will. But it doesn’t follow from that that you can’t accept his virtue theory while also being a compatibilist.

            You could say this: certain people have certain natures that make it harder or easier for them to have certain virtues. Indeed, despite his agent-causal libertarianism, Aristotle himself talked about how some people were “natural slaves” and others were “natural masters” in Book I of _Politics_.

            In addition, Aristotle (from what I recall) thought that if you reached a certain age without having the right habits of mind and behavior inculcated in you, then you were basically a lost cause when it came to getting those habits.

            So, you could imagine Aristotle taking this view:

            1. People have libertarian free will.
            2. That said, such free will is of limited power: if you are a natural slave, then you can’t change yourself into a natural master by using your free will in the appropriate fashion; also, if you have a bad enough upbringing, then you aren’t capable of having a virtuous character.
            3. We should praise or blame people for what they do with their libertarian free will, but we should have different expectations for some people, and we should recognize that the kinds of options people even consider deciding among is a function of their character rather than their free choices.

          • Sean II

            Well, I was thinking the simple version of desert hinges on the simple version of free will, but that you could rescue the former by reconciling free will-determinism.

            I see what you mean about Aristotle now. Probably you know what I’ll say in response: his habit of virtue idea sounds like something a really smart dude would come up with to explain the phenomenon we now know as “heredity increases with age”.

            Maybe he noticed that certain people start being occasionally prudent, then got more so over time, until they seem habitually prudent.

            I would explain this as inherited conscientiousness and future orientation coming home to roost. But to someone without twin studies, it would look an awful lot like self-training, self-development.

            Likewise for the idea of a range, or a tether that yields different expectations for different people.

            One possibility I’ve long thought about is this:

            A.) Free will exists
            B.) But like everything else it is a normally distributed trait. So that some people have enough to be nearly makers of their own fate, and some don’t have enough to stop from eating the box of Oreos that will make their foot fall off.
            C.) Silly things must happen when the two tails meet and try to live by a single set of rules.

            Not too far from what you described there.

          • Rob Gressis

            Hmm. I have to think about this. But let me ask you: do you really think habituation has no effect on people’s character traits? It’s all just inherited conscientiousness and inherited future orientation? I put a comment below that puts the point on it more finely, but my grosser way of putting things would be: COME ON.

          • Sean II

            Nothing wrong with an “oh, come on!” argument in a case like this.

            I’ll respond to the longer comment below…

        • Farstrider

          I think Chris and you are strawmanning luck egalitarians. Or at least the strain of luck egalitarianism that I subscribe to. If you are willing to concede that 2-4 are not deserved, then I win, because you have conceded that you do not deserve, and thus have no moral right to, 75% of the money in your pocket.

          • D Hampton

            “that you do not deserve, and thus have no moral right to”

            Why would that follow?

            It sounds like you’re abusing the very double-definition of “deserving” that Sean pointed out above.

          • Farstrider

            What would the moral right be based on, if not desert? Mere possession?

      • Lacunaria

        But once you introduce degrees then shouldn’t the dollar transfer to whoever deserves it more, rather than based upon some arbitrary “undeserved” categorization?

        You might not deserve the dollar, but you deserve it slightly more than someone who didn’t pick it up, including the government.

        Given a binary requirement, arguing for more degrees is kind of like arguing there is a category error, isn’t it?

    • Chris Freiman

      Thanks for the comment Fernando. I’m not a luck egalitarian myself, although I think that luck egalitarians would respond with something like the following: people are only entitled to unequal benefits when they’ve been acquired as a result of their deliberate choices (that’s a rough characterization of course). Thus, even if natural assets are neither deserved nor undeserved, the unequal benefits resulting from them are not the result of deliberate choices and so the gifted athlete (for instance) isn’t entitled to the income she receives as a result of her natural talents. Also, it is certainly possible for states to not be controlled by the rich. However, it is also possible for markets to not generate significant luck-based inequalities (for instance, you can imagine Rob Gronkowski voluntarily splitting his paycheck with me because he is a devoted luck egalitarian.) So it strikes me as reasonable for the luck egalitarian to address people’s market behavior in addition to, or instead of, their political behavior. Indeed. I take it that this is basically G.A. Cohen’s argument in his various responses to Rawls.

      • Salem

        But if my height does not entitle me to “unequal benefits,” then neither can my intelligence, creativity, or capacity for hard work. As my deliberate choices are the product of my undeserved capacities, then even my choices can’t entitle me to “unequal benefits,” and luck egalitarianism swallows itself.

        It’s also interesting to wonder why this logic is never applied to the abortion question. That your body contains a womb is unearned moral luck, and you have no particular right to decide what goes on there. If the fruits of Rob Gronkowski’s body are to be nationalised, how can the rest of us stand exempt?

      • Rob Gressis

        I forgot who said this — I think George Sher? — but isn’t another problem with luck egalitarianism that they don’t take it far enough? E.g., not only are all your physical traits not deserved, but whom you happen to meet, what ailments you happen to suffer, whom you happen to be born to, what time and place you happen to be born in, what stores happen to be near you, and on and on, are all outside of your control. It doesn’t seem even *conceptually* feasible to try to account for luck, let alone politically. But if it’s not feasible to account for luck, why pick on some lucky things to address and not others?

        • Sean II

          It’s a funny thing many people have noticed about envy: it doesn’t track luck very well.

          When not kneeling symbolically, athletes tend to be admired far more than envied. Likewise professional cute people in movies and TV. Although of course everyone knows that physical gifts rather than hard work are the sine qua non of their success.

          That is to say, no one seriously believes we would ever have heard of Jennifer Lawrence if she was ugly, or Michael Phelps if he didn’t have that light touch of Marfan’s and/or Fragile X which turned him into a talking merman.

          But it’s not envy of people like them which brings the drum circle to Zuccotti park. The target is usually people whose luck was far less obvious.

          Nor, to take the extreme case, has luck egalitarianism ever raised much a fuss about people like William and Kate. On the contrary, nobody loves them better than the P5T crowd who have every right to feel cheated from birth.

          • King Goat

            “Although of course everyone kinda knows that physical gifts rather than hard work is the basis of their success.”

            That’s almost certainly not true. Almost every sports-star-starring commercial or 30 for 30 special is replete with how much these guys worked, the hours of practice, the incredible dedication, etc. of these stars.


            It might be bs, but that is definitely how they’re packaged constantly. I doubt that’s not playing to, and responding to, quite a bit of what’s the popular understanding about what’s special about these stars.

          • Sean II

            Yeah, well, strenuous attempts at packaging usually mean the person is not whatever they’re trying to sell you.

            What does every hot actress say on late night talk shows: “I’m actually kind of a nerd…”

            Doesn’t mean anyone believes it. Indeed if such a thing were true, they wouldn’t have to advertise it.

            Likewise for those overproduced hard luck featurettes used to humanize sports heroes. “But when Goran returned from the gym that day, his gerbil was dead [cue sad piano]…”

            They make those in an effort to downplay the fact that these people are winners of a 1,000,000 to 1 lottery.

            Doesn’t mean anyone forgets.

          • King Goat

            This is a lot of empty handwaving. Those guys don’t really work so hard, if they did they wouldn’t present that they do, and anyway no one believes or agrees with all those millions of dollars of advertising…Yeah, the athletes are misrepresenting their efforts, the advertisers spend millions on messages that aren’t believed, Sean II knows what’s *really going on there,* in their hearts everyone really agrees with him (but for the wrong reasons no doubt!).

            The funny thing is, none of this is important to your ultimate point. As Rob points out below, pro athletes can be said to generally be products of good genetics who also (and maybe because!) practice like beasts. At the very least, whether it’s true or not, the narrative about the latter is widely accepted, if everyone thought it was bs it wouldn’t be so ubiquitous.

          • Rob Gressis

            I think Epstein’s _The Sports Gene_ goes into this quite a bit. The only thing I remember that’s relevant, though, is that some people are genetically primed to get much greater gains from practice than others, and people who don’t know that (~100% of the population) tend to interpret the people genetically primed to get great gains from practice as hard workers and the others as lazy.

          • Sean II

            “people who don’t know that (~100% of the population) tend to interpret the people genetically primed to get great gains from practice as hard workers and the others as lazy…”

            Naw, they know. If they didn’t we’d see idiots by the hundreds of millions wasting their lives chasing the magic 10,000 hours of practice.

            Everyone would be a crazy sports parent.

            No one would use words like “blessed” or “gifted” or “talented” to describe exceptional people.

            It’s really only elites who can keep up a consistent pretense of believing in the Gladwell bullshit. Deep down everyone knows what the official dogma won’t let them say.

            Sometimes the truth peeks through in funny ways. For example, people are forever telling me and cognitively assortative wife: “You two gotta have kids. They’d be so smart.”

            See, we’re allowed to notice heredity in specific cases. We’re just not supposed to make a general concept of it, not god forbid notice it on a population level.

          • Rob Gressis

            Sorry, I didn’t express myself clearly. My claim wasn’t that people are genetically primed to be good at sports. Everyone knows that. It was this:

            Take two people, A and B.
            1. A is not very fast, owing to genetics.
            2. B is very fast, owing to genetics.
            3. Owing to genetics, A is such that when A practices, A makes great gains.
            4. Owing to genetics, B is such that when B practices, B makes only small gains.

            Vast majority of people believe things like 1 and 2. Very few know about 3 and 4.

          • Sean II

            I grant you very few can describe the different between 1-2 and 3-4.

            But they seem to grasp it on some level.

            For instance: people often diet and work out in pairs or groups. Hang around a gym and you can catch them talking about how differently different people respond to the same quantity of piyo.

            This doesn’t appear to shock them, nor shake their view of the universe. In fact they seem to expect it.

          • Rob Gressis

            Fair enough, but, at least in Epstein’s book, he pointed out that it’s apt to be easily forgotten. He and a peer were both runners. His peer was naturally fast, he was naturally slow. They both practiced a lot. At the beginning of the school year, his peer was doing much better. At the end of the school year, his peer was still faster, just not much faster. The coach praised Epstein for working so hard and condemned Epstein’s buddy for being lazy.

            Point is, people tend to go straight to characterological explanations of phenomena that they don’t think have genetic ones. (Not that the two are mutually exclusive.)

          • King Goat

            “If they didn’t we’d see idiots by the hundreds of millions wasting their lives chasing the magic 10,000 hours of practice.

            Everyone would be a crazy sports parent.”

            If you’re old enough to have kids and your kids have played much sports, this kind of thing doesn’t ring true. My kids play sports, and the number of crazy sports parents are legion and is incredibly far disproportionate to the number of kids who will be pro athletes one day. My kids are above average athletes in several sports in a large metropolitan area and I can say with confidence that of the literally hundreds of kids and parents I come into contact with in that area, a significant majority of them believe in what that commercial extols. And I don’t think even one professional athlete will come out of that! These parents pay, ultimately, thousands of dollars and a similar number of their and their kids hours in the belief that the next camp, academy, personalized coaching session, etc., will put their kid over the top. Unlike your handwaving and mindreading, there’s a bunch of actual data on this phenomena I’d be glad to share if you’d like.

            And here’s the thing, and it’s a good explanation of why this narrative is actually so resonant, *it’s not unheard of for someone with a much harder work ethic to be able to, if not overcome, at least play with and at the level of, genetically more ‘gifted’ athletes*. It does happen. Who is the NBA all time assist leader? Is it African-American, 6-9 genetic phenom Magic Johnson? Nope. It’s 6-1 white guy John Stockton, who was known for his work ethic and ‘intangibles.’ The notable careers of people like that keep that dream very real and alive for many (though of course statistically the odds are against them).

          • Sean II

            You’re forgetting that the capacity for hard work is heritable, just like the height.

          • Rob Gressis

            I think that you’re taking the hereditarian determinism thing too far.

            First of all, shared environment does account for some stuff. E.g., why do so many kids who grow up in France speak French? Surely at least *some* of the reason isn’t just “they’re genetically predisposed to speak French; if you raised them in Chinese-speaking China, 63% of them would just end up speaking French anyway.” I grant that the ability to speak is a genetically endowed ability, but what determines exactly how it turns out is your environment.

            Second, parenting does account for some stuff. Sure, parenting style didn’t determine that your kid would speak French — it’s the fact that he grew up around a lot of French-speaking children that determines that — but your decision to have a kid in France and to stay in France and to not cut your kid’s tongue out or murder him was also key to his growing up and speaking French.

            Third, non-shared environment may be, from an explanatory standpoint, a shorthand expression for “random noise”, but I was under the (perhaps false?) impression that it could also be thought of as “the individual experiences in virtue of which you make certain choices and end up the way you do.” So, on Judith Rich Harris’s view, wouldn’t a child’s peer group be an example of non-shared environment? But if so, what that means is that if you’re slightly the smartest kid in your peer group, then your peers will notice that, and that will encourage you to do more stuff on the smart path, which will further improve your smarts, etc.

            I realize you haven’t denied any of this (well, possibly my third point — I’m very unclear about what non-shared environment is, as you’ve no doubt picked up), but when it comes to your remark that “he capacity for hard work is heritable, just like the height”, I can’t help but hear you saying that John Stockton was just going to work hard, no matter what environment he was put in. You’re not saying that, but what are you saying? Are you saying this?:

            “John Stockton had a genetic predisposition to industriousness; that means that, around 60% of the time, if you put John Stockton in a particular situation that requires hard work to prosper, he will do the hard work to prosper, just so long as his environment doesn’t put up suitably large barriers in his way.”

          • Sean II

            Sorry for the delay. Things got very busy, and stayed that way for a week,

            1) “First of all, shared environment does account for some stuff. E.g., why do so many kids who grow up in France speak French?”

            True. The way traits are expressed has something to do with where you land. An even better example than language is religion. The chunk of map you’re born into surely decides what name you give to god, what you call the book, probably which meat is forbidden, etc.

            But note the limits, even here. The kind of creed a region ends up with is, over the long haul, almost certainly determined by the traits of its people.

            Which is probably why some transplants won’t take. Like they’re not taking now, in Rotheram and Malmo.

            Ask yourself: if we took 100 reform Jewish babies and switcheroo’d them at birth with 100 Amish babies, would those kids grown up to fit into their new host cultures? Probably not. Imagine young versions of Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld quietly working a hand-saw, without questioning the Ordnung around them. The result is not a thought experiment for the power of shared environment. It’s a comedy sketch.

            The next ten years will show: many more things are like that than not, and many more than we ever imagined.

            Indeed, much of what we see in the escalating culture war looks like a faith-ectomy that didn’t take.

            Perhaps you’ve noticed the recent trend of “comedians” and late night talk show hosts weeping and preaching like televangelists? Or if not that, the holiness spirals, the literal shaking, etc?

            Well, look WHO is involved. Look which people are doing these things. Less a few token people of color, the SJW movement is overwhelmingly made up of two groups: non-observant Jews and de-Christianized Anglo-Teutons.

            For someone like me, that sure as hell looks like a deep trait re-asserting itself in a new way.

            2) I don’t think we’re adversaries here. Your example is a pretty good statement of the hereditarian view of what parents can do. Want your kid to speak French? Move to France and harness the child’s natural need to fit in with a peer group. Bada bing, bada boom, 18 years later you’ve got a fluent French speaker.

            In other words: even though shared environment is often ~0 for the things we care about, it’s still worth paying for private school.

            Because the thing you’re buying is a better peer group, so you’re kids will engage in better behaviors when they struggle for social status…as, of course, they are programmed to do.

            But note the limits again: there is no school, nor any style of parenting, that could replicate the trick of raising humans who DON’T care about social status.

            Which is to say, environment doesn’t do nothing, but it never does the things we wish of it.

            3) I suppose the mysterious tertiant “non-shared environment” could include choice. Bryan Caplan among others, has expressed this hope.

            One possibility I’ve long thought about is: something like free will exists, but it’s normally distributed. Some people havre enough to be choosers of their fate. Some have hardly any, which is why they look like chronic fuck-ups.

            It’s not as crazy as it sounds. If free will does exist, surely it would be enhanced by the traits we call intelligence and impulse control. The ability to SEE options is prerequisite to choosing among them. The ability to care about a future where the consequences of those options occur seems just as important.

            Again, though experiment: next time you see a homeless guy wearing five layers of clothing in August, and begging for a cup of coffee so he can have something to drink…and something to defecate in, try to convince yourself he could will his way into a better life.

            It’s really hard to do.

            And if you don’t like the thought experiment, just use the real one: see if you can find many homeless men, thus situated, who actually did change their lives.

            Also very difficult.

            4) [is my view that] “John Stockton had a genetic predisposition to industriousness; that means that, around 60% of the time, if you put John Stockton in a particular situation that requires hard work to prosper, he will do the hard work to prosper, just so long as his environment doesn’t put up suitably large barriers in his way.”

            Pretty much, yeah. Maybe I’d go higher than 60%.

            Better yet, I’d say: JS is a hard worker. Currently expressed in competitive athletic performance. Even if you break his ankle and end that career, he’ll probably find some new thing to be a hard worker at. What he won’t do, is end an eternal schlimazel.

            I don’t know if you’ve followed the latest Ta-Nehisi Coates kerfluffle, but it’s interesting in this regard. In several ways.

            First, he published a collection of his usual freshman essay puffery, with the standard message: Nothing is our fault, everything is yours.

            Next the NYT made a bid to salvage some dignity, by pointing out – in the most cautious, please-don’t-hate-me way – that Coates’ account is so heavy on victimization, it ends up making whites seem all-powerful…and, by obvious extension, it makes blacks seem utterly feeble, helpless, bereft of resilience, etc.

            And since this is what the tiki torch crowd believes, the Times argued: “Hey, maybe we on the left shouldn’t accidentally agree with them?”

            You can guess what happened third: the goodthinkfull turned up a mob to denounce the Grey Lady, and re-cork the bottle.

            Because here’s why: Coates is has come dangerously close to saying “These two groups are different. This one will always be on top. This one will forever be on bottom. It’s like a law of nature.”

            This comes as no shock to me. People can disbelieve in traits like time preference, intelligence, conscientiousness, etc. But if such things really do exist, they’re gonna keep running into them, and end up just assigning different names.

            We’ve seen this before. Those who couldn’t see or wouldn’t admit that Ashkenazim are smart, kept colliding with the performance results of that trait, and ended up calling them “craft”, “ruthless”, etc.

            Now, today, those who can’t or won’t see the traits which make whites do so well in a high-tech post-industrial economy, they keep running into the results, and they’re starting to make up stories.

            But…at the extreme end, those stories start to uncomfortably resemble the old ones.

            Thus we end up with a game of pick your poison:

            Group Y does better than group X. Either X is feeble, or Y is evil.

            But even if Y is evil, you still have to posit that X is weak enough to be knocked down without getting up.

            So we’re back to square one.

            5) “What’s the proper grammar for “Are you saying this?:”

            I’m not sure. Maybe we should use: “Do I understand you to say…”

          • Swami

            My favorite piece of writing on the internet so far this month. As is often the case, the comment section of this site continues to be EVEN better than the main posts. Do you write anywhere else, Sean?

          • Sean II

            Thank you, very much. I really appreciate that.

            Would you believe: this is my one and only social media presence.

            I follow a bunch of people on Twitter, but don’t tweet. And I’m not on Facebook at all.

            That said, I’m about a year away from significant financial independence, and writing more to reach larger audiences is definitely part of the plan.

          • Rob Gressis

            Looking forward to it!

            Any articles or books you recommend I read if I want to know more about hereditarianism?

          • Swami

            Well do let me or us know as you expand your offerings.

          • Rob Gressis

            1) “Ask yourself: if we took 100 reform Jewish babies and switcheroo’d them at birth with 100 Amish babies, would those kids grown up to fit into their new host cultures? Probably not. Imagine young versions of Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld quietly working a hand-saw, without questioning the Ordnung around them. The result is not a thought experiment for the power of shared environment. It’s a comedy sketch.”

            You’re going to find this funny, but I actually don’t have a strong sense of what would happen. Sure, Larry David or Jerry Seinfeld wouldn’t fit in there, but to what degree is Larry David the way he is because of the environment in which he was brought up? I suspect your answer will be “20%”? I’m not sure; the Amish are an extreme case. To take an even more extreme case, people put in the concentration camps had their personalities break down. I suspect that those who survived had their personalities repair almost back to normal, though they were still traumatized, and that trauma must have manifested in various ways. But if they had stayed in a concentration camp environment the whole time (e.g., North Korea), what would have happened? Would there be a permanent bend to their personalities?

            The point is, culture determines how heritable traits express themselves, and I’m not sure to what degree “questioning authority” is a character trait itself, or comes from more basic character traits that have a wide ambit in how they’re expressed.

            I haven’t looked into the research on how political beliefs are, in fact, heritable, but I suspect the idea is this: the big five personality traits correlate with particular political views (conscientiousness goes with conservatism, openness to experience with liberals), but I’d love to see data on how that works internationally. Are there countries where the allegedly right-wing party is mostly full of people who have personality traits that correlate with what we would call left-wing people?

            2) OK, but then you can see why people are fans of Headstart. It produces long-lasting improvements in social interaction, even if it doesn’t do anything for academic achievement. Moreover, if a person were kept in a Headstart-like program for his whole life, then it wouldn’t shock me if it did improve academic achievement. It’s not hard for me to imagine, even with everything we know about genetics, that X, if raised and kept in a bad part of town, would turn out to be a hardened criminal, but if raised and kept in a good part of town, would turn out to be something a lot less anti-social, and maybe even pro-social.

            3) We’re agreed about free will. In fact, I would go so far as to say that some people have less agency than others, often because of things like their economic condition, their social status, and their genetic predispositions. (Note: Peter van Inwagen, the leading proponent of incompatibilistic free will, also agrees about this in his “When Is the Will Free?” (link here:

            4) I haven’t read the kerfuffle. What’s the NYT piece? Could you give me a link to it?

          • Sean II

            No particular order:

            4) (To catch the backlash, I suggest Twitter.)

            An intriguing chapter in the always fascinating Coates phenomenon. This guy is the Ruth Stoops of 21st century American race relations. He was adopted as a mascot by a Left literati that’s 99% white fighting not to be an even 100. The way his patrons embarrass themselves with praise they wouldn’t lavish on a Dumbledore-Gandhi hybrid is shocking to behold. “Essential, like air or water.” “Not a word out of place.” Often the praise is so over the top you wonder if the petitioners aren’t trying to send an ironic distress signal, as in “Hey guys, you all know I don’t slobber like this for anyone, so I’m counting on you to figure out that I’m only talking up this clown because I have to.”

            And sure enough, look what happened when one of them tried to break ranks.

            2) “It’s not hard for me to imagine, even with everything we know about genetics, that X, if raised and kept in a bad part of town, would turn out to be a hardened criminal, but if raised and kept in a good part of town, would turn out to be something a lot less anti-social, and maybe even pro-social.”

            Well, that experiment is run fairly often – adoption, kids of the black upper class, etc. Looks like a lot of mean regression there. The Princes don’t stay Fresh as often as we might hope.

            2b) “Moreover, if a person were kept in a Headstart-like program for his whole life, then it wouldn’t shock me if it did improve academic achievement.”

            Isn’t that what adoption into the white upper-middle class is? A Headstart that never stops? Again, seems not to stop the mean regression machine.

            1) “…to take an even more extreme case, people put in the concentration camps had their personalities break down.”

            This is one those exceptions that seems rather to support the HBD rule. If the level of environmental intervention it takes to produce visible, replicable change is “concentration camp”, or “North Korea”, or “massive iodine deficiency”, or “Minamata disease”, this feels like an argument for the limits of intervention.

            1b) “Are there countries where the allegedly right-wing party is mostly full of people who have personality traits that correlate with what we would call left-wing people?”

            Not that I’m aware, but I know where the looking should start: Japan, land of eternal weirdness.

            1c) “You’re going to find this funny, but I actually don’t have a strong sense of what would happen [with Amish Larry David]”

            How about this: grant me a high likelihood his personality would not fit will with the old older, and I’ll grant you the slight possibility that clash might manifest itself in some weird way, like Larry becoming a charismatic elder who founds an ultra-devout spin-off sect.

            That sort of thing seems possible to me. Indeed I think many of the great and famous might – yellow sun of earth style – be people who possessed some trait that was exotic, and hence advantageous for sticking out, in their adopted milieu. Indeed it’s hard to tell the story of the Ashkenazim without positing something like that.

            But my core point remains: the thing Larry would be least likely to do, is just become another obedient drone in the Amish village where he got dropped. No way.

          • Rob Gressis

            On a side note: have you read Ron Unz’s stuff about the malleability of IQ?

          • Sean II

            Yes, but not recently. I’ll read it again now though.

            If memory serves: no doubt, he gave some valid examples of Flynn-like score improvements in populations previously thought feeble.

            My own people, the Irish, are one such case. Our genotypic IQ is lower than that of other Europeans, but at times our phenotypic IQ has seemed even lower. Many arguments to be made, on both sides.

            Some stories like that are probably measurement error, some are cases of environmental improvement, and some – like the urban vs rural gap – are explained by task familiarity of the kind many suspect for a culprit in the Flynn effect.

            My main response is: whatever they are, cases like that don’t remove the ceiling on what nurture can change.

            “Look what happened when we stopped poising kids with lead” does not get us to “expect big things from pre-natal Mozart”.

            Also, “Group Y tested low then tested better” doesn’t justify hanging much hope on “Group X will break through any day now”.

            Indeed it’s rather the opposite: once we have the scientific means to pick up on past mistake or detect secular changes, it’s bad news for anything that fails to look different under the new, better microscope.

            “It took us a awhile to find Pluto” doesn’t justify “I believe there’s a 10th planet yet undiscovered in the heavily studied space between Mars and Saturn”.

            The correct answer here is: “No, if such a thing existed, the very tools we used to find Pluto would by now have found it.”

            The main gap we’re concerned about has been massively studied and tinkered with.

            If it was measurement error, we’d know by now.

            If it was susceptible to nurture improvements, we’d know that too. There would at least be pockets of success. Compared to the average poor kid today, John von Neumann was a victim of deliberate perinatal stunting. And yet…

          • R.Levine

            Seconding (thirding?) Swami and Rob’s responses. This is an excellent post Sean.

            Something I’ve wanted to ask you for some time, since I started lurking on BHL a couple years back (and especially since I started posting a couple months ago): what would you suggest for concise and robust primary sources for heredity / IQ / race? You’re more or less single-handedly responsible the fact that I now hold opinions that I’m afraid to admit in most personal and professional contexts, and if I’m going to sacrifice my being able to subscribe to the standard left/libertarian narrative on race I’d very much appreciate being able to feel more secure about my justification for it.

            In particular:
            – Do you know a good paper or review article that summarizes the relative importance of heredity (and unimportance of shared environment)?
            – I suspect that IAT results more or less vanish when you control for statistically valid discrimination; do you know if this has been demonstrated?
            – I’d like to say (I think you would too) that things like the IAT are similar to how car insurance companies charge higher premiums to teenage boys because they’re higher risk. I suspect a mainstream progressivist response to that might be “wait, those are different – the insurance company is making a careful measured calculation, whereas the IAT is demonstrating subconscious responses… therefore the former is ok but the latter is irrational prejudice”. Has it been demonstrated that knee-jerk reactions to stimuli tend to be just as good from a judgements perspective as more careful / thought-out reasoning?
            – Regarding IQ tests and race: I think I’ve heard you mention here that controlling for cultural bias actually widens the race gap. Do you have a good source for that? Likewise, for the correlation between IQ and outcomes that we care about in modern society (income, education level, health, etc)?

            Apologies if these are questions you’ve answered in the past and I missed, but hoping you’ll have time to throw a few references my way.

          • Rob Gressis

            I can answer your third question. You want to research Stereotype Accuracy:

          • Sean II

            Thank you very much! And sorry for the delay in getting back. This just ain’t my month when it comes to finding free time.

            You have plenty of company in harboring such doubts. The old consensus is falling apart pretty fast. When I started talking about these issues four or five years ago, hardly anyone was. Especially not among the kind of libertarians who spend time talking about Rawls! Now it’s everywhere, as payments long deferred finally and massively come due.

            The Left is saying: we demand the social equality (black-white, male-female, muslim-euro, etc.) which ought follow from the basic human equality you on the respectable Right have always claimed to believe in. We demand social war is waged until equality is achieved, with things like 12% black prisons, 50% female tech firms, 95% Muslim employment, etc.

            So life on the respectable Right has become untenable. Anyone who isn’t Left MUST try to explain why prisons aren’t 12% black, tech firms aren’t 50% female, why so many Muslims can’t find work in Europe, etc.

            That means explaining where the inequality DOES come from, if it DOESN’T come from the evil of white male discrimination. The old bedtime stories – culture of poverty, collapse of virtue, fix the schools, drug war, hair braiding, etc – worked well enough when the Left was treating identity as a back burner issue. A weak argument is okay when you’re facing a weak challenge. But now that the Left has gotten serious about the constituencies of its future, it’s no longer possible to avoid giving serious answers.

            Anyway let me answer your questions. Going in order of your original bullets:

            1. Great start for basic info on heredity: Blank Slate, Pinker. Also good is Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons… If, after that, you’re hungry for more technical stuff, just follow the trail of sources Pinker used.

            2. Actually it’s worse than that. IAT results vanish when you simply take the test again. The test is neither reliable nor valid. I myself scored “slight preference for black” on once occasion, then “moderate preference for white” like two weeks later. What could have happened in that fortnight?

            Anyway here’s a good recent summary with lots of links to big critiques:

            3. “Has it been demonstrated that knee-jerk reactions to stimuli tend to be just as good from a judgements perspective as more careful / thought-out reasoning?”

            Like Rob said, check out stereotype validity & stereotype accuracy. The big name in that business in Lee Jussim.

            (Also worth mentioning: Daniel Kahneman. Although many people have gone out of their way to misunderstand it, Fast and Slow contained a robust defense of stereotype validity, and heresy of heresies, even linked it to an evo-psych explanation. The popular reading of that book – “System 1 NO!, System 2 YO!” – misses a very important point (oft repeated by me here) that System 2 is costly and prohibitively so in most of life. Which of course is how we ended up with System 1. Because it solves a lot of problems, at a price we could evolutionarily afford.)

            3b. But I take your larger point. Even if the IAT were reliable and valid, we’d still have to ask another question for each finding. Say it turns out people are slow to associate the positive word THRIFTY with the group SAILORS. Now the IAT folks assume – rather implicitly, ahem – that this closes the case for people being irrationally biased against sailors.

            The Jussimite response would be: first let’s go out and determine if sailors really are as thrifty as anyone else. Because maybe they aren’t. Maybe the expression “spends like a sailor” didn’t just come out of nowhere…

            We should be asking that question of each and every stereotype.

            4. Your man here is Arthur Jensen. (Also search Spearman’s Hypothesis.) It was Jensen’s work on IQ sub-tests that confirmed the opposite of what everyone hoped and predicted: the gap is larger on more g-loaded tests, smaller on more culturally-biased questions. E.g. black test-takers are more likely to know that glass can be out of sand (real question btw), than they are to crack a Raven’s matrix of equivalent difficulty.

            4b. “Likewise, for the correlation between IQ and outcomes that we care about in modern society”

            The best source for that hasn’t changed in 20+ years. It’s still The Bell Curve.

          • Rob Gressis

            I’ve always assumed that the IQ test measures g, and g is a measure of one’s facility with abstract reasoning. Is that right?

            If it is right, then could the following be true: people who grow up in places/times where abstract reasoning isn’t important won’t do well on the IQ test. That doesn’t mean that they couldn’t do well if they had grown up in places/times prizing abstract reasoning, but it does mean that, after a while, they’re just not going to be able to do well with abstract reasoning.

            I suspect that this is what’s going on with the Flynn effect, rather than that, say, the average person in 1900 USA was mentally retarded.

            If this is what’s going on with the Flynn effect, then it seems to me that it could be that black people in the ghetto have a lower IQ than they would have if they weren’t in the ghetto. Is that true? Do we know if growing up in a high crime environment has any effect on people’s IQ? Have they done twin studies where one twin grows up in a high crime area and the other doesn’t, and if so, do the IQ scores differ?

          • Sean II

            1) “I’ve always assumed that the IQ test measures g, and g is a measure of one’s facility with abstract reasoning. Is that right?”

            Not quite. Strictly speaking, G is just the correlation in performance between different cognitive tests. Even more strictly: it’s the thing which must exist, in order to explain that correlation.

            So abstract reasoning would be part of G, but not the whole of it, not synonymous with it.

            2) That’s currently the most plausible account of the Flynn effect: that it measures a increase in familiarity with certain tasks, which would’ve seemed quite exotic to people in 1900, but which are somewhat old hat today.

            Classic example: tangrams. If you take someone who’s never seen colored blocks of wood with different shapes, and ask him to arrange those some specific way in a timed exercise, he’s probably not going to do as well as someone who can look at the same task and say “Ah, tangrams. I know these.”

            Think about the culture of the last 200 years and you can make a list of similar things: detective stories, boards games, legos, puzzles, Kracker Jack decoders, etc.

            Take a simple example: digit string, the ability to remember numbers and repeat them in correct order. In 1800 most people probably NEVER performed this task or anything like it. But telephones and social security# and banking/credit have changed that, so that hardly anyone can go through life without performing the trick, at least occasionally.

            Likewise for anything involving time. Remember what Gletkin said in Darkness at Noon: “I was 16 when I learned the hour could be divided into minutes…”

            I sometimes wonder if part of the Flynn effect is people simply getting better at understanding what a statement like “you have 30 to complete this task” means in practical terms.

            But note the problem: explanations like this mean the Flynn effect is just measurement error. We’ve been overestimating scores because, in effect, the kids have gotten an advance peek at the exercises, in a way their parents and grand parents could not.

            3) “If this is what’s going on with the Flynn effect, then it seems to me that it could be…”

            Probably not. Much hope has been hung on the Flynn effect, but it always disappoints by leaving the big gap intact.

            This is a major problem for optimists, because an environmental cause of the gap implies big opportunities for catch-up growth, which ought to kick in once a level of basic sufficiency is achieved. I should say: “ought to have kicked in by now”, because we’re long overdue.

            4) “Have they done twin studies where one twin grows up in a high crime area and the other doesn’t, and if so, do the IQ scores differ?”

            I don’t know of any study done with just that variable in mind, but the experiment has been run all the same.

            B=>W trans-racial adoption by its nature moves children from high crime to low crimes areas. Recall that one of the most famous such studies was conducted in Minnesota. The adopting parents were carefully chosen, and they had a mean IQ of 115. The Ashkenazi of north country Lutherans, if you will. So you know they weren’t living anywhere near the one high crime area Minnesota ever had.

            Even so, the adopted kids still ended up with an 89 at the close of high school. And since heritability increases with age, that implies the usual suspect score of 85 by age 30.

          • R.Levine

            Great – thanks again for taking the time to share citations. This is a pretty thorough reading list, which is exactly what I wanted. Not that I’m eager to get into acrimonious big-picture arguments with my more left-leaning friends, but at least on the occasions someone mentions an isolated point about (for example) the need for more education interventions to address racial disparities I hope I can be a little more confident I’m nudging in the right direction.

            The Kahneman quip is great too – seems perfectly obvious in retrospect, but it was completely lost on me when that book was a topic of active discussion.

          • Sean II

            Oh, I meant to mention this but I forgot: if you’re interested in the evo way of thinking, the blogger Jayman has a reading list he updates now and again called “HBD Fundamentals”. Just search that term + Jayman and you’ll find it easy. Very thorough list.

      • Fernando Teson

        Thanks, Chris. I will simply note that benefits acquired as a result of deliberate choices should be, for the luck egalitarian, as undeserved as the benefits acquired as a result of athletic prowess. For smarter and more judicious people make better choices, and those skills are largely natural assets and as such undeserved.

    • Farstrider

      “they are neither deserved nor undeserved”

      Then you must also admit that wealth and income that comes from those talents is also neither deserved nor undeserved. And having admitted that the recipient does not deserve the income, surely you will also agree that the government can take some of it to give to someone else or to pay for the common good?

      • Salem

        If A doesn’t deserve something, it doesn’t follow that B has a superior right to it.

        If I find some money on the ground, I don’t necessarily deserve it. Nevertheless, you would be acting quite wrongly if you seize some or all of it from me, whether to give to someone else or spend on your own devices.

        • Lacunaria

          I don’t know why I didn’t see your comment in disqus. Well said.

        • Farstrider

          If A does not deserve something, it of course means that he does not have a superior right to it than B does. If desert means anything, it means that.

          If we passed a law that says that if you find a bag of cash on the ground, you are obligated to turn it over to the state, you could not make an argument against that based on desert. You could make an argument based on other principles, like non-aggression, but you cannot make an argument based on desert.

      • Lacunaria

        How does that follow? Just because I don’t deserve it doesn’t mean you or the government does deserve it.

        Alternatively, if the rule is: if you didn’t earn it, then I can take it. Then since I also didn’t earn it, you can take it right back, right?

        • Farstrider

          The government’s claim is not based on desert. It’s based on the common good. The typical argument against spending on the common good is that it violates the possessor’s right to something that he deserves. You take out the desert component and you have to go looking for another reason why the possessor should remain in possession.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Do you really not see that you are now rapidly shifting ground? You said to Fernando, “And having admitted that the recipient does not deserve the income, surely you will also agree that the government can take some of it to give to someone else or to pay for the common good?” As has been pointed out to you now by Salem and Lacunaria, neither Fernando nor we will “surely also agree” that absent desert the government is entitled to redistribute. We will not agree because your statement is a non-sequitur.

            Not just that. Have you read Nozick? He has “arguments” why your assertion is false. I was born with two healthy kidneys, which I plainly do not deserve. But I am nevertheless entitled to them. You are welcome now to propose a counter-argument for governmental redistribution, but there are obviously avenues to just possession of assets that do not rely on notions of desert.

          • Farstrider

            “but there are obviously avenues to just possession of assets that do not rely on notions of desert”

            Since you are agreeing that desert does not work as a justification, then my work is done. As I noted below, there may be other arguments against taxation, like non-aggression.

          • Lacunaria

            I thought you subscribed to some strain of luck egalitarianism and now you are saying that desert does not work as a justification?

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Good point.

          • Farstrider

            Luck egalitarianism is the rejection of desert as a justification, as the very first sentence of the original post says.

          • Lacunaria

            Ah I see, “desert” is overloaded in this context, so we are using different denotations. Let’s try “earn”.

            LE says that your property is only what you willfully earn.

            Mark is pointing out that your organs should be your property even though you didn’t willfully earn them.

            And your reply (defending LE) is that taking organs is wrong because it would be aggression? How are you defining aggression? Is taking anything from someone’s physical possession considered aggression? If so, it sounds like you are eliminating any practical significance of LE.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Not sure if you are being deliberately dense or whether it is authentic. I said no such thing. My point is that there are things that establish just possession in addition to desert.

          • Farstrider

            My bad. When you said that there are avenues to just possession that do not rely on notions of desert, instead of offering justification based on desert I assumed you meant what you said. So what is the possession argument from desert alone (since you still have not articulated it).

          • Lacunaria

            I see, thank you. So possession itself has no significance, nor the unearned transfer of property between people (e.g. father to son), and the strict binary limit of “deserves” seems to be the big question. e.g. if the government thinks your work was only worth $5 and you were paid $6 then the government owns that extra dollar, right?

          • Farstrider

            I do not see how mere possession confers a moral right on anyone to own anything. Do you?

          • Lacunaria

            Unless you are taking it from someone else, possession often means that you did something more to get it than anyone else has, even if it is just noticing it and picking it up. And once we start admitting degrees of “deserved”, the line of “undeserving” starts to feel arbitrary. It would be better if we didn’t have to judge between luck and skill.

  • Fernando Teson

    I meant statists.

  • KK KK

    I disagree with luck egalitarians, but I don’t buy your argument. Do you really think state intervention (on net) favors the rich)? If we adopted a minimal (or no) state, do you think inequality would go down?

    • Salem

      State intervention (on net) favours the politically connected. You can try and buy political connections, but they’re not the same thing.

    • Sean II

      If you count coins in a pile, market societies have more inequality.

      But that’s the wrong thing to count. Not least of all because most of the coins in that pile are working capital.

      A good example of the right thing to count: access to toilet paper.

      By that measure command economies have higher inequality, by far.

      That’s why I favor replacing the Gini with the Charmin Coefficient.

      A score of 1 would indicate a situation where only the politburo has toilet paper, and everyone else might as well wipe their ass with the “money”.

      • KK KK

        I was thinking more in terms of today’s mixed economies. In that context I stand by my statement: (on net) government intervention doesn’t favor the rich.
        [At least domestically, don’t want to get into immigration arguments.]

        Offer the following deal to a newly-minted tech millionaire: no federal deposit insurance, no high-ed subsidies for the kids, etc. but we will cut your taxes by 90%. I’m sure they’ll take it.

        For comparison, go to a poor neighborhood with the following: no food stamps, no government union jobs, etc. In return we’ll deregulate housing, end occupational licensing, plus throw in a tax cut (not that it matters here). Still, do you think they’ll take it?

        • Sean II

          You’re right: the poor wouldn’t take that deal.

          You’re also right on the larger point: it’s silly to think that all intervention favors the rich.

          Where I’m right: as an empirical matter, the most interventionist states usually end up with greater inequality – measured in terms of actual consumption instead of nominal wealth – than do market economies.

          • KK KK

            I’m with you on that one.

            As an aside, there is also a practical problem with the article. Whenever you point to the potential collusion between the state and the rich/powerful, the response from the left isn’t “that’s why we need to limit the state.” It is rather, “that’s why we need fewer rich people.”

      • Farstrider

        You have correctly articulated the Difference Principle.

  • King Goat

    I think it’s an empirical question whether government will just inevitably be used as a tool by the powerful to favor themselves. For example, there’s a reason why black Americans are so pro-federal government: in 1959 before the Great Society and federal Civil Rights Initiatives over half of black families lived below the poverty line, most blacks in the South couldn’t vote, etc.. Within *ten years*, the first had been halved, the second largely made a non-issue.

    I’ve often heard a joke about libertarians: “some people are libertarians because they are convinced that government attempts to help the less powerful actually backfire against the less powerful, but more are because they’re certain they actually work.” If you look at the composition of libertarians, which tend to be disproportionately from the ‘more powerful’ groups (well off, white males) which outlook is most likely?

    • Theresa Klein

      I think most libertarians are libertarians because they believe that a libertarian society is actually likely to be the most objectively just society.

      Libertarianism is largely about empowering individuals over groups, which should be viewed as empowering everyone simultaneously, not redistributing power from one group to another. Those white male libertarians aren’t bothered by the fact that black people got more money and could vote (at least not the ones who aren’t alt-right posers), they are bothered by the fact that other people’s liberty was restricted in the process.

  • Ben Kennedy

    I’ve never bought this argument. It assumes a Machiavellian impulse of elites to maximally care about remaining dominant will completely ignoring claims of justice. The reality is that elites, while definitely caring about remaining dominant, also are responsive to claims of justice to various degrees. The question then is “what kind of political system creates incentives for elites to care about justice”. The notion that the state is conceptually incapable of addressing injustice I think is incorrect.

    • Peter from Oz

      The elites fight each other more than they give a toss about mistreating the poor. The economy is not a zero-sum game. The rich don’t get rich at the expense of the poor.

  • Farstrider

    The author has missed the point here entirely. Rawls never rejected the free market regime. To the contrary, Rawls would say that to the extent (but only to the extent) the free market creates the greatest opportunities and wealth for the least well off. This is called the difference principle, and even the most casual review of a Wikipedia article on Rawls would illustrate to the author that he just has Rawls wrong.

    In addition, Rawls’ recognition that the wealthy and influential could pervert state power is not a fatal admission, as the author seems to believe. Rather, Rawls recognized that because of this risk, you need objective means to evaluate government policies, like the difference principle. So, once gain, the author has missed the point entirely.

    • Konrad_Lorenz


  • ThaomasH

    Logically, thinking that the differences in income arising from “luck” are unfair need not lead to antipathy to markets unless they think that that kind of unfairness is the only criterion by which policy should be made. It might just lead to a garden variety neo-liberalism: markets + pigou corrections for externalities + progressive consumption tax + some mixture of means-tested and non-means tested cash and non-cash transfers.