Cause I’m built for comfort, I ain’t built for speed

Freddie DeBoer is still struggling vainly to justify the ways of God to [left-wing] man, arguing that a belief in the heritability of individual cognitive difference doesn’t entail either a concession that inequality between groups of people is similarly heritable or an acceptance of the inequality within and among groups that capitalism produces. Instead, argues Freddie, you can believe a) individual differences in cognitive ability are important and heritable, b) group differences in cognitive ability  definitively do not have a genetic origin, and c) the only way to address these individual differences once group differences go away is through socialism.

He was kind of an asshole the last time I engaged with him on this topic, but here’s a few thoughts:

1) You really can’t have individual differences be heritable and all group differences not be. Put aside racial differences for a moment. If African Americans with more economic opportunities leave East St. Louis and settle in Atlanta in sufficient numbers, in a single generation there will be a measurable group-level difference in test scores and economic outcomes between the kids growing up in East St. Louis and the kids growing up in Atlanta, and some portion of that difference will be due to genes.

2)  Freddie has often written that racial equality is a fact about the world, towards which his experience and observations have unequivocally pointed him. Equality does not necessarily connote similarity, however. For example, you might argue (and I have argued) that population-level differences in measured cognitive abilities might be as much about different pre-dispositions of thought (differential reliance on heuristic versus abstract reasoning, for example) as about the sum total of what we’ve got upstairs. To put it another way, cognitive abilities may be a vector instead of just a scalar. What’s the difference between a scalar and a vector? As They Might Be Giants explain,

I’ve got speed
That’s how fast I am moving
I’ve got velocity
That’s my speed and direction

To apply to cognitive abilities, we could imagine that each person has a cognitive vector of different lengths and angles. The factor which IQ tests (and other standardized tests) measure is one component of that vector, the x component in the graph below:


If the differences within groups are mainly due to the differences in length of the vector, and the differences between groups are mainly due to the angle of the vector, this would explain why lower-scoring groups tend to have a lower standard deviation in scores as well as a lower mean.


I’m not claiming these different components of ability are all interchangeable: they clearly aren’t. But, again, smart people do stupid things all the time, and certain kinds of stupidity are particularly appealing to smart people, which would match to this model.

3) If you don’t believe in some kinds of trade-offs between abilities that exist at a group level, and you believe that differences in tested abilities are solely about discrimination (Freddie argues that black and Hispanic students are struggling under the “weight-belt” of white supremacy), then you are essentially arguing that present-day American discrimination has the effect of intellectually stunting millions of children.

This seems condescending to the point of offense. There are situations where children are growing up under circumstances that would clearly interfere with healthy growth and development. Exposure to intestinal worms in Africa or to unsanitary water in India might well fit these criteria. A friend of mine is an early childhood researcher who has told me a few times that some of the first Head Start pilot sites in the early 60s were in counties in Mississippi with endemic tuberculosis. You can easily believe that under those circumstances, the existing conditions were such as to significantly curtail intellectual development relative to children’s innate capacity. But the vast majority of American children of any ethnic group are not growing up in remotely comparable circumstances to this. Results on the 12th grade NAEP have pretty much stabilized over the last two decades by racial group, with no change despite enormous increases in funding. Because education has been (over the last few decades) our only hammer for social problems, there’s been enormous pressure to view everybody as equally educable. There still may be some approaches to ameliorating academic differences with non-negligible chances of success, but it’s very likely that the gaps we observe now (unless large immigration inflows transform the people we consider “black” or “white” or “Asian”) are here mostly to stay. Under these circumstances, acknowledging differences and helping people to be the best they can be seems better than viewing the majority of children in the public schools as stunted versions of the person they could have or should have been.

4) Freddie has also argued that only socialism is able to meet the demand for equality, especially in the face of genetically-mediated differences within populations. (Freddie has specifically disavowed the possibility of differences between populations.)

Equality is a normative term- I might argue that we are all equal in some respects because we are all God’s children, or that we as Americans are entitled to equal protection of American laws. Our secularized, denationalized society has a lot of trouble arguing for moral equality in the absence of equal capacities and traits.  In any case, capitalism has been rather better at offering people certain kinds of equality than socialism has- in particular, the equal right to enjoy the fruits of one’s labors. As Abraham Lincoln said in his speech on Dred Scott:

 In some respects [a slave] is certainly is not my equal; but in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands without asking leave of any one else, she is my equal, and the equal of all others.

Frederick Douglass expressed a largely similar point of view in “What Shall Be Done With the Slaves if Emancipated“:

When the planters of the West Indies used to attempt to puzzle the pure-minded Wilberforce with the question, How shall we get rid of slavery? his simple answer was, “quit stealing.” In like manner, we answer those who are perpetually puzzling their brains with questions as to what shall be done with the Negro, “let him alone and mind your own business.” If you see him plowing in the open field, leveling the forest, at work with the spade, a rake a hoe, a pick-axe, or a bill — let him alone; he has a right to work. If you see him on his way to school, with spelling book, geography and arithmetic in his hands — let him alone. Don’t shut the door in his face, nor bolt your gates against him; he has a right to learn — let him alone. Don’t pass laws to degrade him. If he has a ballot in his hand, and is on his way to the ballot-box to deposit his vote for the man whom he think will most justly and wisely administer the Government which has the power of life and death over him, as well as others — let him alone; his right of choice as much deserves respect and protection as your own. If you see him on his way to the church, exercising religious liberty in accordance with this or that religious persuasion — let him alone. –Don’t meddle with him, nor trouble yourselves with any questions as to what shall be done with him.

It is a fact of post-New Deal American life that African Americans are much more closely allied with the political party critical of capitalism than the party extolling capitalism’s virtues; some might call this the final victory of W.E.B. Du Bois over Booker T. Washington. But this was historically contingent, was not true before World War II (when, for example, it was Coolidge speaking at Howard University and Teddy Roosevelt inviting Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House), and is a less assured aspect of American political life than many acknowledge. My guess is that technological changes are, indeed, pushing us away from capitalist modes of production and from broad-based participation in the labor market. Our current crop of Democrats seem determined to speed this process for African Americans in particular, which I think is deeply unwise.  So we might well get more socialism, but I’m pretty dubious that we’ll get more equality as a result.


2 thoughts on “Cause I’m built for comfort, I ain’t built for speed

  1. The issue isn’t so much individual, or even group, differences in intelligence, but rather that institutional and structural impediments form thee wake of those differences. These differences effect individual and group outcomes, and tend to continue and snowball until outside forces disrupt them.

    In your book and in this blog, you often note how ordinary intelligence middle class kids are able to make the educational and social capital connections to stay in the middle class, and typically have a non-governmental safety net of family that prevents a single illness or job loss from imperiling their futures. The rich are able to get their kids legacy admissions to the Ivy League, the fraternity/sorority gets them a network, and the kids can take a non-paid internship or a summer abroad while being supported by daddy’s money, and so on. Equality of opportunity is not really equality of opportunity when an average kid lucky enough to be born to parents who stay married and are middle class gets a structural head start and gets a decent life versus some kid born on the wrong side of the tracks. The kids from the wrong side of the track have to be *that much better* to obtain success. If I have a handful of seeds I throw on the ground, they will grow better in the Midwest then the Mojave. Booker T. Washington had an intellectual capacity and determination such that any lesser of a man would have likely failed. What could he had been if he had been raised by the rich white man who fathered him with all those advantages, instead of raised by his black slave mother, with all those disadvantages? He looked down upon those who expected an unearned level of success and deference due to their race and knew that because he had to *earn* his how much it was worth, but simultaneously seemed unwilling to admit publicly how difficult it would be for anybody not as smart or as hard working as he was to achieve.

    Despite this problem, I still prefer our structural inequality to socialism or affirmative action, because those in charge will end up doing the same thing, making sure their offspring and their favorite group get’s a leg up. And in their case, it would be worse, because they would have the force of government behind it. The poor will always be with us.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I once remarked that reading de Boer is an opportunity to watch a left writer desperately circle around his beliefs as they collapse in real time.

    Liked by 1 person

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