Bryan Caplan has posted comments he emailed me on an early draft of my new e-book Human Capitalism. I knew in advance that Bryan was going to be a tough critic: after all, a guy who writes a book arguing that parenting has little impact on how children turn out is unlikely to be receptive to my claim that cultural differences (e.g., differences in parenting) explain much of America’s growing class divide along educational lines.
Bryan’s skeptical comments proved very helpful. In particular, he steered me away from focusing too much on the narrow issue of the heritability of IQ – which, he concedes, is a pretty weak predictor of life outcomes. Instead, he urged me to look instead at the heritability of socioeconomic status generally. There is a strong correlation between parents’ outcomes and those of their kids, and there is a considerable literature in behavioral genetics based on the study of adoptees and twins that finds genes, not shared environment, account for practically all of that correlation.
Thanks to Bryan I dove into that literature and found that it does indeed offer support for the view Bryan has called “parental irrelevantism.” But, as Bryan fails to acknowledge, those findings are subject to serious caveats and, in any event, there are other findings in that same literature which show an important effect of upbringing. In addition, other important lines of evidence that Bryan ignores point to the considerable impact of the upbringing environment. I came away with my initial common-sense verdict undisturbed: nature is important, but so is nurture.
Since Bryan has shared his comments, I thought I would post a couple of them here along with the emailed replies I made at the time. I chose these exchanges because I think they address interesting issues I really didn’t tackle head-on in the book. I’ll put his comments in italics followed by my responses.
7. (chap 6) There may be “no prospect for a return to the more authoritarian morality of yesteryear.” But what about a marginal move in that direction? And if the breakdown is indeed caused by the absence of material scarcity, wouldn’t drastic cuts in the welfare state -- drastic enough to restore labor force drop-outs and unskilled single moms to material scarcity -- revive the morality of yesteryear? Why doesn’t this lead to the very unliberaltarian view that the welfare state is the problem?
I believe the fundamental problem is mass affluence, not the welfare state. Clearly we have to engage in speculation when imagining what life would be like in the absence of government-provided income support -- given that such support has been around in the English-speaking world for over 400 years. But my assumption is that private charity in our rich, liberal, humanitarian, soft-hearted society would provide some decent “social minimum” for poor children and by extension for their parents (can you really imagine an America in which children were allowed to starve? or in which they were routinely taken from their parents because their parents couldn’t support them?) I don’t believe the kind of material scarcity that faced the early 20th century American working class, or that shapes the mentalities of current-day immigrants from poor countries, is ever coming back to this country -- or it is does, it will be because of some catastrophe that causes us to forget entirely about the issues we’re discussing here.
That said, when specific welfare-state policies (e.g., the old AFDC) subsidize idleness rather than work, they ought to be changed. I call for a shift in welfare policies toward greater subsidization of work
One last comment that probably won't be very helpful, but I want to get it off my chest: When I see the hard work and positive attitude of the typical immigrant, I find it very hard to sympathize with the problems of the American working class. The so-called American poor are born with so many advantages, but they squander them through their own bad attitude and irresponsible behavior. Yes, in a welfare state the problems of my countries’ working class are my problem. But that makes me want to *attack* the welfare state, not expand it to help undeserving Americans even more. The people we should be worrying about are immigrants and would-be immigrants who can’t even legally accept a job offer, not Americans who can’t bother showing up to work on time.
On an emotional level, Bryan, I sympathize with you. I grew up as a nerd in the Deep South, where being smart and achievement-oriented in school meant social isolation and hazing. So living through that, my knee jerks in the same direction as yours.
But I don’t really think moral desert has much relevance for public policy, at least not here. If public policy reforms can change conditions and incentives in a way that ensures that a higher percentage of morally blameless infants grow up to be morally praiseworthy adults, then we ought to make those reforms -- even if they soften the blows of their own folly for some morally unpraiseworthy adults.
In that regard, I think the reason immigrants are so praiseworthy in your eyes is due to circumstances outside their control -- i.e., they were raised in poor countries under the lash of material scarcity. Likewise, the reason native-born working-class Americans are so often blameworthy is due to circumstances outside their control -- they were raised in mass affluence without being adequately acculturated with the skills needed to make good decisions. If you stop your analysis at the moralistic level, you miss the underlying factors that are driving differences in moral outlook.