Saturday, November 25, 2006

Rawls: Theory rampant

If all men are equal, why are huge efforts to make them equal required?

By John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.)

Leftists do of course on occasions attempt to give their fundamentally confused ideas about equality some substance and the work of philosopher John Rawls is best know in that connection. There is a fundamental conservative objection to the Rawls edifice but I will start with some other points first.

For starters: Rawls is a good example of what computer people call GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). If you start out with crazy assumptions you get crazy conclusions and in Rawls's case Leftist assumptions inevitably led to Leftist conclusions. Like all Leftists, he was unable to deal with the complexities of the real world so he invented an imaginary and vastly oversimplified one wherein only Leftist criteria for a good world are even mentioned. So his basic proposition can be summarized simply: If I know nothing about myself and nothing about the world I am about to enter other than its degree of social and economic equality what sort of world would I choose? And the expected answer is? Wait for it! A world wherein everyone is as equal as possible. The compulsory Leftist conclusion has been reached! Good job, Johnny. So now let's make the real world as equal as possible.

But look at how crazy his criterion is. What if the "equal" world I chose turned out to be starving? Would it not make more sense to choose an affluent world, for instance? Or a world in which modern medicine and dentistry were available? Rawls of course would claim that he is speaking ceteris paribus but what if other factors CANNOT be held constant? What if very equal worlds turn out to be in general poorer or more tyrannical? -- as indeed seems generally to be the case.

But aside from that, we just do not live in the imaginary Rawlsian world. We DO know things about the world we are in and we DO know things about ourselves and that does and should influence the type of world we prefer. And even if we did not, it is one big assumption to say that we would choose an equal world. Gambling is a very human thing to do and it seems to me highly likely that many people would choose a world of IN-equality precisely because that would give them a chance of doing well and rising above the herd. And is not that in fact precisely the American Dream -- to start out at the bottom of the heap and by hard work and good thinking to rise to the top? Real people everywhere would like to get to good old unequal America so that they can have a chance of becoming rich. But none of the unreal people in the unreal world of John Rawls do. Funny, that.

Rawls is simply irrelevant. He is popular in academe only because his conclusions are Leftist.

When Rawls died in 2002 there were various comments about his opus on the blog of The Brothers Judd (post of Nov. 29th., 2002) and I particularly liked this comment put up on the Judd blog by Lou Gots:

I spent an interesting semester at Penn disecting A Theory of Justice in a course taught by Bruce Ackerman (!!!) A central part of Rawls' theory (and Ackerman's exegesis thereof) is the notion the the goods of the earth are "manna"--they just drop out of the sky. Thus social justice concerns itself only with distribution and not with production, because when you get up in the morning the manna will be there. Thus Rawls and his disciples make as much sense as a Melanesian cargo cult. We know from human experience that irrational systems fail because they are unproductive. Thanks to Rawls, many of our intellectuals start with the premise that productivity does not matter. As to the "veil of ignorance," it is Rawls' way of getting around this. Since no one is supposed to know that he will not be in the "worst-off class," the just society will always favor the worst-off. This is a sick notion, as such a society will tend ever downward, becoming less and less productive, until all are "worst off." On the contrary, I Would say that the poor in a free society (tempered by charity) are better off than they would be in an unfree. Rawls wrote that envy should not be a factor in these decisions, so relative deprivation should be irrelevant. Furthermore, I would hold that even if the veil of ignorance were more than just more cargo cult nonsense, a rational person would desire freedom because even if he were to be born to the "worst-off class" his wealth and his opportunities to improve his lot would be maximized. De mortuiis, etc., eternal rest and perpetual light, but the works are still meaningless socialist blather.

To expand a little on the first point of that comment, a major flaw in Rawls' theory is that people need to be rewarded for working harder. And since not everybody works equally hard all the time the outcome will be inequality. But why do they need to be rewarded for working harder? They need to be so rewarded both because that is what instinctive morality (which Rawls regards as authoritative) indicates and also because we know as an empirical fact that societies without that incentive (as in the former Soviet empire) are deeply impoverished and heavily reliant on coercion and tyranny to get anything done at all -- and nobody is (at least overtly) advocating either tyranny or general societal impoverishment. So the Rawls theoretical edifice ultimately undermines itself. (More on that in the amusingly-titled article If You Don't Eat Your Meat, You Can't Have Any Pudding by Micha Ghertner).

That leads me to the fundamental conservative objection to Rawls: It is just another arbitrary, dreamed-up theoretical edifice -- as is Marxism. ANY theoretical edifice is of only passing interest to conservatives. Conservatives go by what works and systems of enforced equality are invariably associated with tyranny and poverty. It is theoretical edifices in general that are the problem -- as Burke pointed out long ago. Reality is just too complex to be fruitfully described by any such system. And trying to force the real variety and complexity of humanity into any such systemic straitjacket -- as in the case of Communism -- has a history of failure, usually including mass-murder.

It can of course be argued (rather speciously) that the Rawlsian system of ideas is a moral or ethical one rather than a social or political one but that argument would seem to bring its protagonist into rather amusing conflict with another passionately held Leftist claim -- that there is in fact no such thing as right and wrong! Not an easy hole to climb out of! Conservatives, however, DO believe in right and wrong and a conservative account of morality which makes no mystical or unworldly assumptions can be found here.

Finally, American Nobel-winning economist Edmund Phelps lands a rather crushing blow on Rawlsian thinking by pointing out that it is concerned only with money. And, as Leftists would normally keenly argue, money is not everything. Phelps suggests that self-fulfilment is more important. What Leftist these days would argue with that? Yet, as Phelps shows, as soon as we admit self-fulfilment into the picture, the Rawlsian system justifies capitalism, not socialism! A few quotes below give the skeleton of his argument:

"The American and Continental systems are not operationally equivalent, contrary to some neoclassical views. Let me use the word "dynamism" to mean the fertility of the economy in coming up with innovative ideas believed to be technologically feasible and profitable--in short, the economy's talent at commercially successful innovating. In this terminology, the free enterprise system is structured in such a way that it facilitates and stimulates dynamism while the Continental system impedes and discourages it.....

I would, however, stress a benefit of dynamism that I believe to be far more important. Instituting a high level of dynamism, so that the economy is fired by the new ideas of entrepreneurs, serves to transform the workplace--in the firms developing an innovation and also in the firms dealing with the innovations. The challenges that arise in developing a new idea and in gaining its acceptance in the marketplace provide the workforce with high levels of mental stimulation, problem-solving, employee-engagement and, thus, personal growth. Note that an individual working alone cannot easily create the continual arrival of new challenges. It "takes a village," preferably the whole society....

Suppose the wage of the lowest- paid workers was foreseen to be reduced over the entire future by innovations conceived by entrepreneurs. Are those whose dream is to find personal development through a career as an entrepreneur not to be permitted to pursue their dream? To respond, we have to go outside Rawls's classical model, in which work is all about money. In an economy in which entrepreneurs are forbidden to pursue their self-realization, they have the bottom scores in self-realization--no matter if they take paying jobs instead--and that counts whether or not they were born the "least advantaged." So even if their activities did come at the expense of the lowest-paid workers, Rawlsian justice in this extended sense requires that entrepreneurs be accorded enough opportunity to raise their self-realization score up to the level of the lowest-paid workers--and higher, of course, if workers are not damaged by support for entrepreneurship

Phelps does of course at that point tend to lead us towards happiness studies -- which I treat elsewhere


Monday, November 06, 2006


Since Richard Lynn very kindly sent me a copy of his latest book, I thought it would be a good idea to do a review of it. I have had various reviews of academic books published before. I therefore prepared the review below and submitted it to the mainstream Australian e-zine Online Opinion. I have had one previous article published there. Although initially interested in the idea of such a review, they rejected the review when they actually saw it -- on the vaguest of grounds. That the whole topic suffers from severe political incorrectness is, however, the obvious real reason for the rejection. In the age of the internet, however, such editorial filtering of the information available does not work. So I am posting the review here and in a couple of other places

"Race differences in intelligence: An evolutionary analysis" by Richard Lynn. Washington Summit Publishers, Augusta, Georgia, 2006. ISBN-13: 978-1-59368-021-3

Review by John Ray (2006)

Maverick academics such as Frank Ellis in Britain and Andrew Fraser in Australia have recently attracted some press with their public declarations that they believe that there are differences in average IQ between whites and blacks. So this book is a timely one.

The essential thing to note about this book is that it is NOT an expression of opinion. It is an attempt to do something far more difficult -- an attempt to gather together ALL the available scientific evidence on its topic. Let me give you a little personal anecdote to show you how hard that is.

Like Lynn, I am a psychometrician (specialist in psychological measurement) but my interest is in measuring attitudes and personality. And one of my interests is in how to measure ambition (what psychologists call achievement motivation). And roughly once a year somebody publishes a new set of questions designed to do that. But nobody ever seems to be aware of all the previous attempts in the same field. Typically, they seem to know of only two or three attempts to measure ambition in that way. On a couple of occasions, psychologists have published what they thought was a comprehensive survey of the literature in the field but the best of them could find (from memory) no more than 16 such articles in the academic literature. So a couple of years later I published a catalogue of such articles. And I found around 70 such!

How come? It is because the standard resources for searches of the academic literature are very imperfect. They miss heaps. You cannot instantly acquire a knowledge of the findings on a topic simply by doing a search. You have to be a specialist in the field who continually has an eye out for interesting findings and who systematically collects such findings over a period of many years. Richard Lynn is such a person in the field of IQ. Lynn's book is, in other words, about as authoritative as you can get. And in comparison with the measly 70 articles that I could find on my topic, Lynn records over 500 surveys of IQ.

So what the book tells us is not what Richard Lynn thinks. Lynn of course has his opinions and he does express them (he argues, for instance, that an evolutionary history of coping with cold winters selects for high intelligence) but that is not what the book is primarily about. What the book shows us is what the entire body of scientific research on the subject stretching back over the last 100 years or more has shown. And, as all psychometricians know, the findings are remarkably uniform. There is normally a huge gap between the average scores of African-origin populations and European-origin populations. Brilliant blacks do of course exist. The person whom I quote most on my blog is an African-American (Thomas Sowell). But brilliant (high IQ) people are simply much rarer in African-origin populations than in European ones. And all the studies of the genetics of IQ show its transmission to be overwhelmingly genetic.

Confronted with this now very old and very persistent finding, the usual response from those who feel challenged by it has been to dismiss IQ tests. They say that IQ scores mean nothing, do not measure intelligence and are of no importance generally. Lynn of course takes such claims seriously and devotes his opening chapter to such challenges. The essential thing that you need to know in evaluating such challenges is however very simple: IQ is a DISCOVERY, not a product of theory. The whole concept of IQ arose in the late 19th century when educationists began to notice a very strange thing: People who were good at solving one type of problem or puzzle also tended to be good at solving quite different puzzles and problems. There WAS such a thing as a general problem-solving ability. And it is for that reason that the scientific literature does not usually use the term "IQ". In the scientific literature, it is usually referred to as 'g' (short for "general factor"). And that is also why IQ tests normally are comprised of a whole series of quite different and apparently unrelated problems -- because problem-solving ability IS general, regardless of the sort of problem. And something as general as that is obviously of considerable importance.

I will not go on here to look at all the various arguments that have been raised about the utility of IQ tests generally or about non-genetic explanations for the findings with Africans and others. That is what Lynn's book is for. Be assured, however, that all the possible objections are well known to experts in the field and have been extensively researched. It is a case of there being "nothing new under the sun" as far as theories of that kind are concerned and most such theories can be decisively rejected in the light of the research available. The one non-genetic but physical explanation for IQ differences that has stood up fairly well is nutrition. Good or bad nutrition in childhood can affect how well the brain develops and hence IQ. The brain is however pretty good at protecting itself so the differences observed due to nutrition are generally very small, much smaller than the black/white difference, for instance. The best diet in the world won't make a dummy into an Einstein nor will the best education or the best anything else. But if you want to get a doctorate it helps a lot if your father has one -- even if you don't live with him or know him.

Perhaps in closing I should mention the one aspect of Lynn's work which has attracted a lot of press. A reporter from "The Times" of London had a look at the book and from it extracted what he claimed were the average IQ scores for various European countries. And, to much hilarity, Germany was shown as having an average score of 107 compared to Britain's 100. German psychometricians (such as Volkmar Weiss) knew of course that this was a nonsense and there is certainly nothing to that effect in Lynn's book. If you take either the mean or the median scores from the results for Germany presented in Lynn's book you get an unremarkable average of about 99.

What happened was that there was one outlying result from one German survey that showed a mean of 107 and the reporter gleefully seized on that as if it were typical of what is found in Germany generally. Which all goes to reinforce the importance of Lynn's book. You cannot rely on just one survey or one result. You have to have a collection of many findings on any given topic or question before you can confidently make generalizations. And no book does a better job of providing you with such data as "Race differences in intelligence: An evolutionary analysis".

Dr. John Ray was a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of NSW until his retirement in 1983