How the 'Cult of Smartness' Distorts the Immigration Debate

Even if it were possible to select newcomers by intelligence it wouldn't be wise or just.


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Flickr/Liz Henry

One of the best passages from Twilight of the Elites, Chris Hayes' book about the American meritocracy, recounted a moment in 2009 when debate raged about who President Obama should appoint to the Supreme Court. Sonia Sotomayor was thought to be on his short list. But The New Republic's Jeffrey Rosen and Harvard's Laurence Tribe argued that she should be passed over for somewhat smarter candidates. "Keep in mind the person under discussion is someone who, from humble beginnings in the Bronx, had gained entry to Princeton, graduated summa cum laude, and gone on to Yale Law, where she edited the Yale Law Journal," Hayes observed. "She had checked off every box on the to-do list of meritocratic achievement. Apparently it wasn't enough." Hayes deemed the incident an example of a "Cult of Smartness" that has taken hold. Observers behave not only as if its possible to accurately rank people in order from most to least smart, but that the right person for a job is always the one deemed smartest. "While smartness is necessary for competent elites," Hayes retorts, "it is far from sufficient: wisdom, judgment, empathy, and ethical rigor are all as important, even if those traits are far less valued."

The "Cult of Smartness" came to mind this week as I read about a controversial Heritage Foundation report on immigration reform. One of its authors, Jason Richwine, has been widely, justly criticized for having argued that we'd be foolish to permit significant Hispanic immigration in part because "no one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against." Others have commented on the substance of his remarks with more expertise and originality than I can offer, so I'll pose a tangentially related question raised by the responses.

Forget the dubious constructs of race and IQ for a moment.

Suppose there really was a genetically distinct race of white-skinned people inhabiting a large, hypothetical island in the Pacific Ocean; that IQ really could be reliably measured; and that we knew, for a fact, that while the measured IQs of Caucasians, blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Native Americans, and all other identity groups in the United States had converged to an identical average, members of this one hypothetical race had IQ scores that measured 5 points lower on average. Additionally, suppose that the average IQ of nations as a whole had been indisputably linked to educational attainment and GDP. Would it be legitimate to bar that lower IQ group from immigrating?

To me, doing so would be wrongheaded.

Even setting aside my strong preference for policies rooted in individualism and the dangerous, inherently problematic nature of singling out a specific racial group for disparate treatment, barring the hypothetical low IQ people would imply that intelligence determines worth, and that our project as a nation is intimately tied to constantly maximizing material wealth.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that recruiting human beings with impressive skills is illegitimate. In fact, I think it is prudent, and I'm glad that lots of talented scientists, athletes, artists, and programmers want to come here. More, please. I'm glad that lots of farm workers and janitors want to immigrate too. I recognize that the economic contributions of the two groups are different, but I don't conclude that the low skill immigrants are less worthy of citizenship or less valuable citizens. Are they kind? Honest? Wise? Fun? Hardworking? Inclined to embrace core American values as articulated in the Declaration of Independence? To what extent do they participate in the civic process? Do they raise children who flourish? Do the best of their ethnic traditions and cultural insights enrich the American character? Do they contribute to the common defense? Are they invested in their new country? It's amazing how often bygone immigration debates have focused on a couple narrow metrics to the exclusion of all else. There are so many important traits, and seemingly no one clamoring to measure or recruit for most of them.

Here's another trait: are we welcoming the fellow humans who most want to live here? That's a characteristic that has traditionally bound American communities. The cult of smartness is seductive, and when I've heard understandable calls for a focus on "high skill immigrants" (as distinct from maximizing immigrant IQ), I think I've nodded along too readily, as if that focus is common sense. On reflection, a country of self-declared meritocrats is probably prone to unduly emphasizing intelligence, whether the relevant task is seeking out Supreme Court justices or future immigrants. This is obviously problematic given the unreliability of intelligence measures. But even having reliable IQ scores wouldn't make a cult of intelligence wise or justified. As many ruling class catastrophes attest, selecting for smartness doesn't guarantee good results. And undervaluing other virtues and contributions is counterproductive and inhuman.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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