Horatio Alger's IQ

One thing that always occurs to me when these race/IQ blowups occur is that this issue is kind of in the neighborhood of a different point that doesn't merely recapitulate the race science of yore, does seem to me to have real policy implications, and is really well-supported by the data. This is the fact that IQ test results are meaningfully predictive of various indicators of success in the United States and the main factors that influence how people score on these tests all happen in childhood or earlier (in the fetal environment, in the genes, etc.).

This then becomes one of several available lines of argument that the image of the United States as a magical place where hard work always pays off and the rewards go to those willing to put in the effort is wrong. What's more, the imagine of the United States as a fallen version of that magical place — a country that could become magical if we just improved urban high schools or adopted a better student loan system — is also wrong. Better high schools and better student loan systems are things worth doing on their own terms, but absolutely nothing one can do changes the fact that where people end up is substantially out of their hands.

I think people recognize this in unusual cases like sports. Obviously, NFL players and NBA players put in a lot of hard work and effort to get where they are. But at the same time, lots of people could never possibly make it no matter how hard they tried. Brendan Haywood is seven feet tall and you're not. Justine Henin joined Tennis Club Ciney when she was six years old — which is more-or-less necessary to become a huge pro tennis star. And though it's considerably more subtle than something like being an extreme outlier on the height distribution or having been in intense training since when you had baby teeth, the evidence suggests that a similar pattern holds up throughout the range of human activities. Effort and discipline matter a lot. But so do things you have no control over, from pure contingency to genetic attributes to childhood conditions.

The mass market version of the case for laissez faire (sophisticated libertarians know this is wrong, but have other also wrong justifications for the same conclusion) more-or-less involves efforts to blame the victims of economic inequality for their fate, but it's just not true. Adults need to be held accountable for their decisions, but a lot of the key determinants — physical, mental, and otherwise — are totally outside of people's control.