eading Herrnstein and Murray's treatise causes me once again to reflect on the limited utility in the management of human affairs of that academic endeavor generously termed social science. The authors of The Bell Curve undertake to pronounce upon what is possible for human beings to do while failing to consider that which most makes us human. They begin by seeking the causes of behavior and end by reducing the human subject to a mechanism whose horizon is fixed by some combination of genetic endowment and social law. Yet we, even the "dullest" of us, are so much more than that.
Now, as an economist I am a card-carrying member of the social scientists' cabal; so these doubts now creeping over me have far-reaching personal implications. But entertain them I must, for the stakes in the discussion this book has engendered are too high. The question on the table, central to our nation's future and, I might add, to the future success of a conservative politics in America, is this: Can we sensibly aspire to a more complete social integration than has yet been achieved of those who now languish at the bottom of American society? A political movement that answers "no" to this question must fail, and richly deserves to.
Herrnstein and Murray are not entirely direct on this point. They stress, plausibly enough, that we must be realistic in formulating policy, taking due account of the unequal distributin of intellectual aptitudes in the population, recognizing that limitations of mental ability constrain what sorts of policies are likely to make a difference and how much of a difference they can make. But implicit in their argument is the judgment that we shall have to get used to there being a substantial minority of our fellows who, because of their low intelligence, may fail to perform adequately in their roles as workers, parents, and citizens. I think this is quite wrong. Social science ultimately leads the authors astray on the political and moral fundamentals.
For example, in chapters on parenting, crime, and citizenship they document that performance in these areas is correlated in their samples with cognitive ability. Though they stress that IQ is not destiny, they also stress that it is often a more important "cause" of one's level of personal achievement than factors that liberal social scientists typically invoke, such as family background and economic opportunity. Liberal analysts, they say, offer false hope by suggesting that with improved economic opportunity one can induce underclass youths to live within the law. Some citizens simply lack the wits to manage their affairs so as to avoid criminal violence, be responsive to their children, and exercise the franchise, Herrnstein and Murray argue. If we want our "duller" citizens to obey our laws, we must change the laws (by, e.g., restoring simple rules and certain, severe punishments). Thus: "People of limited intelligence can lead moral lives in a society that is run on the basis of 'Thou shalt not steal.' They find it much harder to lead moral lives in a society that is run on the basis of 'Thou shalt not steal unless there is a really good reason to.'"
There is a case to be made--a conservative case--for simplifying the laws, for making criminals anticipate certain and swift punishment as the consequence of their crimes, and for adhering to traditional notions about right and wrong as exemplified in the commandment "Thou shalt not steal." Indeed, a case can be made for much of the policy advice given in this book--for limiting affirmative action, for seeking a less centralized and more citizen-friendly administration of government, for halting the encouragement now given to out-of-wed-lock childbearing, and so on. But there is no reason that I can see to rest such a case on the presumed mental limitations of a sizable number of citizens. In every instance there are political arguments for these policy prescriptions that are both more compelling and more likely to succeed in the public arena than the generalizations about human capacities that Herrnstein and Murray claim to have established with their data.
Observing a correlation between a noisy measure of parenting skills, say, and some score on an ability test is a far cry from discovering an immutable law of nature. Social scientists are a long way from producing a definitive account of the causes of human performance in educational attainment and economic success, the areas that have been most intensively studied by economists and sociologists over the last half-century. The claim implicitly advanced in this book to have achieved a scientific understanding of the moral performance of the citizenry adequate to provide a foundation for social policy is breathtakingly audacious.
I urge Republican politicians and conservative intellectuals to think long and hard before chanting this IQ mantra in public discourses. Herrnstein and Murray frame their policy discussion so as to guarantee that its appeal will be limited to an electoral minority. Try telling the newly energized Christian Right that access to morality is contingent on mental ability. Their response is likely to be, "God is not finished with us when he deals us our genetic hand."
This is surely right. We human beings are spiritual creatures; we have souls; we have free will. We are, of course, constrained in various ways by biological and environmental realities. But we can, with effort, make ourselves morally fit members of our political communities. If we fully exploit our material and spiritual inheritance, we can become decent citizens and loving parents, despite the constraints. We deserve from our political leaders a vision of our humanity that recognizes and celebrates this potential.
Such a spiritual argument is one that a social scientist may find hard to understand. Yet the spiritual resources of human beings are key to the maintenance of social stability and progress. They are the ultimate foundation of any hope we can have of overcoming the social malaise of the underclass. This is why the mechanistic determinism of science is, in the end, inadequate to the task of social prescription. Political science has no account of why people vote; psychology has yet to identify the material basis of religious exhilaration; economics can say only that people give to charities because it makes them feel good to do so. No analyst predicted that the people of Eastern Europe would, in Vaclav Havel's memorable phrase, rise to achieve "a sense of transcendence over the world of existences." With the understanding of causality in social science so limited, and the importance of matters of the spirit so palpable, one might expect a bit of humble circumspection from analysts who presume to pronounce upon what is possible for human beings to accomplish.
Whatever the merits of their social science, Herrnstein and Murray are in a moral and political cul de sac. I see no reason for serious conservatives to join them there. This difficulty is most clearly illustrated with the fierce debate about racial differences in intelligence that The Bell Curve has spawned. The authors will surely get more grief than they deserve for having stated the facts of this matter--that on the average blacks lag significantly behind whites in cognitive functioning. That is not my objection. What I find problematic is their suggestion that we accommodate ourselves to the inevitability of the difference in mental performance among the races in America. This posture of resignation is an unacceptable response to today's tragic reality. We can be prudent and hard-headed about what government can and cannot accomplish through its various instruments of policy without abandoning hope of achieving racial reconciliation within our national community.
In reality, the record of black American economic and educational achievement in the post-civil-rights era has been ambiguous--great success mixed with shocking failure. Myriad explanations for the failure have been advanced, but the account that attributes it to the limited mental abilities of blacks is singular in its suggestion that we must learn to live with current racial disparities. It is true that for too long the loudest voices of African-American authenticity offered discrimination by whites as the excuse for every black disability; they treated evidence of limited black achievement as an automatic indictment of the American social order. These racialists are hoist on their own petard by the arguments and data in The Bell Curve. Having taught us to examine each individual life first through a racial lens, they must now confront the specter of a racial-intelligence accountancy that suggests a rather different explanation for the ambiguous achievements of blacks in the last generation.
So the question now on the floor, in the minds of blacks as well as whites, is whether blacks are capable of gaining equal status, given equality of opportunity. It is a peculiar mind that fails to fathom how poisonous a question this is for our democracy. Let me state my unequivocal belief that blacks are, indeed, so capable. Still, any assertion of equal black capacity is a hypothesis or an axiom, not a fact. The fact is that blacks have something to prove, to ourselves and to what W. E. B. Du Bois once characterized as "a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." This is not fair; it is not right; but it is the way things are.
Some conservatives are not above signaling, in more or less overt ways, their belief that blacks can never pass this test. Some radical black nationalists agree, arguing increasingly more openly now that blacks can never make it in "white America" and so should stop trying, go our own way, and maybe burn a few things down in the process. At bottom these parties share the belief that the magnitude of the challenge facing blacks is beyond what we can manage. I insist, to the contrary, that we can and must meet this challenge. I find it spectacularly unhelpful to be told, "Success is unlikely given your average mental equipment, but never mind, because cognitive ability is not the only currency for measuring human worth." This is, in fact, precisely what Herrnstein and Murray say. I shudder at the prospect that this could be the animating vision of a governing conservative coalition in this country. But I take comfort in the certainty that, should conservatives be unwise enough to embrace it, the American people will be decent enough to reject it.