Four and a half years ago, Richard Herrnstein and I set out to write a book about individual differences and public policy. And promptly got into trouble. I will not relate to you all the interesting things that have happened to me in those four and a half years, except to say that there have been a number of interesting things. The proximate cause of the excitement has been race. Early on, it became known that we would be focusing on intelligence, and that we would also deal with the issue of ethnic differences in intelligence. Immediately, foreheads broke out in sweat and eyes darted nervously about. But I think that the race issue was only a proximate cause. In a more fundamental sense, I think that Dick Herrnstein and I had run into the deep discomfort that we in the West, in the twentieth century, feel about the idea of inequality.
That people are unequal is not in doubt, now as ever before--in charm, beauty, strength, speed, and, yes, intelligence. But we have been deeply indoctrinated throughout the twentieth century that they shouldn't be. Or if they are, it is only an accident. If we all had the right background, we could all be rocket scientists. People get rich because they were lucky in their parents, or lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, or were lucky enough to invent MS-DOS.
There is a good deal of truth to the notion that life is a cosmic lottery. It is that core of truth that has made inequality so troubling to us in this century, when fewer people rationalize inequality in terms of God's will. But the way to respond to the reality of inequality is not to stick our heads in the sand. That is what we have been doing--and it has been most conspicuously true among those who legislate, implement, and pontificate about policy. We do not have a great many of the former two categories in the room, but we do have a number of the latter, so perhaps my remarks tonight are being directed to at least a few of the right ears.
Specifically, the people who make and influence policy have for thirty years been diagnosing what ails the lives of Americans, whether it be unemployment or crime, illegitimacy or plunging SAT scores. In trying to think through what is happening and why, and in trying to understand thereby what ought to be done, the nation's social scientists and journalists and politicians have turned to many explanations. They have looked at changes in the economy, changes in demographics, changes in the culture. They have proposed solutions founded on better education, on more and better jobs, on specific social interventions of bewildering variety. But they have steadfastly, resolutely ignored an underlying element that has shaped the changes: human intelligence, the way it varies within the American population, and its crucially changing role in our destinies during the last half of the twentieth century.
It has been our view that to try to come to grips with the nation's problems without understanding the role of intelligence is to see through a glass darkly indeed, to grope with symptoms instead of causes, to stumble into supposed remedies that have no chance of working.
Tonight, I am going to skip lightly over about 500 highly technical pages of text, which leaves me with a dilemma: Our thesis involves saying a variety of things that directly contradict everything that the New York Times has taught you is true. I cannot possibly stop to demonstrate to you that, in reality, among the professionals who deal in these issues, I am saying things that are not particularly controversial. But this also means that easily half the audience is going to spend the lecture wondering how I can make these statements that everyone knows have long ago been discredited.
Do you doubt this? Let me describe the received wisdom about intelligence:
Intelligence is a bankrupt concept. Whatever it might mean--and nobody really knows even how to define it--intelligence is so ephemeral that no one can measure it accurately. IQ tests are of course culturally biased, and so are all the other "aptitude" tests, such as the SAT. To the extent that tests such as IQ and SAT measure anything, it certainly isn't an innate "intelligence." IQ scores aren't constant; they often change significantly over an individual's life span. The scores of entire populations can be expected to change over time--look at the Jews, who early in the twentieth century scored below average on IQ tests, and now score well above the average. Furthermore, the tests are nearly useless as tools--as confirmed by the well-documented fact that such tests don't predict anything except success in school. Earnings, occupation, productivity--all the important measures of success--are unrelated to the test scores. All that tests really accomplish is to label youngsters, stigmatizing the ones who don't do well and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that injures the socioeconomically disadvantaged in general and blacks in particular.
That's a pretty fair statement of the received wisdom in the media. But every single one of the statements I just made is empirically incorrect. Now can you understand my problem?
My solution this evening will be to plow ahead. I am going to make all sorts of wild statements that I assure you are true, and come this fall you will have an opportunity to pore over several hundred pages of fine print to find out why. On a serious note: I have no idea whether there is anyone in the room who might want to write about these remarks for publication. I ask as a courtesy that you not do so. I will try to confront some tough questions tonight. I cannot possibly do so with the nuance and detail that they deserve, and which they get in the book.
Here is our story: A great nation, founded on principles of individual liberty and self-government that constitute the crowning achievement of statecraft, approaches the end of the twentieth century. Equality of rights--its central principle--has been implanted more deeply and more successfully than in any other society in history. Yet, even as the principle of equality triumphs, strange things begin to happen to two small segments of the population at the top and the bottom.
Let us begin with the top, a group that Dick and I have dubbed the Cognitive Elite.
The cognitive elite refers to people in the top percentiles of cognitive ability who, over the course of the American twentieth century, have been part of a vast but nearly invisible migration.
At the beginning of the century, the great majority of people in the top 5 or 10 percent of the intelligence distribution were not college educated, often not even high-school educated, and they lived their lives scattered almost indistinguishably among the rest of the population. Their interests were just as variegated. Many were small businessmen or farmers, sharing the political outlook of those groups. Many worked in factories or as skilled craftsmen. The top of the cognitive ability distribution probably included leaders of the labor movement and of community organizations. Among the smart women, only a handful had professional careers of their own. Most of them kept house, reared children, and were often the organizing forces of their religious and social communities.
People from the top of the cognitive ability distribution lived next door to people who were not so smart, with whose children their own children went to school. They socialized with, went to church with, and married people less bright than themselves as a matter of course. This was not an egalitarian utopia . On the contrary, communities were stratified by wealth, religion, class, ethnic background, and race. The stratifications may have been stark, even bitter, but people were not stratified by cognitive ability.
As the century progressed, the historical mix of intellectual abilities at all levels of American society thinned as intelligence rose to the top. The upper end of the cognitive ability distribution has been increasingly channeled into higher education, especially the top colleges and professional schools, thence into high-IQ occupations and senior managerial positions. The upshot is that the scattered brightest of the early twentieth century have congregated, forming a new class.
Membership in this new class, the cognitive elite, is gained by high IQ--neither social background, nor ethnicity, nor lack of money will bar your way. The recruitment process is extraordinarily efficient. Harvard is the classic example. In 1952, Harvard was not really so hard to get into. Your chances of being admitted were about two out of three. The mean SAT-Verbal score of the incoming freshmen class was only 583--above the national mean, but nothing to brag about.The national SAT-V in 1952 was 476, a little more than a standard deviation lower than the Harvard mean. Perhaps the average Harvard student was much farther ahead of the national average than the text suggests, because the national SAT-taking population in 1952 was so selective, representing only 6.8 percent of high school graduates. But one of the oddities of the 1950s, discussed in more detail in chapter tk, is that the SAT means remained constant through the decade and into 1963, even as the size of the test-taking population mushroomed. By 1963, when SAT scores hit their all-time high in the post-1952 period, the test-taking population had grown to 47.9 percent of all high school graduates. Thus there is reason to think that the comparison is about the same as the one that would have been produced by a much larger number of test-takers in 1952. ¯ Harvard men came from a range of ability that could be duplicated in the top half of many state universities. By 1960, the average verbal score was 678--an increase of almost a hundred points. The average Harvard freshman in 1952 would have placed in the bottom 10 percent of the incoming class by 1960. In eight years, Harvard had been transformed from a school primarily for the Northeastern socioeconomic elite into a school populated by the brightest of the bright, drawn from all over the country.
The same thing happened at all the elite schools. The very brightest students from little towns in Iowa --or from Hope Arkansas--no longer went to State U, but were sucked into an extremely efficient recruitment system for the Cognitive Elite.
Once in the club, usually by the time you are eighteen, you begin to share much else as well. Among other things, you and others like you run much of the country's business. In the private sector, the cognitive elite dominates the ranks of CEOs and the top echelon of corporate executives. The advantages that smart people have no doubt always had has grown as the barriers against the "wrong" nationalities, ethnicities, religions, or socioeconomic origins have come down. Meanwhile, the leaders in medicine, law, science, print journalism, television, the film and publishing industries, and the foundation world come largely from the cognitive elite. Almost all of the leading figures in academia are part of it. In Washington, the top echelons of federal officialdom, special interest groups, think tanks, and the rest of Washington's satellite institutions draw heavily from the cognitive elite. At the municipal level, the local business and political leaders who can make things happen in their cities are often members of the cognitive elite.
But haven't we always had a cognitive elite? Yes, in the sense that people who have gotten to the top have always been selected partly by intelligence. There is an important distinction to be drawn: At the beginning of the century, were the very top positions of the society held by people who were, on average, above average in intelligence? Yes. But there is a difference between a society where most positions of influence and affluence tend to be held by bright people, and one in which most of the bright people tend to be in positions influence and affluence.
To see the difference between now and fifty years ago, we need only look around this room. I would guess that the average IQ of the people in this room is somewhere in the vicinity of 120; maybe higher. Statistically, we can be pretty sure that had we been born fifty years earlier, about half of us wouldn't even have gotten college educations.
Moreover, we wouldn't be working in the same occupations. It is very recently in human history that there have been enough specialized jobs screened for cognitive ability to soak up even a small portion of the first-rate minds. How many of our jobs even existed in 1950? Of those which existed, how many of them existed, compared to today?
In any case, that is the first half of the story: a cognitive elite, doing quite well for itself, thank you, and doing better all the time.
Now to the other group, at the left-hand tail of the bell curve of intelligence.
The United States is beset by all sorts of social and economic problems. The thesis that we develop in the book is that these problems are highly concentrated among a particular group of people: people of low intelligence.
Once again, a crucial distinction: To say that people who exhibit a problem are characterized by low intelligence is not the same as saying that most people of low intelligence have that problem. On the contrary, most of the severe problems in this country are experienced by small proportions of the population. Let me give you just one example involving employment, so that we may be keep some perspective: Among white able-bodied males in the bottom five percent of the IQ distribution, comprising men who are close to the clinical definition of retarded, seven out of ten were in the labor force for all fifty-two weeks of 1989, and of those in the labor force, more than eight out of ten experienced not a single week of unemployment. Condescension toward these men is not in order, nor are assumptions that a low IQ is a sentence of incompetence. But having made that point, it remains true that the nation's worst social problems do not strike randomly. For example:
About half of the people in poverty have IQs under nineth. Over 80 percent have IQs under 100.
About three-quarters of high school dropouts have IQs under 90.
About half of the able-bodied men who are out of the labor force have IQs of 80 or under.
The average IQ of convicted felons is about nineth-two. The more serious the criminal record, the lower the IQ.
About a third of the mothers of illegitimate children have IQs of eighty and under. 85 percent have IQs below the mean. The story is roughly the same for women on welfare, and gets worse for chronic welfare recipients.
About half of all low birth weight babies are born to women with IQs under nineth.
Of children growing up in poverty throughout the first three years of life, 40 percent had mothers with IQs of eighty and under. 93 percent were born to women in the bottom half of the distribution.
Finally: Of children with IQs of eighty and under, about half were born to women with IQs of eighty and under--not a surprising statistic, but depressing nonetheless.
As I have run through these statistics, I can imagine a thought process going through some of your minds: These numbers include disproportionate numbers of blacks, because we know that blacks are disproportionately poor, have high illegitimacy ratios, high unemployment, and so on. So are we really talking about a concentration of problems among the cognitively disadvantaged, or about the effects of racism?
The first response to that question is that the relationships apply just as powerfully when we consider whites alone. The odds that a white in the bottom five percent of IQ will be in poverty are one in three; for someone in the top five percent of IQ, one in fifty. Welfare? For a white woman in the bottom five percent of IQ, the odds are better than fifty-fifty that she will go onto welfare within a year of the first birth of her child. For a white woman in the top five percent of IQ, the odds are one in a hundred. And so on.
The second response is that an IQ score for a black youngster means the same thing as an IQ score for a white youngster. In making that statement, let me parse out the things I am saying and am not saying. The issue is realized cognitive ability, not latent genetic potential. Suppose you have two children, one white, from a privileged background, and one black, from a deprived background, tested at age ten, let's say. Is it possible that the black child's IQ would have been higher had his background been better? Yes. Does that then mean that the black child's IQ at age ten is more malleable than the white child's, and that the right remedial programs bring up his IQ by ten or fifteen points? No. Are there any non-verbal tests--in other words, if you got rid of items that use all those five-dollar words and the items that ask kids to know who wrote Paradise Lost--that would produce a higher estimate of IQ for the black student than the traditional IQ test? No. Does the possibility that the IQ could have been higher mean, given a luckier background, mean that the IQ score as measured at age ten is any less predictive of adult social problems or economic success for the black student than the white student? No.
In other words: When I went through those statistics about the concentration of behavioral and social problems in the bottom of the IQ distribution, there is no empirical reason whatsoever for you to think that somehow they don't mean what they seemed to mean,because of racial complications. As a measure of realized cognitive ability, the IQ score means the same thing for blacks as for whites.
Another thought that might have crossed your mind is that, independently of race, what we are really talking about is socioeconomic background. If a youngster grows up with poorly educated, low-income parents, he may end up with a low IQ score, but that doesn't mean that IQ is the real problem. Let me assert something that we spend seven chapters documenting: when you take socioeconomic status into account, the role of IQ seldom diminishes. Much more often, taking IQ into account wipes out the independent role of SES.
In sum: if you have a choice of being born white, or to rich parents, or with a high IQ, make sure you pick high IQ. It will buy you much more than either whiteness or socioeconomic privilege.
* * *
But haven't I now set the policy agenda? I just got done saying that perhaps the child's IQ could have been higher. Shouldn't we therefore be spending as much money as necessary--investing, that is--to provide the nurturing environment that will produce higher IQ scores?
We come here to the topic that may in some respects be the subject of the most violent attacks of any chapter in the book. Though it is hard to predict, because the choices are so many. Professor Herrnstein and I have spent a great deal of time with the literature on this issue. We remain very sympathetic to efforts to provide nurturing, stimulating environments for children, and are conscious of how awful the current situation is. It nonetheless remains true that the track record of remedial programs to improve cognitive functioning is very depressing. Many have been tried. Many have been trumpeted as successes. None of the flamboyant claims holds up. The best we can hope for with the existing technology for intervening in children's lives is small, tenuous, uncertain improvements in IQ. It is a pessimistic conclusion, and we have, unfortunately, a lot of confidence that we are right.
The best way to raise cognitive functioning appears to be adoption at birth. Even this is no cure-all. The most thorough review of the adoption literature concludes that the average gain is only about six points. A respected psychometrician who reviewed our draft was witheringly critical of us for accepting even that modest finding at face value.
The more general statement of our conclusion is this: We as a nation have to stop kidding ourselves. If you want smart children, the best way to get them is to have smart parents for them. And you can see the box toward which that statement leads: Ah, doesn't that mean you're in favor of eugenic plans to encourage high-IQ women to have more babies and low-IQ women to have fewer of them? Or so we have found whenever we have discussed these issues.
It is symbolic of our times: If one draws a conclusion, it must follow that one must favor a law to enforce it. If you think smoking is unhealthy, you must be in favor of laws to restrict smoking; if you think that the best way to produce smart children is have smart mothers give birth to them, you must be in favor of some weird eugenic schemes. We are not.
Since nobody else is either, nothing much is going to happen to change the prevailing composition of the population. Fertility patterns will unfold as they are pushed around by large historical forces, not by government eugenicists. Children will develop much as they do now, even if we redouble our efforts to provide them with better childhood environments, because those interventions don't accomplish much. The prospect therefore is a society that continues to have about the same characteristics as the one I have just described. What is the prognosis?
This brings us back to the cognitive elite. Recall that we left the cognitive elite having the time of their lives. And why not--they are making more money, getting a chance to fulfill their potential, just like the American Dream says they should, and presumably contributing to the nation's wealth and productivity as they do so.
So what's the problem? The old stratifications are fading, erased by a greater reliance on what people often call merit. Millions of people have benefited from the changes, including most of us in this room. Would we prefer less of a meritocracy? Put that way, no. But "no" for larger reasons as well. The invisible migration that I described is in many ways an expression of what America is all about.
What worries us first about the emerging cognitive elite is its coalescence into a class that views American society increasingly through a lens of its own. The reason why this is a problem is captured by a remark attributed to the New Yorker's one-time movie critic Pauline Kael following Richard Nixon's landslide victory in the presidential election of 1972: "Nixon can't have won; no one I know voted for him." (Quoted in Novak, 1992 #4799, p. 24) When the members of the cognitive elite (of whatever political convictions) hang out with each other, often exclusively with each other, they find it hard to understand what ordinary people think.
The problem is not simply that smart people rise to the top more efficiently these days. The invisible migration of the twentieth century has done much more than let the most intellectually able succeed more easily. It has also segregated them and socialized them. The members of the cognitive elite are likely to have gone to the same kinds of schools, to live in similar neighborhoods, go to the same kinds of theaters and restaurants, read the same magazines and newspapers, watch the same television programs, even drive the same makes of cars.
The isolation of the cognitive elite is by no means complete. But the statistical tendencies are strong, and the same advances in transportation and communication that are so enhancing the professional lives of the cognitive elite will make their isolation from the rest of the public that much greater. As their common ground with the rest of society decreases, their coalescence as a new class increases. The traditional separations between the business world, the entertainment world, the university intellectuals, and government are being replaced by an axis of bright people that runs through society. They already sense their kinship across these spheres of interest. This too will increase with time.
The trends I am describing would not constitute a threat to the republic if the government still played the same role in civic life that it played through the Eisenhower Administration. As recently as 1960, it did not make a lot of political difference what the cognitive elite thought, because its power to impose those values on the rest of America was limited. In most of the matters that counted--the way the schools were run, keeping order in the public square, opening a business or running it--the nation remained decentralized. The still inchoate cognitive elite in 1960 may have had ideas about how it wanted to move the world but, like Archimedes, it lacked a place to stand.
We need not become embroiled here in a debate about whether the centralization of authority since 1960 (or 1933, for those who take a longer view) was right or wrong. We may all agree as a statement of fact that such centralization occurred, through legislation and Supreme Court decisions, in every domain of daily life. With it came something that did not exist before: a place for the cognitive elite to stand. With the end of the historic limits on the federal reach, everything was up for grabs. If one political group could get enough votes on the Supreme Court, it could move the Constitution toward its goals. If it could get enough votes in Congress, it could do likewise with legislation.
Through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the battle veered back and forth, with groups identifiably "liberal" and "conservative" each winning occasional victories and bloodying each other's noses in accustomed ways. But in the Bush and Clinton administrations, the old lines began to blur. One may analyze these trends conventionally in terms of the evolution of party politics. The rise of the New Democrats and the breakup of the Reagan coalition are the conventional way of looking at the evolution. We think something else is happening as well, with potential dangers: the converging interests of the cognitive elite with the larger population of affluent Americans.
I will cut to the bottom line: Our analysis leads us to conclude that within the foreseeable future--it is already happening, for that matter--the cognitive elite and the affluent are forming a coalition. This is something new under the twentieth century sun. For most of the century, intellectuals and the affluent have been antagonists. Intellectuals have been identified with the economic left and the cultural avant-garde while the affluent have been identified with big business and cultural conservatism. These comfortable categories have become muddled in recent years, as faculty at the top universities put together salaries, consulting fees, speeches, and royalties that give them six-figure incomes while The New York Review of Books shows up in the mailbox of young corporate lawyers. The very bright have become much more uniformly affluent than they used to be while, at the same time, the universe of affluent people has become more densely populated by the very bright, as Part I described. Not surprisingly, the interests of affluence and the cognitive elite have begun to blend, in a context where the cognitive elite are getting more and more affluent themselves.
Now try to envision what will happen when this combination of the affluent and the cognitive elite amounts to ten or fifteen percent of the population in the next few decades. It will have enough income to bypass the social institutions they don't like in ways that only the top one percent used to be able to do. Robert Reich has called it the "secession of the successful."(Reich, 1991 #4751) The current symbol of this phenomenon is the gated community, secure behind its walls and guard posts, but many other signs are visible.
Try to envision what will happen to the political process. Even as of the early 1990s, the affluent class is no longer a thin layer of rich people but a political bloc to be reckoned with. But we asked you to envision tomorrow, not today. Do you think that the rich in America already have too much power? Or do you think the intellectuals already have too much power? We are suggesting that a "yes" to both questions is probably right. And if you think it's bad now, just watch what happens as their outlooks and interests converge.
Cynical readers will be asking what else is new. The privileged have always used the law to their advantage. Our own analysis is hardly novel; it is taken straight from a book of essays written more than two centuries ago, The Federalist. The only modest addition we make to its ancient truths about faction are two propositions: (1) As of the 1990s, the constitutional restraints on how a faction may use government to further its ends have loosened. (2) An unprecedented coalition of the smart and the rich is going to take advantage of this new latitude in new ways.
What new ways? There are many possibilities, but the central ones all involve the underclass. To date, the underclass has been the subject of unrealistic analysis and ineffectual, often counterproductive policy. The new coalition is already afraid of the underclass. In the next few decades, it is going to have a lot more to be afraid of.
For reasons that I will not try to review here--I have written about them extensively elsewhere--the collapse of family in the black inner-city is likely to replicate itself in low-income white communities. The social chaos that we currently associate with the black inner-city will increase--by many fold, if the much more numerous low-income white population begins to deteriorate rapidly.
Question: In what direction does the social welfare system evolve when a coalition of the cognitive elite and the affluent continues to accept the main tenets of the welfare state, but are becoming increasingly frightened of and hostile toward the recipients of help? When the coalition is prepared to spend money, but has lost faith that remedial social programs work very well? The most likely consequence in our view is that the cognitive elite, with its commanding position, will implement an expanded welfare state for the underclass that also keeps it out from underfoot. Our label for this outcome is the custodial state.
By the "custodial state," we have in mind a high-tech and more lavish version of the Indian reservation for some substantial minority of the nation's population, while the rest of America tries to go about its business. In its less benign forms, the solutions will become more and more totalitarian. Benign or otherwise, "going about its business" in the old sense will not be possible. It is difficult to imagine the United States preserving its heritage of individualism, equal rights before the law, free people running their own lives, once it is accepted that a significant part of the population must be made permanent wards of the state.
Extrapolating from current trends, we project that the policies of custodialism will be not only tolerated but actively supported by a consensus of the cognitive elite. To some extent, we are not even really "projecting" but reporting. The main difference between the position of the cognitive elite that we portray here and the one that exists today is to some extent nothing more than the distinction between tacit and explicit.
In short, Richard Herrnstein and I are worried about the prospective collapse of American free institutions as we have known them, not implausibly within our own lifetimes It is an apocalyptic vision. But we think there is much to be apocalyptic about.
* * *
So where does this leave us? How should policy deal with the twin realities that (1) people differ in intelligence for reasons that are not their fault, and (2) intelligence has a powerful bearing on how well people do in life?
The answer of the twentieth century has been that government should create the equality of condition that society has neglected to produce on its own. The assumption that egalitarianism is the proper ideal, however difficult it may be to achieve in practice, suffuses contemporary political theory. Socialism, communism, social democracy, and America's welfare state have been different ways of moving toward the egalitarian ideal. The phrase "social justice" has become virtually a synonym for economic and social equality.
In many ways, the material I have presented is tailor-made for their case. If it's not someone's fault that he is less intelligent than others, why should he be penalized for it in his income and social status?
I could respond with a Rawlsian defense of income differences. For example: it is justified to pay the high-IQ businessman and engineer more than the low-IQ ditch-digger, producing income inequality, because that's the only way to make the economy grow and produce more wealth in which the ditch-digger can share. But there are other issues, transcending the efficiency of an economy. Our central concern since Dick and I began writing this book is how people might live together harmoniously despite fundamental individual differences. The answer lies outside of economics.
We challenge the egalitarian ideal.
The egalitarian ideal of contemporary political theory underestimates the importance of the differences that separate human beings. It fails to come to grips with human variation. It overestimates the capacity of political interventions to shape human character and capacities. It ignores the deeper bases of human satisfaction. People do not wake up happy because they are equal. They wake up happy for other reasons going to their sense of efficacy, dignity, and accomplishment.
Furthermore, the perversions of the egalitarian ideal that began with the French Revolution and that have been so plentiful in the twentieth century are not accidents of history nor are they produced by technical errors in implementation. Here are as close to immutable laws of social science as I know:
People who are free to behave differently from one another in the important affairs of daily life inevitably generate the social and economic inequalities that egalitarianism seeks to suppress
To reduce inequality of condition, the state must impose greater and greater uniformity. Egalitarianism is not the road to human happiness. It is, without hyperbole, the road for tyranny.
With these thoughts on the table, let me return to the question: How should policy deal with the twin realities that people differ in intelligence for reasons that are not their fault, and that intelligence has a powerful bearing on how well people do in life?
There are some pragmatic answers that have legislative possibilities.
But these do not get to the heart of the matter. In trying to think through the answers, Richard Herrnstein and I kept returning to a concept of social happiness that antedates even the founder, the ancient concern that everyone have a "place." The twentieth century has too quickly thought of that tradition in terms of its limitations of caste and class. The core of the concept of place has validity for our own time, and for a free society, as well. I will put it in prescriptive terms:
The broadest goal is a society in which people throughout the functional range of intelligence can find, and feel they have found, a valued place for themselves. For "valued place," I will give you a pragmatic definition: you occupy a valued place if other people would miss you if you were gone. The fact that you would be missed means that you were valued. Both the quality and quantity of valued places are important. A beloved spouse is that someone who would "miss you" in the widest and most intense way. But to have many different people who would miss you, in many different parts of your life and at many levels of intensity, is also a hallmark of a person whose "place" is well and thoroughly valued. One way of thinking about policy options is to ask whether they aid or obstruct this goal of creating valued places.
It used to be a lot easier than it is now.
In a simpler America, being comparatively low in the qualities measured by IQ did not necessarily affect your ability to find a valued niche in the labor market. The need for strong backs was everywhere.
Marriage did not discriminate by cognitive class. Everyone was expected to get married, and almost everyone did. To be married meant to be responsible for each other, and for the children of that marriage, in unqualified and uncompromising ways that the entire community held to be of the highest importance. To meet those responsibilities gave you a valued place in the community by definition. To fail conspicuously in those responsibilities made you an outcast by definition. Meeting the responsibilities of marriage and parenthood did not take a lot of money and did not take high intelligence. The community provided clear and understandable incentives for doing what needed to be done.
As for the other ways in which people found valued places for themselves, neighborhoods teemed with useful things to do, whether they were in small towns or the largest cities. Anyone who wanted to have a place in the community could find one in the local school boards, churches, union halls, gand benevolent associations of one sort or another. The neighborhood had to do for itself just about everything that needed doing to keep the social contract operative and daily life on an even keel. If you were mentally a bit slow, you might not be chosen to head up the parish clothing drive, but you certainly could be available to help out. And these were just the organized aspects of community life. The unorganized web of interactions was even more extensive, and provided still more ways in which people of all abilities, including those without much intelligence, could fit in.
It is not necessary to idealize old-fashioned neighborhoods or old-fashioned families to accept the description we have just given. All sorts of human problems, from wretched marriages to neighborhood feuds and human misery of every other sort, could be found. But when the responsibilities of marriage and parenthood were clear and uncompromising, and when the stuff of community life had to be carried out by the neighborhood or it wouldn't get done, society was full of accessible "valued places" for people of a broad range of abilities.
Earlier, I alluded to the federal domination of public policy that has augmented the cognitive elite's political leverage during the last thirty years. The same process has had the symmetrical effect of stripping the neighborhood of much of the stuff of life. Congress and presidents have deemed it necessary to remove more and more functions from the neighborhood. The entire social welfare system may be viewed in that light.
The cognitive elite may not detect the declining vitality in the local community. Their lives are centered outside a geographic community: their professional associates and friends may be scattered over miles of suburbs, or for that matter across the nation and the world. For large segments of American society, however, the geographic neighborhood is the major potential resource for infusing life with much of its meaning.
It is hard to see from a Washington office the ways in which the locality still creates ways for people of a wide level of incomes and abilities to play a part, to be known--as a helpful fellow, a useful person to know, the woman you can always count on. It creates ways in which, if you were gone, you would be missed.
Thus our first general policy prescription: A wide range of social functions should be restored to the neighborhood when possible and otherwise to the municipality. The reason for doing so, in the context of this book, is not to save money, not even because such services will be provided more humanely and efficiently by neighborhoods (though we believe that generally to be the case), but because this is one of the best ways to multiply the valued places that people can fill.
Next observation: As of the end of the twentieth century, the United States is run by rules that are congenial to people with high IQs and that make life more difficult for everyone else. This is true in the areas of criminal justice, marriage and divorce, welfare and tax policy, and business law, among others.
The systems have been created, bit by bit, over decades, by people who think that complicated, sophisticated operationalizations of fairness, justice, and right and wrong are ethically superior to simple, black-and-white versions. The cognitive elite may not be satisfied with these systems as they stand at any given point, but however they may reform them, the systems are sure to become more complex.
Complex systems are precisely the ones that give the cognitive elite the greatest competitive advantage. Deciphering complexity is one of the things that cognitive ability is most directly good for.
First come all the rules that make life more difficult for people who are trying to navigate everyday life. In looking for examples, the 1040 income tax form is such an easy target that it need only be mentioned to make the point. But the same complications and confusions apply if you are a single woman with children seeking government assistance or a person who is trying to open a dry- cleaning shop. Asthe cognitive elite busily goes about making the world a better place, it is not so important to them that they are complicating ordinary lives. It's not so complicated to them.
American society is rife with other examples. In many ways, life really is more complicated than it used to be, and there's nothing to be done about it. But as the cognitive elite has come to power, it has trailed in its wake a detritus of complexities as well, individually minor, that together have reshaped society so that the average person has a much tougher time running his own life. Policy recommendation: Stop it. Strip away the nonsense. Consider the costs of complexity itself. Return to the assumption that in America the government has no business getting in people's way except for the most compelling reasons, with "compelling" required to meet a stiff definition. More generally: Modern American society can be simplified, radically, and it must be. Everywhere in the Western world, societies are looking more and more like Aldous Huxley said they would in Brave New World, or as any number of science fiction writers have envisioned, as we create a world in which proles have their drugs and their games, while a more privileged class goes about its business.
I doubt if I have been able to say enough in this lecture to explain all that I mean. I am fairly sure that I have left myself open to a few harsh questions.
Is that all there is? you may well ask. This sentimentalizing about a pastoral world of yeoman farmers and weavers at their looms? "Simplification" as a policy priority? Get serious.
What about some REAL policy implications? Some programsto present to congress. Some headlines. Well, there are some such things in the book. We have some rather strong recommendations to make in a number of specific policy areas. But whereas they are much more like the kind of conclusion that are supposed to be in policy-related books, they are not, in my view, nearly as important as the themes I have just raised. And, when you get right down to it, it is not mainly a policy-related book.
Last fall, I began an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal with the line, "Every once in a while the sky really is falling." I didn't say it there, but I had these larger issues in mind. When I think about about the direction of the American polity over the last thirty years, I am reminded of adolescents, fascinated by some shiny new idea, absolutely convinced that they know better than the fusty old adults, possessed with the time horizon of may flies (I turned fifty last year, so it's okay to talk like this) having taken something infinitely precious--the way of living together bequeathed to us by the Founders--and tossing it over their shoulders. The triumph of the founders was not in creating a world that worked for people in the eighteenth century, but in creating a world that works for people, period--human beings, homo sapiens, deeply understood.
The bare possibility of a restoration remains. This most individualistic of nations contains one of the friendliest, most eager to oblige, neighborly peoples in all the world. Visitors to America from Tocqueville on down have observed it. As a by-product of this generosity and civic-mindedness, America had a framework for letting individuals make valued places, for people of all kinds of abilities, given only that they played by a few basic rules.
Once upon a time, we as a nation absorbed people of different cultures, abilities, incomes, and temperaments into communities that worked. The nation was good at it precisely because of, not in spite of, the freedom that American individuals and communities enjoyed. Reducing that freedom has enervated our national genius for finding valued places for everyone. The genius will not be revitalized until the freedom is restored.
Cognitive partitioning will continue. It cannot be stopped, because the forces driving it cannot be stopped. But America can choose to preserve a society in which every citizen has access to the central satisfactions of life. Her people can, through an interweaving of choice and responsibility, create valued places for themselves in their worlds. They can live in communities--urban as well as rural--where being a good parent, a good neighbor, and a good friend will give their lives purpose and meaning. They can weave the most crucial safety nets together, so that their mistakes and misfortunes are mitigated and withstood with a little help from their friends.
All of these good things are available now if you are smart enough or rich enough--if you can exploit the complex rules to your advantage, buy your way out of the social institutions that no longer function, and have access to the rich human interconnections that are growing, not diminishing, for the cognitively fortunate. I am asking you, so heavily concentrated among those who fit that description, to recognize how pervasively we have been withdrawing those good things from the reach of those who are not smart enough and rich enough.
Many phrases become cheapened with overuse, and "human dignity" is probably one of them. But I will use it anyway. The central measure of success for this government, as for any other, is to permit people to live a life of dignity. Not to give them dignity, for that is not in any government's power, but to make it accessible to all. That is one way of thinking about what the Founders had in mind when they proclaimed, as a truth self-evident, that all men are created equal. That is what Richard Herrnstein and I have in mind when we talk about valued places for everyone.
Inequality of endowments, including intelligence, is a reality. Trying to pretend that inequality doesn't really exist has led to disaster. Trying to paper over inequality with artificially manufactured outcomes has led to disaster. It is time for America once again to try living with inequality, as life is lived: understanding that human beings do not come rank-ordered on any one virtue or excellence, but are complicated bundles of good and bad, competencies and incompetencies, assets and debits; that the success of each human life is not measured externally but internally; that of all the rewards we can confer on each other, the most precious is a place as a valued fellow citizen.
Charles Murray is the Bradley Fellow at AEI.