A Place for Everyone - Living Together - The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life - Richard J. Herrnstein, Charles Murray

The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life - Richard J. Herrnstein, Charles Murray (1996)

Part IV. Living Together

Chapter 22. A Place for Everyone

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?

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 justicehas become virtually a synonym for economic and social equality.

Until now, these political movements have focused on the evils of systems in producing inequality. Human beings are potentially pretty much the same, the dominant political doctrine has argued, except for the inequalities produced by society. These same thinkers have generally rejected, often vitriolically, arguments that individual differences such as intelligence are to blame. But there is no reason why they could not shift ground. In many ways, the material in this book 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 in his income and social status?

We could respond with a 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. We could grant that it is a matter not of just deserts but of economic pragmatism about how to produce compensating benefits for the least advantaged members of society.1 Such arguments make sense to us, as far as they go. After the experience of the twentieth century, it is hard to imagine that anyone still disagrees with them. But there are other issues, transcending the efficiency of an economy. Our central concern since we began writing this book is how people might live together harmoniously despite fundamental individual differences. The answer lies outside economics.

The initial purpose of this chapter is to present for your consideration another way of thinking about equality and inequality. It represents an older intellectual tradition than social democracy or even socialism. In our view, it is also a wiser tradition, more attuned to the way in which individuals go about living satisfying lives and to the ways in which societies thrive. The more specific policy conclusions to which we then turn cannot be explained apart from this underpinning.


For thousands of years, great political thinkers of East and West tried to harmonize human differences. For Confucius, society was like his conception of a family—extensions of a ruling father and obedient sons, devoted husbands and faithful wives, benign masters and loyal servants. People were defined by their place, whether in the family or the community. So too for the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers: place was all. All the great religious traditions define a place for everyone, if not on earth then in heaven.

Society was to be ruled by the virtuous and wise few. The everyday business of the community fell to the less worthy multitude, with the most menial chores left to the slaves. Neither the Greek democrats nor the Roman republicans believed that “all men are created equal.” Nor did the great Hindu thinkers of the Asian subcontinent, where one’s work defined one’s caste, which in turn circumscribed every other aspect of life. The ancients accepted the basic premise that people differ fundamentally and importantly and searched for ways in which people could contentedly serve the community (or the monarch or the tyrant or the gods), rather than themselves, despite their differences. Philosophers argued about obligations and duties, what they are and on whom they fall.

In our historical era, political philosophers have argued instead about rights. They do so because they are trying to solve a different problem. The great transformation from a search for duties and obligations to a search for rights may be dated with Thomas Hobbes, writing in the mid-1600s about a principle whereby all people, not just the rich and well born, might have equal rights to liberty.2 Everyone, said Hobbes, is entitled to as much liberty in gratifying his desires as he is willing to allow others in gratifying theirs.3 People differ, acknowledged Hobbes, but they do not differ so much that they may justifiably be deprived of liberty by differing amounts. In the modern view that Hobbes helped shape, individuals freely accept constraints on their own behavior in exchange for ridding themselves of the dangers of living in perfect freedom, hence perfect anarchy.4 The constraints constitute lawful government.

Hobbes believed that the only alternatives for human society are, in effect, anarchy or absolute monarchy. Given those alternatives, said Hobbes, a rational person would choose a monarch to ensure the equality of political rights, rather than take his chances with perfect freedom. His successor in English political thought, John Locke, did not accept the Hobbesian choice between despotism and anarchy. He conceived of people in a state of nature as being in “a State also of Equality, wherein all the Power and Jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another,”5 and sought to preserve that condition in actual societies through a strictly limited government. What Locke propounded is especially pertinent here because it was his theory that the American Founders brought into reality.

But with Locke also arose a confusion, which has grown steadily with passing time. For most contemporary Americans who are aware of Locke at all, he is identified with the idea of man as tabula rasa, a blank slate on which experience writes. Without experience, Locke is often believed to have said, individuals are both equal and empty, a blank slate to be written upon by the environment. Many contemporary libertarians who draw their inspiration from Locke are hostile to the possibility of genetic differences in intelligence because of their conviction that equal rights apply only if in fact people at birth are tabulae rasae. With that in mind, consider these remarks about human intelligence from Locke’s An Essay on Human Understanding:

Now that there is such a difference between men in respect of their understandings, I think nobody who has had any conversation with his neighbors will question…. Which great difference in men’s intellectuals, whether it rises from any defect in the organs of the body particularly adapted to thinking, or in the dullness or untractableness of those faculties for want of use, or, as some think, in the natural differences of men’s souls themselves; or some or all of these together, it matters not here to examine. Only this is evident, that there is a difference of degrees in men’s understandings, apprehensions, and reasonings, to so great a latitude that one may, without doing injury to mankind, affirm that there is a greater distance between some men and others in this respect, than between some men and some beasts.6

Locke is strikingly indifferent to the source of cognitive differences and strikingly harsh in his judgment about their size. But that does not mean he believed people to have different rights. They are equal in rights, Locke proclaimed, though they be unequal in everything else. Those rights, however, are negative rights (to impose contemporary terminology): They give all human beings the right not to have certain things done to them by the state or by other human beings, not the right to anything, except freedom of action.

This way of putting it is out of tune with the modern sensibility. The original concept of equal rights is said to be meaningless cant, outmoded; taking equal rights seriously, it is thought, requires enforcing equal outcomes. The prevailing political attitude is so dismissive toward the older conception of equal rights that it is difficult to think of serious public treatments of it; the Founders just didn’t think hard enough about that problem, it seems to be assumed. If he were alive today, some eminent political scientists have argued, Thomas Jefferson would surely be a social democrat or at least a New Deal Democrat.7 We are asking that you consider the alternative: that the Founders were fully aware of how unequal people are, that they did not try to explain away natural inequalities, and that they nonetheless thought the best way for people to live together was under a system of equal rights.

The Founders wrote frankly about the inequality of men. For Thomas Jefferson, it was obvious that they were especially unequal in virtue and intelligence. He was thankful for a “natural aristocracy” that could counterbalance the deficiencies of the others, an “aristocracy of virtue and talent, which Nature has wisely provided for the direction of the interests of society.”8 It was, he once wrote, “the most precious gift of nature,” and he thought that the best government was one that most efficiently brought the natural aristocracy to high positions.9

Jefferson saw the consequences of inequalities of ability radiating throughout the institutions of society. The main purpose of education, he believed, was to prepare the natural aristocracy to govern, and he did not mince words. The “best geniuses” should be “raked from the rubbish annually” by competitive grading and examinations, sent on to the next educational stage, and finally called to public life.10 But if the author of the Declaration of Independence was by today’s standards unrepentaritly elitist, he was nonetheless a democrat in his belief that the natural aristocracy was “scattered with equal hand through all [of society’s] conditions,”11 and in his confidence that the electorate had the good sense to choose them. “Leave to the citizens the free election and separation of the aristoi from the pseudo-aristoi,” he advised. “In general, they will elect the real good and wise.”12 For Madison, the “great republican principle” was that the common people would have the public-spiritedness and the information necessary to choose “men of virtue and wisdom” to govern them.13 For both Jefferson and Madison, political equality was both right and workable. They would have been amazed by the notion that humans are equal in any other sense.

Nor were Jefferson’s and Madison’s views a reflection of their southern heritage. John Adams, that quintessential Yankee, agreed that “natural aristocracy is a fact essential to be considered in the institution of government”—or, as he put it in another instance, “I believe there is as much in the breed of men as there is in that of horses.”14 He was not as optimistic as Jefferson and Madison, for he was keenly aware that intelligence does not necessarily go with virtue, and he was fearful that Jefferson’s natural aristocracy would within a few generations have cemented its descendants’ positions into that of a ruling caste. But he did not doubt that the reality of human inequalities was of central political importance.15

The other Founders, including Hamilton and Washington, ruminated in the same vein about the inequality of men and the political implications of that inequality. In doing so, they were following an ancient tradition. Political philosophers have always begun from the understanding that good policy must be in accordance with what is good for human beings, and that what is good for humans must be based on an understanding of how they are similar and how they differ. Aristotle put it earliest and perhaps best: “All men believe that justice means equality in some sense…. The question we must keep in mind is, equality or inequality in what sort of thing.”16

The Founders saw that making a stable and just government was difficult precisely because men were unequal in every respect except their right to advance their own interests. Men had “different and unequal faculties of acquiring property,” Madison reflected in The Federalist.17 This diversity was the very reason why rights of property were so important and why “the protection of those faculties is the first object of Government.” But the diversity was also the defect of populist democracy, because the unequal distribution of property to which it led was “the most common and durable source of factions.” And faction, he argued, was the great danger that the Constitution sought above all to confine and tame. The task of government was to set unequal persons into a system of laws and procedures that would, as nearly as possible, equalize their rights while allowing their differences to express themselves. The result would not necessarily be serene or quiet, but it would be just. It might even work.

In reminding you of these views of the men who founded America, we are not appealing to their historical eminence, but to their wisdom. We think they were right. Let us stop using words like factions and faculties and aristoiand state in our own words, briefly and explicitly, how and why we think they were right in ways that apply today.

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 ability of political interventions to shape human character and capacities. The systems of government that are necessary to carry out the egalitarian agenda ignore the forces that the Founders described in The Federalist, which lead inherently and inevitably to tyranny, throughout history and across cultures. These defects in the egalitarian tradition are reflected in political experience, where the failure of the communist bloc to construct happy societies is palpably apparent and the ultimate fate of even the more benign egalitarian model in Scandinavia is coming into question.

The perversions of the egalitarian ideal that began with the French Revolution and have been so plentiful in the twentieth century are not accidents of history or produced by technical errors in implementation. Something more inevitable is at work. 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. That, we believe, is as close to an immutable law as the uncertainties of sociology permit. To reduce inequality of condition, the state must impose greater and greater uniformity. Perhaps that is as close to an immutable law as political science permits. In T. H. White’s version of the Arthurian legend, The Once and Future King, Merlyn transforms young Arthur into an ant as part of his education in governance. In this guise, Arthur approaches the entrance to the ant colony, where over the entrance are written the words, EVERYTHING NOT FORBIDDEN IS COMPULSORY.18 Such, in our view, is where the logic of the egalitarian ideal ultimately leads. It is appropriate in the ant colony or the beehive but not for human beings. Egalitarian tyrannies, whether of the Jacobite or the Leninist variety, are worse than inhumane. They are inhuman.

The same atmosphere prevails on a smaller scale wherever “equality” comes to serve as the basis for a diffuse moral outlook. Consider the many small tyrannies in America’s contemporary universities, where it has become objectionable to say that some people are superior to other people in any way that is relevant to life in society. Nor is this outlook confined to judgments about people. In art, literature, ethics, and cultural norms, differences are not to be judged. Such relativism has become the moral high ground for many modern commentators on life and culture.

Even the existence of differences must be discussed gingerly, when they are human differences. As soon as the differences are associated with membership in a group, censorship arises. In this book, we have trod on one of those most sensitive areas by talking about ethnic differences, but there are many others. In what respects do men differ from women? Young differ from old? Heterosexuals from homosexuals? The permissible answers, often even the permissible questions, are sharply circumscribed. The moral outlook that has become associated with equality has spawned a vocabulary of its own. Discrimination, once a useful word with a praiseworthy meaning, is now almost always used in a pejorative sense. Racism, sexism, ageism, elitism—all are in common parlance, and their meanings continue to spread, blotting up more and more semantic territory.

The ideology of equality has done some good. For example, it is not possible as a practical matter to be an identifiable racist or sexist and still hold public office. But most of its effects are bad. Given the power of contemporary news media to imprint a nationwide image overnight, mainstream political figures have found that their allegiance to the rhetoric of equality must extend very far indeed, for a single careless remark can irretrievably damage or even end a public career. In everyday life, the ideology of equality censors and straitjackets everything from pedagogy to humor. The ideology of equality has stunted the range of moral dialogue to triviality. In daily life—conversations, the lessons taught in public schools, the kinds of screenplays or newspaper feature stories that people choose to write—the moral ascendancy of equality has made it difficult to use concepts such as virtue, excellence, beauty and—above all—truth.

Within the realm of government, small versions of the “everything not forbidden is compulsory” mentality may be seen everywhere. The informal old American principle governing personal behavior was that you could do whatever you wanted as long you didn’t force anyone else to go along with you and as long as you let the other fellow go about his affairs with equal freedom. The stopping point was defined by the useful adage, “Your freedom to swing your arm stops where my nose begins.” In laws great and small, this principle has been perverted beyond recognition, as the notions of what constitutes “where my nose begins” stretch far out into space. The practice of affirmative action has been a classic example of the “everything not forbidden is compulsory” mentality, as the idea of forbidding people to discriminate by race mutated into the idea of compelling everyone to help produce equal outcomes by race. In tort law, the destruction of the concept of negligence grew out of an explicitly egalitarian view of the purpose of liability—not to redress individual victims for acts of irresponsibility but to redistribute goods more equitably.19 In personal life, the idea of forbidding people from interfering with members of other groups (blacks, homosexuals, women) as they went about their lives has been extended to the idea of compelling people to “treat them the same.” It is a mark of how far things have gone that many people no longer can see the distinction between “not interfering” and “treating the same.”

Our views on all of these issues are decidedly traditional. We think that rights are embedded in our freedom to act, not in the obligations we may impose on others to act; that equality of rights is crucial while equality of outcome is not; that concepts such as virtue, excellence, beauty, and truth should be reintroduced into moral discourse. We are comfortable with the idea that some things are better than others—not just according to our subjective point of view but according to enduring standards of merit and inferiority—and at the same time reject the thought that we (or anyone else) should have the right to impose those standards. We are enthusiastic about diversity—the rich, unending diversity that free human beings generate as a matter of course, not the imposed diversity of group quotas.

And so we come to this final chapter, discussing the broadest policy implications of all that has gone before. We bring to our recommendations a predisposition, believing that the original American conceptions of human equality and the pursuit of happiness still offer the wisest guidance for thinking about how to run today’s America. These have been some of our reasons why.


With these thoughts on the table, let us return to the question that opened the chapter: 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? The answer turns us back to the ancient concern with place.

The Goal and a Definition

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,” we offer 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. Most people hope to find a soulmate for life, and that means someone who would “miss you” in the widest and most intense way. The definition captures the reason why children are so important in defining a valued place. But besides the quality of the valuing, quantity too is important. If a single person would miss you and no one else, you have a fragile hold on your place in society, no matter how much that one person cares for you. To have many different people who would miss you, in many different parts of your life and at many levels of intensity, is 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.

Finding Valued Places

The great bulk of the American population is amply equipped, in their cognitive resources and in other personal characteristics, to find valued places in society. We must emphasize that, because for hundreds of pages we have focused on people at the two tails of the bell curve. Now is a good time to recall the people in the broad part of the curve, between the extremes. In figure after figure throughout Chapter 16, the pattern was consistent: The prevalence of the social maladies we reviewed was strikingly concentrated in the bottom IQ deciles. By the time people were even approaching average IQ, the percentages of people who were poor, had babies out of wedlock, provided poor environments for their children, or exhibited any other problem constituted small percentages of the population. Translated into the themes we are about to introduce, the evidence throughout this book supports the proposition that most people by far have enough intelligence for getting on with the business of life. We believe the policies we advocate will benefit them as well, by creating a generally richer and more vital society, but it should be made explicit: Our solutions assume that the average American is an asset, not part of the problem.

Finding Valued Places If You Aren’t Very Smart: The Traditional Context

Nonetheless, millions of Americans have levels of cognitive ability low enough to make their lives statistically much more difficult than life is for most other people. How may policy help or obstruct them as they go about their lives? Our thesis is that it used to be easier for people who are low in ability to find a valued place than it is now.

In a simpler America, being comparatively low in the qualities measured by IQ did not necessarily affect the ability to find a valued niche in society. Many such people worked on farms. When farms were small, technology was limited to the horse-drawn plow and a few hand tools, and the same subsistence crops were grown year after year. People who would score 80 or 90 on an IQ test could be competent farmworkers, not conspicuously distinguished from most other people in wealth, home, neighborhood, or status in the community. Much the same could be said of a wide variety of skilled and unskilled trades. Even an unskilled laborer who was noticeably lower on the economic scale was part of a community in which many others with many levels of ability lived close to him, literally and socially. Inevitably, with technological advances, the niches for the less intelligent have shrunk.

As for the most intimate affiliations—marriage and children—there formerly was little difference between people of varying abilities: 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. Those who met those responsibilities had a valued place in the community by definition. Those who failed conspicuously in those responsibilities were outcasts 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.

Urban communities were somewhat different from small towns in these respects but not unrecognizably so. The top socioeconomic layer moved off to its own part of town, but this left a broad range of people living together in the rest of a city’s neighborhoods, and the social functioning of those neighborhoods shared many characteristics with small towns. The responsibilities of marriage and children were as clearly defined in urban neighborhoods as in rural ones, and success and failure in those responsibilities were as visibly rewarded and punished.

As for the other ways in which people found valued places for themselves, urban neighborhoods teemed with useful things to do. Anyone who wanted to have a place in the community could find one in the local school boards, churches, union halls, garden clubs, and benevolent associations of one sort or another. The city government provided the police who walked the local beat. It ran the courthouse and public hospital downtown, and perhaps an orphanage and a home for the aged, but otherwise 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. Someone who was mentally a bit dull might not be chosen to head up the parish clothing drive but was certainly eligible 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. Poverty was rampant (recall from Chapter 5 that more than half of the population prior to War II was in poverty by today’s definition). Even so, 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.

Finding Valued Places If You Aren’t Very Smart: The Contemporary Context

Out of the myriad things that have changed since the beginning of the century, two overlapping phenomena have most affected people with modest abilities: It has become harder to make a living to support the valued roles of spouse, parent, and neighbor, and functions have been stripped from one main source of valued place, the neighborhood.

THE ECONOMIC ARGUMENT. The cognitive elite has pulled away from the rest of the population economically, becoming more prosperous even as real wages in the rest of the economy stagnated or fell. The divergence has been most conspicuous in the lowest-skilled jobs. From their high point in 1973, the median earnings of full-time workers in general nonfarm labor had fallen by 36 percent by 1990, far more than for any other category.20 A strong back isn’t worth what it used to be. Workers in those occupations have been demoralized. They have lost their valued place in the workplace.

So far, we agree that economics plays an important role in taking valued places in the workplace from those with low cognitive ability. But the argument typically widens, asserting that economic change also explains why people in low-skill occupations experience the loss of other valued places evidenced by falling marriage rates and rising illegitimacy: Men in low-skill jobs no longer make enough money to support a family, it is said. This common argument is too simplistic. In constant dollars, the income of a full-time, year-round male worker in general nonfarm labor in 1991 was at the level of his counterpart in 1958, when the norm was still one income per family, marriage rates were as high as ever, and illegitimacy was a fraction of its current levels. We may look back still further: The low-skill laborer in 1991 made about twice the real income of his counterpart in 1920, a year when no one thought to question whether a laborer could support a family.21 Economics is relevant in understanding how it has become harder for people of modest abilities to find a valued place, and solutions should take economics into account. But economics is not decisive.

STRIPPING FUNCTIONS FROM THE NEIGHBORHOOD. Communities are rich and vital places to the extent that they engage their members in the stuff of life—birth, death, raising children, making a living, helping friends, singing in the local choir or playing on the softball team, coping with problems, setting examples, welcoming, chastising, celebrating, reconciling, and negotiating.

If there is one theme on which observers from both left and right recently sound very much alike, it is that something vital and important has drained out of American communities.22 Most adults need something to do with their lives other than going to work, and that something consists of being stitched into a fabric of family and community. In the preceding chapter, we 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 collateral effect of stripping the neighborhood of much of the stuff of life. For what seemed like sufficient reasons at the time, Congress and presidents have deemed it necessary to remove more and more functions from the neighborhood. The entire social welfare system, services and cash payments alike, may be viewed in that light. Certain tasks—such as caring for the poor, for example—were deemed to be too difficult or too poorly performed by the spontaneous efforts of neighborhoods and voluntary organizations, and hence were transferred. The states have joined in this process. Whether federal and state policymakers were right to think that neighborhoods had failed and that the centralized government has done better is still a subject of debate, as is the net effect of the transfers, but the transfers did indeed occur and they stripped neighborhoods of traditional functions.

The cognitive elite may not detect the declining vitality in the local community. For many of them, the house is important—its size, location, view, grounds. They may want the right kind of address and the right kind of neighbors. But 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. Even the cognitive elite needs local communities, if not for itself, then for those of its children who happen not to land at the top of the cognitive ability distribution. The massive transfer of functions from the locality to the government has stripped neighborhoods of their traditional shared tasks. Instead, we have neighborhoods that are merely localities, not communities of people tending to their communal affairs. Valued places in a neighborhood are created only to the extent that the people in a neighborhood have valued tasks to do.

People who have never lived in such a neighborhood—and as time goes on this includes more and more of the cognitive elite and the affluent in general—often find this hard to believe. It is another case of the isolation we discussed in Chapter 21: They may read about such communities in books, but surely they no longer exist in real life. But they do. Thumb through a few weeks’ issues of the newspaper from any small town, and you will find an America that is still replete with fund-raising suppers for the local child who has cancer, drives to collect food and clothing for a family that has suffered a reverse, and even barn raisings. They may exist as well (though they are less well documented) in urban working-class neighborhoods that have managed to retain their identity. It is through such activities that much of the real good for the disadvantaged is accomplished. Beyond that, they have a crucial role, so hard to see from a Washington office, of creating ways for people of a wide level of incomes and abilities to play a part. It creates ways for them to be known—not just as a name but as a helpful fellow, a useful person to know, the woman you can always count on. It creates ways in which you would be missed if you were gone.

Thus arises 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. As the chapter continues, we will offer some other possibilities for accomplishing this and collateral objectives. But before arguing about how it is to be done, we hope that there can be wide agreement on the importance of the goal: In a decent postindustrial society, neighborhoods shall not have lost their importance as a source of human satisfactions and as a generator of valued places that all sorts of people can fill. Government policy can do much to foster the vitality of neighborhoods by trying to do less for them.


The thesis of this section may be summarized quickly: 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. It is true of rules that have been intended to help ordinary people—rules that govern schooling, medical practice, the labeling of goods, to pick some examples. It has happened not because the cognitive elite consciously usurped the writing of the rules but because of the cognitive stratification described throughout the book. The trend has affected not just those at the low end of the cognitive distribution but just about everybody who is not part of the cognitive and economic elites.

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. Additionally, 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.

We have in mind two ways in which the rules generated by the cognitive elite are making life more difficult for everyone else. Each requires somewhat more detailed explanation.

Making It Easier to Make a Living

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 to a single woman with children seeking government assistance or a person who is trying to open a dry-cleaning shop. As the 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.

The same burden of complications that are only a nuisance to people who are smart are much more of a barrier to people who are not. In many cases, such barriers effectively block off avenues for people who are not cognitively equipped to struggle through the bureaucracy. In other cases, they reduce the margin of success so much that they make the difference between success and failure. “Sweat equity,” though the phrase itself has been recently coined, is as distinctively an American concept as “equality before the law” and “liberty.” You could get ahead by plain hard work. No one would stand in your way. Today that is no longer true. American society has erected barriers to individual sweat equity, by saying, in effect, “Only people who are good at navigating complex rules need apply.” Anyone who has tried to open or run a small business in recent years can supply evidence of how formidable those barriers have become.

Credentialism is a closely related problem. It goes all the way up the cognitive range—the Ph.D. is often referred to as “the union card” by graduate students who want to become college professors—but it is especially irksome and obstructive for occupations further down the ladder. Increasingly, occupations must be licensed, whether the service involves barbering or taking care of neighborhood children. The theory is persuasive—do you want someone taking care of your child who is not qualified?—but the practice typically means jumping through bureaucratic hoops that have little to do with one’s ability to do the job. The rise of licensing is both a symptom and a cause of diminishing personal ties, along with the mutual trust that goes with those ties. The licensing may have some small capacity to filter out the least competent, but the benefits are often outweighed by the costs of the increased bureaucratization.

Enough examples. American society is rife with them. In many ways, life 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. Our policy recommendation is to stop it and 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.

Making It Easier to Live a Virtuous Life

We start with the supposition that almost everyone is capable of being a morally autonomous human being most of the time and given suitable circumstances. Political scientist James Q. Wilson has put this case eloquently in The Moral Sense, calling on a wide range of social science findings to support an old but lately unfashionable truth: Human beings in general are capable of deciding between right and wrong.23 This does not mean, however, that everyone is capable of deciding between right and wrong with the same sophistication and nuances. The difference between people of low cognitive ability and the rest of society may be put in terms of a metaphor: Everyone has a moral compass, but some of those compasses are more susceptible to magnetic storms than others. First, consider crime, then marriage.

CRIME. Imagine living in a society where the rules about crime are simple and the consequences are equally simple. “Crime” consists of a few obviously wrong acts: assault, rape, murder, robbery, theft, trespass, destruction of another’s property, fraud. Someone who commits a crime is probably caught—and almost certainly punished. The punishment almost certainly hurts (it is meaningful). Punishment follows arrest quickly, within a matter of days or weeks. The members of the society subscribe to the underlying codes of conduct with enthusiasm and near unanimity. They teach and enforce them whenever appropriate. Living in such a world, the moral compass shows simple, easily understood directions. North is north, south is south, right is right, wrong is wrong.

Now imagine that all the rules are made more complicated. The number of acts defined as crimes has multiplied, so that many things that are crimes are not nearly as obviously “wrong” as something like robbery or assault. The link between moral transgression and committing crime is made harder to understand. Fewer crimes lead to an arrest. Fewer arrests lead to prosecution. Many times, the prosecutions are not for something the accused person did but for an offense that the defense lawyer and the prosecutor agreed upon. Many times, people who are prosecuted are let off, though everyone (including the accused) acknowledges that the person was guilty. When people are convicted, the consequences have no apparent connection to how much harm they have done. These events are typically spread out over months and sometimes years. To top it all off, even the “wrongness” of the basic crimes is called into question. In the society at large (and translated onto the television and movie screens), it is commonly argued that robbery, for example, is not always wrong if it is in a good cause (stealing medicine to save a dying wife) or if it is in response to some external condition (exploitation, racism, etc.). At every level, it becomes fashionable to point out the complexities of moral decisions, and all the ways in which things that might seem “wrong” at first glance are really “right” when properly analyzed.

The two worlds we have described are not far removed from the contrast between the criminal justice system in the United States as recently as the 1950s and that system as of the 1990s. We are arguing that a person with comparatively low intelligence, whose time horizon is short and ability to balance many competing and complex incentives is low, has much more difficulty following a moral compass in the 1990s than he would have in the 1950s. Put aside your feelings about whether these changes in the criminal justice system represent progress. Simply consider them as a magnetic storm—as a set of changes that make the needle pointing to right and wrong waver erratically if you happen to be looking at the criminal justice system from the perspective of a person who is not especially bright. 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.”24

The policy prescription is that the criminal justice system should be made simpler. The meaning of criminal offenses used to be clear and objective, and so were the consequences. It is worth trying to make them so again.

MARRIAGE. It has become much more difficult for a person of low cognitive ability to figure out why marriage is a good thing, and, once in a marriage, more difficult to figure out why one should stick with it through bad times. The magnetic storm has swept through from many directions.

The sexual revolution is the most obvious culprit. The old bargain from the man’s point of view—get married, because that’s the only way you’re going to be able to sleep with the lady—was the kind of incentive that did not require a lot of intellect to process and had an all-powerful effect on behavior. Restoring it is not feasible by any (reasonable) policy we can think of.

But the state has interfered as well to make it more difficult for people with little intelligence to do that thing—find a compatible partner and get married—that constitutes the most accessible and richest of all valued places. Marriage fills a vital role in people’s lives to the extent that it is hallowed as an institution and as a relationship unlike any other. Marriage is satisfying to the extent that society validates these propositions: “Yes, you may have a baby outside marriage if you choose; but it isn’t the same.” “Yes, you may live with someone without marrying, but it isn’t the same.” “Yes, you may say that you are committed to someone without marrying, but it isn’t the same.”

Once sex was no longer playing as important a role in the decision to marry, it was essential that these other unique attributes of marriage be highlighted and reinforced. But the opposite has happened. Repeatedly, the prerogatives and responsibilities that used to be limited to marriage have spilled over into nonmarital relationships, whether it is the rights and responsibilities of an unmarried father, medical coverage for same-sex partners, or palimony cases. Once the law says, “Well, in a legal sense, living together is the same,” what is the point of getting married?

For most people, there are still answers to that question. Even given the diminished legal stature of marriage, marriage continues to have unique value. But to see those values takes forethought about the longterm differences between living together and being married, sensitivity to many intangibles, and an appreciation of second-hand and third-hand consequences. As Chapter 8’s evidence about marriage rates implies, people low on the intelligence distribution are less likely to think through those issues than others.

Our policy prescription in this instance is to return marriage to its formerly unique legal status. If you are married, you take on obligations. If you are not married, you don’t. In particular, we urge that marriage once again become the sole legal institution through which rights and responsibilities regarding children are exercised. If you are an unmarried mother, you have no legal basis for demanding that the father of the child provide support. If you are an unmarried father, you have no legal standing regarding the child—not even a right to see the child, let alone any basis honored by society for claiming he or she is “yours” or that you are a “father.”

We do not expect such changes miraculously to resuscitate marriage in the lowest cognitive classes, but they are a step in the return to a simpler valuation of it. A family is unique and highly desirable. To start one, you have to get married. The role of the state in restoring the rewards of marriage is to validate once again the rewards that marriage naturally carries with it.

More General Implications for Policy

Crime and marriage are only examples of a general principle: Modern American society can be simplified. No law of nature says that the increasing complexity of technology must be matched by a new complexity in the way the nation is governed. The increasing complexity of technology follows from the functions it serves. The increasing complexity of government does not. Often the complexities introduced by technology require highly sophisticated analysis before good law and regulation can be developed. But as a rule of thumb, the more sophisticated the analysis, the simpler the policies can be. Policy is usually complicated because it has been built incrementally through a political process, not because it has needed to become more complicated. The time has come to make simplification a top priority in reforming policy—not for a handful of regulations but across the board.

More broadly, we urge that it is possible once again to make a core of common law, combined with the original concepts of negligence and liability in tort law, the mechanism for running society—easily understood by all and a basis for the straightforward lessons that parents at all levels of cognitive ability above the lowest can teach their children about how to behave as they grow up. We readily acknowledge that modernity requires some amplifications of this simple mechanism, but the nation needs to think through those amplifications from the legal equivalent of zero-based budgeting. As matters stand, the legal edifice has become a labyrinth that only the rich and the smart can navigate.


We have presented what we believe needs to be done. We also understand that a common response will be incredulity, for different readers will interpret the long chapters that have come before as a manifesto for completely different kinds of policy initiatives. Specifically, two lines of argument are likely to follow from this book. To some, we will have made a case for increased income redistribution. To others, we will have made a case for steps to manipulate the fertility of people with high and low IQs. We will be pleased if the book leads to a vigorous discussion of these issues, but we have just a few words to say about them here.

Dealing with Income

Ever since most people quit believing that a person’s income on earth reflects God’s judgment of his worth, it has been argued that income distributions are inherently unfair; most wealthy people do not “deserve” their wealth nor the poor their poverty. That being the case, it is appropriate for societies to take from the rich and give to the poor. The statistical relationship we have documented between low cognitive ability and income is more evidence that the world is not fair.

But it is not news that the world is unfair. You knew before reading this book that income differences arise from many arbitrary causes, sociological and psychological, besides differences in intelligence. All of them are reflected in correlations of varying sizes, which mean all of them are riddled with exceptions. This complicates solutions. Whenever individual cases are examined, differences in circumstances will be found that do reflect the individual’s fault or merit. The data in this book support old arguments for supplementing the income of the poor without giving any new guidance for how to do it.

The evidence about cognitive ability causes us to be sympathetic to the straightforward proposition that “trying hard” ought to be rewarded. Our prescription, borrowing from the case made by political scientist David Ellwood, is that people who work full time should not be too poor to have a decent standard of living, even if the kinds of work they can do are not highly valued in the marketplace.25 We do not put this as a principle of government for all countries—getting everybody out of poverty is not an option in most of the world—but it is appropriate for rich countries to try to do.

How? There is no economically perfect alternative. Any government supplement of wages produces negative effects of many kinds. Such defects are not the results of bad policy design but inherent. The least damaging strategies are the simplest ones, which do not try to oversee or manipulate the labor market behavior of low-income people, but rather augment their earned income up to a floor. The earned income tax credit, already in place, seems to be a generally good strategy, albeit with the unavoidable drawbacks of any income supplement.26

We will not try to elaborate on these arguments here. We leave the income issue with this: As America enters the twenty-first century, it is inconceivable that it will return to a laissez-faire system regarding income. Some sort of redistribution is here to stay. The question is how to redistribute in ways that increase the chances for people at the bottom of society to take control of their lives, to be engaged meaningfully in their communities, and to find valued places for themselves. Cash supplements need not compete with that goal, whereas the social welfare system that the nation has developed in the twentieth century most definitely does. We should be looking for ways to replace the latter with the former.

Dealing with Demography

Of all the uncomfortable topics we have explored, a pair of the most uncomfortable ones are that a society with a higher mean IQ is also likely to be a society with fewer social ills and brighter economic prospects, and that the most efficient way to raise the IQ of a society is for smarter women to have higher birth rates than duller women. Instead, America is going in the opposite direction, and the implication is a future America with more social ills and gloomier economic prospects. These conclusions follow directly from the evidence we have presented at such length, and yet we have so far been silent on what to do about it.

We are silent partly because we are as apprehensive as most other people about what might happen when a government decides to social-engineer who has babies and who doesn’t. We can imagine no recommendation for using the government to manipulate fertility that does not have dangers. But this highlights the problem: The United States already has policies that inadvertently social-engineer who has babies, and it is encouraging the wrong women. If the United States did as much to encourage high-IQ women to have babies as it now does to encourage low-IQ women, it would rightly be described as engaging in aggressive manipulation of fertility. The technically precise description of America’s fertility policy is that it subsidizes births among poor women, who are also dis-proportionately at the low end of the intelligence distribution. We urge generally that these policies, represented by the extensive network of cash and services for low-income women who have babies, be ended. The government should stop subsidizing births to anyone, rich or poor. The other generic recommendation, as close to harmless as any government program we can imagine, is to make it easy for women to make good on their prior decision not to get pregnant by making available birth control mechanisms that are increasingly flexible, foolproof, inexpensive, and safe.

The other demographic factor we discussed in Chapter 15 was immigration and the evidence that recent waves of immigrants are, on the average, less successful and probably less able, than earlier waves. There is no reason to assume that the hazards associated with low cognitive ability in America are somehow circumvented by having been born abroad or having parents or grandparents who were. An immigrant population with low cognitive ability will—again, on the average—have trouble not only in finding good work but have trouble in school, at home, and with the law.

This is not the place, nor are we the people, to try to rewrite immigration law. But we believe that the main purpose of immigration law should be to serve America’s interests. It should be among the goals of public policy to shift the flow of immigrants away from those admitted under the nepotistic rules (which broadly encourage the reunification of relatives) and toward those admitted under competency rules, already established in immigration law—not to the total exclusion of nepotistic and humanitarian criteria but a shift. Perhaps our central thought about immigration is that present policy assumes an indifference to the individual characteristics of immigrants that no society can indefinitely maintain without danger.


Hundreds of pages ago, in the Preface, we reflected on the question that we have been asked so often, “What good can come from writing this book?” We have tried to answer it in many ways.

Our first answer has been implicit, scattered in material throughout the book. For thirty years, vast changes in American life have been instituted by the federal government to deal with social problems. We have tried to point out what a small segment of the population accounts for such a large proportion of those problems. To the extent that the problems of this small segment are susceptible to social-engineering solutions at all, they should be highly targeted. The vast majority of Americans can run their own lives just fine, and policy should above all be constructed so that it permits them to do so.

Our second answer, also implicit, has been that just about any policy in any area—education, employment, welfare, criminal justice, or the care of children—can profit if its designers ask how the policy accords with the wide variation in cognitive ability. Policies may fail not because they are inherently flawed but because they do not make allowances for how much people vary. There are hundreds of ways to frame bits and pieces of public policy so that they are based on a realistic appraisal of the responses they will get not from people who think like Rhodes scholars but people who think in simpler ways.

Our third answer has gone to specific issues in raising the cognitive functioning of the disadvantaged (Chapter 17) and in improving education for all (Chapter 18). Part of our answer has been cautionary: Much of public policy toward the disadvantaged starts from the premise that interventions can make up for genetic or environmental disadvantages, and that premise is overly optimistic. Part of our answer has been positive: Much can and should be done to improve education, especially for those who have the greatest potential.

Our fourth answer has been that group differences in cognitive ability, so desperately denied for so long, can best be handled—can only be handled—by a return to individualism. A person should not be judged as a member of a group but as an individual. With that cornerstone of the American doctrine once again in place, group differences can take their appropriately insignificant place in affecting American life. But until that cornerstone is once again in place, the anger, the hurt, and the animosities will continue to grow.

In this closing chapter, we have focused on another aspect of what makes America special. 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 has had a genius for making valued places, for people of all kinds of abilities, given only that they played by a few basic rules.

Once 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. Have there been exceptions to that generalization? Yes, predominantly involving race, and the nation rightly moved to rid itself of the enforced discrimination that lay behind those exceptions. Is the generalization nonetheless justified? Overwhelmingly so, in our judgment. 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. Its people can, through an interweaving of choice and responsibility, create valued places for themselves in their worlds. They can live in communities—urban or 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 to those who are smart enough or rich enough—if they can exploit the complex rules to their advantage, buy their 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. We are calling upon our readers, so heavily concentrated among those who fit that description, to recognize the ways in which public policy has come to deny those good things to those who are not smart enough and rich enough.

At the heart of our thought is the quest for human dignity. The central measure of success for this government, as for any other, is to permit people to live lives 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 we have in mind when we talk about valued places for everyone.

Inequality of endowments, including intelligence, is a reality. Trying to pretend that inequality does not really exist has led to disaster. Trying to eradicate 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 each human being has strengths and weaknesses, qualities we admire and qualities we do not admire, competencies and incompetences, 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.