Tuesday, July 25, 2006

10 questions for Charles Murray   posted by Matt McIntosh @ 7/25/2006 12:00:00 AM

(This is the latest in GNXP's semi-regular "10 questions" feature; links to previous editions can be found along the sidebar or by searching the blog.)

The geneticist J.B.S. Haldane famously remarked that important theories went through four stages of acceptance: "i) this is worthless nonsense; ii) this is an interesting, but perverse, point of view; iii) this is true, but quite unimportant; iv) I always said so." This process would be quite familiar to Charles Murray, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who has gained a reputation for staking out controversial positions a decade before they become mainstream. Starting with Losing Ground in 1984, later with Richard Herrnstein in 1994's The Bell Curve, and most recently with In Our Hands, Murray has made his name as a public intellectual by dropping well-researched bombshells onto policy debates. In between, he's published shorter books on political philosophy and a thorough historical study of human accomplishment in the arts and sciences.

Below the fold is our e-mail interview with Murray.

1. Let's talk first about your latest project. You've stated that In Our Hands is an attempt to strike a compromise between your libertarian ideals and the current socio-political reality. The biggest worry about your plan from a libertarian point of view is that in practice it would create a large constituency who would vote to raise the grant on a regular basis, leaving the fiscal situation largely unchanged or possibly even worse. How does your plan deal with these kinds of public choice objections?

Mancur Olson and other public-choice theorists taught us that sugar farmers can get sugar subsidies because they care passionately about getting their benefit while no other constituency cares enough about preventing them from getting it. Under the Plan, the grant will be the only game in town (every other transfer is gone), and will affect every adult in the country. Every time Congress debates a change in the grant, it will be the biggest political news story in the country, and a very large chunk of the population--and people holding a huge majority of the monetary resources for fighting political battles--will lose money if it's raised. Compare the prospects for jacking up the grant with the certain knowledge we have of the trends in spending under the current system. They have sky-rocketed and will sky-rocket, through classic public choice dynamics. The Plan uses the only strategy I can conceive to get out of the public-choice box.

2. One modification to your plan which has been suggested is to index the guarenteed income to GDP instead of inflation. This way everyone benefits from policies that increase economic growth, seemingly a perfect bargain between welfare statists and economic dynamists. What do you think of this idea? Have there been any other suggested modifications to (or criticisms of) to your plan which have impressed you thus far? More broadly, how has the reaction so far compared to what you were expecting?

An early draft linked the size of the grant to median earned income, which would have a similar effect. But the real purpose of the book was to put an idea on the table that doesn't have a prayer of being enacted now, but could become conventional wisdom down the road. To achieve that purpose, I wanted to avoid getting hung up on bits and pieces. If the idea of converting all the transfer programs to a cash grant is a good idea, we can figure out a way to control changes in the size of the grant. Worry about it after we've decided what we think of the idea: that's the logic of the book's presentation.

As for reaction, I've been surprised by the number of libertarians who are attracted to the idea (though perhaps I shouldn't have been, given that Milton Friedman thought up the negative income tax). Liberals don't know what to say: I'm proposing a much larger transfer of resources to poor people than they've ever dreamed of, which they should like, but they're obsessed with the people who would waste the money. They really do think that most people aren't capable of running their own lives without their help. Overall, IOH has accomplished pretty much what I'd hoped in the way of reaction.

3. It's interesting to consider what kind of downstream social effects your plan might have. For example, it's likely to encourage people to take greater risks (such as starting their own business at a younger age) or to pursue alternative "low remuneration" paths -- academic research, writing, charity work, etc. It would likely remove support for harmful labour regulations like the minimum wage, and one can also think of ways in which this might alter the impact of imigration and illegal labor. How much did you think about these kinds of downstream effects when writing In Our Hands, and what do you think the most significant social impact of the plan would be?

I hadn't thought about the way it would work against labor regulation, but you're right. It would. I did discuss other downstream effects--on families, the underclass, and most broadly on what might be called a climate of virtue. As far as I can see, the downstream, unintended effects of the Plan have a strong tendency to be positive, while the unintended effects of conventional social programs are always negative. Why the difference? Because the Plan taps positive human tendencies that are deeply embedded in human nature as it actually exists--self-interest, the innate desire for approbation, the innate tendency to take responsibility to the extent that circumstances require. They set up extremely positive feedback loops. For example, what happens if I squander my monthly deposit? I have to seek help from relatives, friends, or private social service agencies like the Salvation Army. I'm not going to starve--but I'm going to get that help with a whole lot of encouragement--to put it politely--to get my act together. And it won't be a one-time thing, but a continuous process. Conventional social programs are precisely the opposite. They make assumptions about human nature that are blatantly not true (e.g., bureaucracies are not governed by the self-interest of the people who run them) and the unintended consequences are destructive.

4. In Human Accomplishment, you come to the conclusion that accomplishment has been on a decline roughly since the industrial revolution. How does this square with the exponentially accelerating accumluation of data in the sciences (along with computing power, DNA sequencing, etc.)? Also, how does it square with the Flynn effect? You would think that ceteris paribus an increase in intelligence would result in an increase of genius, but by your reckoning this doesn't seem to be the case.

The chapter on the decline in accomplishment explicitly deals with that point, so my main answer is: Read the book, or at least chapter 21. The short answer is that, in the sciences, a certain kind of accomplishment--the discovery of basic knowledge about how the universe works--is declining, inevitably. Genetics is a good example. The applications of genetic knowledge are increasing nonlinearly; but the knowledge about the basic workings of genetic transmission has been close to complete for decades. Filling in the details permits all kinds of new applications, but they are details. In large numbers of disciplines--anatomy, for example, or geography--there is little new to learn. They're effectively closed to new accomplishment as I used the word for science.

As for the Flynn effect, it has nothing to do with the number of geniuses. It appears that the increases have little to do with g (the general mental factor), and that they are concentrated at the low end of the distribution. There is still a lot to be understood about the Flynn effect, but don't count on it for producing advances in string theory.

5. The decline in individual accomplishments in the arts is prima facie a bad thing, but is it possible that a decline in major discoveries in the sciences could be good thing? If you measure accomplishment by means other than outstanding singular accomplishments, could there be a case for collective, incremental progress?

The distinction is not between singular and collective (I include collective accomplishments in my science inventories), but between acquisition of new knowledge and the application of scientific knowledge to daily life. By the latter measure, accomplishment did not decline after the mid 19th century. It continued to increase very rapidly.

6. One of our contributors has conjectured the existence of "genius germs" to explain the examples of what could be called "pathological genius". The elegant thing about this hypothesis is that it would explain the decline in individual achievement even in the face of the Flynn effect, which tracks temporally with improvements in hygiene and immunology. What's your take on this?

Beats the hell out of me. Or, more dignified: I am not competent to comment. Being born on January 8 (along with Elvis, I would point out), the theory intuitively appeals to me.

7. In the wake of the Larry Summers flap, you wrote an article in Commentary revisiting familiar themes concering differences in intelligence. What was your impression of the response to that article? Were people as venomous as when The Bell Curve came out, or were they more accepting of the fact that group differences exist? More generally, where do you see the public debate on intelligence differences going in the medium- to long-term?

I got no flak for the Commentary article that I can recall (not counting blogs), which may be a straw in the wind. I took a much more aggressive position about the intractability of the B-W IQ difference than Dick Herrnstein and I took in TBC (understandably, given what we've learned in the last 12 years), and I said some pretty inflammatory things about sex differences. Perhaps the parsimonious explanation for the lack of flak is that no one reads Commentary. But I think in fact the dialogue is changing. Here's a quick illustration: In the Commentary article, which appeared in September 2005, I took great pains to present the recent work demonstrating that gene markers produced results corresponding to self-identified ethnicity in 99.9% of a large sample. Later that fall, PBS had a special with people like Oprah Winfrey and Henry Louis Gates (if I remember correctly) talking cheerfully about the precise percentages of their heritages that were sub-Saharan-African versus Caucasian, etc., based on DNA tests using similar gene-marker technology. The times are changing.

8. You and Richard Herrnstein attracted a lot of really thoughtless and absurd criticism, but there were also a few more reasonable voices amid the cacaphony. Which of the critics of The Bell Curve do you respect the most as an intellectual opponent, and why?

I thought Howard Gardner treated the book more or less fairly in his review. That's the only person I can recall who was on the other side who didn't go nuts. There isn't much I'd retract in a new version, because Dick and I were so mainstream in our science. We weren't out on any limbs that could be sawed off, as far as the data are concerned (my favorite line about TBC came from Michael Ledeen: "Never has such a moderate book attracted such immoderate attention.") But I would write a major expansion of our discussion of cognitive stratification. Living as we do in rural Maryland, my wife and I have been struck by the number of bright kids in our local high school who still go to nearby colleges and return to live where they grew up. I don't know how this anecdotal evidence translates into macro data, but I'd like to explore it. There may be an interesting interaction between urbanization and stratification--it's just an hypothesis, but perhaps stratification is much more severe in urban areas than in small town and rural areas.

9. Any scholar with a sincere devotion to seeking the truth is bound to have their own beliefs, expectations and prejudices falsified on occaision. Can you tell us about occaisions on which you've discovered something which profoundly altered your beliefs?

My epiphany came in Thailand in the 1960s, when I first came to understand how badly bureaucracies dealt with human problems in the villages, and how well (with qualifications) villagers dealt with their own problems given certain conditions. I describe that epiphany at some length in In Pursuit. The turnaround that led to TBC occurred in 1986, when Linda Gottfredson and Robert Gordon asked me to be on an American Psychological Association panel discussing their two papers on the relationship of IQ to unemployment and IQ to crime respectively, both of which discussed the B-W difference. The bibliographies astonished me--I had no idea that so much scholarly work had been done in these fields that so decisively contradicted what I had assumed (taught by the New York Times) to believe. If you want to see how far I moved: in Losing Ground, published in 1984, I cite The Mismeasure of Man approvingly.

My other movement has been less dramatic, but has been intensifying--and will not please the founders and probably most of the readers of Gene Expression. I have been an agnostic since my teens. But I am increasingly drawn to the proposition that of all the hypotheses about God, simple atheism is the least probable. That to be a confident atheist is the silliest of intellectual positions. That thinking about spiritual issues, despite all the difficulties, must be part of being a grown-up.

10. It has seemed to some of us that you regard libertarianism as really a procedural means to an all-important substantive end: the promotion and preservation of the Good Life as embedded in human wisdom and experience over many generations. Yet those of us with a futuristic orientation see a shadow looming over this project. If science and technology continue to advance unfettered, and individual liberty remains upheld more or less in its current form, then sooner or later we will achieve the means to alter the very substrate of human nature itself. Do you feel this shade as well? Among the many values now held dear by this or that faction of the human race--the pursuit of scientific knowledge, the fellow feeling of families and nations, etc.--which do you think should be actively maintained by our unimaginably evolved descendants of the perhaps not-so-distant future?

I am conflicted. I think human beings are hard wired to find certain institutions satisfying. E.g., in a libertarian state established immediately (before the hard-wiring is changed), I am confident that traditional marriage would flourish, because a good marriage with children provides such a deeply satisfying form of intimate human contact, far superior to any other arrangement such as serial cohabitation, and is also such a good way to provide for one's security. A libertarian state would do nothing to prevent people from taking other routes. Absent a welfare state, stable marriage with children would be the voluntarily preferred choice of the vast majority of people.

I am also confident that we will learn how to change the wiring, in many ways, including ones that might tweak the sources of our deepest satisfactions. That's in our future. It's also right to be worried. I am not confident that we are competent to make the right choices. For example, it is possible that increasing longevity dramatically--which is the primary goal of many, many people, including many scientists--will be inimical to human happiness, for reasons that science fiction writers have explored persuasively. But we don't have the option of choosing especially wise humans who can guide the science to the right paths. Long-term, I'm an optimist. We'll muddle through. Short-term, I think the coming technology for fiddling with human nature will produce some awful mistakes.