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This week I have a question for the readers. Much has been written recently on how racist and horrible people like Charles Murray are, for merely asking the question of whether in fact there are differences in innate “ability” across different groups of people. Since I am sure to have my classes protested if I actually manage to write something interesting, I’ll eschew from that and merely ask some questions.

1. Is there some measure of “ability” that people can objectively agree matters? And should the answer be yes, is there an agreement on how one might actually measure it?

2. Is it OK to ask such questions WITHIN different subpopulations of people? For example, among us short, fuzzy, Italian-American men, clearly some score better on standardized tests than others. Surely some have quicker hands and feet than others. Surely some have more endurance than others. Are these differences innate? Are they OK to point out? Are they OK even to question?

3. OK, the real reason for today’s post: suppose “we” have all come to the conclusion that redistribution (again, a terrible word that implies that there was some distribution in the first place) is justified on the basis of there being observable differences in life outcomes for different people. Is the case for redistribution stronger if:

– the reason people have different outcomes is due to pure luck and chance (i.e. so that we are all born innately equal)

– the reason people have different outcomes is due to the fact that even with the same life circumstances, some folks are just better than others at stuff.

Again, the point of the question is not even to tread NEAR the empirical question above. Rather, it is a metaphysical one – is redistribution more justified when differences are due to luck or ability or is there no reason to distinguish the two? Remember again that I’m begging the question of whether we ought to permit redistribution in the first place, and that someone above the fray could determine the answer to such questions. I am curious to hear your takes on this.

5 Responses to “Redistribution and Innate Ability”

  1. Gabriel Wittenberg says:

    From a strictly practical standpoint, I think that redistributing based on luck is much more justifiable. Measuring someone’s family wealth is possible; parsing through whether someone is lazy or lacks ability is not. For instance, how much of my success can I attribute to my ability to pick things up quickly versus my diligence? There is no use in even beginning to address a question like that.

    From a “fairness” standpoint, I don’t think there’s much use in distinguishing between the two. I feel terribly for someone who is mentally challenged, but not for someone who is just plain lazy. Am I right to feel that way? Maybe not-the lazy person is lacking some gene that might make them more motivated, just as the mentally challenged person is lacking some gene that makes them capable of picking concepts up quickly-but I still do. Too many lines must be drawn in the sand if we are to try and determine which reason is more acceptable to us. I think that an attempt makes us no better than the state; making arbitrary distinctions in order to “simplify” the complexities of life and allow for the easy transfer of “knowledge”.

    We live in a world of means, standard deviations and heteroskedasticity. I don’t think these metaphysical questions have answers, despite how we try to develop a system of governance that encompasses state constructed morality. “If we just had more information,” cries the fascist, “than I could extract the most out of the people I govern!”.

  2. Harry says:

    The current controversy over equal pay for equal work raises similar questions, not just metaphysical but also epistemological.

    The notion of equal pay for equal work has a special meaning for progressives. It is not, “Should women be paid equally for the same work as men?” (That, by the way, is the law, and a subject for Sophists to argue.)

    Rather it is an idea, not new, that philosopher kings should intervene in our lives to produce an ethically better result than what occurs in a free economic regime.

    For example, take the Archaeologist and the Bulldozer operator, A and B. (It matters not what the sex is of either, but the discussion deteriorates over sex discrimination if A is a she, and B is a he.)

    A has a Bachelors degree from Wesleyan and a PhD from Bryn Mawr, served in the Israeli army while on a dig in Palestine, and now handles rare artifacts in the Penn museum. He (?) makes $42,000 per year, plus he is covered by his employer by a full Blue Cross health plan, but still has to pay $1600 a month for his 1200-square-foot studio apartment.

    On the other hand, B runs a bulldozer. B got her GED in prison, and works for a contractor that has been busy for forty years. (Let’s complicate this by saying her boss is a friend of her father.) She makes $120,000 a year.)

    How unfair.

    There has to be someone, maybe a judge or a social worker at HUD, to remedy this injustice, which is everywhere in America’s capitalistic imperialist circus. We need laws to set prices right.

    So, WC’s question about redistribution is right on point: how did it get distributed in the first place?

    Well, according to the progressives, nobody hardly ever earns their fair share, and it is about time that nurses married to professors get on the stick and fork it over.

  3. Harry says:

    I have seen awful heartbreaking people, tearing me apart with sorrow, and I do not want to go into the details of their accidental terrible circumstances.Some I have known, and others I have seen in offices of of chiropractors, and I am not a Medical Doctor, witnessing people on the way to pain and death daily.

    But we all know people who lost the gene pool lottery. We went to school with them and played with them, maybe employed them, got confirmed with them, cared for them, and in some cases mourned them. Does this mean we should feel guilty, having won the gene pool lottery, and therefore surrender our property to the King, since he is wiser about the effect of prices at the margin , because he is wiser than his serfs, and knows better about to whom to mete and dole?

    I ask this to encourage others to respond to WC’s question, which should last a week. I am interested in any good or half-baked ideas, you pick.

  4. Harry says:

    The reason people have different outcomes is not pure chance, even if one is a determinist. But if one assumes free will, then one’s success can hinge on deciding to set the alarm clock and get going when it goes off, and showing up for WC’s class, or making it to work and not getting fired.

    Therefore, one flaw in redistribution thinking is that poor people do not deserve to be poor. Some of them deserve a meager life because they have not made the effort, and their laziness cannot be blamed on others. OK, as James Taranto says, we blame George Bush.

  5. SY says:

    Wasn’t ‘redistribution’ justified with differences in ability in Harrison Bergeron?

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