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TRIGGER WARNING: There are parts of this essay in which I sound like an arrogant twit. This is not my intention, and I’m just trying to make a point. In order to make this point, I refer to my life as an example, because that’s what I’m familiar with. So read on if you like, and I hope you’ll see my point by the end, if you’ll bear with me. But if you roll your eyes and scroll on to other stuff in the third paragraph or so, I’ll understand…
I’ve done well in life, financially and professionally. I’ll skip the details so I don’t sound like an arrogant twit (Dang! Too late!), but we lost our hog farm when I was 16, and now, by the age of 50, I live in a fancy house on a golf course in Hilton Head. I’m very good at a very important job, and I help a lot of people. I also have three very successful kids. A family friend (“Bob”) complimented one of my kids recently, saying that we were all really, really smart. This immediately offended me, which seemed odd. It’s a nice thing to say. And I would have thanked him if I had been there. But I think that his view of intelligence is problematic. Common, but problematic.
My kids and I do have unusually high IQ’s – well above genius level. And I’m sure that helps, of course. So he was being complimentary, and he was not incorrect. But here is what bothered me about Bob’s compliment:
There are a lot of reasons for my success, such as:
- Unwillingness to accept “pretty good”
- Ability to ignore apparent limitations
- A vision of, and desire for, a better life
- A tendency to ignore naysayers
- Things go wrong. There are always setbacks, which can seem catastrophic at the time. Some people get back up and keep going, and others don’t.
- Finding better ways to do things
- Willingness to abandon more established ways of doing things
- Willingness to take responsibility for nearly everything
- If something goes wrong, I make it my problem, and I fix it, regardless of whose fault it is.
- Work habits
- The ability to work hard every day, even if no immediate reward is apparent
- Willingness to gamble, rather than falling back on the sure thing
- Figuring out which risks are worth taking, and which ones are not
- Ability to plan and estimate risk
- What exactly are my options here?
- How can I increase my odds of success with this plan?
- If something goes wrong, what is my plan B? Plan C? D? E? F?
- Ability to handle failure
- If you’re ambitious, and you take chances, you’re going to fail sometimes.
- Many people are crippled by these failures, or even by the possibility of failure.
I could obviously go on and on, and you could add more entries yourself that have helped you in your life, but my point is that of all these things that led to my success, I haven’t mentioned intelligence yet. If I kept going down this list far enough, I’m sure it would show up at some point, but it’s not near the top. And I suspect that this would be true of many successful people. At least, that’s how I see it.
But Bob thinks I’ve been successful because I’m smart. I was born with a high IQ, so of course, I make a lot of money. I think that’s just baloney, it’s destructive baloney. Bob can take comfort in this thought: “Dr. Bastiat makes more money than me, but that’s just because he was born with that magic brain of his. It’s not my fault.”
This deflection of responsibility is unhelpful for an individual, but when it is converted into government policy via affirmative action or whatever, it becomes enormously destructive for large numbers of people. Don’t tell little girls that men make more money than women, and that it’s not fair. Tell her that if she wants to earn more money than men, she needs to get to work. Don’t hold her back by telling her that her success, or lack thereof, is not in her control. What a horrible thing to do to somebody.
This brings up another problem I have with all this – the use of money to measure success in life. It’s a tempting metric, partially because it’s easy to measure. But there is a lot more to success in life besides money. Most of the people whose success I admire the most are not wealthy. But that’s another post…
Anyway, the efforts of leftists to view people as members of groups, rather than as individuals free to choose their own path, suppresses ambition and discourages risk-taking. You’re encouraging people to accept mediocrity. And many of them will.
But here’s the problem: Despite my protests to the contrary, it appears that IQ really is a good predictor of success in life. I rush to point out that this works better in large groups of people than it does in individuals, but if you group people by IQ, that is a good way to predict success in life among those groups. Modern psychology has come up with all sorts of ways to stratify those most likely to succeed, and nothing has ever worked as well as IQ. I don’t know enough about the data to make a good case for this, but Jordan Peterson, Charles Murray, Stefan Molyneux, and many others have reached this conclusion after much research.
If they’re right, I find that extremely problematic.
I was very careful with this when I raised my kids. When they did well on a test, I NEVER said, “You’re so smart!” Instead I said, “Nice work!” I was more scared of laziness and complacency than I was of lack of ability. If they failed at something, I always suggested they either take a different approach or work harder, even if I knew that they just couldn’t do it. I NEVER told them that they couldn’t do ANYTHING, even though there were (of course) lots of things they just couldn’t do. Let them fail. But don’t let them not try. I’ve focused on this, relentlessly, since before they could walk. I wanted them to find their own limitations. I didn’t want anyone to tell them what those limitations were. They’d figure it out over time.
My three kids are very different from one another. But they are all tough. And now they’re happy, well-adjusted young adults doing quite well, thank you.
Life is hard. It’s harder if you’re a wimp. Wimps are never happy.
Many leftists view this as a central contradiction in conservative thought. We promote individualism and personal responsibility. We dislike policies that try to produce equality of outcomes – we prefer equality of opportunity. Meanwhile, we acknowledge that not everyone has equal abilities. Thus, we acknowledge that some will succeed, and some will fail.
Leftists use this argument to suggest that conservatives are cold-hearted, uncaring, or even evil.
But conservatives, of course, disagree. You can’t have success without risking failure. You can’t win if you’re not willing to lose. Success is contagious. A rising tide lifts all boats. You can’t cure poverty by giving money to poor people. Poor people are not better off if rich people become less rich.
But all of these points require an honest effort to grasp them. It’s easier to just say, “Rich people are just the winners of life’s lottery. If you don’t succeed, it’s not your fault. Do you want a better life? Just vote for me, and I’ll take care of it.” That will win elections.
This argument is one of many at which conservatives are at a natural disadvantage, even if they are right.
So when Bob says that I succeed simply because I won the IQ lottery at birth, I bristle at this apparent compliment. Part of my discomfort rises from the fact that he may have a point. But even if that point is partially true, I think we should actively ignore it. You can’t control your natural gifts, but you can control your effort and a lot of other things. Worry about what you can control. And forget the rest. Are Jordan Peterson et al correct about the importance of IQ? Maybe, but who cares? Screw it. Get to work.
So I suggest that we ignore natural ability – start with the presumption that everyone is equal. Especially in matters of public policy. By emphasizing IQ etc, we de-emphasize individual decision making, ambition, risk-taking, and so on. And that’s what matters. Natural ability is just not as important as we make it out to be.
Or is it? What do you think?
NOTE: Again, I apologize for sounding arrogant in this essay. I almost didn’t post it because of this. Those of you who know me know that this is not my style.
I also hesitated to use myself as an example, because I’m inviting personal attacks, which miss the point of the essay.
But without explaining why Bob’s compliment offended me, and without explaining why I think intelligence is not the primary determinant of my success, this essay made very little sense. So thank you for bearing with me.