Nature, nurture and economics

By and large, free-marketeers understand where their opponents are coming from. We understand what explicit or implicit assumptions they make about the world, and why a lot of their conclusions make sense under those assumptions. Most of us could pass an ‘ideological Turing test’, such as attending a Momentum gathering and pretending to be a Corbynista, without being caught out. This is not because we are especially broadminded. It is because, firstly, there just aren’t enough of us around to form a self-contained echo chamber. And secondly, free market ideas are an acquired taste, not a default opinion. I have never knowingly met a free-market liberal who has always been a free-market liberal, and plenty who were initially on the left.

This understanding is not mutual. Most anti-capitalists do not have a clue about what makes supporters of capitalism tick. (Which is unsurprising: you won’t find it out if you only read the likes of Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky). For example, I am regularly told, on social media and elsewhere, that I believe:

  • that inequality is good;

  • that wealth ‘trickles down’ from the super-rich to the rest of society;

  • that greed is good;

  • that maximising GDP growth, at all cost, should be the sole focus of government policy;

  • that every aspect of life should be commercialised, and subject to profit-and-loss accounting;

  • that the rich deserve to be rich, and should be made even richer, and

  • that the poor deserve to be poor, and should be even poorer.

I could go on. One of my favourite cliché-mongers is Danny Dorling, a man who spends a lot of his time railing against a set of ideas which he clearly does not understand (you guessed it: that would be ‘neoliberalism’). Dorling is the sort of left-winger who genuinely imagines his opponents to think and act like Bond villains.

Dorling is also, amongst other things, a believer in the ‘blank slate’ view of human nature. He claims that nature-vs-nurture studies which suggests that personal characteristics, including economically relevant characteristics like intelligence, are partly hereditable, are merely “rationalisations for inequality via eugenic theories of genetic differences”. According to Dorling,

“the early 20th century popularity of eugenic theories, and the resulting nature-nurture debates, are now being resurrected via advances in biotechnology and human genetics to support notions of the bright and the dull […]

Part of the reason for the resurgence of eugenic-like thinking is increasing economic inequality in recent decades […] Low educational performance followed by low wages can be falsely legitimated by claims of intrinsic inabilities when economic inequalities are high. Elite groups are more likely to seek to justify inequality in these terms than pay higher wages. Eugenics was last at its height of popularity when the countries were as unequal economically as at present”.

So Dorling’s problem with twin adoption studies and the like is not that he has found flaws in the methodology. Rather, he opposes them because he dislikes the policy conclusions that he thinks people will draw from them. Let’s ignore the fact that this is an elementary logical fallacy: is it even true on its own narrow terms? Do you need to believe in a blank slate view of human nature in order to support egalitarian policies, and does a nature-trumps-nurture view automatically lead to anti-egalitarian policies?

I think not. For what it’s worth, I am fairly agnostic about nature-vs-nurture debates, but if it really were my agenda to ‘defend inequality’ per se (Dorling thinks that this is what ‘neoliberalism’ is all about), I would do the exact opposite of what Dorling claims his opponents are doing. I would hope, desperately so, to find evidence for the blank slate view.

Suppose it could be proven, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that nature accounts for, say, 90% of the variation in the economic outcomes we observe. One important implication of this would be that we could not sensibly blame people who have not achieved much economically. You cannot judge people on the basis of traits that they cannot really alter. By the same token, another implication would be that successful people do not deserve our admiration. We would have to see the traits that made them successful as an inherited privilege, no more ‘deserved’ than, say, good looks.

What would be the economic implications? We could still defend the idea of ‘meritocracy’ on instrumental grounds: an economy will be more productive, and people will be more prosperous, if the most able people reach top positions. But we would have no grounds for seeing the world through the prism of an Ayn Rand novel, in which the achievers are virtuous, and the non-achievers are suspect.

Similarly, we could still oppose high levels of redistribution through the tax-and-benefit system on instrumental grounds: whatever talents people start out with, whether and how they deploy them will still depend on the economic incentives they face. But we would probably end up with a higher level of redistribution than we would if we started from the anyone-can-make-it, you-just-need-to-believe-in-yourself premise that is implicit in so many American movies. If I were a Dorlingista, I would try to talk up the role of nature, and make a case for brute luck egalitarianism on those grounds. Luck egalitarianism has its problems, but it is vastly more solid than awkward, construed arguments about how the poor are the real wealth creators, and the rich are somehow ‘appropriating’ that wealth.

A society which underestimates the impact of nature, insisting that ‘anyone can make it’ when that is not really true, is probably the worst place to be for low-ability individuals. I don’t have a specific society in mind here, although my French classes at school were a bit of a taster. Talent for learning the French language was highly unequally distributed. A few learned it easily and effortlessly, while for many, it was a constant struggle. That was not in itself a problem. What made it a problem was the teachers’ insistence that there was no such thing as innate differences in talent, and that the high-performers succeeded because they had ‘a positive attitude’. That was nonsense, of course: it was the other way round. Like many things, French is fun when you’re good at it, which is why those who were good at it had ‘a positive attitude’.

A society in which hereditability-deniers like Dorling prevail in the nurture-vs-nurture debate could become a lot like those French classes. Except, it would be like a French class that never ends.


Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

3 thoughts on “Nature, nurture and economics”

  1. Posted 10/02/2017 at 11:20 | Permalink

    is he seriously saying that it is supporters of liberalism (rather than socialists) who have supported eugenics? This is totally bizarre

  2. Posted 10/02/2017 at 13:42 | Permalink

    Well, this is Dorling. So…

  3. Posted 14/02/2017 at 19:29 | Permalink

    Nothing more terrifying than a never ending French class

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