Karl Smith has a typically excellent post up today:
- The deserving poor (Modeled Behavior)
He argues that:
There is no reason to view emotional or mental deficiencies as different in kind from physical ones. To put it in the harshest of terms, if you think someone who is born blind is deserving of sympathy and support then you should think someone who is born lazy and stupid is deserving of sympathy and support.
Further once you concede that the lazy and stupid are deserving of sympathy then its difficult to construct a set of poor people who are not, since these are among the least sympathetic qualities that could cause someone to be poor.
In particular, Smith claims (not unreasonably) that mental and emotional traits like IQ and conscientiousness are largely genetically determined, or at the very least “more or less fixed before the age of 12″. That is, they are “determined before what most people would think of as your moral agency. If so, can it reasonably be your fault that you are stupid?” By showing that even the least sympathetic causes of poverty are deserving of sympathy, Smith intends to show that all poverty is deserving of sympathy.
He devotes most of the rest of the post to the free-rider problem and a general defence of his position, but I’m more interested in zooming in on this comparison because I think it leaves out a vital question.
Congenital blindness, barring surgical intervention, is an all-or-nothing condition. If you’re born without sight, there aren’t any “eye exercises” you can do to make yourself less blind; it’s entirely up to your genetic inheritance. Did you, in Rawls’s terms, “win the natural lottery“? No? Tough shit, buddy.
Now consider something much more plastic, like musical ability. If you lucked out in the natural lottery, you might have long, dextrous fingers and perfect pitch, which’ll make playing the piano an awful lot easier. On the other hand, musical ability — maybe you choose the violin instead — has a heck of a lot to do with personal interest and motivation and a lot of well-directed practice and study and hard work. Maybe these are second-order traits from conscientiousness, but the point stands that even without a lot of intrinsic gifts you can drag your musical ability up quite a lot through sheer bloody-minded stubbornness. It’s not clear (at least not to me) how much one’s genetic inheritance has to do with one’s musical potential, but my guess is “not a heck of a lot except at the highest levels of performance”.
Then there’s strength, which is somewhere in between. Some people are naturally stronger than others — they have more fast-twitch fibres, longer muscle bellies, more advantageous levers, thicker tendons, better innervation, or whatever. Other people, and these groups might or might not overlap, have greater strength potential — better work tolerance, quicker recovery, &c. But either way, neither sort of person is going to get anywhere near their potential unless they do something about it — through lifting, say, or working a physically demanding job. Ten years of well- and consistently-executed weight training will make damn near anyone incredibly strong by the standards of the sedentary population, but some people will end up elite powerlifters while others will “merely” end up with a double bodyweight squat.
(Descending the strength-training rabbit hole we also eventually discover that gene expression is occasionally heavily influenced by behavioural and environmental stresses, so it’s entirely likely that a trait with a genetic component can be affected by a change in chronic behaviour.)
The question is: If IQ and conscientiousness and &c. are (a) significantly genetic and (b) causes of poverty, how much room do people have to change them? Gwern notes that IQ tests, at least, can sometimes be significantly improved (anecdotally at least) by N-backing. Anecdote also suggests that conscientiousness is not rigidly fixed by biology*. If that’s the case, Smith needs to address the possibility of people who were born with “impoverishing” traits (IQ and conscientiousness below some sort of threshold) and did nothing to ameliorate them. I don’t think he’d end up at a different conclusion — at first glance, it looks like a self-reinforcing feedback loop — but it would make for an interesting follow-up.
* I can’t be bothered to research it right now. How much of that is my fault, and how much of it is just how I was born?