Monday, July 25, 2011


In a recent discussion with a conservative, the following statement was made:
"The most important decisions in life don't require a high iq to make. Go to school. Don't do drugs. Show up for work on time every day. Don't reproduce before you're able to care for a child, Etc. Not following these simple rules turn people into losers."
This really seems to cut to the core of disagreement between liberal and conservative attitudes towards social inequality. Putting aside general circumstantial situations, why do some people seem to make such poor choices, and others make such better choices?

You've probably noticed that I have a running suspicion that conservatives are more inclined to believe that people have more free will than liberals. However, this is disputed. Yet I think this statement fits my claim.

So, the basic concept is that these important decisions are not difficult, don't require a high IQ, and thus the right course should be chosen more than it is. In other words, people who make the wrong choices are "losers", doing so by choice.

My critique of this is as a determinist. I believe that while people make choices, their ability to choose is enforced by prior learning and development. Basically, people are going to make the choice that they feel most compelled to make. Because this compulsion is real, no matter what options are in theory available to them, in reality there is only one option - the one they are most compelled to take.

For instance, two dieters are faced with the choice of eating a piece of chocolate cake, and only one is able to resist it. They both have the same number of choices, yet depending on their internal make-up - prior learning and development (and the interplay between these and genetics) - they will experience different levels of compulsion. While the right decision makes rational sense - if you are on a diet, you shouldn't have the cake! - humans are much more complex. And again, this complexity is rooted in our development. Chances are if you ask the successful dieter to tell you how he did it, he won't be able to explain it - he just did it. Likewise, the dieter who failed likely wouldn't be able to tell you why she failed - she just couldn't do it. Both wanted to resist.

There are definitely "losers" and "winners". There are people who work really hard and do everything they can to get ahead, while others take easier routes. And just like the dieters, how do we know how some people manage to succeed, while others don't?

There's actually a considerable degree of research on this! It is impossible to draw a 1:1 line of causality between any one factor, as humans are infinitely complex. But there are general factors that can be isolated to provide pretty good predictors of successful behavior. For instance, you take two groups of 100 people, and you can find behavioral correlations that will show clear patterns. Social researchers, psychologists and economists have found numerous connections between life circumstances, personality traits and behavioral characteristics that predict one's chances of being successful in life.

I don't think that conservatism seems to embrace much, if any of this research. There seems to be an odd cognitive dissonance, where even if the research or evidence shows predictive relationships between development and behavior, it is somehow waved away with the idea that people can always choose to "follow the rules".

Some conservatives who embrace the research, who might simply object to the idea of government programs intervening to help people, on the grounds that it doesn't work, or contributes to unsuccessful behavior, don't seem to have any thoughts on how we might help people who lack proper development. Problems exist that have existed, that exist now, and will likely continue to exist should we do nothing. Is there not a moral requirement that we, those of us who understand the problem, no doubt having had the gift of being taught how to be successful, act to help them, out of a sense of fairness? What would this plan look like, from a conservative standpoint? For every kid out there growing up with terrible disadvantages, what plan do conservatives have for him, who will be more likely to grow up to fail, and likely sire more failure-prone children?

Is the assumption that there is nothing that we can do? Because I can actually make a pretty good case that the availability of social programs does at least some good, in that it can provide just the sort of relief that many people need. I've witnessed it first-hand over and over, and there are statistics to back me up. It of course is not perfect. Many people are beyond help, and I'll admit that some may even be given improper incentives - although I think that case has yet to even have begun to be constructed.

So to the extent that this is an evidenced-based debate, and we are accepting the large amount of data and research out there on the subject of individual success, it seems we are left with questions of behavioral analysis and public policy. I'm open to new types of programs and approaches, but conservatives don't seem to have anything to offer, other than old arguments attempting to defend their right to basically do nothing and leave things at that.

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