Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Does the Moral Flynn Effect Support Flynn's Democratic Socialism or Murray's Classical Liberalism?

I have written previously (here, here, here, and here) about what Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature calls the "moral Flynn effect."  One of the "better angels" that favor declining violence is reason, because our capacity for abstract reasoning allows us to recognize the costs of violence and the benefits of nonviolence.  The fact that IQ has been rising over the past century in the United States and other industrialized developed nations--the "Flynn effect"--suggests that we are getting smarter; and if so, then we might be getting better at avoiding violence because we are getting smarter.  James Flynn thinks these gains in IQ started during the industrial revolution and have continued in modern societies, because people have been taught to engage in the sort of abstract and hypothetical reasoning required for modern societies that are scientifically and technologically advanced.  Pinker thinks this improvement in intelligence has brought improvement in morality, as manifested in our modern commitment to a liberal social order based on nonviolence, toleration, peaceful coexistence, and voluntary cooperation.  These are the principles of classical liberalism or libertarianism.  Pinker contends: "the escalator of reason predicts only that intelligence should be correlated with classical liberalism, which values the autonomy and well-being of individuals over the constraints of tribe, authority, and tradition.  Intelligence is expected to correlate with classical liberalism because classical liberalism is itself a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives that is inherent to reason itself.  Intelligence need not correlate with other ideologies that get lumped into contemporary left-of-center political coalitions, such as populism, socialism, political correctness, identity politics, and the Green movement" (662).

Flynn has stated his agreement with Pinker, in agreeing that the greater rationality of modern scientific societies has brought moral progress, including declining violence.   Flynn has stated this in his book, Intelligence and Human Progress: The Story of What was Hidden in Our Genes (Academic Press, 2013), pages 59-74, 108-111; and he even dedicates this book to Pinker.

Flynn is silent, however, about Pinker's argument for linking intelligence and declining violence to classical liberalism.  This is a strange silence, because Flynn is fervent in rejecting classical liberalism and advocating Social Democracy or Democratic Socialism, particularly in his book, Where Have All the Liberals Gone? Race, Class, and Ideals in America (Cambridge University Press, 2008).  Flynn insists that for America to fulfill its Jeffersonian ideals of equal rights in the pursuit of happiness for everyone, America will have to have a "robust welfare state," one far more robust than America has ever had.  The alternative that he rejects is the classical liberalism of people like Thomas Sowell and Charles Murray (296-97).

Remarkably, both Flynn and Murray see themselves as defending the principles of Thomas Jefferson.  According to Flynn, those Americans who have been unlucky in being shaped by either bad genes or bad environments cannot have an equal chance in the pursuit of happiness without a "robust welfare state" to provide them with the resources they need to live a decent life.  Flynn admits that Jefferson had no conception of a welfare state (16).  But that's only because he did not anticipate how wage laborers in an industrialized society would need a welfare state to secure their dignity.  And that's why Jefferson's teachings needed to be supplemented by the socialist teachings of Eugene V. Debs.

By contrast, Murray sees Jefferson as defending a classical liberal conception of limited government that secures individual freedom and responsibility.  In What It Means to Be a Libertarian (Broadway Books, 1997), Murray quotes from Jefferson's First Inaugural Address, in which he describes "the sum of good government" as "a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned" (ix).  Such a conception of limited government is contradictory to the welfare state, which does not leave people free to live their lives as they please, so long as they do not injure one another.

Flynn believes that only socialism can provide the equality necessary for everyone to have a chance at living a decent life.  Everyone needs to have equal access to health care, education, employment, stimulating leisure-time activities, and economic resources to keep them out of poverty.  Flynn admits that pure socialism doesn't work, because abolishing markets and private property is disastrous.  But he does believe that a moderately socialist welfare state can "tame the market" by redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor and by providing social services to the poor that would never be provided by the market.  He believes that such democratic socialism is ethical because it expresses moral concern, social justice, and civic virtue (148-53).

Flynn's argument makes two fundamental assumptions.  First, he assumes that a welfare state really does make big improvements in human life that make it easier for people to secure their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.  Second, he assumes that a classical liberal society with a limited government cannot do this, because human beings in a free society are incapable of solving their social problems through voluntary cooperation without using governmental force.  He offers no empirical evidence to support either of these assumptions.

By contrast, Murray offers historical evidence that both of these assumptions are false.  For his evidence, he points to historical trendlines.  For any governmental intervention, we can draw a trendline showing what was happening before and after the intervention.  If the trendline improved after the governmental intervention, then the intervention was successful.  If not, then it was a failure (What It Means to Be a Libertarian, 47-56).

So, for example, we can plot the proportion of Americans below the official poverty line from World War II to the present.  Then we can plot the amount of money spent by the government to help the poor over that same time period, and we can mark the trendline with the dates of major legislation designed to help the poor.  What we then see is that there was a steady drop in poverty from World War II to the 1960s, with the steepest drop occurring in the 1950s.  Beginning in the mid-1960s, Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs did not improve the trendline.  In many respects, the trendline test would show that governmental welfare-state interventions made things worse rather than better.  Although Flynn urges his readers to read Murray, Flynn does not respond to Murray's trendline argument.

Murray hopes that someday the welfare state will be abolished, and then America can return to the classical liberal conception of limited government promoted by Jefferson and the other American Founders.  Flynn assumes that this could not be done without throwing millions of Americans into economically and spiritually impoverished lives, because a classical liberal society cannot alleviate the suffering of the poor, the sick, the disabled, the lonely, and the homeless, who cannot help themselves.

In response to this objection, Murray's answer is that the historical evidence of the trendlines shows that a limited government without a welfare state can work to deal with these problems, because it did work.  From the American Revolution to the 1920s, Americans had the freedom and responsibility to solve their social problems for themselves, and they did so through a rich social network of families, churches, clubs, schools, fraternal organizations, friendly societies, and all kinds of philanthropic institutions.  This is what Alexis de Tocqueville saw in the 1830s when he described his amazement with the tendency of Americans to form voluntary associations for handling every social problem. 

Yes, there were slums and grinding poverty.  But throughout all of human history up to the 18th century, most human beings lived impoverished lives.  What was new was that by the end of the 19th century, the capitalist industrial revolution created more wealth for more people than had ever before been possible.  Moreover, those who were disadvantaged because they were "helpless, luckless, or feckless" (as Murray puts it) were aided by the charity of their families and fellow citizens, who did the best they could with the resources available to them. 

Significantly, Flynn says nothing about this except to dismiss the importance of private charity in two or three sentences.  He also says nothing about the tendency of welfare-state programs to displace private charity in ways that exacerbate the very problems that the welfare state is supposed to solve.

Murray observes:
"And so we moved much of what I refer to as the stuff of life--being engaged with those around you in the core social roles of spouse, parent, son or daughter, friend, and neighbor--downtown, to the bureaucracies.  This was the most important change in social policy during the last thirty years.  Not the amount of money government spent.  Not how much was wasted.  Not even the ways in which government hurt those it intended to help.  Ultimately the most important effect of government's metastasizing role was to strip daily life of much of the stuff of life.  We turned over to the bureaucracies a large portion of the responsibility for feeding the hungry, succoring the sick, comforting the sad, nurturing the children, tending the elderly, and chastising the sinners." (163)
Flynn seems to assume that it is good to turn these social responsibilities over to governmental bureaucracies exercising coercive force, because human beings are so narrowly selfish that they will never voluntarily fulfill their social responsibilities as spouses, parents, children, friends, and neighbors.

Here is the fundamental disagreement between Flynn's socialism and Murray's classical liberalism.  Flynn's socialism assumes that human beings must be forced by governmental coercion to solve social problems.  Murray's classical liberalism assumes that force is bad, and cooperation is good, and that if people are prohibited from using force, they will tend to cooperate voluntarily.  As Murray indicates, classical liberals like Adam Smith (particularly in The Theory of Moral Sentiments) have seen human beings as naturally social animals, and as long as they cannot use force to advance their self-interest, they will obey and enforce social norms of love, generosity, tolerance, mutual aid, and sympathy for the victims of injustice.

Murray explains:
"If I cannot use force, everything I get has to be given voluntarily.  To satisfy my material needs, I must persuade other people to trade with me.  To satisfy my needs for companionship, I must behave in ways that make others want me to be part of their community.  In both cases, I must offer something to others that they value at least as much as the thing that they give me."
"The link between freedom and tolerance does not depend on people's perfectibility.  It does not even require that human beings have a moral sense.  It recognizes that, given the opportunity, human beings will exploit each other.  Libertarians make this one simple claim, which can be successfully matched against mankind's long empirical record: Deprived of the use of force, human beings tend to cooperate.  Literally and figuratively, they live and let live." (80-81)
So, again, it's a question of empirical evidence. When government is limited to deterring and punishing the initiation of force, to enforcing laws of contract and private property, and to providing those few public goods that cannot be provided by the market, will human beings cooperate voluntarily to solve their social problems, as Murray believes?  Or will human beings have to be forced by government bureaucracies to solve their problems, as Flynn believes? 


Rob Schebel said...

Flynn may not provide evidence for his claim that moderate socialized democracy improves the quality of life, but the evidence is out there. Look for example at the mountains of data provided by the OECD. That data shows that countries with higher levels of democratic socialism -- Denmark, Sweden, Finland, France, etc. -- tend to have higher levels of education, better health outcomes (with socialized universal health care), less crime, greater social mobility, and higher levels of reported contentment and happiness than countries with less socialized regulation (like the U.S.). The World Health Organization backs the OECD data with regard to health care quality. Also, countries with greater regulation of firearms suffer much less violence than countries with less. See Michael Shermer's recent twitter posts for that data.

In the past, it's been difficult to assess the variety of claims about socialism versus capitalism. Those claims remained highly theoretical and solely within the purview of theorists. But the increasing availability of data on various industrialized countries allows us to assess those claims with more empirical validity now. While Flynn may not adequately defend his views in his own work, other data does in fact justify his perspective over Murray's.

Rob Schebel said...

As I read back through it, I should probably revise my statement above. Instead of saying that the data justifies Flynn's ideas over Murray's, I should say that the data suggests that both Flynn and Murray's ideas can be justified. Highly capitalistic nations (like the United States and Switzerland) do well, as do highly socialistic nations (like the baltic states, France, Canada, etc.).

However, in general, the most successful of the modern industrialized nations tend to be democracies with moderate levels of socialism. The OECD data, the WHO data, the U.N.'s Human Development Index, the Legatum Prosperity Index -- these all tend to show a predominance of more socialized countries over more capitalistic countries in their assessments of a variety of measures of human well-being.

Anonymous said...


I would ask that you also consider the dynamic of leading economies and industries as opposed to drafting. Catch up is relatively easy with proper institutions and culture. However, someone has to lead, and this requires a dynamic of innovation, risk taking and such.

Anonymous said...

But socialized countries also end up with nightmare housing projects when the incentive to work is removed because all your educational, medical, food, and housing is paid for.

Rob Schebel said...

Then why do so many socialized countries in the west have less unemployment than the U.S.? Look for example at Germany, which is more socialistic than the U.S., and yet is arguably the strongest economy in the world right now. The same arguments stand for the socialist countries I named above -- Sweden, Denmark, Norway etc.. They have welfare states while also maintaining vibrant economies with relatively little unemployment, and with higher educational levels, better health care, less crime, more civic engagement, better housing, greener industries, and a happier citizenry.

This isn't simply theoretical. I think the empirical data speaks for itself. Check out the OECD pages sometime.

Anonymous said...

By the way, classical liberalism just means all liberalism prior to the twentieth century. There were progressive liberals in the 1800s and 1700s.

That includes among the founders. Thomas Paine wrote about many ideas of goverance (e.g., "Agrarian Justice") that are perfectly in line with contemporary progressivism and social democracy. By definition, Thomas Paine was a classical liberal, albeit a progressive one.

But even consider people like Adam Smith. He advocated for public education. He also thought one of the greatest dangers to a free society was high economic inequality. Those remain two central concerns of liberals.

There is no inherent contradiction between social democracy and classical liberalism. In fact, classical liberalism wouldn't be possible without social democracy.

Anonymous said...

I am still wrangling with the words used to differentiate the two views discussed. For example, the last paragraph states the Murray view as "When government is limited to deterring and punishing the initiation of force, to enforcing laws of contract and private property, and to providing those few public goods that cannot be provided by the market..." VS the Flynn view - "will human beings have to be forced by government bureaucracies to solve their problems..." So... both side use "force" or "enforce" or "deter" and "punish" people to get them to behave a certain way? Is it just that one side uses some sort of "enforcing authority" (would you say police state?), while the other would use "bureaucracies" (whatever that means)? Both then seem to use some sort of structured authority, regardless. I guess.