Brink, Me, and Human Capitalism
By Bryan Caplan
Thanks to Bryan I dove into that literature and found that it does
indeed offer support for the view Bryan has called “parental
irrelevantism.” But, as Bryan fails to acknowledge, those findings are
subject to serious caveats and, in any event, there are other findings
in that same literature which show an important effect of upbringing. In
addition, other important lines of evidence that Bryan ignores point to
the considerable impact of the upbringing environment. I came away with
my initial common-sense verdict undisturbed: nature is important, but
so is nurture.
I can understand how someone might find the behavioral genetic literature less than 100% convincing. I can’t understand how someone could fail to find the behavioral genetic literature disturbing. Twin and adoption evidence is deeply inconsistent with what Brink calls the “common-sense verdict.” How can this evidence at least fail to make him sharply less confident in that verdict?
I believe the fundamental problem [with the breakdown in responsible behavior among the working class] is mass affluence, not the welfare
state. Clearly we have to engage in speculation when imagining what life
would be like in the absence of government-provided income support —
given that such support has been around in the English-speaking world
for over 400 years. But my assumption is that private charity in our
rich, liberal, humanitarian, soft-hearted society would provide some
decent “social minimum” for poor children and by extension for their
I agree that if the welfare state were abolished, charity would pick up some of the slack. But far from all. There’s every reason to think that this marginal difference would be a major impetus for more responsible behavior – especially when you remember that private charities usually try harder than governments to distinguish the deserving from the undeserving poor.
But I don’t really think moral desert has much relevance for public
policy, at least not here. If public policy reforms can change
conditions and incentives in a way that ensures that a higher percentage
of morally blameless infants grow up to be morally praiseworthy adults,
then we ought to make those reforms — even if they soften the blows of
their own folly for some morally unpraiseworthy adults.
Paragraphs like this sound great. But they’re fundamentally wrong-headed. Key problems:
1. There’s plenty of reason to think that the social ills Brink is talking about are, to a large degree, caused by government. So as a liberaltarian, shouldn’t he at least start by saying, “Let’s get rid of all the government programs that make these problems worse, then see what happens,” rather than calling for a bunch of new government programs?
2. Yes, everyone used to be somebody’s morally blameless baby. It’s a great Pat Benatar song. How does that change the fact that plenty of people are now morally blameworthy adults who should be treated accordingly? We all consider moral desert in our private decisions; why should public policy be any different? If you find this intolerant, I’d say that the real intolerance is coercing people to support total strangers in the first place.
3. Suppose you think we should help people even if they’re undeserving. The fact remains that resources are scarce. So shouldn’t we at least start with the deserving poor, then see if we’ve got any resources left?
4. There’s a trade-off between the living standards of the American working class and low-skilled foreigners. Right now we have a massive government program – immigration restrictions – that heavily tilts the trade-off in favor of the former, even though the latter are far poorer and more deserving. Under the circumstances, I just can’t see why a liberaltarian would call on government to do even more for the American working class instead of doing less to low-skilled foreigners.
When Tyler Cowen published The Great Stagnation, I asked him, “Why are you complaining about stagnation in the United States after what could easily have been the world economy’s highest growth decade ever?” I have a similar challenge for Brink: “Why are you complaining about the plight of relatively poor Americans when the First World’s immigration restrictions are holding hundreds of millions of absolutely poor foreigners in poverty?” Choosing the wrong question is often as misleading as reaching the wrong answer.