The Ghetto of Talent
By Bryan Caplan
Charles Murray has recently come under attack for the position he staked out in Human Accomplishment on gender and achievement. He’s ably defended himself by pointing out what he actually wrote. In the process, though, I remembered my favorite part of what is possibly his most underrated book.
While removing social and legal barriers often fails to release superlative achievement, sometimes it does. The most dramatic case of all: What transpired when the barriers of Europe’s Jewish ghettos came crumbling down. Murray:
During the four decades from 1830 to 1870, when the first Jews to live in emancipation (or at least to live under less rigorously enforced suppression) reach their forties, 16 Jewish figures appear. In the next four decades, from 1870 to 1910, when all non-Russian Jews are living in societies that offer equal legal protection if not social equality, that number jumps to 40. During the next four decades until 1950 – including the years of the Third Reich and the Holocaust – the number of Jewish significant figures almost triples, to 114. The figure below shows how these numbers work out as percentages of all significant figures for the three half-centuries from 1850 to 1950:
As Murray elaborates elsewhere:
Disproportionate Jewish accomplishment in the arts and sciences
continues to this day. My inventories end with 1950, but many other
measures are available, of which the best known is the Nobel Prize. In
the first half of the 20th century, despite pervasive and continuing
social discrimination against Jews throughout the Western world, despite
the retraction of legal rights, and despite the Holocaust, Jews won 14
percent of Nobel Prizes in literature, chemistry, physics, and
medicine/physiology. In the second half of the 20th century, when Nobel
Prizes began to be awarded to people from all over the world, that
figure rose to 29 percent. So far, in the 21st century, it has been 32
percent. Jews constitute about two-tenths of one percent of the world’s
population. You do the math.
To use Clemens, Montenegro, and Pritchett’s terminology, Murray is essentially estimating the “place premium” for Jewish achievement. As long as Jews remained in literal ghettos, most of their creative abilities were invisible – and wasted. In order to live up to their full potential, the Jews had to physically and intellectually migrate. Some declined to do so even after they had the option. But the rest took to social integration like fish to water – and the results are staggering.