Redistribution: Blocking the Revenge of the Nerds?
By Bryan Caplan
One of my pet ideas is the Jock/Nerd Theory of History. If you’re reading this, you probably got a taste of it during your K-12 education, when your high grades and book smarts somehow failed to put you at the top of the social pyramid. Jocks ruled the school. If the nerds were lucky, they did the jocks’ homework in exchange for decent treatment.
According to the Jock/Nerd Theory of History, most historical human societies bore a striking resemblance to K-12 education. In primitive tribes, for instance, the best hunters are on top. If the village brain knows what’s good for him, he keeps his mouth shut if the best hunter says something stupid. The rise of civilization gave the nerds a better deal, but as long as almost everyone worked in agriculture, brawn continued to pay well.
But then something amazing happened: Nerds got enough breathing room to develop and implement amazing wealth-producing ideas. The process fed on itself, devaluing physical ability and elevating mental ability. Nerds built the modern world – and won handsome financial rewards in the process. (Yes, I’m painting with broad strokes, but bear with me).
With the Jock/Nerd theory firmly in mind, this sentence takes on a deeper meaning:
We don’t take steps to redress inequalities of looks, friends, or sex life.
Notice: For financial success, the main measure where nerds now excel, governments make quite an effort to equalize differences. But on other margins of social success, where many nerds still struggle, laissez-faire prevails.
It’s suspicious – and if you combine the Jock/Nerd Theory with some evolutionary psych, it makes sense. When the best hunter in the tribe gets rich, his neighbors will probably ask nicely for a share, if they dare to ask at all. But if the biggest nerd in the tribe gets rich, how long will it take before the jocks show up and warn him that “You’d better share and share alike”?
Punchline: Through the lens of the Jock/Nerd Theory of History, the welfare state doesn’t look like a serious effort to “equalize outcomes.” It looks more like a serious effort to block the “revenge of the nerds” – to keep them from using their financial success to unseat the jocks on every dimension of social status.
P.S. If any jocks are reading this, please don’t hurt me! I’ll do your homework!