Tyler Cowen says he’s found “the extreme tension in Caplanian thought”:

Bryan loves to stress the heritability of intelligence, income, and even life expectancy, among other variables.  But how can your parents be your fault?

This is a fundamental tension in Caplanian thought, namely the
desire to promote intuitions of both meritocracy/desert and facts about
heritability.  Bryan can’t have it both ways.

I say this “tension” is illusory.  Key points:

1.  While merit/desert and choice are related, the relationship is much more complex than Tyler admits.  No one chooses his raw athletic ability, but the fastest runner in the Olympics still merits the gold medal.  Choice almost invariably plays a role – no matter how great your innate ability in X, you have to actually choose to do X to merit any recognition or reward.  But choice is only one ingredient in our intuitions about merit and desert.

2. But doesn’t empirical evidence on heritability of our choices show that we don’t “really” choose anything – and thereby entirely undermine all notions of merit and desert?  Nope.  Predictability and free will are compatible; the former is a claim about what happens, the latter a claim about what can happen.  I’ve never chosen to cut off one of my fingers.  You can safely bet that I never will.  But my introspection tells me that I’m metaphysically free to cut off my fingers.

3. If predictability did undermine merit and desert, heritability would still be a red herring.  Why?  Because heritability research looks at why behavior is predictable, not whether it’s predictable.  The point of twin and adoption studies isn’t to show that human behavior is predictable; you can see that from naive family correlations.  The point of twin and adoption studies is to figure out what share of naive family correlations is due to nature – and what share is due to nurture.

4. If this is true, why do I think that income heritability studies should increase our estimates of how meritocratic the economy is?   Simple:  If separated identical twins both earn high incomes, the explanation almost has to be that the market rewards ability and effort.  If adoptees raised together both earn high incomes, on the other hand, the explanation could be that their parents raised them to be productive and motivated workers.  But this pattern is also consistent with nepotism – parents using their connections to place their underqualified kids in good jobs. 

The ultimate reason why Tyler’s sees a tension and I don’t, though, is probably that he takes for granted the Rawlsian view that, “no one deserves his place in the distribution of native endowments.”   I reject the Rawlsian position as contrary to common sense.  Like Rothbard,

I must confess that I cannot make any sense of this position. What is more inherent in an individual, more uniquely his own, than his inherited ability? If he is not to reap the reward from this, conjoined with his own willed effort, what should he reap a reward from?