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Can a Free Society Work for the Less Clever?

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By Stephen Hicks

August 9, 2015

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A free society presupposes that people are capable of living self-responsibly. That in turn presupposes that they have enough intelligence to do so. And a free democracy presupposes that the majority will consistently make good political decisions. That also presupposes they have enough intelligence to do so.

Honestly now: Do you have what it takes? We all like to think we’re smarter than average, but the math is cruel. Half of us are below median intelligence, and some of us are considerably lower. So why should we think that freedom is a good policy for everyone?

I believe freedom is the best policy, but sometimes that is a hard argument to make. A free society presupposes that people are capable of living self-responsibly. That in turn presupposes that they have enough intelligence to do so. And a free democracy presupposes that the majority will consistently make good political decisions. That also presupposes they have enough intelligence to do so.

But a strong claim can be made that it’s naive to think that most people are smart enough. So let’s take up that hard challenge, since only by facing the best arguments on all sides can we be most certain of our own conclusions.

Here’s sobering anecdote, courtesy of columnist Marilyn vos Savant, about just how low the average intelligence can be. Savant has the distinction, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, of having the highest score ever on IQ tests.

A reader wrote to Savant with a perplexing math problem he had been debating over dinner with his wife and brother-in-law. Suppose that you pour one cup of 100% bran cereal into a bowl, and then you pour one cup of 40% bran cereal into the same bowl. What percentage of bran is now in the bowl?

The reader’s wife said 140% — apparently one should add the two percentages to get the right answer. The brother-in-law disagreed, holding that one should subtract the lower from the higher percentage, so the correct answer is 60%. The reader himself thought that 140% and 60% were both wrong — and that the right answer depends on whether one first pours the 100% bran or the 40% bran into the bowl.

Here we have three individuals who cannot do basic math. What are the chances they have the cognitive skills necessary to make it in our complex, high-tech world? Can they calculate the percentages for, say, good nutrition or the compounding interest rates on their credit cards? One has only to consider how many people out there are obese or have out-of-control debt. Intellectually, they are nearly helpless to navigate the complicated modern world by themselves — and in the name of freedom we leave them to their own devices.

It gets worse. Perhaps you can do basic math. But let’s not forget that the three citizens above can easily outvote you on any public policy issue. What are the chances that their three math-challenged votes will be better than your one math-informed vote — on budgetary calculations — on judging acceptable levels of chemicals in foods — on whether vaccines are a good idea — on the science of climate? So what are the chances that democracy is anything more than a slow suicide of the collectively stupid?

Maybe a managed freedom is best for most people. Of course some of us are smarter than others. So those of us with the brains (that’s you, me, and vos Savant) can do good by making the important decisions for our less intelligent brethren or at least firmly nudging them in the correct direction. Wouldn’t that be better for the unsmart than leaving them to their own precarious intelligence?

So, the argument concludes, let’s be blunt: We should design the political system to give power to the smart. Let us forthrightly take decision-making power away from the less intelligent — for their own good and the good of society as a whole.

In ancient times, Plato argued that we need philosopher-kings. For our modern science-and-technology-intensive society, we can update that: We need philosopher-scientist-kings.

Do you shrink from the dictatorial sound of that? Perhaps we needn’t go to such extremes and can include some democratic elements. We can permit everyone to vote and have the majority of votes determine which candidates will be given the authority to make the important decisions on our behalf. Or to make our choices as voters even easier, let’s have political parties pre-select suitably smart candidates, and we voters will choose the best from among them.

But our representatives, once elected, will soon face a problem. They will realize that the world is complex and that many important decisions must be made — but on their own they rarely have the necessary knowledge to decide wisely across so many domains.

Those expert agencies will be empowered to make the necessary decisions on our behalf, and we can live happily knowing that the smart people are in charge of our lives. This is not George Orwell’s 1984 — I’ve just described something like the current system of the United States and most of the world’s developed nations.

So they will create a series of government agencies staffed with intelligent experts — about manufacturing and trade, about banking and finance, about food and drink, about pharmaceuticals and medicine, about transportation, and about the education of our children. Those expert agencies will be empowered to make the necessary decisions on our behalf, and we can live happily knowing that the smart people are in charge of our lives.

This is not George Orwell’s 1984 — I’ve just described something like the current system of the United States and most of the world’s developed nations. Depending how one counts, we live in something that should be called a Doubly-Indirect Paternalist Democracy or a Thrice-Removed Benevolent Aristocracy. Citizens can makes some choices, but within a framework selected and enforced by our intellectual superiors.

In that system, those of lower intelligence are protected from the consequences of their ignorance in their own lives, and the rest of us are protected from the consequences of their voting in our public lives. Perhaps some tinkering with the system is necessary — but if the logic of the above argument is sound, then we already live in the best of all possible political worlds.

So we have a challenge for those of us who want to live freely. We want to choose the education of our children. We want to decide for ourselves what to eat and drink. We want to make our own plans for our financial futures. We even want to choose our own physicians and insurance plans, and much more. But why should that matter in the light of the above argument for paternalism?

Note that the paternalist argument is driven by fear — fear of the stupid and the uninformed. We need to protect them from themselves because we fear that they can’t make it on their own. And we need to protect ourselves from the stupid and the uninformed, because we fear the consequences of their large-number political power in a democracy.

Those fears are not irrelevant considerations, but they are not the basis for a proper political philosophy.

So what is?

Intelligence is a human being’s most important asset.

One sign of this is the amount of time we spend educating our young. For some species, such as squirrels and hawks, the learning necessary to become a full adult is acquired in a matter of months. For more intelligent species, such as chimpanzees and elephants, it takes a few years. But humans need a dozen or more years of life to acquire the knowledge, the learning skills, and the judgment necessary for adult life.

We do need to develop our physiques — muscular power, endurance, and flexibility — but most importantly we need to develop our minds. A lion can overpower its prey with strength, an insect has the flexibility to find what it needs in nooks and crannies, and a goose has the endurance to fly hundreds of miles. But humans flourish primarily via the power of their thinking.

“A healthy mind in a healthy body” — said an old Latin poet. That is the state of being a fully-realized human being.

The connection between intelligence and living freely is that thinking is a capacity of individual minds and one that each individual initiates, controls, sustains, and acts upon. A free human being lives by thinking for himself or herself, acting on his or her best judgment, and taking responsibility, good or bad, for the results.

Of course others can assist, but fundamentally we each must reach our own conclusions and walk our own paths. By the time we become adults, we should be able to live independently. That is the challenge and the glory of being human.

In a complex civilization, living successfully depends on our ability to understand complicated things — how technologies work, principles of civility, international markets, global politics, and so on. What if some people can’t keep up?

Especially in a complex civilization, living successfully depends on our ability to understand complicated things — how technologies work, principles of civility, international markets, global politics, and so on. Society’s complexity increases as we learn and specialize more, and that specialization wonderfully enables more flourishing lifestyles. But those lifestyles also make greater demands upon our intelligence.

What if some people can’t keep up?

That is why the challenge of paternalism is a deep one. The paternalist claim is that some of us are cognitively stronger than others, and that the well-being of the cognitively weaker and society as a whole will be improved if some decision-making power is taken away from the weaker.

Yes, that may sound elitist, paternalists acknowledge. But, they counter-charge, isn’t liberalism also elitist? Liberty works only for the intelligent among us — that is, for those who have what it takes to live fully self-responsibly. But it ignores the capacities of the less gifted who need some looking after. So isn’t paternalism’s making targeted limitations on freedom the most benevolent policy?

Paternalism makes three networked claims:

  1. Paternal controls will yield better overall results than freedom will.
  2. We therefore face a trade-off: we must choose between (a) living with less freedom but getting better results, or (b) living more freely but being worse off.
  3. Option (a) is preferable.

All three claims are false.

In the first place, very few people are too stupid to learn how to run their own lives. If we’re worried about the next generation, watch some kids playing video games, with those games’ cognitive demands of exploration, judgment, evaluation, eye-ear-hand coordination, memory, and so on. How many of those children are by nature so cognitively limited as to be incapable of learning life skills?

Some are. But even most of that small minority can become adults who can do low-skill jobs, dress and feed themselves, play games and enjoy entertainments of their own choosing. And for navigating life’s more intellectually-challenging terrain, they can rely on social networks of family, friends, neighbors, and philanthropic organizations. The very small number of very-low-intelligence people does not justify governmental paternalism across the board.

We should also ask: How many of this generation’s cognitively-challenged are the consequence of last generation’s paternalism? A generation ago, paternalist policy makers despaired over those who were making bad decisions. So they took that decision-making away — undermining further that generation’s capacity to learn how to make good decisions.

If, for example, you take retirement planning out of people’s hands, then you create more people incapable of retirement planning. If you relieve parents of responsibility for overseeing their children’s education, then you create less competent parents. And when this generation arrives, paternalists despair at all the incompetent financial planning and parenting — and call for more paternalism as the solution.

The solution is not more paternalism but less.

At most, arguably, the desire of paternalists to control others should target only those whom they judge to be intellectually sub-par.

Paternalism also involves an injustice: In order to help some, it denies freedom to others. Some individuals cannot competently track the nutritional values of their food and drink intakes, for instance, so paternalists want to limit the food-and-drink options of all. At most, arguably, the desire of paternalists to control others should target only those whom they judge to be intellectually sub-par. There is no justification for extending that control to the rest of us who are capable of judging nutritional values.

In some ways, the free society is the hard road. It does place greater demands of thinking and self-responsibility upon individuals. At the same time, a free society makes the road easier, because free societies are richer societies with more resources available for our cognitive development and more protections against the mistakes we make.

A free society does become more complex technologically, legally, financially, and medically. At the same time, it also cultivates a variety of experts — mechanics, lawyers, financial planners, physicians — whom we can consult to get the knowledge and advice we need to make our own self-responsible decisions.

Even so, many people will make bad decisions in a robustly free society. But, as a character in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment  said, wisely: “To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s.” Being human means making one’s own choices. Robust self-responsibility is a fundamental principle of morality. One does not trade-off on it, no matter the degree of one’s intelligence. Paternalism thus subverts our human-ness.

Think, by analogy, of good parenting versus bad. We can understand parents who are tempted to try to control their offspring on into adult life. They brought the child into the world and properly exercised paternal control when the child was younger. But essential to good parenting is weaning one’s child off his or her state of dependence — and weaning oneself off the habit of control.

There is something wrong with parents who feel the need to run their adult children’s lives — they are at best misguided and at worst pathological.

The same is true for paternalist politicians, but with less excuse.

 

 

This article first appeared in EveryJoe.com in two successive columns titled “Are You Smart Enough to Live in a Free Society” and “On Intelligence and Freedom.”

 

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