Biology and Liberalism


Karl Smith explains part of the way his views have changed over the years:

15 years ago I was a hardcore Tabula Rasa supporter. There was no way I could imagined myself waking up, believing anything different.

Today, I frequently say: crime and poverty in the first world are biological diseases and one day they will have a biological cure. Our purpose right now is to ease the pain of all those afflicted. Ironically, I think liberals tend to be less accepting of biological determinism, but it was my acceptance of it that led me to be increasingly in favor of efforts to help the first world poor.

I’ve never been either a hardcore blank slater or a hardcore biological determinist, but there’s no question that I have a pretty healthy belief in the power of genes and biology. As Karl says, this belief tends to be associated with conservatives more than liberals, but that’s really very odd. After all, it’s pretty easy to fool ourselves into dismissing the benefits of being raised in a rich, stable culture and assuming that everything we’ve accomplished has actually been the result of hard work and personal rectitude. But what if you believe, say, that (a) IQ has a strong biological component and (b) high IQ is really important for getting ahead in the world? If you believe this and also happen to be blessed with a high IQ, how can you possibly convince yourself that this is anything other than the blind luck of the genetic lottery?

Well, I suppose people can convince themselves of just about anything. And certainly a smart person who works hard is likely to do better than a smart person who sits on the couch all day playing videogames. Still, to the extent that you really do believe that cognitive abilities are (a) important, and (b) strongly biologically determined, shouldn’t you also believe that the poor are more unlucky than anything else, and haven’t done anything to deserve hunger, lousy housing, poor medical care, or crappy educations? If genetic luck plays a big role in making us who we are, then support for income redistribution from the rich to the poor is almost a logical necessity for anyone with a moral sense more highly developed than a five-year-old’s.

Long story short, belief in biological determinism should make you into a liberal. And yet, here in the real world it mostly does just the opposite. Go figure.

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