For Whom the Bell Curves

A new book raises a ruckus by linking intelligence to genetics and race

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Labor Secretary Robert Reich accepts Murray and Herrnstein's expectation that a technological society will give its highest pay to people who have mastered its complex tasks but rejects their scenario of a genetically determined class structure. "There is a great deal of experimental data showing that education and training have significant effects on future earnings," says Reich. "I'm afraid ((their ideas)) will give solace to those in our society who are looking for every excuse to do less and less for those who are less fortunate."

The policy implications that Murray and Herrnstein arrive at can be hard to fathom, even if one accepts that improving IQ is as difficult as they say it is. Why not redouble attempts to bring the lagging populations, white and black, closer to the norm? Murray acknowledges that IQ may be more malleable than he supposes. But he holds that a workable strategy for intervention, especially by the bumptious instrument of government, is simply not there. And his philosophical conservatism predisposes him to look first for solutions that don't involve government at all. So The Bell Curve suggests ending welfare to discourage births among low-IQ poor women, changing immigration laws to favor the capable and rolling back most job discrimination laws, which the authors feel promote the intellectually underequipped.

Racists will be delighted. Murray says he's not trying to make them happy. Statistical trends among whole racial groups mean nothing for the fate of any individual, he points out, and any given African American may have a higher IQ than any given white person. Much of what's been done in the name of affirmative action, Murray says, has been pernicious because it encourages people to think in terms of group identities. "The way that we used to talk about this country being a great place was to say, 'In America, you can go as far as your abilities and your energy will take you,' " Murray argues. "Dammit, that is what I want to do again. We never, until about 30 or 40 years ago, talked about group outcomes. And we shouldn't."

While that may be a peculiar position for an author whose book is all about group identities, stranger still is his premise that the early '60s were a time when race was unimportant to the people who controlled schools and jobs, to say nothing of lunch counters. Murray frets that the cognitive elite is out of touch with ordinary realities. There are times when he seems to be a good example of that himself. He says he wants his book to be remembered for promoting such values as individualism. It looks as if it is likely to be remembered for some dubious premises and toxic conclusions.

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