Glenn C. Loury, National Review, December 5, 1994.


Reading Herrnstein and Murray’s treatise causes me once again to reflect on the limited utility in the management of human affairs of that academic endeavor generously termed social science. The authors of The Bell Curve undertake to pronounce upon what is possible for human beings to do while failing to consider that which most makes us human. They begin by seeking the causes of behavior and end by reducing the human subject to a mechanism whose horizon is fixed by some combination of genetic endowment and social law. Yet we, even the “dullest” of us, are so much more than that.

Now, as an economist I am a card-carrying member of the social scientists’ cabal; so these doubts now creeping over me have far-reaching personal implications. But entertain them I must, for the stakes in the discussion this book has engendered are too high. The question on the table, central to our nation’s future and, I might add, to the future success of a conservative politics in America, is this: Can we sensibly aspire to a more complete social integration than has yet been achieved of those who now languish at the bottom of American society? A political movement that answers “no” to this question must fail, and richly deserves to.

Herrnstein and Murray are not entirely direct on this point. They stress, plausibly enough, that we must be realistic in formulating policy, taking due account of the unequal distribution of intellectual aptitudes in the population, recognizing that limitations of mental ability constrain what sorts of policies are likely to make a difference and how much of a difference they can make. But implicit in their argument is the judgment that we shall have to get used to there being a substantial minority of our fellows who, because of their low intelligence, may fail to perform adequately in their roles as workers, parents, and citizens. I think this is quite wrong. Social science ultimately leads the authors astray on the political and moral fundamentals.

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