Why Biology Is The Friend of Liberty—And The Enemy of “Totalitarian Creep”

January 27, 2011


[
Previously by Robert Weissberg

Is The Affirmative Action
Frankenstein On Its Last Legs?
]

The
nature vs.
nurture
debate is not inherently ideological. It is,
or at least should be, a matter of

clear-eyed
scientific inquiry. Nevertheless, in
today`s political landscape liberals generally favor

nurture
while conservatives are inclined toward
nature. This ideological alignment is predictable:
explaining tribulations as environmentally determined
invariably leads to expanding state authority while
favoring intractable human nature suggests small
government.

This debate`s non-scientific
ideological baggage is most apparent in explaining
racial inequality. For liberals, black shortcomings in
education, employment, crime, family instability,
substance abuse and all the rest are best remediated by
the
state fixing faulty environments
. Conservatives, by
contrast, argue (though currently usually in private)
that biology ("human
nature"
) limits government remediation and that
while environmental tinkering can sometimes help,
unequal
inherited traits
ultimately doom leveling.

In principle this debate should be
wholly scientific. But quarrels typically gravitate
toward moral imperatives, good vs. evil. Liberals insist
that biological explanations, especially when they
involve group comparisons, are not only factually
incorrect, but that, worse, such
"bad"
thinking undermines a free democratic society. Biology
means

Hitler
and

eugenics
and we all know what happened in Germany.
Biology will also

needlessly exacerbate racial tensions.
To clinch the
argument, any

scientific research
that might uncover inherited
biological factors might justify prejudice and
discrimination—even the Mother of all Sins,
“hate”.

Conservatives do not reject this
"nurture good/nature bad" moral cosmology. They tacitly accept the
bad guy role. But they usually try to escape the onus
with something akin to
"as unpleasant as
it is, we cannot ignore harsh reality."
Without
debate, liberals gain the high moral ground—the
environmentalist explanation is the moral basis of a
kind, free, democratic society,

But this reasoning has it
backwards. A free society is better served by a frank
admission that some group-related traits are
biologically

hard-wired
and beyond remediation.

That does not mean that all
race-related traits are biologically determined and that
environmental tinkering is pointless; rather, the
acceptance of biological limits thwarts creeping statism
and, that understood, biological explanations befriend
liberty. Put another way, treating a race-related
biological difference as readily amenable to state
intercession virtually guarantees expanding oppressive
(if well-intentioned) state power.  

Consider, for example, America`s
half-century long unsuccessful effort to close
race-related gaps in educational attainment. The
progression from gentle admonitions to more draconian
interventions is indisputable. It began with the
Supreme
Court
banning

state-mandated racial segregation,
evolved into

prohibiting
all racial segregation regardless of
reasons and then moved on to

elaborate court-ordered bussing scheme
s and,
eventually, into federally micro-managed schools,
including forcing local school districts to raise taxes
to fund
palatial buildings
and hire teachers solely
according to race.

Today even

school disciplinary policy
and
textbook illustrations
reflect this leveling quest.
Worse, Washington has become deeply involved in

local school politics,
a breach of the principle of

federalism
that would

shock those who wrote the Constitution.

All these increasingly draconian
measures failed to

close the academic gap
. But fans of environmental
determinism were hardly deterred. Just the opposite!
Repeated failure evolved into a public policy version of
the

gamblers fallacy
in which the loser mistakenly
believes that given endless past failures,

he is "due"
for a success
 and
this will wipe out all previous losses. Obama`s $4.3
billion

Race to the Top
initiative reflects this fantasy. 

Going from mild measures to more
invasive policies has become addictive. Desperate
gap-closers currently speak of government telling black
parents how raise their children—a remediation strategy
totally antithetical to limited government.

As Ronald Ferguson, director of the
Achievement Gap
Initiative at Harvard
put it:

"There`s accumulating evidence that there are racial differences in what
kids experience before the first day of kindergarten…"

and

"…we have to be able to have conversations that people are unwilling to
have. Those include conversations about early childhood
parenting practices."
[Proficiency
of Black Students Is Found to Be Far Lower Than Expected
,
By Trip Gabriel,
NYT,
November 9, 2010]

State-funded experts would now
monitor
how parents interact
with their two-, three- and
four-year-olds, how they talk to them, how discipline is
enforced, how parents encourage their children to think
and develop a sense of autonomy. This is a far cry from
government-subsidized, totally voluntary
Sesame Street
programming through which under-stimulated black
children were supposed to absorb richer
"middle class"
vocabularies.  

Ferguson`s ideas may come to
naught. But other forceful state interventions are
hardly unthinkable as more gentle measures fail.
Conceivably, black toddlers will undergo mandatory
mental testing and if they show signs of cognitive
"impairment",
then it`s off to a

state-administered pre-Head Start enrichment program
!—while
parents will be required to use big words and complex
sentences when speaking to junior.

And, since inadequate nutrition may
also hinder learning, mandatory nutrition counseling
will be added. Even the legal definition of
"child abuse"
may be expanded to help under-stimulated black toddlers
catch up to their white age mates.

Even more draconian measures may be
necessary to eliminate racial differences in health (see

here
). For example, blacks have shorter life spans,
are

disproportionally prone to stroke,
hypertension,
diabetes, HIV infections, higher levels of infant
mortality and certain forms of cancer, and are more
likely to be obese while black newborns

have a lower birth weight.
For the believers in the
power of the environment, these
statistics are marching orders
for meddling on a
grand scale. And, rest assured, early small
interventions will probably fail—and thus bring yet more
intrusive policies.

Forceful intrusions are especially
likely if some hazy
“racism” is
deemed the culprit. Just imagine the effort necessary to
reduce hypertension among blacks by curing whites of
unconscious discrimination? 
Indeed, if, as some allege, race-related
differences in poverty drive black illness, only totally
re-making society will suffice.

These examples can be multiplied,
but the message should be clear: embracing nurture when
science points to nature as the cause simply guarantees
escalating budget-breaking state intervention. The loss
of freedom from the misdirected meddling far exceeds the
squandered billions.

Abandoning the ideal of
amelioration is not the issue: This is about
misdiagnosing the problem`s source and an inability to
learn from repeated failure.

Still not convinced the cost of a
misdiagnosis? Visit public housing to see how improved
physical surroundings have, supposedly, cured
under-class troubles.

It is professionally and personally
risky in today`s egalitarian political climate to
explain group-related differences in accomplishment by
pointing to biology. Even sticking just to the
scientific facts offers no escape from the accusation of
"Bad Think".

My view: it`s better to confront
the moral element directly—to argue that treating nature
as if it were nurture begins the march toward state
power that is antithetical to the principles of limited
government. To
“totalitarian creep”
, so to speak.

This is not an abstract debate. It
is about applying the appropriate remedy to cure ills
and avoiding dangerous,

liberty-killing
side-effects.

So, before billions are wasted and
government becomes even more invasive, the scientific
evidence on nurture should be absolutely convincing. The

financial and political costs
of misreading biology
are just too great.

If there is any doubt, better to
err on the side of nature—given

what happens
when

government tries to square circles.

  


Robert Weissberg [email
him
] is Professor of Political Science, Emeritus,
University of Illinois, Urbana and currently Adjunct
Professor of Politics (Graduate), New York University.