The cultural fascination with the idea of an “intelligence quotient” or IQ seems to be experiencing a resurgence. Relentless testing is a feature of schooling and school admissions, and tests are used for a variety of occupational screenings. The practice reflects an intuition we all have: some bulbs are brighter than others. Surely there is nothing wrong with knowing, measuring, and acting on that information, however difficult it might be to assess.
Where matters become elusive is in codifying those skills, reducing them all to a single quantitative number, aggregating them based on other demographic traits, assessing the variability of the results, comparing the results across large population groups, determining the variety of causal factors – genetic, environmental, sheer personal determination – that make up what we call intelligence, and cobbling together a plan for what to do with the results.
The search for some measurable standard of intelligence has a deep history that is bound up with the emergence of the planned society, eugenics, and the 20th century leviathan state.
Here we have a much more complex problem, as complex as the human mind itself. The amatuer commentator might read a book on the topic and hope to come away with a sense that within this literature we find the key to the rise and fall of whole civilizations. The would-be central planner salivates at the prospect! But the more you read, the less certain you become, and the more in awe of the unknowns, the surprises, and the way the real world continues to defy the predictions of the scientific elite.
The IQ as a Central Planning Tool
And then there are the social and political implications of the efforts. What’s not usually understood is that the search for some measurable standard of intelligence – and implicitly human value itself – has a deep history that is bound up with the emergence of the planned society, eugenics, and the 20th century leviathan state.
That’s hardly surprising. The notion of a scientific elite classifying people based on aptitude, assigning an efficient role for everyone, appeals to the conceit of intellectuals. While the curiosity about human biodiversity seems innocent, the birth of an ideology rooted in quantitative measurement of mental aptitude, backed by a scientistic planning ambition, obviously trends anti-liberal.
The story of IQ begins at the end of the Franco-Prussian war when France’s civic institutions were remodelled to never lose another war. The prevailing theory was that France lacked the technical skills necessary for modern warfare. Citizens needed training and that meant education reform. Schooling would raise up a citizen army and therefore must be forced. From 1879 to 1886, legislation imposed compulsory schooling on the entire population.
The first American enthusiast for Binet’s work was Henry H. Goddard, a leading champion of eugenics and a champion of the planning state.
With all kids now forced into non-religious schools, it was time to impose a rational method on steering the conscripts into socially and politically optimal paths. In 1904, just as fascination with the idea of scientific socialism had gained fashion, the French Ministry of Education contacted the psychologist Alfred Binet (1857-1911) to come up with some assessment test. He came up with a series of questions from easiest to hardest, and ranked the kids based on their performance of the tests.
The result was the Binet-Simon scale. From Binet’s point of view, the only purpose was to identify which kids needed special focus and attention so that they would not be left behind. But the idea of quantity, ranking, and assessing cognitive performance caught on in the United States, where eugenicswas a prevailing intellectual fashion. It was driving public policy in labor regulations, immigration, forced sterilizations, marriage licenses, welfare policy, business regulation, and segregation strategies.
The first American enthusiast for Binet’s work was Henry H. Goddard, a leading champion of eugenics and a champion of the planning state. In 1908, Goddard translated Binet’s work and popularized it among the intellectual classes. He turned what might have been a humanitarian push to provide remedial help to students into a weapon of war against the weak.
What did Goddard believe could be done with his insights?
He summarized his political outlook as follows:
“Democracy, then, means that the people rule by selecting the wisest, most intelligent, and most human to tell them what to do to be happy. Thus Democracy is a method for arriving at a truly benevolent aristocracy. Such a consummation will be reached when the most intelligent learn to apply their intelligence…. High intelligence must so work for the welfare of the masses as to command their respect and affection.”
Goddard’s views were those of his generation, and they were the theorists of the totalitarian state.
What’s more, “society must be so organized that these people of limited intelligence shall not be given, or allowed to hold, positions that require more intelligence than they possess. And in the positions that they can fill, they must be treated in accordance with their level of intelligence. A society organized on this basis would be a perfect society.”
Toward this end, he broke down the human population into normative categories, the underperforming of whom he labelled imbeciles, morons, and idiots – designations that survive to this day. He proposed a new form of social order in which an elite of intellectuals assigns tasks and life stations based on test results.
Illiberal at its Core
Yes, it sounds just like Hunger Games, Divergent, or any number of other dystopian nightmares because that is exactly what he imagined could be achieved with IQ studies. Having now read many dozens of books, articles, and contemporary accounts of this whole generation of thinkers, none of this comes as a surprise. Goddard’s views were those of his generation, and they were the theorists of the totalitarian state – the “Progressives” in the United States, the post-Bismarckian planners of imperial Germany, the scientific socialists of Russia, and, later, the ghoulish exterminationists of Nazi Germany. It’s all of a piece.
Continuing the tradition was Lewis Terman of Stanford who in 1916 proposed a revision to the now-traditional Binet test, and became an open and aggressive advocate of segregation, sterilization, immigration controls, birthing licenses, and a planned society generally.
The eugenics movement, and its new tool of intelligence testing, hoped to replace freedom and dignity with totalitarian technocracy.
White supremacy was a given among this generation, and he embraced it openly: “There is no possibility at present of convincing society that [Mexicans, Indians, and Negros] should not be allowed to reproduce, although from a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding.” In that spirit, he joined the Human Betterment Foundation, which played the crucial role in California’s sterilization program that had such a profound influence on the race policies of Hitler’s Germany.
Intelligence tests became essential for a nation at war, with eugenicists advising the US Army about the fitness of soldiers: the dumbest at the front and the smartest in safe positions of leadership. And they advised immigration authorities: who could become an American and who couldn’t. Eugenics was the goal and intelligence testing became a crucial part of the scientific veneer.
Thomas Leonard summarizes the bloody history:
“Dubious though the tests and testing methods were, the millions of persons subjected to crude intelligence tests demonstrated one result unambiguously. American social scientists had convinced government authorities to fund and compel human subjects for an unprecedented measurement enterprise, carried out to identify and cull inferiors, all in the name of improving the efficiency of the nation’s public schools, immigration entry stations, institutions for the handicapped, and military.”
That only begins to scratch the surface of the far-reaching hopes of the IQ-eugenics movement. So close is the relationship between the theory and policy ambition that they are really inseparable.
There seems to be nothing particularly threatening about wanting to assess an individual’s aptitude. And yet IQ testing was created and used as a social planning tool for use in compulsory education and war preparation, and mutated into a full-scale ideology that had no regard for human rights, the liberal theory of the social order, or freedom more generally. The eugenics movement, and its new tool of intelligence testing, hoped to replace freedom and dignity with totalitarian technocracy.
What is it about this ideology that contradicts the idea of a free society? Where is it that IQ ideology goes wrong?
There are three general issues:
First, consumers have odd tastes that have little to do with intelligence, scientifically defined. Abstract Intelligence is not necessarily the thing rewarded by the market, and that matters. In a free society, the value of a resource is not objective; value is conferred on services by the choices we make, whatever they may be.
If you hang out at Nascar races, high intelligence is not the first trait that stands out. Same with monster truck rallies. I might be wrong of course. Maybe if I administered tests to all the participants and consumers, I would be stunned at the disportionate intelligence compared to the general population. The same goes for for a Britney Spears concert, an NFL game, or the buyers of grocery-store romance novels. Maybe in these groups, you find higher intelligence than you find at the university chess club. I do seriously doubt it, however.
But the real question is: why does it matter? Does it matter whether Michael Phelps is smart or that he is the best swimmer in history? Swimming is what he valued for. It’s the same way with Beyonce’s singing and dancing or Matt Damon’s acting. Or think of your favorite local restaurant: it actually doesn’t matter whether the cook is smart or dumb.
The unpredictability of consumer markets defy intelligence distributions. Market processes are not about rewarding intelligence; they are about rewarding talent, insight, and service to others.
In fact, this is precisely why so many intellectuals have despised markets through the centuries. To them, it seems wrong that a professor of physics should make less than a pop star, that a number-crunching bureaucrat would live in a small house and a movie star own five mansions, and so on. Here is the source of more than a century of resentment against capitalism.
We all face resource constraints, time above all else. This is why we cooperate through trade with other people, even those with less absolute ability than we personally possess.
How markets value what they value will always remain unpredictable. What’s crucial is that the common man is in charge of the system, and not planners. And that’s the crux of the issue: who should decide what constitutes human value, who is worthy of being treated with dignity, who should be in charge of how labor resources are going to be used in society? Will we embrace freedom or rule by a wise elite?
Second, the law of association makes everyone valuable. A core belief of the IQ ideology is that smart people, as measured by tests, are more valuable to the social order than dumber people. But economics has made a different discovery. It turns out that through the division of labor, or what Ludwig von Mises called the “law of association,” everyone can be valuable to everyone else, regardless of aptitude.
Michael Phelps might have the cognitive capacity to be the greatest nuclear physicist, computer programmer, or chess player in the world – but it is in his personal interest to focus on his comparative advantage, even if he has an absolute advantage over every person in the world.
We all face resource constraints, time above all else. This is why we cooperate through trade with other people, even those with less absolute ability than we personally possess. The result is more valuable than we could ever create on our own. You know this if you hire your lawn to be mowed, your house cleaned, or go to restaurants. Every social order consists of an infinitely complex web of relationships that defy categorization by crude scientific tests. Through the division of labor how freedom finds a way for everyone to become valuable to everyone else.
A third criticism of this literature is more profound. It observes that the intelligence necessary for the building of a great society does not reside in the minds of particular individuals. The highest intelligence of the social order resides in the processes and institutions of society itself. It doesn’t exist in total in any single mind and it doesn’t emerge consciously from the plans of any group.
Hayek explains in The Counterrevolution of Science:
“Though our civilization is the result of a cumulation of individual knowledge, it is not by the explicit or conscious combination of all this knowledge in any individual brain, but by its embodiment in symbols which we use without understanding them, in habits and institutions, tools and concepts, that man in society is constantly able to profit from a body of knowledge neither he nor any other man completely possesses. Many of the greatest things man has achieved are not the result of consciously directed thought, and still less the product of a deliberately co-ordinated effort of many individuals, but of a process in which the individual plays a part which he can never fully understand. They are greater than any individual precisely because they result from the combination of knowledge more extensive than a single mind can master.”
And there we see most plainly the difference between the IQ ideology and the theory of the free society. The IQ ideology tempts us to believe in the same fallacies that drove socialism: the conceit that a small elite, if given enough resources and power, can plan society better than the seemingly random associations, creations, and trades of individuals. Freedom, on the other hand, locates the brilliance of the social order not in the minds of a few, but in the process of social evolution itself and all the surprises and delights that entails.
Jeffrey Tucker is Director of Content for the Foundation for Economic Education and CLO of the startup Liberty.me. Author of five books, and many thousands of articles, he speaks at FEE summer seminars and other events. His latest book is Bit by Bit: How P2P Is Freeing the World. Follow on Twitter and Like on Facebook. Email. Tweets by @jeffreyatucker