Thursday, August 16, 2012

A reply to Jason.

I felt that a comment from Jason in my previous post deserved an extended reply.
Anyway, as far as your essay is concerned, it seems to me that Mencken (and you) are really inquiring into the issue of intelligence and how it relates to citizenship. 
Not so much citizenship as governance.  A say in the governance of a country is not a conditional property of citizenship. A man may be a citizen of a country yet still not have any voting rights. This is an important distinction as we are so conditioned to conflate the two. Governance is about running the country properly, citizenship is about the possession of rights which are peculiar to that country. A man who does not have the right to vote can still be a citizen.
Since the Greeks it has been known that democracies cannot survive in places where there are peoples who lack good citizenship; also since the Greeks, it has been understood that good citizenship is inseparable from the habitual practice of virtue – if citizens don’t have good families, good work habits, a certain civic knowledge of politics and history, and so on, then eventually their republics, constitutional monarchies, or whatever are eventually going to disintegrate and fall. 
I think the term virtue needs to be clarified. The virtues, with respect to politics, can be divided into two types. The moral virtues and the civic virtues. Each has its particular role to play in a community. Morality governs our relationships with each other, whilst civic virtue is directly concerned with how the state is organised. The important point to remember is that to a certain degree, each can exist without the other.
The elephant in the room that many do not want to face though – on both the right and left - is the relationship between intelligence and the ability to be virtuous.
I don't think that it's the elephant in the room. Firstly, with regard to virtue and intelligence, I really don't think it is much of a problem. From a classical perspective, it is a problem though. The ancients all thought that a man had to be at least a bit "philosophical" in order to live a good life. This in turn implied intelligence which, if lacking, condemned the stupid man to a life of misery. Christianity solved this problem by giving a man the "Ten Commandments".  It didn't ask a man to think through the problems of life, it just told him how to live. No thinking required. The fantastic thing about this approach is that by insisting on rules instead of reason it lifted a lot of stupid people up from the swamp. With the decline in morality however, the stupid are sliding back into the mire.

The real problem, especially amongst religious conservatives, is the conflation of moral goodness with political virtue which is a serious misconception. Let me explain what I mean. Jimmy Carter was by all accounts a morally better man than Richard Nixon, but he was a far worse president. His moral goodness did not translate into good political action. For all his faults, Nixon governed the country better than Carter with all his good intentions.

Civic virtue, in my opinion is only loosely related to moral virtue. Moral virtue deals with perfections of the person. Civic virtue deals with the optimal organisation and running of the state: two different things. 
Now to be sure, people with low or average intelligence can certainly act with virtue (e.g. many lesser intelligent individuals have fought very bravely in wars), yet are they always equipped to make good political decisions? A dense but nonetheless very good and devout Hispanic Catholic American, for example, might be a good family man and do good deeds in his community, yet be totally single-minded as far as the issues of ethnicity and illegal immigration are concerned. The idea that the sovereignty of the U.S. and the rule of law might be more important than identification with his ethnic and religious brethren might simply be beyond him, and not due to malice or willful obtuseness but simply to lack of cognition. In plain English, he just doesn’t know any better. Yet multiply such Hispanic Americans by millions, those who simply cannot comprehend why other native Americans might term illegal immigrants as actually being “illegal” rather than “undocumented” or other Orwellian terms, and you have a real problem on your hands.  For the ability to make thoughtful political decisions in a democracy where the people are sovereign does require a certain capacity for abstract thinking, namely the ability to weigh competing values (e.g. sympathy for immigrants vs. the capacity of nations to absorb such immigrants). Needless to say, a capacity for such abstraction is unequally allocated in the population – hence the perennial danger of tyranny of the majority or of various minorities.

In his Notes on Democray, Mencken quotes William Hartpole Lecky.  Lecky was an Irish Jurist who was opposed to universal suffrage and wrote a two volume book arguing against the notion. The books can be found online here.  I was reading the first chapter of the book when I was struck by the extraordinary similarity between your comment and passage from the book.
The men who vote through such motives are often most useful members of the community. They are sober, honest, industrious labourers; excellent fathers and husbands; capable of becoming, if need be, admirable soldiers. They are also often men who, within the narrow circle of their own ideas, surroundings, and immediate interests, exhibit no small shrewdness of judgment; but they are as ignorant as children of the great questions of foreign, or Indian, or Irish, or colonial policy, of the complicated and far-reaching consequences of the constitutional changes, or the great questions relating to commercial or financial policy, on which a general election frequently turns. If they are asked to vote on these issues, all that can be safely predicted is that their decision will not represent
either settled conviction or real knowledge. 
The book was written in the end of the at the end of the 19th Century and is remarkably prophetical with regard to the social effects of democratic government. He was really harsh on the U.S. I'll finish today's post with this last quote.
Yet, surely nothing in ancient alchemy was more irrational than the notion that increased ignorance in the elective body will be converted into increased capacity for good government in the representative body; that the best way to improve the world and secure rational progress is to place government more and more under the control of the least enlightened classes.


Black Death said...

In "Notes on Democracy," mencken said:

...there are still idealists, chiefly professional Liberals, who argue that it is the duty of a gentleman to go into politics—that there is a way out of the quagmire in that direction. The remedy, it seems to me, is quite as absurd as all the other sure cures that Liberals advocate. When they argue for it, they simply argue, in words but little changed, that the remedy for prostitution is to fill the bawdyhouses with virgins. My impression is that this last device would accomplish very little: either the virgins would leap out of the windows, or they would cease to virgins.

JMSmith said...

Voting is not meant to produce good decisions; it is meant to produce uncontested decisions because the those who are happy with the decision always outnumbered those who are unhappy. Voting tries to avoid civil war in the aftermath of a political decision by making it highly likely that those who lost the vote would loose a civil war, if they decided to dispute the outcome. Beyond this, I'm not sure there is much to be said for voting. The evil of voting is that it is impossible to permanently restrict the franchise, since the difference between least deserving voters and the most deserving voters is always too small to be rationally defensible. This is what C. Northcote Parkinson says, anyway. If you let the barons vote, it's hard to deny the vote to their younger brothers; and if you grant suffrage to illiterate farmers, it's hard to deny it to the wives of illiterate farmers. So, as you say, we are sooner or later ruled by the will of the dim-witted, and the dim-witted are not merely ignorant, but actually avid for delusions. One begins to see the point of monarchy.

The Social Pathologist said...

@Black Death

Mencken also said that he was in the business of diagnosis not prognosis. His analogy, though, is pretty poor.

My aim is not to abolish prostitution, (i.e Government) my aim is to fill it with a better quality of whore. I'd prefer that my hookers have some competency in their profession. I reckon the men that are best able to judge the quality of the whore are her connoisseurs, not the Christian pastor.


Voting tries to avoid civil war in the aftermath of a political decision by making it highly likely that those who lost the vote would loose a civil war

Yeah, but push a man enough and the warfare ensures.

since the difference between least deserving voters and the most deserving voters is always too small to be rationally defensible.

I don't think you really believe that. Are you seriously going to contend that some welfare bum is of equal voting merit to, let's say, a professor of Engineering? You might as well say there is no merit in education as well.

The problem with most systems of enfranchisement is that they usually confer it along lines of class, not along lines of capability; and there are plenty of idiots in any class. That was the injustice of the old system. A wise black man was denied the vote, whilst a southern yokel could.

I've got no problem with giving the vote to any class of man or woman, provide they can show a functional capacity to manage their own affairs. The property qualification was one way of achieving this but there are others. The aim is to keep the dim witted out, not the poor.

mdavid said...

SP, The fantastic thing about this approach is that by insisting on rules instead of reason it lifted a lot of stupid people up from the swamp.

Great line.

I believe IQ is only one thing that prevents people from voting in a sustainable manner. Another is basic morality in the sense of the Golden Rule: voting on what is fair for everyone, not just what benefits me. I don't think governance is very complex, but I do think it demands fairness and the idea that everyone is to play fair. This is one of the reasons it's doubtful women can be given the vote and a republic can survive; women tent to think locally, about their own family and people, while men tend to be more abstract about things. And this has nothing to do with IQ, rather it's about us versus them.

I think it's pretty clear that only the English-speaking nations can do democracy well. Everyone else, including the high IQ Japanese and Germans, fail at it. And it's due to a sense of fairness the Anglo types have, a sense of justice that demands what is right over personal gain. It's a rare thing, and I think it won't last another hundred years due to the low birth rates of the Anglo.

Anonymous said...

These 3 articles read very much like support for oligarchical rule by elites, even though it is denied in the end of the second article. So in that vein of thought flows these comments...

Even for a definition of elites based on merit (IQ, wise character, knowledgeable, etc); FA Hayek's writings provide good counterpoint that no superior men are able to govern vast complexity. The knowledge just does not exist in any single man or group of men. He also shows clearly that any system that concentrates such power, deeply tempts jackals to take the power away from the wise.

Instead, there is something more important than the individual intelligence, it is the well designed system. A well designed system creates its own emergent super intelligence, taking into account all the knowledge of the group, even from the dumbest among us. Such is the beauty of markets. Even further, Hayek's explanations also show that a constitutionally limited republic that keeps power well divested to the local (& yokel) level has the same effect of emergent intelligence.

Therefore, one does not need to deny the importance of intelligence and the value of wisdom to coherently support republic and democratic style governance.

ElectricAngel said...


Better to compare Jimmy Carter, probably the most decent person to have been President in the last 45 years, to Bill Clinton. Richard Nixon was paranoid, but I do not see him as the kind of personal slimeball that Clinton was. OTOH, Clinton is clearly the best politician and maybe best President over the same time period.

Jason said...

Thanks for giving attention to my comment doctor – I wish I had more time to adequately address everything you have said. Just two very rough thoughts though:
1. A good point about the franchise not being a necessary element for one to be considered a citizen.

2. Concerning your references to the 10 Commandments providing instruction for more dense individuals and the decline in public morality, I guess I have to wonder where we go then from here. Do we just hope that there will be a shift to better morals in society, in order to make up for this intelligence gap that many people have? What if this shift doesn’t occur? Then we might have to think about some unpleasant things, for example intelligence and the ability of races and ethnicities of different average intelligences to live together – as well as what should be done about it (To refer to the writer VoxDay, he thinks that some form of segregation or partition might have to occur in a future United States).

Yet most people – understandably enough – really don’t want to go there. Certainly there is a distinction between what is implicitly understood by most people and what can explicitly be said out loud in polite company or the public square. Sure, almost everybody knows that certain people need instruction and simple rules from their betters, so to speak (hence the 10 Commandments), and quite a few also know that there are probably differences in intelligence between the races (e.g. Jews and Asians tend to be smarter – on average – than whites in general) that make it harder for certain people “to get with the program.” Yet if you actually say these things out loud, you can get in a lot of trouble professionally. Consider what happened to James Watson a few years ago when he suggested that aid to Africa will not work simply because Africans in general lack the ability to use that aid effectively – he was fired from his position at that laboratory he headed in New York. More recently the writer John Derbyshire was fired from National Review for writing an article about the mental and cultural inferiority of African-Americans, and how people should deal with this reality. Lots of luck then if you want to, say, discuss the merits of certain property qualifications in order to enjoy the right to vote.
Really, I don’t know what to do about all of this. There are certainly dangers to talking openly about intelligence and race (and ethnicity), but again, sometimes the unthinkable needs to be thought about. And frankly, if civilization continues to go downhill then circumstances might demand it.

The Social Pathologist said...

@Anon 10:17

The knowledge just does not exist in any single man or group of men. He also shows clearly that any system that concentrates such power

It's a mistake to think that limiting the franchise to the competent automatically generates an oppressive oligarchy. It's also a mistake to think giving an idiot the right to vote will also ensure his freedom. That's the whole thing about stupidity; it sells its freedom for a slice of bread when hungry. As I've said before, people who can't govern their own affairs have no business in having a say in the government of those who can.

Hayek was absolutely correct in that the free market is the best mechanism for production and distribution of goods. But economic liberty is not necessarily contingent on the political franchise. In fact, restricting political franchise can increase economic liberty in some circumstances. It's easier to start a business now in Communist China compared to most Western countries. You've got to remember that Socialism, which for years was a hobby for a small section of the dissident middle class, only became a real power once the franchise was extended to the common man. It was the "worker" who took on Marx's theories with gusto and undermined the very system that Hayek championed.

As for the hope in systems, it's misplaced. The founder fathers of the U.S. realised that no matter how you design the political structure, if the people are corrupt then the whole edifice falls down.

I am quite happy for the franchise to be available to people from all levels of society provided each applicant can prove that he can successfully manage his own affairs.


A gotta agree with you that Clinton was a slimeball. I never understood people's attraction towards him.


I do think some form of segregation is coming. Not because I want it, but because keeping together require a strong state to overcome local instinctive and cultural entropy. Basically, like to tends, and wants, to congregate with like.
I personally think, because of financial and demographic reasons, the the modern western state is going to become seriously weakened and local factors are going to reassert themselves. I think we have just entered a period of time akin to the 30's and 60's and when we emerge from it society will be different.

I agree that trying to raise politically incorrect issues is dangerous, especially in times when the Left has so utterly taken control of public institutions, but reality has a habit of asserting itself, no matter how oppressive the regime.

Africa is a failure for a variety of reasons, intelligence being a relatively small one. Corruption, vanity and pride, all moral vices are more a problem in Africa than stupidity.

A great example of the remedy of Africa's troubles can be found in the U.S. As I understand it, Black men (with their statistically lower on average IQ) perform exceptionally well in the "rigid" environment of the U.S. Army. Discipline and the right moral values may do more for black societal progress than attempts to genetically engineer a higher IQ.

(Note. Not to you Jason but to the retarded that may be reading this comment. Lower average black IQ does not mean that all blacks have low IQ. It just means the proportion of blacks with higher IQ is less less than in the white community. There are still numerous high IQ blacks.)

mdavid said...

SP, As for the hope in systems, it's misplaced. The founder fathers of the U.S. realised that no matter how you design the political structure, if the people are corrupt then the whole edifice falls down.

This is absolutely true. It's so sad, but so true.

Drew said...

I agree, good systems cannot prevent a completely corrupt or foolish people from self destructive behavior. I think the phrase, garbage in -> garbage out applies.

What I am trying to point out is that good systems make a society more ROBUST to its shortcomings. I am merely pointing out that a certain difficult balance must be struck for a good robust system, which is a better result than any individual or group can achieve. And I find the articles esteeming too lightly the primary control for that balance.

"But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions."

"It's a mistake to think that limiting the franchise to the competent automatically generates an oppressive oligarchy. It's also a mistake to think giving an idiot the right to vote will also ensure his freedom."

Agreed. The first is not automatic, but western history demonstrates it is a high probability risk. Of course, western history also amply demonstrates the latter.

Anonymous said...

It's appropriate time to make some plans for the long run and it is time to be happy. I have learn this submit and if I could I want to suggest you some fascinating issues or suggestions. Maybe you could write next articles regarding this article. I desire to learn even more things about it!

Feel free to surf to my website ... adenocarcinoma prognosis

Anonymous said...

I think that is one of the such a lot important info
for me. And i am happy reading your article. However want to statement on some normal things, The site taste is great, the
articles is truly nice : D. Good task, cheers

Feel free to visit my web-site adsiz