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Reflections on the Bell Curve

Publication of the controversial book The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray has opened a much-needed discussion about what we should do about the increasing stratification of our society.

Without trying to do violence to a thoughtful and detailed book by attempting a too-facile summary, I would outline the authors’ challenge as follows: It is clear that a “cognitive elite” and a permanent underclass exist at opposite ends of a bell curve of intelligence. It is equally clear that our economy is continuing a three or four decade trend to eliminate many (probably most) employment opportunities for those on the disadvantaged side, while three decades of social welfare programs have failed to help, and have probably worsened, their condition. So, what are the alternatives?

For those who believe in a loving God who creates each of us and who does nothing without reason, the process should begin with a series of statements reflecting principles by which we must live if we are to create a society in which it is worthwhile to live.

(1) God creates us equal in His sight, but with various interests, aptitudes, capabilities and potentials. (2) This is probably true because without these complementary qualities, people could not easily live together in complex interrelationships in an ordered, therefore peaceful and functioning, society. (3) Some combinations of inborn and acquired qualities will command great economic return; other attributes produce material impoverishment. (4) It is our responsibility to willingly share both our treasure and our talents with others while simultaneously developing ourselves so that we become as self-sustaining economically and socially as our talents permit. (5) Man is imperfect and imperfectible.

With perhaps only slight adjustments, anyone of good will can fully support these five statements, even nonbelievers. However, those who believe in the perfectibility of man are hopeless.

After accepting these principles, we must then consider better alternatives for the underclass that won’t impoverish everyone. Immediately we can eliminate socialism from consideration. The dole, or however else one wishes to describe programs that provide funds for food, clothing and shelter to able-bodied persons, promotes antisocial behavior. It is clear that we cannot continue business as usual. We must grasp the nettle.

Lest anyone seek shelter by pointing out that obviously there are some who cannot, under any circumstances, provide for their own maintenance and who lack relatives who could reasonably do so, the point is granted. Some sort of private or public dole must exist for those few among us. Let us not waste our time discussing the hardest cases. They can and will be cared for, in dignity.

Charitable giving rose to its highest level ever during the 1980s when the tax burden fell, producing economic prosperity. With greater economic growth, stimulated by less government regulation, charitable giving will likely surpass previous levels. In short, the charitable instinct of most people can be enhanced or inhibited depending on circumstances.

Are there unmet needs within our communities? Certainly. Why is this true? A short and quick answer is that not enough money is available. But that answer is wrong–clearly wrong–because the wealth available in history’s most successful economy is sufficient to meet every material need of the society that produces that wealth, if it is not misallocated, wasted or used counter-productively.

Nonmaterial needs include 1) education and training, and 2) spiritual needs. We spend billions on education and training. No one will claim that we get our money’s worth. The data are too clear. Would any amount of money meet spiritual needs? They are essentially “costless” in the conventional sense.

If all material needs can be met, education and training can be made productive (as in the past) and spiritual needs are costless, where does this lead us? What if every child is educated to learn that work is universally necessary, that certain basic habits and knowledge are essential, that “give” comes before “receive” in life as well as in the dictionary, but that “things” don’t ensure happiness?

What if we understood that a living wage (one breadwinner in an intact family of husband, wife, children) is attainable in the absence of coercive wage requirements, obligatory taxation of employee and employer and unneeded regulation?

What if these regulations were removed from the market permitting competition to drive prices ever lower, within grasp of even the lowest wage earners? What if assistance to those in need was fully accountable and provided from resources gathered locally? Few people remember that charitable efforts were all local before government made itself responsible over the strong objections of highly effective private welfare organizations.

What if suppliers of goods and services didn’t live in daily fear of lawsuits based on specious grounds of injury or “abuse?” What if spiritual needs could be fulfilled anywhere in the public square?

It is premature to predict precisely what will happen following the recent political sea change. If, following the principle of subsidiarity, Congress returns authority and responsibility for social welfare, and even the environment, to the states, where they once were and still belong, and the states in turn move that authority and responsibility down to the smallest local units competent and capable to act, we will witness a tremendous variety of creative local initiatives across a broad front.

Out of those initiatives we will quickly discover the most effective ways to assist those on the disadvantaged side of the bell curve and regain a truly integrated, caring and compassionate society.