The Right to Rise? Ok!

December 19th, 2011 at 12:00 am David Frum | 244 Comments |

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In today’s Wall Street Journal, Gov. Jeb Bush celebrates the “right to rise,” a concept he credits to Rep. Paul Ryan.

The idea behind the phrase is a powerful one: “We have to make it easier for people to do the things that allow them to rise.” At a time when Americans born into the poorest fifth of the population are less likely to rise into the next fifth than people in almost any other advanced democracy, the governor’s urging is welcome. But how to make it real?

Gov. Bush’s op-ed is built on the assumption that the over-regulation of business is the most important impediment to upward mobility in the United States:

The right to rise does not require a libertarian utopia to exist. Rather, it requires fewer, simpler and more outcome-oriented rules. Rules for which an honest cost-benefit analysis is done before their imposition. Rules that sunset so they can be eliminated or adjusted as conditions change. Rules that have disputes resolved faster and less expensively through arbitration than litigation.

Fewer, simpler and more outcome-oriented rules would all be welcome! But how relevant are such improved business regulations to the “right to rise”? Denmark has more regulations upon business than the US, but nonetheless manages more upward mobility.

Americans invest enormous hope in schooling as the avenue for upward mobility. Americans spend proportionately more on schooling than almost any other advanced country – twice as much as 20 years ago – even as social mobility appears to have slowed. Life chances seem to be mostly set in the first 5 years, if not the first 2. That’s where leaders who are serious about the “right to rise” should be focused.

At a minimum, we ought to be asking: how do we minimize avoidable physical and mental disabilities? The first environment human beings encounter is also probably the most radically unequalizing: the womb. Drugs, alcohol, tobacco, pregnancy before age 17 or after age 35, malnutrition, obesity are all risk factors that can stunt human potential even before the child is born. The womb environment is more radically unequalizing in the United States than in most other developed countries. The World Health Organization estimates that 10.6% of North American children are born prematurely as compared to 6.2% in Europe.

There are not ready answers as to any of these problems. But if we are to recognize this new “right,” don’t we have to begin by thinking seriously about ensuring that Americans have the capacity to make use of the right?

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244 Comments so far ↓

  • Secessionist

    @LFC, Greg Barton, chephren, et al.

    Don’t know who is still checking comments, but…

    This article was the biggest influence on my thinking on this topic. The author considers the issue from multiple vantage points, and pulls together a lot of data that points to a race / IQ link from sources other than Charles Murray.

    The author comes at the issue by considering James Watson’s statement that he thought Africa had gloomy prospects because all testing shows that Blacks are not the intellectual equal of Whites despite social policy being based on that assumption.

    James Watson helped discover the double-helix, so you would think he would be taken seriously. Yet he was set upon, attacked and forced to resign. It seems to confirm Andrew Sullivan’s thesis about ideological repression in the area of IQ science.

    • Primrose

      “Representative studies of the school age population with large sample sizes do not exhibit higher scores, much less scores that approach anything like European norms.”

      But of course the school age populations of Europe and the school age populations of Africa do not live in the same conditions. Where do we begin? How many in Africa are being tested in their mother tongue? Almost none. How many are living the high-quality suburban/urban lifestyle of Europe? (And where in Europe? Where in Africa?) Are all African children in school, the way Europeans tend to be? No. What was the womb health difference between the two? Considerable. The environmental health? Considerable.

      And of course, Watson makes one other mistake (a telling one for bias) which is to assume that the health of a society is based solely on the kind of intelligence that tests. Emotional intelligence as it has sometimes been called is far more important to a well-run society than the kind referred to on tests. And here, you would have to be a racist to think Africans are behind the eight ball. They have very complex social organizations and put a greater premium on social interactions than Europe, and even Asia. It is why in Africa there have been able to be several Truth and Reconciliation committee’s (even Rwanda) but other societies are still fighting each other over the past.

      Africa’s problems have nothing to do with “low-intelligence” but age old stories. Corruption. Tyranny. Corporate interests subverting national/societal needs, the scourge of AIDS, urbanization, and yes the effect of colonialism. Africa got all the bad of colonialism, exploitation, destruction of natural country lines, turning the entire population into low-status workers and didn’t even get useful things like railways or a civil service. When Belgium left the Congo, they even took the light bulbs.

      But Africa’s biggest problem, and this is huge, is that we speak of it in terms of Africa. It is a massive continent, with many languages and ethnic groups, some might even say many races and it could not possibly all be OK at the same time.

      So I think for Watson to make the scientifically dubious claim (because lack of truly comparative samples) as the problem of an entire continent with much more humdrum issues, is subject to harsh critique.