John Derbyshire Asks: Do We Need More Smart Foreigners?

In all the fuss over Jason Richwine’s Ph.D. dissertation, “IQ and Immigration,” there has been surprisingly little commentary on the main idea of the thing, viz. that, to quote the author (p. 133):

I believe there is a strong case for IQ selection [of immigrants], since it is theoretically a win-win for the U.S. and for potential immigrants.

Let’s discard the last four words there for starters. The welfare of foreigners is no proper concern of U.S. policy-makers. I was a foreigner myself until age 56. It never occurred to me that the U.S.A. should expend a single dollar or bead of sweat on behalf of my well-being, except to enhance its own.

What about the rest, the proposition that IQ selection of immigrants is a win for the U.S.A.? Jason Richwine is, of course, not the only one to have said so. Recall Mitt Romney in last year’s election, vowing to staple a Green Card to the graduation diplomas of foreign STEM students.

It sounds like a good idea—wouldn’t it be great to have more smart people!—but there are a number of problems with it.

In the first place, we must beware of the Linear Fallacy. That’s the argument that if one of something is good, then two must be twice as good, and ten must be ten times as good.

Practically nothing works like that. I’ll allow a handful of exceptions—number of dollars in one’s bank balance, for example—but in most things the law of diminishing returns holds sway, and the linear principle delivers results that are unpleasant (salt in the stew) or even fatal (medication dosage).

Very few graphs are straight lines. Very few even consistently head in one direction, up or down. It’s a nonlinear world.

How many smart people does a society need for stability and prosperity? This is not a question that has received as much attention as, it seems to me, it ought.

Some years ago the anonymous statistician “La Griffe du Lion” (readers of Unknown Quantity will get the reference) came up with Smart Fraction Theory (SFT):

For a technologically sophisticated society, SFT asserts that a nation's per capita GDP is determined by the population fraction with IQ greater than or equal to some threshold IQ. Consistent with the data of Lynn and Vanhanen, that threshold IQ is 108, a bit less than the minimum required for what used to be a bachelor's degree.

In other words, La Griffe is saying that if X is the proportion of your population with IQ greater than 108, then there is a lower bound for X, below which your country, in the absence of exceptional natural resources, cannot be prosperous and stable.

(On a normal “bell curve” distribution, the actual percentage value of X for populations with mean IQ 80, 85, 90, 95, 100, 105, 110, 115 would be, to the nearest percent: 3, 6, 12, 19, 30, 42, 55, 68, respectively. So the Netherlands, with mean IQ 100, has a 30 percent smart fraction, while Japan, at 105, has 42 percent, and Turkey, at 90, has only 12 percent.)

La Griffe hints at, but does not discuss, the idea that as well as a lower bound for X, there may also be an upper bound. That is, it may be the case that it is bad for a country to have too many smart people.

If you have mixed with many classes and races of people, your experience will suggest this. A certain unimaginative, not-very-reflective, commonsensical approach to life, shared by many citizens, provides valuable ballast, keeping society on an even keel.

William F. Buckley’s famous observation that “I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University” [Rumbles Left And Right, 1963, p. 134]was surely well founded.

If that is right, then too much of a reduction in the quantity of that ballast would be socially destabilizing. A too-high value of X would have just that effect.

There are other considerations, too. There may, for instance, be biological downsides to smartness.

There certainly seem to be in the case of Ashkenazi-Jewish smarts. The 2006 paper on this subject from the University of Utah argued plausibly that the strong pressure of natural selection increased medieval Ashkenazi intelligence to the sensational modern mean IQ of 112-115; but that it also increased the frequency of nervous-system genetic disorders. Population-genetic changes are often a matter of swings and roundabouts, of two steps forward and one step back.

Even without that intensive overclocking, there may be unavoidable biological downsides to high IQ.

East Asians (China, Korea, Japan) have mean IQ of 106. That’s nothing like as high as the Ashkenazi mean, but it may come with some similar side effects. In international comparisons of personality traits, East Asians score highest on neuroticism: see for example Figure 4 on page 201 in this study.

This agrees with anecdotal observations. If you live much among East Asians you notice that an unusual proportion of them are slightly nutty, though mostly in a quiet, harmless way.

One of the maddest things about Japan is that Japanese madmen do not get mad…The prototype of the Japanese madman is the gentle, docile, withdrawn, well-behaved mental patient. Violent emotional display is simply ‘not done,’ even among lunatics.

The Lotus and the Robot, by Arthur Koestler, p.201.

So it may be that the current Chinese drive to raise national IQ via eugenics ought to come with a warning label: BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR.

And then there is the matter of social frictions.

When not thinking very hard, we Americans tend to suppose that friction between races is driven by notions of superiority—of the more intelligent and industrious race looking down on the duller and lazier. That is what Americans generally mean when they speak of “racism.” It has obvious roots in the U.S.A.’s own racial history.

Yet in fact most of the world’s racial resentments have been aimed in the opposite direction: against the more clever and industrious. Jews weren’t persecuted for all those centuries because people thought they were dumb or lazy.

Traditional American race prejudice was aimed both down and up. Blacks were believed to be stupid and lazy, so that they would end up being a burden on the white population.

Where East Asians had settled on the West Coast, however, the prejudice was that they were too clever and industrious, so that whites would end up working under them—an indignity not to be borne:

Representative MacLafferty emphasized Japanese domination of certain agricultural markets (Cong. Rec., April 5, 1924, p.5681), and Representative Lea noted their ability to supplant “their American competitor” (Cong. Rec., April 5, 1924, 5697). Representative Miller described the Japanese as “a relentless and unconquerable competitor of our people wherever he places himself” (Cong. Rec., April 8, 1924, 5884) . . .

The Culture of Critique by Kevin MacDonald (1998 edition), p.268.

These complementary prejudices were sometimes combined in a Goldilocks thesis: the black race was too dumb to achieve anything, the yellow race was too smart for its own good, but Europeans had just the right balance of intelligence and stolid good sense.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that History is not altogether unfriendly to this thesis. Still, you don’t need race differences to favor the middle way on intelligence.

In a now famous speech delivered in March 1991 . . . [Serb leader Slobodan] Milosevic declared to thunderous applause: “If we must fight, then my God we will fight. And I hope they [i.e. the other populations of disintegrating Yugoslavia] will not be so crazy as to fight against us. Because if we don’t know how to work well or to do business, at least we know how to fight well!”

World on Fire by Amy Chua, p. 174 (her italics).

Everyday notions of prejudice revolve around arrogant majorities convinced of their own innate superiority beating up on helpless minorities.

This is a false picture. In fact a real conviction of one’s group’s superiority at least as often leads to pity and paternalism. Aggressive group violence is usually directed at those who “know how to work well or do business.”

One way or another, then, it may be that the Richwine-Romney idea of improving your nation by importing smart foreigners is wrong-headed.

We surely don’t need any more dumb people in the U.S.A. than we already have. That we need more smart people is, however, open to reasonable doubt.