Chomsky on IQ and Inequality

Noam Chomsky is a linguist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a leading public intellectual, intervening on many of the most controversial issues of the time. He is credited as being the most cited living intellectual. Not only has Chomsky made a substantial contribution to theoretical linguistics; he has also engaged critically with other traditions and intellectual trends. One such critical engagement was with Richard Herrnstein in 1972. With Charles Murray, Herrnstein was later to publish a widely read and controversial book, The Bell Curve. Herrnstein and Murray argue that social inequality (including racial inequality) is the result of inherited variations in IQ. Here, Chomsky presents his critique of Harrnstein’s position:

Herrnstein’s argument is based first of all on the hypothesis that differences in mental abilities are inherited and that people close to one another in mental ability are more likely to marry and reproduce so that there will be a tendency toward long-term stratification by mental ability (which Herrnstein takes to be measured by I.Q). Secondly, Herrnstein argues that ‘success’ requires mental ability and that social rewards ‘depend on success’. This step in the argument embodies two assumptions: that it is so in fact; and that it must be so for society to function effectively. The conclusion is that there is a tendency toward hereditary meritocracy, with ‘social standing (which reflects earnings and prestige)’ concentrated in groups with higher I.Q.s. This tendency will be accelerated as society becomes more egalitarian, that is, as artificial social barriers are eliminated, defects in prenatal (e.g., nutritional) environment are overcome, and so on, so that natural ability can play a more direct role in attainment of social reward. Therefore, as society becomes more egalitarian, social rewards will be concentrated in a hereditary meritocratic elite …

For Herrnstein’s argument to have any force at all we must assume that people labor only for gain, and that the satisfaction found in interesting or socially beneficial work or in work well-done or in the respect shown to such activities, is not a sufficient ‘gain’ to induce anyone to work. The assumption, in short, is that without material reward, people will vegetate. For this crucial assumption, no semblance of an argument is offered. Rather, Herrnstein merely asserts that if bakers and lumberjacks ‘got the top salaries and the top social approval’, in place of those now at the top of the social ladder, then ‘the scale of I.Q.s would also invert’, and the most talented would strive to become bakers and lumberjacks. This, of course, is not an argument, but merely a reiteration of the claim that, necessarily, individuals work only for extrinsic reward. Furthermore, it is an extremely implausible claim. I doubt very much that Herrnstein would become a baker or lumberjack if he could earn more money that way … [His] assumption that people will work only gain in wealth and power is not only unargued, but quite probably false, except under extreme deprivation. But this degrading and brutal assumption, common to capitalist ideology and the behaviorist view of human beings, is fundamental to Herrnstein’s argument …

Consider further Herrnstein’s assumption that in fact social rewards accrue to those who perform beneficial and needed services. He claims that the ‘gradient of occupations’ is ‘a natural measure of value and scarcity’, and that ‘the ties among I.Q., occupation, and social standing make practical sense’ … To assume that society’s rewards go to those who have performed a social service is to succumb to essentially the same fallacy (among others) involved in the claim that a free market leads to the optimal satisfaction of wants. In fact, when wealth is badly distributed, a free market will tend to produce luxuries for the few who can pay, rather than necessities for the many who cannot. Similarly, given great inequalities of wealth, we will expect to find that the ‘gradient of occupations’ by pay is a natural measure, not of service to society but of service to wealth and power, to those who can purchase and compel. The ties among I.Q., occupation, and social standing that Herrnstein notes make ‘practical sense’ for those with wealth and power, but not necessarily for society or its members in general …

[Moreover], the question of the relation, if any, between race and intelligence has very little scientific importance (as it has no social importance, except under the assumptions of a racist society) … As to social importance, a correlation between race and mean I.Q. (were this shown to exist) entails no social consequences except in a racist society in which each individual is assigned to a racial category and dealt with not as an individual in his own right, but as a representative of this category … In a non-racist society, the category of race would be of no greater significance [than height]. The mean I.Q. of individuals of a certain racial background is irrelevant to the situation of a particular individual, who is what he is. Recognizing this perfectly obvious fact, we are left with little, if any, plausible justification for an interest in the relation between mean I.Q. and race, apart from the ‘justification’ provided by the existence of racial discrimination.


Chomsky, Noam. 1972. ‘I.Q. Tests: Building Blocks for the New Class System.’ Rampart:24–30. pp. 26, 27, 28, 30.


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