ome people succeed because of fortunate birth, some because of nuggets of good luck they find along the way. But high-level achievement mainly depends on ability. What makes one person more able to excel than another is, of course, partly a matter of upbringing and education, but there is overwhelming evidence that to a considerable extent it is a function of the mix of DNA in one's genes. People differ from one another along salient measures of achievement not only as individuals but also--though it may be politically injudicious to say so above a whisper--as members of racial groups. Although the spread between whites and blacks is much smaller than the variation within either group, at every level of achievement there is a clear disparity in representation between blacks and whites. The higher the level, the greater the disparity.
Is this the scenario of differential intelligence endowments leading to unequal positions in the American socio-economic hierarchy that Herrnstein and Murray describe at length in The Bell Curve? I think so, although the authors are not as clear as they might be on this point. But no matter; it wasn't meritocracy in the academy, business, or the professions I had in mind. Rather, I was talking basketball.
Boys of all sizes and complexions enjoy tossing balls toward baskets. Those who grow up to do so with the greatest success tend to be taller than average. They also tend to be darker. In high school, more so in college, and most of all at the professional level, basketball is an African-American's game--not exclusively, but to an extent that no advanced degree in statistics is needed to discern. It's not obvious why this is so. Some speculate that basketball achievement is a product of a subculture that celebrates athletic success; others point to the urban concentration of blacks, making them likelier to gravitate toward the "city game." But one may also suspect that there is a considerable genetic component to basketball achievement and that it is not distributed evenly across races.
It would be facile to conclude simply that different groups do well in different fields, and that's that. While athletic ability is a local talent, general intelligence is, as the authors of The Bell Curve demonstrate, globally advantageous. Those blessed with an above-average IQ will occupy most of the highest positions of power and prestige this society affords, whereas only a very few men will prosper as a result of the ability to run and jump and shoot. Still, reflecting on the minor meritocracy that is the National Basketball Association may promote clearer thinking concerning larger issues.
First, no deep understanding of the relative contributions of heredity and environment is required to figure out who deserves to play and who should ride the bench. What matters for a meritocratic activity is the capacity to contribute, whatever its ultimate ground may be. Herrnstein and Murray apparently concur.
But second, even if there were convincing evidence of a heritable component in basketball talent unevenly distributed among racial groups, it would not follow that investment of resources in the less well0endowed is futile. The authors seem to believe otherwise, but that conclusion follows only if the purpose of such investment is to equalize levels of achievement across groups. herrnstein and Murray are not leftist egalitarians, so their confusion on this point is surprising.
Let me try to clarify it. Because of an extreme disparity in natural endowments, no amount of coaching will allow the Harvard University basketball team to play on equal terms with the Boston Celtics. It does not follow that all available coaching resources ought to be put into the latter and none into the former. It does ot even follow that the proportional return on investment in nurturing the skills of the Celtics will be greater than the return on the same investment in the Harvard team. The origins of endowments imply nothing about whether and how they ought to be cultivated.
If the aim of social policy is to raise the abilities of the less well-off, without trying to achieve parity across races and classes, then speculation concerning the genetic basis of cognitive abilities is largely beside the point. What matters is evidence concerning the cost-effectiveness of attempts to raise the positions of the less talented. And virtually across the board, the Great Society's grand initiatives have shown themselves to be impotent, if not counterproductive. No one has more eloquently or urgently catalogued that failure than Charles Murray, and the cogency of his indictment of the welfare state in Losing Ground owed nothing to any deep inspection of chromosomes. It depicted people as responsive to the incentives they confront and to the moral atmosphere in which they take their bearings, not as passive servants of their genome. The Bell Curve tends to blur rather than enhance that message.
In the NBA, unlike at HHS, there are no affirmative-action programs, quotas, or overseers of political correctness. Roster positions, playing time, and salaries are distributed on the basis of ability to perform on the court. That meritocratic principle seems to work well, far better than government education, housing, and single-parent subsidy programs. In few areas of American life are racial animosities less evident. That is no accident, and it could have turned out otherwise.
Several decades ago, when the infusion of black talent into the league began, some team owners worried that the predominantly white fans would not support a team on which black athletes were the majority. Some recommended what in other contexts is now called a "racially sensitive" policy. Those suggestions weren't heeded, possibly because the technical term for a team that allcates positions based on race is "loser." It is now abundantly clear that the warnings were wrong.
Both on the floor and in the seats, sports arenas feature more amicable interracial mixing than almost any other venue in the country. Star performers such as Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Charles Barkley have achieved enormous popularity among black and white fans alike. Precisely because allocation of basketball positions is guided by rebounding, not race, the success of players isn't contaminated by a suspicion that it is undeserved. This is a meritocracy that works. Is it too much to hope that the lessons of its success might someday be generalized?