Achievement and agency

I try to interpret other viewpoints charitably. This post is an attempt to unpack some typical leftwing explanations for differences in achievement between populations and offer what I think is a fair response.

The populations I’m talking about are essentially the broad geographical categories of people in the world, approximately mapped to their continents or subcontinents of origin. So, we have Southeast Asians, Europeans, Sub-Saharan Africans, Pacific Islanders, and so on. It’s these kinds of categories that tend to get talked about when discussing this topic. Although there are of course exceptions and odd cases, I think it’s an appropriate framework plus it’s mutually understandable, so that’s what I’m going with.

Let’s dispense with the obvious: it’s not hard to imagine that each population has achieved its own kind of greatness, at least in some way. In other words, I believe if one could travel the world, he could find something very impressive the natives have done in just about every place he visits. It might be great cities, a flourishing economy, art or music, some uniquely elegant facet of the local language, etc. but it would be there to behold.

This is a nice thing to keep in mind but it is not a useful way to define achievement. Currently there are something like a billion people in the world who say they would like to move to the US, and probably something close to that number would like to move to Northern or Western Europe. The fact that so many people all over the planet all want to move to a few small areas—areas that aren’t uniquely rich in natural resources and don’t have the most agreeable climates–indicates there is something desirable and manmade in those small areas that isn’t found, at least not as much, in the other areas. Therefore achievement can roughly be described as that which a population does to make their society a desirable place to live.

Naturally, people want to move away from places with famine, corruption, war, etc., toward places with opportunity, trust, and peace. But these desirable conditions do not sprout from the ground. Most of the time I think leftwing people and I agree that the causes of these conditions are manmade, although we seem to differ on what exactly those manmade causes are.

Sometimes though, I get the sense that leftwing people ascribe some other cause to these conditions. This has been described by some authors as “magic dirt theory”; basically it’s the idea that merely being in a certain place is what caused one population to achieve great things relative to another. The theory goes that if non-achieving populations could just be brought to the place where great things have been achieved, they would achieve great things too.

Thus we have the “dreamer” cliché of immigration: that there are millions of people in underdeveloped, blighted areas of the globe who would all become history-making innovators–if only they could be brought here to the US. There is not even the hint of possibility that people in blighted parts of the world have something to do with the blight there. It must be something in the dirt instead.

But this is just a sense I have about the leftwing argument; I haven’t seen a leftwing person actually forward this theory. Usually what gets brought up instead is the legacy of white colonialism and slavery. Basically, the idea is that white people have nice societies only because they exploited and enslaved other races of people to get them, and those other races have not-nice societies only because they were exploited and enslaved—held back–by white people. I’ll call this the “blame whitey” argument, or BWA for short.

To be fair, I have to admit the BWA is probably true to some extent at least on some level. But I believe it’s true to a much lesser extent than most leftwing people do. Such a tiny extent it’s barely even worth mentioning.

Looking more closely at it, I find basically everything about the BWA wrong. The underlying assumption that all human populations would have achieved equal results if only they played nice with each other? Extremely doubtful. The notion that exploitation and slavery is a uniquely (or even disproportionately) white practice? Ridiculous. The attribution of all white achievement to exploitation and slavery? Laughable. There’s also the problem that some areas (e.g. Singapore) formerly under brutal white colonial rule are now thriving, while other areas that were never colonized by whites (e.g. Ethiopia) remain fairly miserable.

What I dislike most about the BWA is the racist hypocrisy contained in it: ascribing all nonwhite peoples’ lack of achievement to white exploitation and slavery creates an implication that nonwhite people lack agency. They only have shortcomings because of white people. This is always followed with a call for white people to do something to help the nonwhite people finally achieve—in other words, they can’t achieve without white people either!

The leftwing view of the world is apparently one in which white people are the only actors and everyone else is passive and helpless. Doesn’t that sound like the view they explicitly say they oppose? And, what is the expected outcome of this permanent assumption of nonwhite victimhood?

The ugly fact I come back to, but which most leftwingers reject as “bigoted” [sic], is that differences in populations go deeper than appearances or even culture. Appearances are merely physical adaptations. Culture is the open-source software that runs on the hardware of the human being.

Some differences in culture are attributable to differences in environment—thus English-descended people in Texas have a different culture than the English in England. But some of (probably at least half) the differences in culture are attributable to differences in how various people’s brains are wired, and the people of one population (as used above) tend to be wired more like each other overall than they are wired like people in another population. (Beware Lewontin’s fallacy!) Thus English-descended people in Texas have a culture that is generally different from African-descended people in Texas. Not to a huge extent, but to a noticeable extent, enough to show the mechanism at work beneath culture is likely at least partially neural and therefore genetic.

This doesn’t mean people in Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, cannot achieve greatness. I believe they can and sincerely hope they will. But it will require their own struggles and their own efforts. I also believe it will require their willingness to copy the success of others. This means the path to success has to be defined accurately—not as “exploit and enslave others to help you build a great society”–something nobody would want to emulate. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the highest-achieving societies are the ones that outlawed slavery and ended colonialism.) It also means successful populations should preach what they practice, and stop acting ashamed of their achievements.

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