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September 3, 2017+Jonathan Klick
+Viewpoint Diversity+Campus Policy+Academic Careers

I Don’t Care if Amy Wax Is Politically Incorrect; I Do Care that She’s Empirically Incorrect

[COMMENT FROM JON HAIDT: Yesterday I published a blog post defending Amy Wax’s defense of bourgeois virtues. I said I thought it was better for professors to write essays critiquing each others’ ideas than to sign open letters collectively condemning each other. Today, Jonathan Klick, one of Wax’s colleagues at the Penn Law School who had signed the open letter against Wax, sent me just such an essay. We welcome debate and constructive critique at HxA, so I invited Klick to join, which he did. Here is his essay:]

I Don’t Care if Amy Wax Is Politically Incorrect; I Do Care that She’s Empirically Incorrect

Jonathan Klick, University of Pennsylvania Law School

I was one of the 33 members of the University of Pennsylvania Law School faculty to sign a letter criticizing Amy Wax’s (joint with Larry Alexander) op-ed and subsequent comments regarding the decline of bourgeois culture and its role in America’s perceived social ills. Was this the predictable response of a morally squishy, politically correct, ivory tower academic lefty who is unwilling to endorse unspeakable truths for fear of being bounced from faculty cocktail parties? I can understand this presumption, but, in my case, I prefer going to my kids’ football games to chatting about Derrida over wine and cheese anyway.

As someone who has faced the left’s wrath for questioning the received wisdom that racial healthcare disparities are caused by racism, and who has been heckled during presentations for receiving money from the dastardly Koch Brothers (heck, I’m even a dyed in the wool George Mason public choice school economist, an intellectual tradition that apparently is responsible for the entire modern right-wing agenda), one might think I am a natural ally in Wax’s crusades against feel good academic nonsense that undermines American society. I am all for such crusades, but for someone about whom Heather MacDonald writes “No thinker in the law or social sciences is more rigorous,” Wax’s arguments come up lacking when judged by rigorous empirics.

For starters, in defending her claims regarding the superiority of Anglo-Protestant norms, Wax stated “Everyone wants to go to countries ruled by white Europeans.” This might be surprising to the hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrants to African countries over the last two decades. While it is true that numbers 1 and 2 on the list of top destination of immigrants are the US and Germany, they are followed by those well-known WASP enclaves of Russia and Saudi Arabia. Number 5 on the list (the UK) fits Wax’s claim, but it is closely followed by that modern-day Mayberry the United Arab Emirates. Of course, there are all sorts of explanations for why the numbers for Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are high that have nothing to do with the cultural norms (my kids told me before I made a teaching trip to the UAE that the internet says everybody gets a Ferrari when you arrive in that country, for instance), but it is also the case that there are lots of potential explanations for immigration to those countries ruled by white Europeans.

Wax’s evidence for the proposition that everyone wants to come to Anglo countries due to the cultural norms is about as robust as the evidence for the claim that diversity is our strength. Could be, but how could you prove it? If, as Wax and Alexander suggest in their original op-ed, the US began to deviate from its winning cultural recipe in the late 1960s, their empirical prediction should be that there is less demand to get into the US today than there was in the glorious 1950s. Sure, it would be a little tricky to nail down the right research design for that test, but casual empirics don’t clearly favor Wax’s assertions, much less rise to the level of being self-evident.

Alexander and Wax also finger the introduction of the pill as being part of the beginning of the end for America’s commitment to education, delayed gratification, self-reliance, and all the other things that made 1950s America great. Interestingly, there is an absolutely huge high-quality econometric literature on the effect of the introduction of the pill, and many of the results would seem to go in the opposite direction presumed by Wax and Alexander. For example, there is evidence that the pill’s introduction improved education outcomes for women, and there is even long-term evidence that it led to better outcomes for subsequent generations in terms of education and income. Interestingly, although not mentioned by Wax and Alexander (though presumably it would be functionally similar in their arguments), a similar literature exists regarding the effects of abortion. I note this as someone who first became infamous for writing an article demonstrating that abortion legalization led to more risky sex.

The real world is a messy place. Broad claims that general cultural norms obviously are the key to the good life are bound to be problematic. That doesn’t mean that arguments shouldn’t be made; it doesn’t even mean that, perhaps, some cultures aren’t better than others as judged by a particular objective function. But it does mean these debates are far from settled, and claims like those made by Rod Dreher that Wax’s critics “lack the moral courage and the common sense to affirm what everyone knows” are patently silly.

I don’t think Wax is a racist, and I don’t care if she’s not politically correct. But I do believe arguments that only take note of (or, worse yet, merely assume) convenient empirical facts while ignoring inconvenient ones deserve to be criticized. This is true when you disagree with someone’s underlying normative views, but it’s even more important when you don’t.


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