The genetic and social lottery


Jason Collins


September 7, 2011

As opportunity is equalised, more of the variation in outcomes between people will be due to genetic factors. This may have the somewhat ironic result of reducing social mobility.

I generally take the view that assortment by genetic lottery is no more fair than assortment based on social factors such as being born to low socio-economic status parents. An alternative view is given by Garret Hardin in his famous article The Tragedy of the Commons, when he writes of the private property solution to the tragedy:

With real  estate and other material goods, the alternative we have chosen is the institution of private property coupled with legal inheritance. Is this system perfectly just? As a genetically trained biologist I deny that it is. It seems  to me that, if there are  to be differences in individual inheritance, legal possession should be perfectly correlated with biological inheritance-that those who are biologically more fit  to be the custodians of property and power should legally inherit more. But genetic recombination continually makes a mockery of the doctrine of “like father, like son” implicit in our laws of legal inheritance. An idiot can inherit millions, and a trust fund can keep his estate intact. We must admit that our legal system of private property plus inheritance is unjust-but we put up with it because we are not convinced, at the moment, that anyone has invented a better system. The alternative of the commons is  too horrifying to contemplate. Injustice is preferable to total ruin.

Hardin’s observation that genetic recombination can result in an idiot inheriting millions does not bother me, as the luck involved in everyday existence can have the same effect. While the correlation between income and genetic factors is strong, there is plenty of luck involved, particularly at the high-end of the tail.

However, his proposed alternative, inheritance by the biologically fit, is more problematic. How would we determine who is biologically fit? In the future, the ability to assess traits through genetic testing of the foetus may allow inheritance scales to be set. In the meantime, the correlation between parental and child traits are likely to offer a reasonable match, particularly with the degree of assortive mating that occurs. Further, the accumulation of capital itself is a better test than could otherwise be developed. Why test for the ability to be productive in an economy when you can simply observe it, with the result the reward?

More importantly, what of the incentive effects? Do you want the biologically fit to be given their “winnings” as an inheritance, or would you prefer that they have to work hard to receive it - as they would do if they received no inheritance? The value to society of the biologically fit comes from what they do with their endowed traits. Further, does their value come from prudent use of the capital they hold or from the hard work they undertake to amass it? I tend towards the latter.