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Testosterone and social policy

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted April 14, 2008

Keeping bourgeois culture ticking along is often a chore. Karl Marx tends to be singled out as the wrecker of the bourgeois age, but he was far from the only one to see and take advantage of weak points in the bourgeois lifestyle. We actually know many of them, but often take them in stride.

The bourgeois mode, essential for capitalism, is epitomized by "Reliable John" or "Dependable Nelly." Reliable John, or his female likesake, is the person who's reliable, dependable, helpful and responsible – someone who's normally good to have around. He (or she) is diligent, patient, prudent, a saver. His or her habits are the ones that tend to be financially rewarded under the capitalist system.

There's one wrinkle, though, which may become evident to you if you think of a "Reliable John" you know personally. That type of man's behavior is inconsistent with a typical male with a high level of testosterone.

According to a news report about a found link between the sex drive and financial risk-taking, there is an as-yet unpublished study out of Harvard University that finds a positive correlation between  testosterone level and that kind of risk-taking too. And therein lays one of the major troubles with keeping the capitalist system working properly.

The function of the testosterone hormone, at least in human males, is to bulk up the body, raise its energy level, and to act as the primary androgen. There is evidence that high testosterone is selected for in the mating game, which suggests that a higher testosterone level is seen by females as conveying an evolutionary advantage. When discussing the human animal, this observation is easy to assimilate, as it makes a certain sense for life in the wild: men with bigger muscle, more energy and a solider body can undertake tasks that other men can't. Yes, this task-set includes fighting. In the wild, "fighting" is not confined to fighting other people, so it isn't as problematic as it is in civil society.

With respect to the latter, selection for high testosterone in males tends to be seen therein as a hangover from a more rustic, or savage, time – except in war, or in times of general threat to the community. The recurrence of crises that threaten civil society from time to time keeps that selective pressure operative. This pressure tends to be balanced by counter-pressures which cast the go-go approach of the high-testosterone male as inane.

Natural selection is far from being a panacea or a substitute for divinity. It is possible for a male to have too much testosterone for certain environments, and bourgeois society tends to be one of them. Because financial risk-taking has perils that are distinct from the more clear-cut perils of physical risk-taking, a man that would have been a great warrior in the bush might very well end up a (likely single) Ralph Kramden in bourgeois society. The risk aversion of Reliable John, on the other hand, tends to pay off in the long term. This success orientation does get noticed.

So, it should be of little surprise that the high-testosterone male has a problematic status in bourgeois society. He tends to be shunted to the margins, and his characteristic mode of task accomplishment – "attacking the job" – tends to be looked down upon in orderly times. 

Interestingly, he's also easy to cast as being "stupid" in bourgeois society when "impulsive" is a more accurate word to describe him. This labeling occurs regardless of I.Q. score. The higher-I.Q. circuit does have their Ralph Kramdens: instead of being seduced by get-rich-quick schemes, they tend to be seduced by making a killing in the investment markets (if not politics) or by the chance at immortality enjoyed by a creative genius. Grabbing at the elusive brass ring, and often emerging empty-handed, is what all of them have in common. "There's no way I can lose!", "the perfect plan", and "this great idea will make me immortal!" are all of a piece. 

In fact, given the incentives and behaviors required for success in a capitalist system, many high-testosterone male tends to be shunted to the lower class, or to the "disreputable" class. This facet of capitalist society is what makes social policy so difficult in a bourgeois polity. Compounding the difficulty is the fact that some rise out of the disreputables to real success.

By "social policy," I mean more than government action. Just as people plan for themselves, without any aid from or notice by the government, people also come up with social policies – plans that encompass others too - that are irrelevant to statecraft. The main traditional social policy that seeks to lift high-testosterone males from the margins is the one that George Gilder defended: marriage. Through getting married, a man stops living the adventurer's life and settles down. Doing so enables him to take up success habits that he would have scorned had he remained a bachelor. Interestingly, he doing so for the wife and/or kids enables him to function in a mode that he's not really born for.

There's another means, which is less incentive-based and more value-driven: martinetness. This lifestyle consists of following procedures, each of which require specific actions which add up to a long-term beneficial result. A procedure-based lifestyle seeks to unite the need for immediate action with the need to set a long-term course. People who are both high-testosterone and middle class tend to live in this way, at the cost of being inflexible in certain areas. It's an accepted mode in the professions which require physical activity and place a premium on bravery. It's also the way of life that modern liberals tend to look down upon, as discussed by Bruce Walker. Liberals have their own petty-bourgeois circuit too: it tends to be filled with the people who react to martinets with fear and loathing.

There's also a simpler, and more brutish, social policy whose aftereffects we still have to live down. "Kick their *** and tell them to become taxpayers." Lower-class people whose ***es have been kicked in that manner tend to take it out on others, or at least tend to see the ***-kicking they received as license to "fight for money." Since non-martinet high-testosterone males tend to be found in the lower class, ***-kicking as a means of social policy will encourage a new class of money-grabber that fits the left-wing stereotype of the "rapacious capitalist." Given the political clout of the Left since the 1930s, it seems evident that the long-term unintended consequences of ***-kicking is today's thickets of red tape. After all, laws are put in place partly to restrain unruly bullies, including ones who jolly well believe that the ***-kicking they received entitle them to kick a little third-party *** themselves.

With respect to government policy, except for straight social assistance, there are two means of encouraging the lower class to rise. The incentive option – a program that provides money or services but expects effort on the part of the recipient – assumes that the lower class is just the same as the ordinary middle class except for being broke. All lower-class people have the potential of being Reliable John or Dependable Nellie if they're just given a chance. This remedy is the classic assumption of modern middle-class liberalism, and there's something nice about it. Programs such as these are easy to peg as "well-intentioned." Unfortunately, as decades of trying them have shown, the results don't always follow. Some are lifted up, but others stay where they are and seem to benefit little from the experience. An indirect consequence of these policies is to lift the ones who are middle-class at heart into the middle class, while leaving behind a hard core of lowers. Thus, it's unsurprising that decades of Lyndon-Johnsoneque programs of this sort have led to greater class stratification in the United States, as well as in other countries that have adopted them. In this sense, an apt moniker for the ‘Hood might be "Johnsonvilles."

The second approach, which tends to be blended with the first, depends upon the status of the government as the only institution that can initiate physical force legally. Through a lift-up program, the government lends some of its authority to the lower-class high-testosterone male who seeks to make it in bourgeois society while also restraining him. The fight to succeed seems more real if you're fighting for the government. Doing so tends to lead to the lower-class high-testosterone male becoming something of a martinet, with the authority of government aiding him in doing so.

Speaking of which, the granddaddy of them all in this area is none other than military service. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is a regular columnist for LewRockwell.com, and has an undamaged mail address here.





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