Reynolds’ Law

I haven’t been blogging much lately, because I haven’t had many thoughts that haven’t been better expressed elsewhere. But I have to draw attention to a remark of Glenn Reynolds, which seems to me to express an important and little-noticed point:

The government decides to try to increase the middle class by subsidizing things that middle class people have: If middle-class people go to college and own homes, then surely if more people go to college and own homes, we’ll have more middle-class people. But homeownership and college aren’t causes of middle-class status, they’re markers for possessing the kinds of traits — self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, etc. — that let you enter, and stay, in the middle class. Subsidizing the markers doesn’t produce the traits; if anything, it undermines them.

I dub this Reynolds’ Law: “Subsidizing the markers of status doesn’t produce the character traits that result in that status; it undermines them.” It’s easy to see why. If people don’t need to defer gratification, work hard, etc., in order to achieve the status they desire, they’ll be less inclined to do those things. The greater the government subsidy, the greater the effect, and the more net harm produced.

This law is thus a relative to Murray’s third law in Losing Ground, the Law of Net Harm: “The less likely it is that the unwanted behavior will change voluntarily, the more likely it is that a program to induce change will cause net harm.” But Reynolds’ Law rests on a different and more secure foundation. It focuses on character as fundamental.

Since the time of Woodrow Wilson, Democrats—but not only Democrats—have fretted that the middle class is shrinking due to the power of large corporations, and that only government action to “level the playing field” can save the middle class. The “middle class is being more and more squeezed out by the processes which we have been taught to call processes of prosperity.” Obama? Hillary? No, that’s Woodrow Wilson in 1913 (The New Freedom). It’s striking to realize that progressives have been playing the same tune for a century, no matter what’s actually taking place in the economy—indeed, in the midst of the greatest expansion of affluence in the history of the world—with the same set of proffered solutions: greater government power, regulations, higher taxes, and subsidies for the markers of affluence.

Reynolds’ Law thus strikes at the heart of progressivism as a political ideology. Progressivism can’t deliver on its central promise. In fact, it’s guaranteed to make things worse in exactly that respect. It’s not that it sacrifices some degree of one good (liberty or prosperity, say) to achieve a greater degree of another (equality). That suggests that the choice between conservatism and progressivism is a matter of tradeoffs, balances, and maybe even taste. Reynolds’ Law implies that progressivism sacrifices some (actually considerable) degrees of liberty and prosperity to move us away from equality by undermining the characters and thus behavior patterns of those they promise to help.

Not coincidentally, progressives accumulate power for themselves, not only by seizing it as a necessary means to their goals but by aggravating the very social problems they promise to address, thus creating an ever more powerful argument that something has to be done.

UPDATE: Welcome, Instapundit readers! Thanks for looking around! And thank you, Glenn!

113 thoughts on “Reynolds’ Law

  1. Yep. Middle Class is not Middle Income. It refers to the “Middle” between the peasants and the “nobility,” the people that Jane Jacobs called the “Guardians.” The “middles” lived in the cities, the “burgs.” In French they call them “bourgs.” So, the people who live in the towns are the bourgeoisie, whom Rousseau so despised, and inspired so many of his spiritual descendants to try to eradicate. Freud, for example, thought that our problems arose from Victorian morality. So did GB Shaw. (Reread Pygmalion)So, of course, did Marx, Lenin, Goebbels, de Sade, et al.

    Religion, morality, family, simple honesty, are bourgeois attributes, and must be attacked in every way possible.

    I have been preaching this truth for years. Now, someone is listening. Huzzah!

    1. I am always of course, thrilled by people who use the ancient past as an example of great civilizations.

      They had slaves and didn’t need science.

      Will Durant said of the Ancient Germans and I paraphrase: They took pride in their morality and were always quick to kill adulterous wives.

      1. Donny,
        Whether Will Durant knew it or not he articulated a fine reason that the barbaric Goths proved to be better defenders of Roman civilization than the Romans themselves did. ^_^ It’s better to take pride in a morality you clearly have, however loopy it may be, than in a morality that you don’t have as so many of the pagan Romans did especially towards the end. 😛

        That said, you may want to keep in mind the distinction Otto Von Bismarck made between education and experience in defending the use of history as a guide towards wisdom. The experienced man, he said, learns from his own mistakes while the educated man learns from the mistakes of others. He then went on to say that only a fool would fail to prefer latter. Something to think upon before sneering at the idea of learning from the ancient past, ne? ^_~

      2. And you think that future generations won’t laugh at our own era’s concepts of what is moral and what is not?

        Also, if you think that ancient civilizations didn’t use or need science, you don’t know much about the history of science and technology.

        There are a handful of surviving ancient civilizations or their cultural heirs. I suspect that survival has something to do with cultural values that indeed are sustainable and adaptive.

  2. You’re absolutely right. George Bernard Shaw launched many indirect attacks, and a surprisingly direct one in Maxims for Revolutionists ( And I see Marx as exhibiting a more-than-occasional nostalgia for feudalism.

    WHY they so hate the bourgeoisie is another question. I don’t understand it.

    Your comment shows, by the way, why statistics on income don’t mean much. Think of a household earning $40,000 a year. Is that one recent college graduate, on the way to a highly paid professional career? A 40-year-old plumber, his stay-at-home wife, and three kids? A family of seven, four of whom work at least part-time? An elderly couple living off a modest pension and Social Security? Where do they live? You’d need a lot of information to draw any conclusions at all.

    1. “WHY they so hate the bourgeoisie is another question. I don’t understand it.”

      The academic left represents the vizier class, the factotums. Without a centralized government, they have no “noble” ears to whisper into, and without totalitarianism, there is still less point in whispering into what governing ears there are.
      With the rise of the “bourgeoisie” and liberty, consensual government and strictly negative individual human rights–read that as actual instead of pretend positive rights–there are no “noble” ears. The alchemists are adrift.
      The engineers are fine with it of course, unlike the social justice fiends, theirs is an actually reality based science.

  3. Creating fake crises, then implementing bad policies that make more crises inevitable, then seizing more power — hasn’t that been the “progressive” way for the last century?

    I think Mises had something to say about this.

  4. Subsidizing undermines the value of the MARKERS, not the traits. People with worthless college degrees are unable to get a good job. Perhaps a college education never significantly enhanced a person’s utility in the workplace. This is a subset of the common symptom/cause confusion.

    Are the traits themselves undermined? The false markers will create a problem in having the traits recognized… the value of the valuable traits will struggle a bit to reveal themselves. In general, the more valuable the trait, the smaller this problem should be. If I could explain that in formulaic terms I might be able to get a law named after myself.

    1. Good observation. Actually though, it undermines both. It undermines the traits, because you no longer need to have the middle class traits to get the middle class markers, and it also undermines the markers, as you said, because the value of any marker is the effort it takes to get it. Once you can get it without much effort, then everybody will, and it loses its value.

      This is especially true of a college education. Formerly, to graduate from college, you had to have either a modest income family, with a lot of intelligence and ambition, or a high income family, with at least some intelligence and ambition. Both instances were fairly rare, and thus valuable. Now that you can get a degree without either family income, intelligence, or ambition, it will no longer be valuable. Employers will eventually recognize this, and that will bust the higher ed bubble. The question at that point will be what new marker employers will substitute for it to indicate intelligence, ambition, and good family.

      1. I realize I’m responding to this post some 2+ years after it was first made, but I feel I must.

        There is a long-standing and persistent belief in our culture that family money somehow affects educational achievement.

        This is true in the sense of being able to afford tuition and forgo income from working while going to school. It is also true that admittance to “elite” universities is unfortunately affected by family background in that these colleges preferentially admit the children and grandchildren of alumni, who tend to be more wealthy than the graduates of more pedestrian institutions.

        But once tuition and admittance issues are addressed, the child of a plumber and the child of an investment banker are both presented with the same academic challenges that must be met. Grades are not awarded on the basis of family wealth, but academic performance. Coming from a wealthy family isn’t going to help someone write their term paper. Where the rubber meets the road, individual ability and effort are what count.

        Higher education is losing its value as a social signaling device because the quality of higher education has fallen in recent years. As a college education has come to be seen as the natural cap-stone of EVERYONE’S academic career, regardless of actual individual ability, and government student loans have made students into cash cows for colleges and universities, academic rigor has suffered. Entire degree programs have been created from whole cloth whose sole purpose is to provide “students” with busy work until graduation day, at which point they will be set loose upon the world knowing almost nothing more than they did the first day of classes.

        Employers have come to realize this, which is why a degree in Peace Studies or some other equally useless nonsense is not worth the paper it is printed upon.

        At the same time, degree programs that have maintained their rigor and that provide their students with useful skills have retained their value.

  5. Freud is a very complex figure and is used incorrectly by writers on all sides. Please allow me my two cents.

    Freud did indeed point to the excesses of repression found in “Victorian morality.” However, he neither advocated the complete removal of restraints some of his followers advocated nor did he regard conscience as irremediably bad. He advocated balance between desire (id), conscience (super-ego), and reality testing (ego). And by the way, ego in Freud’s language was not the same thing as the narcissistic self-importance that forms its connotation today.

    But most important, Freud said we had to look into ourselves and our inner lives to make things better. That was what he meant by saying that his job was to turn hysterical (neurotic) misery into real misery. He never thought that the state or any external entity was the agency by which to create happiness. Such happiness as was possible for human beings had to come from balance WITHIN the individual.

    Early leftist psychoanalysts criticized Freud for not being sufficiently attuned to so called “social injustice,” and for focusing on internal as opposed to external change.

    Because Freud found that excessive sexual repression contributed to neurosis the Right mistakenly thinks of him as a radical. In fact, Freud had a very suspicious eye toward radical movements.

    Thanks for reading this mini-rant.

  6. Wizard61,

    I need to think about that more. I suspect there’s a complex interplay. Give people mortgages they can’t afford, and initially things seem great—lots of new people owning houses—and any undermining of either the value of a house in marking status or the underlying character traits seem little affected. Gradually, however, both effects appear. Prices rise, harming those who are trying to play by the traditional rules. And then lots of people default, with well-known consequences. Those with socially desirable character traits end up feeling like chumps twice over.

    If I may try my hand at formulating Wizard’s Law: “Subsidizing the markers of status makes both the status and the character traits that result in it harder to recognize.” And thus, of course, harder to reward.

  7. Robert,

    Thanks for the kind words!


    I think you’re right about Freud in his psychoanalytic works. His cultural writings, however—most notably Civilization and Its Discontents and The Future of an Illusion—strike me as pernicious.

  8. >> WHY they so hate the bourgeoisie is another question. I don’t understand it. <<

    Because the bourgeoisie stand directly between them and power. In the Feudal ages, the nobles had absolute power over their "lessers". The rise of the "middles" created a filter and siphon on that power. The middles now had their own power (over their employees), and frequently these new middle-class power centers demanded that the nobility work through them rather than directly with those who the middle oversaw…and power is always jealous of rivals. In some cases, the new middle-class power centers created enough power to challenge the nobility directly (can't have that!).

    Our Ruling Class would like nothing better than to have a nation of serfs who know their place and worship those who, by Divine Right, have been placed as their stewards.

  9. Promotion of the markers is one thing. But the college degrees being promoted are not science and engineering (the manipulation of things) but psychology and a variety of “socialized” (not necessarily Marxian) art, history, economic and political teachings (the manipulation of people). The hard facts of math, science and logic are denigrated as opinion. Once you have done that you can then promote any fraudulent science you want and provide as proof the opinion of the speaker based on his (manufactured) “status” and / or an equally manufactured “consensus”. We see this in the global warming fraud. True Socialists firmly believe that the reality discovered by science can be rejected and a new “reality”, more suitable to the needs of the party, substituted in its place. The Soviet Communists were very careful not to award status to technically trained people without first ensuring that they were politically reliable. It was not unusual to have an electrical engineer changing out light bulbs, or a chemical engineer shoveling cow dung in the Soviet Union. They did this because they knew that one man with hard facts and cold logic was more dangerous to them then a hundred degreed art or history majors. Making education expensive, and now, ensuring that a government loan is required to acquired it, is a way to enslave the degree holder. He who pays the piper names the tune. Yes I’m paranoid, but am I paranoid enough?

  10. Progressivism is more about taking than giving. It is taking in the name of giving, tearing down in the name of building up.

    This may explain the penchant of the “elite” for progressive causes.

  11. Jim,

    It IS like a cargo cult. The political class confuses an effect with a cause, and so works at producing effects instead of causes of what they claim to want.

    In a way it’s worse. At least the practices of the cargo cults didn’t make it *less* likely that a plane would actually come.

  12. Excellent post. Thank you. States something that I have been suspecting, but been unable to articulate.

    I have seen this in education: we have diluted what is done in college and in high school. In the colleges we have lowered expectations in entry level courses, and all successor courses, so marginal students won’t flunk out so quickly. High schools have responded: why prepare students for success in freshman calculus when the colleges aren’t expecting success there? Thus students at receive college credit for what should be a high school level course. As a counterbalance, we have increasing numbers showing up with success from AP Calculus while in high school.

    I have had students tell me they didn’t need to master high school algebra because they would be taken care of in college. Affirmative action has not helped this situation either.

  13. Arguably Ayn Rand came up with this long before the Blogfather did. See her comments about “the reversal of cause and effect.”

    1. agreed. And her prescription was to stop enabling. Evil only exists because good tolerates it. Id say further that the condition of mankind is to impute their own morality to their fellow man. Rand’s “good” see good in others. Rand’s “evil” the same.

      I am satisfied that this fully explains both why the middle-class delegates k-12 & college education to the elites and why the elites see any positive affirmation of middle-class morality as evil.

  14. @Philo:

    Any widely embraced metrics system will lead to a distortion, great or small, of improving marker scores more than improving the underlying reality. Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski remarked that “the map is not the territory.” A clumsy subsidization of markers will produce an inaccurate map. For the real estate bubble, the map problem contributed to a bubble, which burst, and directly damaged everyone who had purchased “recently,” and indirectly everyone whose livelihood was in the general proximity. And thus home ownership and even credit ratings have burst into a state of semi-uselessness as markers.

    In my experience, for at least two decades, the value of the diploma has been progressively unmasked as I find little relationship between the skills of co-workers and their college degrees. The first time I read (back in the 80s?) of a large number of unemployed people with Master’s degrees, I knew the degree was an overplayed marker.

    To the degree the traits are harder to recognize, the value of those traits are temporarily damaged. To the degree the traits are genuinely valuable, they will re-manifest, phoenix like. The good news, perhaps, lies in how this destructive cycle leads us further along a path to greater meritocracy. Being able to spot the valuable executive or technician, even as the old markers fail, strikes me as a suddenly more valuable skill. Poseurs beware.

    1. what of supply & demand?

      After all marker analysis is exhausted, if everyone is a graduate-level mechanical engineer, then the supply of willing workers outpaces the demand for their services, wages go down and the degree is viewed as worth-less.

      The think I find so distasteful in all of this is the denigrating of those who for various reasons find themselves in burger-flipper jobs. The people provide a service that is vital to their fellow man as evidenced by the lines.

      It’s one thing to be “for” your passions and interests, it’s another to run down other people.

  15. @Matt-

    On Progressivism. I think the emotional keystone is letting a person believe they can atone for the inner guilt by taking someone else’s possessions for any supposedly good cause. This folly can only “work” at a superficial level, and actually leads to more guilt and a more urgent need to atone. Repeat.

    As the cycle pulls the individual into its vortex, they become increasingly passionate and desperate. To admit the flaw in this Collective Salvation Scam would be to accept an invoice for all the initial sins, plus all of the derived thefts & bullying & so forth. Very few individual have the shoulders for that.

    The cure might be to gently offer a different path to atonement, one that does not immediately challenge their belief structure. Perhaps, once they have personally contributed, the resulting self esteem can help them break free from the spell.

    The act of personal charity does more for the giver than for the recipient. The act of societal charity removes that benefit from the equation. Perhaps this is a tact that would not threaten the common Progressive beyond their ability to cope.

  16. Milwaukee and Wizard61,

    You’re right about education. I teach at a leading state university, and my elder daughter is a senior there. The sad truth is that it’s possible to get a BA or BS without ever reading a book. Professors realize that students can’t or won’t do the reading, so we teach what we want the students to know and then test them only on what’s taken place in class. If I write an exam question that requires them to have done the reading by including something not covered in class, almost no one gets it right, and, worse, the few correct answers are randomly distributed, meaning even the students who got it right were guessing.

    Many of the students we turn out are excellent. But many know very little. It’s not just the people in the liberal arts, either. Science, math, and engineering courses are geared to identifying the geniuses. If you’re not one, your success, or lack thereof, is fairly random. So, a lot of talented sub-geniuses drop out of those majors and a lot of semi-competent people get through.

    The upshot is that degrees and even GPAs mean less and less, and an ability to discern real talent is worth more and more.

  17. What you are talking about occurs all the time in medicine, where they are called surrogate markers. They are pretty much all we had until recently, in designing new hypotheses. Two examples:

    Early on in the AIDS epidemic, it was noted that the lower the level of a particular type of immune cell (the CD4+ lymphocyte), the worse the prognosis. Efforts were made to find drugs which kept up the level of CD4+ lymphocytes, and one such (called AZT) was found. While the drug did improve CD4+ levels in patients, there was no beneficial effect on survival.

    Various types of fats in the blood (cholesterol, triglycerides) and the proteins carrying them (HDL, LDL) were correlated with early vascular disease (heart attack, stroke, etc. etc.). Elevation of LDL cholesterol was particularly bad, and drugs were sought which lowered it. The statins are of this class. Treating patients at risk with statins dramatically lowers the amount of vascular disease. So here is an example where a surrogate marker worked in spades.

    Or did it? Other drugs lowering LDL cholesterol also show a benefit, but it you compare the amount of reduction of LDL cholesterol to the reduction of vascular disease, for a given level of LDL reduction, the statins reduce vascular disease to a much greater extent. So they are probably doing something else in addition.

    No one ever said medicine (or various forms of social manipulation) was easy.

  18. “To undermine the value of the trait” could mean:

    1. To make the trait less useful to society


    2. To make it less likely that people will develop that trait

    I suspect both are relevant, even that 1 causes 2. This could be the case even if, in an absolute moral sense, the relevant trait does not become less valuable. It is common in modernity that moral virtues make one less likely to succeed by dominant social standards. That doesn’t mean that the moral virtues cease to be moral virtues, only that there is a disconnect between spiritual and material/social benefits.

  19. I highly recommend *Systems of Survival* by Jane Jacobs. She describes two “syndromes” of mores, the Guardian and the Commercial, or bourgeois. The Guardian values loyalty above all, violence when necessary, thirteen others. The Commercial or bourgeois values honesty, thrift, innovation, and twelve more. My wife assures me that, once past the forst chapter or so, it reads better. There are references in these comments to several of her concepts. Like any really good theory, “Systems” is a fairly simple conceptual tool that pulls together otherwise diverse data. When you’ve read it, call me. Quid will supply the number.

  20. The point can also be illustrated by the policy question that’s been making the rounds:

    “Do you prefer more government services and higher taxes or fewer government services and lower taxes”?

    The question leaves out the other two possibilities: fewer government services and higher taxes (taxes captured by insiders) or more government services and lower taxes (improved efficiency — just kidding!).

    There are many ways fo governments to leave is with less.

  21. Reynold’s Law is also related to Gresham’s Law: currency of no intrinsic value drives currency of intrinsic value out of the market. When all home ownership is earned by work and savings, it has intrinsic value as a marker. Government subsidy is like debasing the currency.

  22. It’s older than Professor Reynolds. My mother used to say “You can’t take people out of the slums until you take the slums out of the people.” It sounds racist, I know, but it’s the same point.

    I’ve thought for years that if Israel were to abandon its land as the Arabs demand, in 50 or 100 years it would back in the state it was in when Jews started settling there. That isn’t a racist statement, since many Palestinians have migrated to the West and become successful in various fields.

    If we fail to accept that Western values produce better results, especially out of fear of seeming bigoted, we deny ourselves and all mankind the benefits of true progress.

    1. Good point, and one that has nothing to do with race or even slums per se. I can recall relatives saying similar things about some folks in Appalachia. To put it in this lingo, however, Reynolds’ Law adds the thought that trying to take people out of the slums artificially through government action doesn’t just leave the “slum” in the people; it encourages it, in them and in others.

      1. As I believe Thomas Sowell once said about the anger “reformers” feel when black people in suburbia don’t want nice new public housing built near them, they don’t realize that you don’t flee the city to get away from buildings, you flee to get away from people behaving badly.

  23. Pingback: Classical Logic
  24. I think the problem is deeper than Reynolds law, Reynolds law assumes that character (e.g. discipline, self-denial, etc ) is important. Well in today’s world of social progressivism we attack these values and indeed denigrate them. We have no Tao- we are men without chests. So in a culture that that has no value system Reynolds law is absurd. See “The Abolition of Man” by CS Lewis

  25. The argument does not entirely work. It would only work if a person is the entire cause of what happens to them. That is a false picture: what happens to a person is a *combination* of what they do and what their environment/circumstances/etc. does.

    For the things that a person *is* responsible for, the argument has some point. *But you need to know clearly what those things are*, otherwise it is useless. Not “subsidizing the markers of status” — and hence, as suggested, not “undermining … character” etc. — is not going to do anything if character is not relevant in that particular case.

    If someone wants to grow some food, they have to put in some work, or the results will be bad. But if the soil/climate/etc. conditions are poor, they could work in any kind of way and the results will still disappoint. Making sure the person is working hard will not help and will distract from addressing the real particular problem: the circumstances in which the work is done.

    In the modern world ‘circumstances’ is not so much physical constraints as cooperative: the systems of organisation of what *everyone else* is doing. The whole point of cooperative systems is to get out more than we individually put in — we all do better than we otherwise would. That means seeing personal character as predominant is counterproductive: the more you want outcomes to follow individual input, the more you contradict cooperation and obstruct the net benefit it gives.

    Focusing on individuals is largely a dead end. Human psychology is a given that cannot (much, currently) be improved. But as information tech advances the sophistication of cooperative systems increases, and the surplus we can get from that becomes ever more proportionately important. We should be thinking about systems of organisation, not personal character.

  26. I was linked to this old post recently.

    The “middle class is being more and more squeezed out by the processes which we have been taught to call processes of prosperity.” Obama? Hillary? No, that’s Woodrow Wilson in 1913 (The New Freedom).

    This leads me to ask a question that seems obvious: was Wilson’s description of economic conditions accurate, or not? 1913 was not a particularly good year for the U.S. economy. (And, years later, there were indeed massive changes in the relationships between government, business, and labor during the New Deal.)

  27. Reblogged this on angryid and commented:
    I find myself often referring to “Reynold’s Law” or “Reynold’s Rule” (as I mistakenly call it) and wanted to share this.

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