Charles Murray to Society: “We owe each other nothing”
Much has been made of Charles Murray’s latest book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” over the last two weeks. Murray summarized it nicely in an essay in the Wall Street Journal. The thesis: America suffers from a divide, but it is not between rich and poor. Rather, it is a cultural split between an increasingly entrenched “moral upper class” – characterized by more stable families, sophisticated cultural taste (reflecting higher education levels), better moral values and so on – and a lower class of reality-TV-watching, vice-loving, ignorant yokels who have children out of wedlock and don’t feel like going to work.
There has been a great deal of hand-wringing from the left about this claim – and I, along with Krugman and others, believe that wealth should not be ignored in thinking about what divides us.
But, along with many other progressives, I do find the statistics Murray cites compelling. Which is why my greatest disappointment is in his recommendation at the end, that we act to address these issues by doing – well, nothing:
Everyone in the new upper class has the monetary resources to make a wide variety of decisions that determine whether they engage themselves and their children in the rest of America or whether they isolate themselves from it. The only question is which they prefer to do.
That’s it? But where’s my five-point plan? We’re supposed to trust that large numbers of parents will spontaneously, voluntarily make the right choice for the country by making the right choice for themselves and their children?
Yes, we are, but I don’t think that’s naive. I see too many signs that the trends I’ve described are already worrying a lot of people. If enough Americans look unblinkingly at the nature of the problem, they’ll fix it. One family at a time. For their own sakes. That’s the American way.
Really? Surely Charles Murray doesn’t believe his own rhetoric here – or, at the very least, he isn’t behaving as if he does. Otherwise he would not have bothered to write a whole book meant to start a collective conversation like the one that is going on right now. It reminds me of a critique once leveled against the Communists on the other side of the spectrum: if the revolution is inevitable, exhorting people to it is like encouraging a stone to fall faster.
Murray cannot even bring himself to assert that some kind of private collective action would be a good idea. Nope – let’s just let the free market take care of this one, because it’s clearly done such a great job over the 50-year period that Murray is studying.
But then, perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised: Murray’s prescription (or lack thereof) is the logical endpoint of a self-interested libertarian narrative – now the common stock in trade among conservatives – that refuses to admit that there is any obligation that individuals have to other individuals. In the libertarian’s hyper-atomized fantasy land, each person exists completely independent of every other person. And if we were only able to get rid of the market-distorting scourge of collective action (especially by government!), each person could be counted on to do the right thing – a low bar, in any case, once consideration for the well-being of every other person is taken out of the equation.
But this just isn’t the case. People are not inherently good; rather, they are rational (read: selfish) actors whose individual incentives give us no guarantee whatsoever that they will take any kind of action, collective or otherwise, to solve a problem like this. And while they are not helpless, they are often caught in patterns of challenge and difficulty that they are not aware of or understand poorly – because they have other things to do with their time. It’s precisely the kind of situation where collective action – by government or by others – could make a difference. For example, what if every American were required to do 2 years of national service after turning 18, so that the “upper” and “lower” classes Murray describes share at least one common (and formative) experience? Or, if you don’t like mandates from the government, what if the philanthropic community created a massive scholarship program, attractive to “upper” and “lower” classes alike, with a condition that recipients undertake national service together? Heck, what if they just paid to hand the Cliffs Notes of Murray’s book to every American?
There are solutions for problems like these. But in order to put them into practice, we will have to choose and implement them – you guessed it – together. I really hope that the American right is not pushing past the point where they have forgotten the meaning of that word. Otherwise, we are due for a long, passive, self-regulating slide into oblivion.