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Charles Murray, a Libertarian who worries about America coming apart along the seams of class

February 17, 2012

The major point in Charles Murray‘s book—Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010—is that the United States “is coming apart at the seams—not ethnic seams, but the seams of class.”

You can watch him summarize the major messages of his book in this February 14th interview hosted by the TVO program The Agenda.

The book has proved to be instantly provocative. Toward the end of this interview, at about 13 minutes and 50 seconds, Murray states: “I don’t do solutions very well.”

So why all the buzz?

I participated in a debate with him, along with Heather Boushey and Reihan Salam, on the same program.

You can get a sense of the substance of Coming Apart by watching the debate, but the discussion does not focus on his philosophy, an equally important topic.

At about 15 minutes and 20 seconds Murray says: “I’m a libertarian and I think that we need to move back to a limited government.” And he goes on to say that “these data [that is, the descriptions he has offered of lower and upper class America] can be interpreted, in terms of solutions, in many ways.”

The reason I emphasize this is because it offers an opportunity to understand what it means to be a “libertarian” and how this conditions the approach to public policy. After all, Murray admits that his understanding of public policy is rooted in his philosophy, not his facts.

This is all the more relevant for Canadians because last May they chose a federal government that more closely subscribes to the same philosophy than any the country has ever had.

There is a clear statement in the book of how a libertarian views public policy, particularly social policy. In a section called “Watching the Intellectual Foundations of the Welfare State Implode”, Murray outlines what he believes to be four flaws in the logic of believers in the welfare state.

The first is about incentives or, if you will, “unintended consequences” of social programs.

The first operational implication … was that the welfare state could be designed in ways that would lead people not to take advantage of the incentives that the welfare state sets up—for example, generous unemployment benefits would not importantly affect how hard people tried to keep old jobs or how hard they looked for new ones. (page 297)

The second is about the effectiveness of public policy, that in other words

properly designed government interventions could correct problems of human behavior. (page 297)

The third belief advocates of active social policy hold concerns the view that people are inherently equal,

equal, or nearly so, in their latent abilities and characteristics. To some extent, this belief applies to individuals—the idea that all children should aspire to get a college degree reflects a kind of optimistic view that all children are naturally smart enough for college if only they get the right kind of instruction. But the strict interpretation of the equality premise applies to groups of people. In a fair society, it is believed, different groups of people … will naturally have the same distribution of outcomes in life: the same [average] income, the same [average] educational attainment, the same proportions who become janitors and CEOs… . When that doesn’t happen, it is because of bad human behavior and an unfair society. (pages 297-298)

Finally, the fourth has to do with beliefs about individual responsibility. Advocates of the welfare state believe

that, at bottom, human beings are not really responsible for the things they do. People who do well do not deserve what they have gotten—they got it because they were born into the right social stratum. Or if they did well despite being born poor and disadvantaged, it was because the luck of the draw gave them personal qualities that enabled them to succeed. People who do badly do not deserve it either. (page 298)

For a libertarian it is a matter of belief that there are important unintended consequences to public policy (what economists call disincentive effects), that these are so strong that government policy is as a result ineffective (indeed, makes matters worse), that individual and group outcomes are the result of innate differences, and therefore that individuals must take responsibility for their actions (that actions, in other words, must have consequences).

This is what underpins the only policy prescription Murray feels comfortable putting forward: more limited government. As the saying goes,”That government is best which governs least.”

Libertarians believe in process. Government should have a role limited to respecting property rights, and running a justice system that enforces contracts individuals negotiate between themselves. People are innately different, they engage in the free market to make the most of their talents, and they therefore should take responsibility for the decisions they make.

The process is important and government should concern itself with enforcing the laws that keep it fair, not with the outcomes that result. Any attempt to do so will not be effective, and indeed make matters worse.

In reading this book, particularly in finishing the last few chapters, I couldn’t help but feel a good deal of empathy with Murray, who has also publicly stated that this would be his last book. He has been an engaged observer of American society for over 30 years.

And he clearly cares deeply about his country, as some of the autobiographical snippets in the book make clear.

In other words, he worries about the state of America, about outcomes. Yet his intellectual frame of reference suggests to him that he should be focused on process. And therefore the only real cause for many of the unfortunate social outcomes he describes is that the underlying process is not pure, that “we need to move back to a limited government.”

This is why he doesn’t do solutions very well.

And this is the most provocative aspect of the book: the disregard for the scientific method.

Yes, government policy has unintended consequences, but it is a matter of degree: how strong are the disincentives, do they outweigh the benefits?

Yes, government policy is not as a result completely effective: but is it completely ineffective, is it better than the alternative, how can it be managed more effectively?

Yes, people are innately different: but those differences are not simply determined by genes they arise from interactions with the environment. How do changes in environments make these differences more or less important for how people lead their lives?

Yes, individuals should take responsibility for their actions, but life is full of uncertainties, and some risks are social that can’t be insured against except collectively. So how do we offer insurance and how do we best develop individual capabilities so that people have the freedom to lead the lives they value even in the face of an uncertain future?

These are empirical questions that require us to discipline our approach to the data with a theoretical understanding of human nature, and a spirit of experimentation: implementing policy, making mistakes, experimenting, and changing our minds about the theory to implement yet again.

Murray cares about outcomes, but Libertarian beliefs prevent him from this line of thinking.

The following paragraph is most telling:

The economist John Maynard Keynes, accused of changing his mind about monetary policy, famously replied, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” The honest answer to Keynes’s question is “Often, nothing.” Data can bear on policy issues, but many of our opinions about policy are grounded in premises about the nature of human life and human society that are beyond the reach of data. Try to think of any new data that would change your position on abortion, the death penalty, legalization of marijuana, same-sex marriage, or the inheritance tax. If you cannot, you are not necessarily being unreasonable. (page 234)

This is why his book is at best description, and more likely metaphor or polemic: it is not social science. The science part is the act of separating our vision of how the world should be, from our observations of how it actually is; and most importantly changing our minds when our hypotheses about the nature of human life and human society are proved false by the facts.

  1. Tim Smeding permalink

    Charrles’ Coming Apart hits the what’s but not the why’s. The value of Coming Apart is to show that it is more than race or ethnicity– white America has a class problem. There is other evidence out there as well–eg Andy Cherlin–showing much more income, family and marriage instability amongst whites now vs the post. So we have a problem. Now what to do about it is the issue and the libertarian answer of ‘do nothing’ is the wrong answer

    • Thanks for the comment Tim.

      The interesting thing about the book is as you suggest that the new definition of class transcends ethnic or racial issues.

      My post was in large part also intended to illustrate to readers the nature and important role of the scientific process: the distinction between positive and normative economics.

  2. Samuel Kenney permalink

    Dr. Corak,

    Do you believe his data to be correct? Or rather, does it accurately portray issues in America today?

    • Please feel free to call me Miles.

      I have not looked closely and critically at his methods and data, but from reading the book and the appendices I don’t immediately start questioning the data.

      There is one instance where this is not so. He focuses on people who are 30 to 49 years of age. He does this to place attention on the situation people face in the prime of their working lives. Fair enough. Leaving out the young and those approaching retirement gives a better sense, for example, of engagement with the labour market.

      But when he comes to the chapter on “honesty”, which is about crime rates, he expands the age group to include those in their 20s, and offers no explanation for this. Most crimes are committed by young males, and then criminality falls when they age. So this might be one case in which there is a slip in methodology for no justified reason, and this slip will over state the crime rate for people in the prime working years.

      All this said, the real concern with the book is the interpretation that is to be given to the data. For example, he focuses on the rise in disability benefits, but this implicitly leads the reader to the conclusion that the disincentives effects of social programs is on the rise. An issue of this sort requires a much more comprehensive examination of not just a single government program but of weighing the costs against the benefits.

      He is a careful reader of much of the academic literature, recognizing the challenges in making causal statements from raw data, and noting that selection effects play a role. For example, does marriage make men happier and more civilized; or are more happy and civilized men more likely to get and stay married? His analysis is just a starting point for the more detailed discussions needed to figure these sorts of things out, and determine not just whether they are present, but how strong they are.

      He makes clear at the end of the book, and this is what my post focuses upon, that his beliefs lead him to policy conclusions, rather than letting the policy conclusions follow from the more detailed analysis that is necessary.

  3. social safety nut permalink


    As a close follower of these debates through the past twenty to thirty years, I am quite amazed that Mr. Murray is given the attention he is, at least by policy scholars. Here is my interpretation of his trajectory. His “Losing Ground” raised the specter of unintended consequences from the social safety net. A decade or so of empirical research that followed that essentially concluded that the effects are quite small (e.g., labor supply) and in some important cases (e.g., out of wedlock child bearing; decreases in marriage; dependency) virtually non-existent. Having found that his arguments were undercut empirically, he tacked in a different direction — IQ. Thus, the real problem now according to Mr. Murray was not that social programs caused bad behaviors, but that they were necessarily ineffectual because the cause of poverty, crime, etc. was low intelligence. And, social programs cannot raise intelligence. Perfect. Once again, one needed a tractor trailer to carry the studies that trashed those repugnant racialist ideas. And now he’s back, with yet another version of the same argument. Having milked sensationalistic ideas of racial inferiority, he removes race and focuses on class. But did he really remove race? After all, a key point of the book is to elevate those 1 per centers, hectoring them to speak more about their good habits so that we will all know how to succeed. They are of course in large majority white and male. So, here we are again, with racial and gender superiority in new clothes.

    By now Mr. Murray should have lost any credibility. His new book should be greeted with the same enthusiasm as a hemorrhoid. Policy scholars should not bend over backwards to point out things that he might have right (some of his facts are correct!). Instead they should consider his work in its totality and suggest to readers that they ought to wear a clothes pin on their noses and rubber gloves should they feel compelled to buy it.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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