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?
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.