David Frum

02.07.12

What the Founders Would Tell Charles Murray

The Founding Fathers were strongly opposed to high concentrations of wealth.

This is Part 3 of a review of Charles Murray's new book "Coming Apart." Click here to read Part 1, Click here to read Part 2, Click here to read Part 4, Click here to read Part 5.

Murray is especially eager to chastise the top 5% because he is convinced that this class "tends to be liberal—right? There's no getting around it Every way of answering this question produces a yes."

In fact, most ways of answering the question produce the answer "no," as Andrew Gelman has exhaustively and I think conclusively demonstrated.

Murray does not heed that answer for a reason that reflects both the best and the worst in his method as a writer and thinker. Murray has become one of America's most influential social scientists because at bottom he is not really a social scientist at all. He is a literary intellectual, who thinks in images, not numbers. At its best—in, say, Charles Murray's under-appreciated book on political theory, In Pursuit—Murray's artistic imagination can perceive ancient and familiar conundrums in fresh and interesting ways. However, the same artistic cast of mind leads him to be satisfied very quickly with impressions and assumptions that "feel true"—and which he then attempts to "corroborate" not with facts and figures, but with thought experiments and rhetorical questions.

Say "top 5%" to Murray, and his imagination conjures up everything he dislikes: coastal liberals listening to NPR in their Lexus hybrid SUVs. He sees that image so intensely that no mere number can force him to remember that the top 5% also includes the evangelical Christian assistant coach of a state university football team. It includes the retired general now enriching his pension with directorships and consultancies. It includes for that matter the call screener at the Rush Limbaugh program.

(Murray holds the strange idea that listening to talk radio proves you belong to the American mainstream. But of course listening to talk radio doesn't prove you are mainstream. It proves you are old.)

Charles Murray's back-handed treatment of the new American upper class is all the more dismaying because the topic is so very desperately important.

Some of what Murray wishes to say is surely true. It's surely true that the affluent and influential people who make up the top 5% of the American population know less and care less about their countrymen than the equivalent segment of the population in, say, 1970. Such separation has significant real-world consequences.

Back in 1971, an unemployment rate of 6% seemed a national calamity, demanding the most urgent action from Republicans and Democrats alike. Here's an extract from President Nixon's State of the Union address that year:

We should take no comfort from the fact that the level of unemployment in this transition from a wartime to a peacetime economy is lower than in any peacetime year of the sixties.

This is not good enough for the man who is unemployed in the seventies. We must do better for workers in peacetime and we will do better.

To achieve this, I will submit an expansionary budget this year--one that will help stimulate the economy and thereby open up new job opportunities for millions of Americans.

It will be a full employment budget, a budget designed to be in balance if the economy were operating at its peak potential. By spending as if we were at full employment, we will help to bring about full employment.

I ask the Congress to accept these expansionary policies--to accept the concept of a full employment budget. ...

With the stimulus and the discipline of a full employment budget, with the commitment of the independent Federal Reserve System to provide fully for the monetary needs of a growing economy, and with a much greater effort on the part of labor and management to make their wage and price decisions in the light of the national interest and their own self-interest--then for the worker, the farmer, the consumer, for Americans everywhere we shall gain the goal of a new prosperity: more jobs, more income, more profits, without inflation and without war.

Imagine the reaction—and not only from Republicans—if President Obama talked that way! The difference between then and now is not only driven by partisanship and ideology. Back then, the people who made opinion in this country carried childhood or even teenage memories of the misery of prolonged unemployment. If they felt secure themselves, they had friends and relatives who did not. Murray is right to worry about that separation—even if his only use of his correct perception is to scold.

Yet here is the great problem with Murray's substitution of imagery for numbers in his social thought. By focusing so intently on those detested hybrid-driving NPR-listening bottle-recyling cheeseburger-avoiding professors and screenwriters, Murray has blinded himself to the most important changes that have occurred since 1960 in America's distribution of wealth and power.

It is certainly much nicer to be a white member of the top 5% in 2012 than it was in 1962, especially if you are a woman. (Remember, Murray discusses only white people through most of his book—and I will follow his example until my own final post.)

Back in 1962, exceedingly few members of the top 5% had ever taken an African safari.

Back in 1962, exceedingly few members of the top 5% ate grapes in winter.

Back in 1962, exceedingly few members of the top 5% employed maids or laundry services—that work was almost entirely done by the female half of the top 5%, Wellesley degree or no Wellesley degree.

Nobody in 1962 had access to the information and entertainment resources available to everybody with broadband cable today, the top 5% leading the way with the fastest connections and the coolest devices.

As interesting as these changes in lifestyle may be, however, American society has changed in other ways that leave almost all of the top 5% as far behind as they leave the bottom 95%.

Back in 1962, no individual American controlled a national television network, as Rupert Murdoch does today. (The legendary William Paley owned only about 10% of the stock of CBS.)

Back in 1962, it was considered shocking, and even frightening, for an extremely rich man like Nelson Rockefeller to use his fortune to gain political office.

Back in 1962, most political donations were kept secret. But when it came to light after Watergate that insurance magnate W. Clement Stone had donated $2 million to Richard Nixon's two presidential campaigns, Americans were scandalized. In 2004, by contrast, the John Kerry campaign and related organizations collected $75 million from only four donors.

Charles Murray deplores our present state as a betrayal of the founders' vision of the country. I am not certain of what the founders as a group would have thought about affluent people taking safaris to Africa. My guess is that Benjamin Rush would have disliked it, while Benjamin Franklin would have been untroubled—but who knows?

But here's what we do know: almost unanimously, the Americans of the 1790s agreed that vast inequality of fortunes—at least as between white men—were inimical to Republican government. Here for example is Noah Webster, writing in 1790 (I've corrected his idiosyncratic spelling):

The causes which destroyed the ancient republics were numerous; but in Rome, one principal cause was the vast inequality of fortunes.

....

The basis of a democratic and a republican form of government is a fundamental law favoring an equal or rather a general distribution of property. It is not necessary nor possible that every citizen should have exactly an equal portion of land and goods, but the laws of such a state should require an equal distribution of intestate estates, and bar all perpetuities.

It's worth noting that Noah Webster was a Federalist, not a radical Republican. What he wrote there would have received nods from almost every member of the founding generation, John Adams most emphatically, but also the aristocratic Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson went so far as to endorse a progressive income tax in a 1785 letter to James Madison.

(And here you thought the idea came from Karl Marx, or possibly Saul Alinsky.)

Republican government rested on a broad equality of fortunes: that was conventional wisdom in the founding generations.

Concentration of fortunes threatened republics: that was conventional wisdom too.

And Charles Murray's suggestion that an emphasis on "seemliness" would mitigate the political consequences of extreme inequality would have seemed to them laughably naive. They would have answered Murray with a quotation from their teacher Montesquieu:

The spirit of moderation is what we call virtue in an aristocracy; it supplies the place of the spirit of equality in a popular state.

When we find ourselves urging "seemliness" on our leaders, we have moved beyond popular government—or so the founding generation would have likely thought. If a writer represents himself as carrying forward the founders' principles, he ought to pay heed to their most fundamental stated concern: not the purchase of this lifestyle or that, but the use of vast concentrated wealth to sway political power.

Yet it is precisely this concern, so urgent to the founders, to which Charles Murray pays no heed at all.

—More to Come—