Coming Apart

02.07.12

Social Science Minus the Science

Where is the evidence to support Charles Murray's diagnosis?

This is Part 4 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 3, Click here to read Part 5.

So what is to be done?

Despite all its perverse omissions and careless generalizations, Coming Apart deserves credit at least for this: It takes seriously the challenge of reconstituting America as a middle-class republic. At a time when many conservatives refuse to acknowledge the simple statistical fact of intensifying inequality, Murray has at least joined the discussion. Congratulations for that.

Yet Murray plainly wishes to contribute more than the repetition of familiar observations about widening class divides in America. As he ominously states at the very beginning of Coming Apart:

I will argue that the divergence into these separate classes, if it continues, will end what has made America America.

The stakes can hardly be higher than that. If America is to survive as America, the trends Murray deplores must somehow be arrested or reversed. What does he recommend?

Strangely, the answer to that question is ... virtually nothing.

Murray's program for social reform has two main components.

The first component is a lot more scolding of the poor by the rich:

A large part of the problem consists of nothing more complicated than our unwillingness to say out loud what we believe. A great many people, especially in the new upper class, just need to start preaching what they practice.

...

And so I am hoping for a civic Great Awakening among the new upper class.

Etc.

This extraordinary passage raises a number of baffling questions. Earlier in the book, Murray waxed indignant about the "condescension toward the rabble" he detected in the new upper class.

In those earlier pages, Murray bitterly condemned the new upper class for non-verbally communicating any "whiff" of disapproval of junk food, smoking, and non-recycling. Yet now at the end of the book he calls for explicit "preaching" of ... what? He doesn't quite say. Nor does he say why he imagines that this "preaching" will be more effective than the non-verbal disapprobation of junk food that so offends him.

Most strangely of all, Murray seems utterly uninterested in investigating whether this chosen remedy will actually work. The new American upper class may be crippled by non-judgmentalism, but there have been other periods in US history where the upper class did not shrink from lecturing: the temperance movement for one outstanding example. Was that successful? Historians have studied the question, and the answer is there for Murray to discover, if he wished.

The second component of Murray's program for saving the American republic from class divisions is a drastic reduction in the American welfare state.

Murray does not state this point as lucidly as one might wish, so the quotations will have to skip around a bit. But I'll quote at enough length that I hope I'll reassure all readers that I do not distort Murray's meaning:

When the government intervenes to help, whether in the European welfare state or in America's more diluted version, it not only diminishes our responsibility for the desired outcomes, it enfeebles the institutions through which people live satisfying lives. ... Through November 21, 1963, the American project demonstrated that a society can provide great personal freedom while generating strong and vital human networks that helped its citizens cope. America on the eve of John F. Kennedy's assassination, while flawed, was still headed in the right direction.

In some ways, the United States continued in the right direction, bringing us closer to the ideals that animated the nation's creation. The leading examples are the revolutions in the status of African Americans and women. The barriers facing them in 1963 represented a continuing failure of America to make good on its ideals. In every realm of American life, those barriers had been reduced drastically by 2010.

In other ways, it has been downhill ever since. ... Family, vocation, community, and faith have all been enfeebled, in predictable ways.

...

These costs—enfeebling family, vocation, community, and faith—are not exacted on the [new upper class]. The things the government does to take the trouble out of things seldom intersect with the lives of a successful attorney or executive. Rather, they intersect with life in [the lower class]. A man who is holding down a menial job and thereby supporting a wife and children is doing something authentically important with his life. He should take deep satisfaction from that, and be praised by his community for doing so. If that same man lives under a system that says the children of the woman he sleeps with will be taken care of whether or not he contributes, then that status goes away. I am not describing a theoretical outcome, but American neighborhoods where, once, working at a menial job to provide for his family made a man proud and gave him status in his community, and where now it doesn't. Taking the trouble out of life strips people of major ways in which human beings look back on their lives and say, 'I made a difference.'

First the good news. Lower class people in the United States still have lots and lots of satisfying trouble in their lives. Charles Murray worries that we've made it too easy to be a menial worker. I think we can set his mind at ease on that point.

Now alas the bad news.

If you're going to claim the mantle of social science for your claim that reducing government will ameliorate class disparities, then at some previous point in your work, you should make at least some minimal effort to demonstrate that government activity has caused those class disparities. Yet that effort is absent from Murray's book. Indeed, at the outset of his book, Murray emphatically disclaims any interest in the causes of widening inequality:

I focus on what happened, not why.

Yet at the end of the book, without ever suggesting any reason to believe that government is the problem, he insists that the reduction of government is the solution.

I found myself flipping from beginning to end of the book, punching searches into my Kindle, questioning whether I'd perhaps carelessly missed some crucial piece of evidence. But no. There is no evidence, not even an argument, just an after-the-fact assertion, pulled out of the hat.

It's puzzling, truly. The prescription comes without an etiology, the recommendation without any discussion of causation, verdict without proof or trial. Social science's claims to be science are troubled enough without this wholesale jettisoning of—not only scientific method—but even the scientific outlook.

The odd thing is: I'm exactly the right market for Murray's rhetoric. I'm predisposed to accept everything he says about the importance of individual achievement and the negative consequences of government that provides too much. All I ask is some skein of connection, no matter how thin and fragile, between the "whereas" and "therefore" clauses of the Murray argument. Murray doesn't draw any at all, and doesn't seem even to be aware that any such skein is required. The conclusions of Coming Apart are pure dogma, not only unsupported but even unrelated to anything that went before.

—MORE TO COME—