Coming Apart

Charles Murray
2012

It’s not economic inequality that’s causing America’s problems. It’s the moral deterioration of the working class that’s to blame.

Charles Murray knows how to stir up controversy, and Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, certainly does that.

What you get when you read Charles Murray these days is pretty much what you got when you read Charles Murray a couple of decades ago.

Except that this time, his subject isn’t the mental deficiencies of African-Americans and Latinos, but the white lower class’s abandonment of the “founding values” of the country.

The new upper class, the “cognitive elite,” is a function of culture, not money, Murray argues. Consistent with Murray’s libertarianism, he approvingly see this elite as a meritocracy, the members of which retain and practice the core American values of industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity. These, he argues, are the values on which the U.S. was founded, and they are the values that made the country great.

Indeed, it’s Murray’s concern over the decline and possible disappearance of American “exceptionalism” which largely motivates the book.

(In a quick but perhaps quite relevant aside, this is the same exceptionalism that led Colorado Congressman Mike Coffman to declare that Barack Obama was “not an American.” Maybe he was born here, Coffman said, but he wasn’t an American “in his heart.” Why? Apologizing for his statement a day after it became public, Coffman couldn’t help including this sentiment: “I don’t believe the president shares my belief in American Exceptionalism. His policies reflect a philosophy that America is but one nation among many equals.” If this proclamation doesn’t make you sick, or at least make you shiver, then you’re reading the wrong blog.)

Murray supports his thesis with a ream of charts, all of them looking pretty much the same, with the values of the elite soaring up just as far as the values of the poor sag down. But some of his assumptions — and most of his judgements — are highly questionable.

I don’t intend to summarize all of the content of Coming Apart. There are many other reviews that do a good job of that. I intend to focus on the underlying assumptions and attitudes that inform Murray’s interpretation of the statistics he parades before his readers.

It will suffice here to report that Murray’s explanation for the “coming apart” of American society is that, on the one hand, the white elite (the top 20%) continue to work hard, act with integrity, marry for life, and go to church. At the same time, the white poor (the bottom 30%) have lost the Puritan work ethic, want the government to give them something for nothing, have 40% of their children out of wedlock, and (this one is surprising) go to church less often than the elite do.

This decline of true American values, Murray claims, is at the root of the social problems and the drop in living standards that plague the bottom third of white Americans. White Americans? Why focus on white Americans? Murray’s stated reason is so that no one can accuse him of racism, or of a classism based on race. A classism based on privilege and opportunity is okay, apparently.

Murray repeats over and over that it’s not money, it’s values that separate the highest and lowest classes of American society. The Wall Street profit frenzy and the bank crisis, the ever-expanding gap between the incomes of the privileged and the incomes of the disadvantaged — these aren’t the problem. The problem isn’t the greed or the social insensitivity of the elite. The problem is that the poor don’t work hard enough, aren’t honest enough, don’t practice the proper family values, or sufficiently worship God.

It’s an outrageous claim. Why are the poor poor? Because they’re morally inferior to the rich. Really. Strip away the academic jargon, and that’s what he’s saying.

Here’s just one example of the kind of ideology-driven interpretation with which Murray fills his book. One of the statistics Murray uses to show that the poor lack industriousness and honesty is that the personal bankruptcy rate has skyrocketed in the last two decades. What, you may well ask, does going broke have to do with hard work or integrity?

Murray’s argument is that the growing bankruptcy rate doesn’t reflect the growing hardships of the working poor — the corporate attack on labour unions, falling wages in the face of global outsourcing, changes to the tax structure that have reduced government support for struggling workers and small businesses, the housing crash and the banking crisis, and so many more well-documented problems.

Oh, no. What the growing personal bankruptcy rate indicates is that the poor have lost their “sticktoitiveness,” their willingness to work harder to overcome economic trouble without crying to the government welfare nanny for help.

Think I’m exaggerating? Here’s a small part of what Murray wrote: “the propensity to declare bankruptcy has changed and … integrity has deteriorated.” Shame on you for going broke is an approach to social justice that belongs in Little Dorritt, not in the 21st century.

But doesn’t the elite bear any responsibility for the declining American social fabric? Yes, but certainly not any economic responsibility. Murray is firmly libertarian in denying any benefit, any at all, to any kind, any at all, of government-assisted equalization of opportunity or resources.

The elite’s one fault in all of this, Murray believes, is that it has been too wrapped up in itself to provide proper and necessary moral leadership to the poor. If you live in your gated community and interact with the poor only when your gardener and your pool man are around, how can you provide moral leadership? Ever the good libertarian, Murray argues that it’s in their own interest that the elite must reach out to — reeducate — the poor, without whom the elite’s lifestyle cannot be sustained. And without the elite, where would the country be? It’s apparently too terrible even to consider.

By now you are aware of the deep disgust I felt while reading Coming Apart. Despite this revulsion, I did finish the book. I was hoping that somewhere there would be a saving social sentiment. I didn’t find any.

The thought that kept running through my mind, again and again, was how smug, how condescending, how morally repugnant it was to blame the poor for being poor.

But then, if you’re a libertarian, that’s exactly who you’re going to blame, isn’t it?

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