Our Polarizing Culture: A Conversation with Charles Murray

The galvanizing and controversial author of Coming Apart discusses reactions to his latest work and defends the libertarian perspective.

Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010
by Charles Murray
Crown Forum, 2012, 416 pp., $27

TAI Editor Adam Garfinkle: Thanks for sitting down with me, Dr. Murray. Let me say to start that while there are aspects of Coming Apart to which I take exception, I appreciate the main point—that class is not synonymous with race, and that culture more than class is what is increasingly dividing American society. Let me also say that I appreciate your honesty as a researcher, exemplified by the fact that you draw from diverse sources, whereas many of the people who criticize you don’t. In the section on social capital, for instance, you quote from Robert Putnam, Francis Fukuyama and Theda Scopkol, and you note favorably Richard Florida and Robert Reich, none of whom are libertarians.

Charles Murray: Thanks. You know, the epigraph to Part III is the Keynes quote, “When the facts change, I change my mind.” I then point out that, actually, we often don’t change our minds when we learn new facts, because we’re operating from first principles. But that doesn’t mean we have to close ourselves off to the wisdom of those with other points of view.

TAI: Perhaps you’ve paid a price for sticking to first principles. After all, you’re no stranger to controversy. What has surprised you most, and least, about the reaction to your book so far?

Charles Murray: I have to make a confession here: I don’t read reviews, and I don’t read about myself. My wife does, though, and so I have some sense of the reaction, but not in detail. Having said that, I love that some liberals, while rejecting my policies, acknowledge that I’m addressing a serious problem. That’s the reason I avoided bringing in the arguments from Losing Ground about underlying causes of class segregation, because I wanted liberals to read the book cover to cover rather than throw it against the wall. So I don’t think there are any cheap shots against the Left there.

I do wish that I had expanded my discussion of how changes in labor markets have impacted labor force participation. I thought my coverage of the topic was adequate as I was writing, but it deserved more, and I should have anticipated some of the objections to that section. But overall, this is the best reaction I’ve received to any of my books (except for Apollo, which is a different kettle of fish). Losing Ground received mainly critical reviews but managed to spark conversation; The Bell Curve was, of course, a train-wreck.

TAI: One thing I notice as an editor is curious mismatches between authors and reviewers. I was struck, but not surprised, when the New York Times chose one of its own, Nicholas Confessore, to review Coming Apart. He said that readers would pass over the sociology—namely, your pesky charts and graphs—and focus on the politics of the work. He then cites criticism that your previous books supposedly massaged the data, in effect suggesting that you’re less than an objective scholar. Yet he refers to himself as a “professional amateur”, whatever that means—unless it means accusing you of doing things you don’t do, like ignoring income inequality data, which you discuss on page 12. I find it infuriating that the Times would assign a serious book of social science to a hack journalist, except of course that they do this all the time. So I guess I don’t blame you for not reading the reviews—at least certain species of reviews.

Charles Murray: It’s not the criticism that bothers me; I just don’t like to read about myself. After The Bell Curve, a reviewer would have to say something really nasty about me to get under my skin.

TAI: Well, I do disagree with a number of things in the book, but, as I say, I appreciate its most important point about phenomena that have been accruing nearly unnoticed over the past forty years—in short, that poverty in this country is not just about inner-city blacks. It’s not about race, but class and culture. I think you’ve done a great service in bringing this forward. Why, however, did you decide to approach the book with a focus primarily on data rather than on the “why” questions? I found myself wanting to leap into the paragraphs with a, “well, but the reason for this is…” The book gave me more than occasionally an unrequited feeling, speaking as one social scientist to another.

Charles Murray: As I said, I did that because I wanted people on the Left to read the book. Also, I’ve always tried to hold my ideology apart from the presentation of the data. As I did in Losing Ground, here I make a clear transition in the final section from describing how things are to imposing my interpretation.

TAI: One of the worst things a reviewer can do—or that an editor can let him get away with—is criticizing an author for not doing something he explicitly said he didn’t intend to do. But I have to admit that as I read through the book, especially in the discussion of divorce and marriage differences between Belmont and Fishtown, I sensed the anthropological dimension gone missing.

Charles Murray: In a sense I didn’t go quite far enough with that. Take, for example, the labor force issues. There is an argument to be made that demoralization because of the loss of manufacturing jobs is a factor. I personally think changes to the social role of men are a more important part of this. But stepping away from presenting the phenomenon to explaining why it has come to be wouldn’t necessarily have strengthened the book. If a guy is sitting at home during a time when there are plenty of jobs, and he’s not taking a job because he’s demoralized by globalization, and the argument is that industriousness has decreased among the working class, well, Q.E.D. It may be because he’s demoralized by globalization, but the larger point about a major culture change in attitudes toward work still stands. Paul Krugman can be completely right in his alternate view of the causes, but it still amounts to the objective loss of industriousness.

TAI: To some extent that particular datum seems over-determined. There are many different explanations for it. For example, during that section of the book you don’t mention addiction and drug abuse, though you later raise it in a prominent way. You also don’t stress how working-class men, from Polish and Italians to Irish Catholics, take pride in making things, using skills in masonry or tiling or carpentry, and when there are no jobs in those areas they have a hard time bridging sideways to find new work. It’s a matter of dignity. There are all sorts of things you can’t measure that contribute to waning industriousness, but you’re right; whatever the explanation, the trend is undeniable.

Early in the book you say that you’re not directly connecting the decline in the founding virtues—which you identify as industriousness, honesty, marriage and religiosity—and the decline in the country’s wealth or national security. That struck me as debatable. I don’t know of any great power in history that lost its foothold or decayed because of external reasons; internal social dysfunction was to blame. Don’t you think that unless the trends you espy reverse there will be national security implications at some point? For instance, why should people join the army to risk their lives for a country whose cultural values they don’t respect anymore? I see the military today as the largest repository of those founding values. But if the élan and morale among the officer corps decays because of the divide you describe, that would have dramatic national security implications.

Charles Murray: I’d say things could just as easily go the other way: The military, internally, could become an even stronger locus of pride and brotherhood as it becomes more and more removed from the general population. It will still be the most elite fighting force in the world. I don’t think we’ll see the sort of degradation you worry about within the armed forces.

Now, whether these downward trends bode ill for the quality of leadership we can expect is an interesting question. There’s a difference between what’s going on now and previous eras. There used to be a huge reservoir of talent in the working class, because all sorts of innately gifted people never had the chance to get out. I think we have something that increasingly resembles the Chinese examination system, which very effectively co-opts intellectual talent from all ranks of society. The American college sorting machine is doing a good job of that. My children, for instance, attended Brunswick High School in Burkittsville, a working-class area, and the bright students there had no problem going to college, including very good colleges and with full scholarships even. That’s true everywhere. In a sense we’re systematically draining the working class and the disaffected middle class of the kinds of people who could lead a cultural and economic revolution.

TAI: This argument parallels the one about how desegregation had the effect of drawing away talent from black communities and black colleges. I share the concern.

It seems to me that today’s college sorting system stems from a shift beginning in the late 1950s or early ’60s from legacy admissions to a more meritocratic approach. In your book you show numerically how dramatic the shift was. What happened?

Charles Murray: Well, the SAT was actually backed by the elite colleges. There was a strong idea that the intellectual elite should be drawn from wherever the best talent could be found. Harvard was one of the earliest schools to base admissions full-bore on talent. Coincidentally, my class at Harvard, ’65, was the first in which a majority of students came from public high schools. I give the elite schools a lot of credit for taking the lead in this transition.

TAI: In your discussion of the polarization of class and culture, I was struck that you didn’t address the question of technology. It seems to me that one of the reasons Americans don’t mix together the way they used to is that technology has brought automation to the service sector: You don’t need a gas station attendant to fill up your tank; you don’t need to speak to a bank teller in person; there are fewer receptionists and secretaries; people don’t encounter sales clerks when they shop online. And of course, we don’t have the draft anymore, which served the function of mixing men from all different sectors of the population. I’m surprised that you didn’t discuss the technical reasons behind this divide.

Charles Murray: One of my chief thoughts about technology is exactly the opposite. The internet, among other computer advancements are why, for instance, I can live in Burkittsville and be much happier than had I lived there forty years ago. My computer set-up allows me to interact with people who are interested in the same things as I am, while also living in the world of Burkittsville. I ask readers and lecture audiences to question whether they really want to live in and raise their children in these rarified bubbles, surrounded only by people just like themselves. Today, it’s a lot more realistic for them to choose to leave those “super zips”, as I call them, because of internet connectivity, than it used to be.

Now, your points are interesting…

TAI: I think you’re right, but in a way that only affects a small number of self-selected people. I think for most, the divide becomes more acute.

Charles Murray: Can I just say, the ways we used to interact but don’t—yes, these extend beyond just purchasing goods and services.

TAI: It just seems to me that cumulatively people don’t talk to others of a different class as much anymore.

Charles Murray: On the one hand a lot of daily interactions have disappeared, but on the other you have more ability to live two lives.

TAI: Let’s turn to another important point in your book, assortative marriage. Do you have any international data on this? Thinking of Europe in particular, I imagine there would have been very pronounced social homogamy from the Victorian period through World War I, followed by more mixing, and then a sort of re-creation of the old stratification based on different criteria. I think it would be interesting to do international comparisons of this.

Charles Murray: I’d make a different kind of prediction than yours. Think of the successful young businessman in 19th-century England. Once he’s made some substantial money, who does he marry, particularly if he’s interested in rising up the social ranks?

TAI: A woman from the landed aristocracy, if he can?

Charles Murray: Well, no, the landed aristocracy, which is losing money, became eager to marry its daughters to commoners who had made a lot of money. Those daughters have a mean IQ, most likely, of maybe around 105. So you have a talented guy who by such a measure won’t do better than he would have had he married the girl next door.

By contrast, what’s driving the system now is that the feminist revolution and the subsequent entry of women into higher professions has radically increased the likelihood that the successful male with a 135 IQ will marry a woman at the same level.

TAI: I think this is what Henry Adams meant when he wrote, “The capacity of women to make unsuitable marriages must be considered as the cornerstone of society.”

To move on, you observe in passing that the elite, the topmost 5 percent of income earners, tend to be more liberal. Why do you think this is? It seems to me that a certain kind of excessively educated liberal has a tendency toward abstract thought. They allow abstractions to dominate and frame their perception of reality, whereas people who don’t have that level of education are more willing to get some dirt under their fingernails and look at reality for what it is. What’s your theory?

Charles Murray: Just one correction, first. I say that there’s a liberal tilt among the narrow elite—the people who affect the nation’s culture, economy, and politics—which is concentrated around New York, Washington, Los Angeles and the San Francisco area. But if you move beyond those four areas, to the broad elite—the most influential people on a local level—the people elected to Congress from the super-zips in places like Kansas City or Atlanta or Phoenix look almost identical to those from the rest of the zips. Why is the narrow elite markedly liberal? Like you, I like to play with the idea. In academia, I agree that smart people can find simple answers rather boring. Complexity is fun, and Occam’s Razor goes out the window. In that sense, conservatism is unattractive because it’s old-fashioned in insisting on age-old verities about human nature, and also because it seems simple-minded.

In addition, liberals’ antagonism toward capitalism can be associated with a certain temperament common to this group. Imagine you’re a very smart young person who has decided, in the midst of your hot-blooded twenties, to seek a career that offers lifetime job security. That entails a heavy selection for a certain personality type, and against a more entrepreneurial type.

Still another thing that plays into elites’ liberalism relates to status. Some of the smartest people among them make a professor’s salary. They see some guy make $50 million because he invented a way to make spray bottles work better and get irritated. They think: I’m smarter than that guy. It’s not fair.

TAI: To return to the technology question, when you talk about Robert Putnam’s work studying the depletion of social capital, you don’t mention the impact of television. He thought television was a significant isolating factor. Would you agree?

Charles Murray: Well, not exactly. Television gave a diverse population a kind of common basis for culture, at least during the time when the top shows had about 30 percent of the country watching them. But if you mean that it had more people sitting inside at home rather than out on the stoop, I take his point. A more significant shift, which accompanied the waning of farm culture as well as the rising prominence of television, was the invention of adolescence.

TAI: I think suburbia did too, frankly. You can see a lot of social capital in the old close-knit city neighborhoods, but the strung-out spatial arrangement of suburbia is a much different dynamic.

Charles Murray: Well, I suppose you’re right on the whole, but I can easily think of suburban neighborhoods that have very robust community lives, usually focused around the schools. In a way your questions are demonstrating why I deliberately avoided positing specific explanations of underlying causes. I think the conversation surrounding the book will bring a much richer consideration of causes than I could have presented in the book.

TAI: I also enjoyed your discussion of family, avocation, community and faith. I’m a temperamental conservative, myself, so I was curious why you didn’t draw more connections between these things. You conclude that both attending worship services and sincere belief are important in building and sustaining community. It seems to me that the link between faith and community is much stronger than that. People go to a worship service because there’s a community there that is created and annealed by belief. The interactions among these factors strike me as very rich.

This brings to mind David Brooks’s reaction to the book, which centers on an epistemological question related to how libertarians think of the world in terms of primordial individualism. The assumption is that the individual is the basic agent of account in morality and politics, and there’s very little social science evidence to support that. Rather, social context is critical in interpreting what this data means. I think David is right to note that the book doesn’t much take into account the past 25 years of research on humans as social animals. I think that leads to a certain two-dimensional flatness to the way the data is interpreted.

Charles Murray: If I had it to write again, I would add a paragraph or two about the social capital generated by religiosity. But I wouldn’t want to bring in the literature David references. There is a nice transparency about the book as it is. The data are very straightforward, aside from a few regression equations. The literature David invokes is relevant, but I disagree that it would have had a proper place in book.

TAI: I hear you. But I do want to press on this point about individualism just a bit more. The first 14 chapters of the book lay out the “what”, and I’m glad it’s out there. But the anthropological piece I mentioned would have provided a bridge to the final chapter, and without it the book feels a bit schizophrenic.

Charles Murray: Don’t I say that? I explicitly said that.

TAI: Well, yes, but let me finish. When you finally get around to discussing what has caused the founding values to decay and the subsequent polarization to emerge, you don’t blame the government alone, but its policies are a big part of what you blame.

Charles Murray: The core idea is that the welfare state intrinsically drains a lot of life out of life.

TAI: Well, you say that the government largely caused these things, but there’s nothing government can do to fix them.

Charles Murray: Except a return to limited government.

TAI: This is where you and I part company. I think it’s contradictory to say that government can be a causal agent in the destruction of the founding virtues but not a causal agent in amending these problems.

Charles Murray: Can I explain why I don’t think it’s a contradiction? I do think a shift back to a Madisonian limited government would solve many of these problems, but we can’t return to that, or to anything remotely approaching it. It’s politically impracticable under current circumstances. But there are incremental things government can do (or cease doing) that would move us in that direction. For instance, replacing the apparatus of the welfare state with a guaranteed annual income would accomplish that. That might become politically practicable in the future. For the moment, if I charge that government caused these problems but can also ameliorate them, I’m on the hook for detailing how it can do so. I haven’t a clue to what those politically practicable solutions might be. Were you to inject me with sodium pentothal truth serum, you wouldn’t find anything that I’m holding back.

TAI: I understand. Let me ask about this idea you’ve expressed previously about giving poor people money. I remember the book you wrote about this, In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State. If you take all the money we’re spending on transfer programs, you might persuade me that a guaranteed income is feasible. But I still don’t understand how an avowed libertarian could advocate a guaranteed income of any sort. If, as you say, values that are not earned are neither respected nor enduring, how do you get there from the doctrinaire libertarian view?

Charles Murray: As a grand compromise. We’re never going to end transfer payments, period. I say to the Left, okay, you can have big government in terms of money if you give me small government in terms of the amount of messing around you do in people’s lives. That’s why the book is called “in our hands.” It leaves decisions to us, not to bureaucrats. But I still have to worry about how the dynamics would work, which is why I spend many pages on issues like incentives and family formation. Don’t you remember the book’s discussion of the Doolittle effect? I think it’s actually pretty ingenious stuff, and true to boot. And if you wonder how a good libertarian could go there, remember that Milton Friedman was both in favor of a guaranteed income as a replacement for the welfare state and a respectable libertarian forebear. Mind you, many libertarians want to read me out of the movement for saying this.

TAI: One more question, though perhaps I’m not reading you right. You talk about the rottenness of an elite that won’t preach what it practices. You conclude that if the American elite is really as hollow as that, all is lost. But then, you also speculate that a civic awakening, as Robert Fogel might have imagined, could occur spontaneously, without any nudging from government. Personally, I think you underestimate the rottenness of the elite, and I can’t foresee any such awakening. How do you square this?

Charles Murray: There’s a lot of equivocation in the book between the pessimistic and the optimistic. If I were required to put 20 percent of my net worth into a bet, I’d favor the pessimistic view. However, I think what Fogel describes as the spillover from the fourth American awakening is quite persuasive. I also think that we are seeing significant green shoots springing up in terms of the elites’ interest in the spiritual dimensions of life. The analogy I’ve often used in print is that the 20th century constituted the adolescence of the human species: We had undergone all these revelations from Freud and Darwin and Einstein and concluded that our parents were wrong about everything, and now we’re growing up in the 21st century. Many intellectuals are not nearly so cavalier as their counterparts used to be. I’m still an agnostic, but I’ve seen my own wife go through a religious awakening, and I see that going on among the new upper class in general. With that comes the possibility for the kinds of changes that underlie the optimistic scenario.

TAI: Here’s why I’m skeptical about that. Your sense is that government has jumpstarted the decay of the founding virtues, but you say much less about the changes to society or political economy at large. There are large aggregations in corporate power; it’s what you call a second gilded age. There’s no love lost between you and the parasitic financial plutocracy ruining the country, that’s clear. It just seems to me that the country has been changed by phenomena that have arisen from the so-called private sector, and that the decay in the founding virtues is as much, if not more so, the byproduct of that as it is of anything government has done.

Charles Murray: Here I’ll contend that I haven’t failed to see something. We just simply disagree. I think there’s another side to the business elite in this country, too, many of whom conduct their affairs with honor and trust. They care deeply about the good side of capitalism, and they are as angry about the malfeasance on Wall Street as anyone else. In sum, while I’d still lean toward betting on the pessimistic side, many others have lost their net worth betting against the United States. If things ultimately go in a better direction, it won’t be because of any technocratic public policies, but because of America’s remarkable track record of organic regeneration. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Appeared in: Volume 07, Number 5 | Published on: April 10, 2012
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