Published March 19, 2012
Charles Murray’s profound and important new book has, for the most part, been received as merely the latest volley in the inequality debates. Its champions have tended to praise it for shedding light on overlooked aspects of the gap between rich and poor, while its critics have faulted it for ignoring some elements crucial to any proper understanding of the causes of inequality in America—and especially for paying too little attention to working-class wage stagnation.
Murray has made it easy to assume that his book should be understood as fundamentally an argument about inequality: It is, after all, a book about how America’s elite and lower classes are increasingly becoming separate cultures. Page after page, chart after chart, it copiously documents a growing distance between the top and the bottom. But Coming Apart is far more than a study of inequality and, indeed, when carefully considered it renders our ongoing inequality debates a little ridiculous.
To be carefully considered, the book must first be understood as the culmination of Charles Murray’s decades-long effort to define, describe, and protect America’s exceptional character. As with all of Murray’s books, every page of Coming Apart radiates an intense yet unpretentious love of country. And what makes America so loveable, in Murray’s telling, is its unique national ethic: “The American project,” he writes, “consists of the continuing effort, begun with the founding, to demonstrate that human beings can be left free as individuals and families to live their lives as they see fit, coming together voluntarily to solve their joint problems.” Sustaining such a balance between freedom and self-government requires a thriving civic culture, and the existence of such a culture has always made America unique.
That culture has, in one way or another, been the subject of all of Murray’s work—a fact powerfully evident in his most famous book (The Bell Curve, 1994, coauthored with Richard Herrnstein) and in his most influential book (Losing Ground, 1984), but most fully articulated in what, before Coming Apart, was his best book, In Pursuit (1988), a superb and underappreciated work of political philosophy.
But this virtuous culture—a highly cohesive, self-confident culture defined by strong families, faith in God, untiring industriousness, and an almost instinctive law-abidingness—is increasingly endangered today, and it is that danger that is the focus of Coming Apart. Through exhaustive empirical analysis—sifting through census statistics, decades of public opinion surveys, and mountains of other social science data—Murray systematically demonstrates that the commitment to each of those virtues has faded in American life, and that it has faded in very different ways for our upper class (which Murray defines as roughly those with college degrees and mid- to upper-level white-collar jobs) and our lower class (those without college degrees and blue-collar or low-level white-collar jobs, if any), who now have far less in common than they used to.
“America is coming apart at the seams,” Murray writes, “not seams of race or ethnicity, but of class.”
That evidence does not explain itself, of course, and Murray is careful to be modest about analyzing causes—”I focus on what happened, not why”—and although he describes a sharp divergence between Americans at the top and the bottom, he does not actually describe this transformation in terms of growth in inequality, but rather in terms of a decline in the broadly shared practice of crucial American virtues.
Indeed, his careful laying-out of the facts raises some serious questions about whether the process he describes is even properly understood in terms of differences between the top and bottom. It would seem, rather, to be above all a description of the collapse of cultural and moral norms at the bottom and of the growing cultural isolation of the top. Both may be worrisome trends, but surely not of comparable importance, and in Murray’s description—just as in the arguments of those most concerned about economic inequality in our time—the precise connection between what is happening at the top and at the bottom is often far from clear.
Murray obscures this some by attempting a parallel structure in his laying-out of the trends. The book’s first part is titled “The Formation of a New Upper Class,” and the second part (of almost exactly equal length) is called “The Formation of a New Lower Class.” But each part in fact describes very different kinds of changes.
The formation of a “new upper class” amounts to a kind of geographic sorting, by which people with extremely high levels of education and wealth increasingly live near one another. They are forming an isolated and cohesive subculture of high achievement and bourgeois virtues, and they have very little exposure to the everyday lives of people who are not similarly high achievers or earners. In the America that these elites inhabit, the virtues of marriage, religion, work, and lawfulness have declined some since the 1960s, though generally not precipitously—and in some respects they have begun to make a comeback. But our elites do not have the kind of cultural self-confidence that Americans once had. They live these virtues but are not inclined to preach them.
The formation of the “new lower class,” meanwhile, amounts to nothing short of a cataclysmic cultural disintegration. Among this group, the family is falling apart—with marriage rates for people between ages 30 and 50 plummeting from 84 percent in 1960 to 48 percent today, and only 37 percent of children living with both of their biological parents. Religious practice and belief are sharply declining: About 4 percent of Americans in Murray’s lower class reported having no religion in the early 1970s; today the proportion is greater than 20 percent. Industriousness is falling, especially among men: The share of lower-class households with a full-time worker dropped from 81 percent to 60 percent in the past half-century, while the number of men claiming to be disabled and unable to work has grown fivefold. Lawfulness has plummeted: Crime rates among this group exploded between 1960 and 1990, and although they have since declined some, much of that decline appears to have been caused by far higher incarceration rates, which hardly constitutes a sustainable solution.
The basic institutions of society in lower-class neighborhoods are increasingly falling apart, and a mounting intergenerational cultural breakdown is under way.
These two sets of changes in American life are hardly parallel or equivalent, and Murray’s assertion that “the hollow elite is as dysfunctional in its way as the lower class is in its way” seems completely at odds with the data he presents. He appears at times to imply that it is the fact that Americans at the top and the bottom are living differently that poses the greatest problem, rather than that the lives of those at the bottom are increasingly disordered and broken. At the very least, he does not clearly show whether or how the trends at the top are driving those at the bottom.
In this sense, Murray’s book suffers from a flaw that bears some similarity to the one that renders the liberal case regarding inequality largely incoherent. That case seeks to blame the wealthy for the growing gap between the top and bottom, and in the process, treats the gap itself as the core problem when, in fact, it is the stagnation and decline at the bottom that should worry us most—and the wealthy appear to have little directly to do with that worrisome trend. Thus, for instance, we routinely find Paul Krugman ranting about the “plutocrats” responsible for working-class wage stagnation but unable to articulate the mechanism by which these supposed villains actually work their mischief. A similar confusion is at work behind Presid
ent Obama’s recent turn to populism.
For Krugman and Obama, this incoherence helps to mask the painful reality that a key factor behind the collapse of poor and working-class life in America has been precisely the liberal welfare state they hold up as a solution—a welfare state originally constructed on misguided moral premises, which has badly undermined the social institutions essential to human thriving in poor communities, and which now remains as a moldering relic growing increasingly bloated, inefficient, and regressive. The left’s cynical (or else pitiful) disavowal of this fact explains a great deal of its present obsession with inequality.
Murray, of course, suffers from no such self-delusion. He plainly sees how much the welfare state has contributed to the ruin of lower-class life. And he also understands, unlike Krugman or Obama, that the key problems faced by the poor today are fundamentally cultural (and therefore also moral), not simply economic.
Knowing that poorly designed welfare state institutions contributed mightily to these cultural problems does not solve them, however, and while the reform (greatly aided by Murray’s own work) of one especially counterproductive welfare program in the 1990s may have helped to slow the bleeding, it has hardly stopped it. Murray makes no claim to know just what could do so, but he does suggest that America’s elites could help a lot by offering a moral argument for their own way of life: By preaching what they practice, and therefore helping to link the traditional American virtues to examples of lived success.
Their unwillingness to do this is the source of some of Murray’s moral indignation toward the elite, and something like the mechanism by which he implies that the emergence of a new upper class has contributed to the emergence of a new lower class. Rather than isolate themselves in cocoons of cultural success, Murray suggests, today’s elites have a moral obligation to offer example and instruction—to help lead working-class Americans out of the cultural wasteland into which an earlier generation of elites helped to lead them.
But surely, this is a highly implausible practical solution to the immense cultural ruin Murray describes. It is hard to see how the graduates of elite universities who live in their cultural islands of privilege could really speak with any moral authority to the problems of working-class life, even if they were inclined to preach the virtues they practice. Greater self-confidence would not help them get taken more seriously by people whose problems they can barely imagine, and having the elite live among the poor (as Murray seems at times to advise) is not a realistic prescription on any meaningful scale. It is simply not clear how the members of today’s upper class are really doing anything wrong, given the circumstances in which they find themselves.
Rather, the cultural disaster Murray describes seems to be a failing of America’s moral (and therefore largely its religious) institutions. And although he does not put it this way, Coming Apart is a scathing indictment of American social conservatism.
Social conservatism serves two kinds of purposes in a liberal society: We might call them justice and order. In the cause of justice, it speaks up for the weak and the oppressed, defending them from abuse by the powerful, and vindicating basic human dignity. In the cause of order, it helps us combat our human failings and vices, and argues for self-discipline and responsibility. Think of abolition on the one hand and temperance on the other.
In our time, American social conservatism has much to be proud of as a movement for justice: Social conservatives devote themselves to the pro-life cause, to human rights, and to the plight of the poor abroad. But American social conservatism has almost entirely lost interest in the cause of order—in standing up for clean living, for self-discipline and restraint, for resisting temptation and meeting basic responsibilities. The institutions of American Christianity—some of which would actually stand a chance of being taken seriously by the emerging lower class—are falling down on the job, as their attention is directed to more exciting causes, in no small part because the welfare state has overtaken some of their key social functions.
The cultural revival essential to addressing the crisis Murray describes is barely imaginable as long as this remains the case. Indeed, whether such a revival is imaginable under any circumstances is by no means clear in Murray’s telling. Surely an all-out return to the condition from which he says we have fallen seems far out of reach. But this may have as much to do with the particular cultural high-point against which Murray has chosen to measure our current state as with the potential for a moral revival in American life.
Murray opens his book with a description of America in November 1963, on the eve of John F. Kennedy’s assassination—a date he plausibly posits as roughly the beginning of the transformations his book lays out. Almost every one of the dozens of charts here describes the trajectory of some cultural trend from the early 1960s to the present day, and in nearly every case, America rates more poorly in the present day than we did a half-century ago.
Although Murray is clear-eyed about the improvements achieved since that period (especially in terms of technological progress and cultural openness), it is hard to avoid the conclusion that some of what is at work in his defining comparative device is precisely the sentiment behind much of today’s liberal lament as well: nostalgia for the roughly two decades that followed World War II. There is much to mourn in the passing of that era, to be sure: The searing experiences of the Depression and the war had united Americans as perhaps nothing had done since the American Revolution, and the war and its aftermath (with all of our global competitors having burned each other’s economies to the ground while ours alone stood strong) made possible a series of economic booms that launched into being a broad middle class unlike anything the world had ever seen. Social trust, and faith in government, reached unprecedented heights, while a liberal but generally capacious and tolerant political consensus kept the temperature of our politics unusually low (except when it came to the question of race).
The result was the America of the 1950s and early ’60s: Marriage and childbearing rates were high, religious practice was strong, employment was generally plentiful and rewarding, and crime was low. It was a time of cultural cohesion, economic dynamism, and government activism all at once, and thus a time that both liberals and conservatives can look back to with approval. This is the golden age in the background of Obama’s domestic policy speeches; it is the America lovingly recounted in the opening of Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal (2007)—and in strikingly similar terms, in the opening words of Coming Apart.
All these descriptions of that era are a bit selective, of course, but they are not false. This was an America unlike any that had existed before the immediate postwar years, and unlike any we can expect to see again anytime soon. The left wants to re-create that America by re-creating the activist state and the powerful labor unions that characterized it, but this stands to make economic dynamism very difficult. The right wants to re-create it by re-creating the economic dynamism it achieved, but this stands to make social cohesion very difficult. Murray implicitly hopes to re-create it by recapturing its social cohesion, but acknowledges that this is no easy feat.
The fact is that the America of the immediate postwar years was made possible by an utterly unrepeatable set of circumstances, and setting out to re-create it is not a constructive objective for public policy. What we need to do, instead, is seek for ways to achieve br
oadly shared prosperity and cultural vitality today—to balance cohesion and dynamism in our own time, which is a time of great tension and change.
That this is hardly the first era of tension and change in our history should leave us more hopeful than Murray suggests, and should send us looking for guidance in eras prior to the postwar golden age. Murray implies that his description of America in 1963 applied to America prior to that time as well—from the era of the founding until half a century ago. But surely that is not the case. In other times—in periods of social tension, economic upheaval, mass immigration, and cultural transformation—America’s founding virtues have been under immense strain. But time and again, we have found our way to national revival—cultural, moral, religious, social, political, and economic. We have experienced multiple golden ages, and they have not all looked alike.
Perhaps it is this extraordinary capacity for the renewal of our founding virtues, rather than the particular strength we possessed 50 years ago, that really makes America exceptional. If so, then Murray’s project, which should be America’s project, is in better stead than this ultimately pessimistic book suggests.
It is clear that we are badly in need of such a renewal of our commitment to the American ethic, and it is clear that such a renewal must direct itself especially to addressing the collapse of the institutions of family, society, work, and culture among the poor, rather than to the second-order problem of inequality. It is fairly clear, too, just what problems it would need to address in that arena, and just how bad things are. Although the work of such renewal will be a mighty challenge, it is a challenge of a type (and perhaps even a scale) that America has undertaken before. And beginning with such clarity about its purposes and aims would be no small advantage.
For that clarity we owe a great debt to Charles Murray: not only for this deeply impressive and important book, but for a long career of careful, honest, loving attention to the state of the American project.
Yuval Levin is the Hertog fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the editor of National Affairs.