March 12, 2012 columns

Gary Gutting on Charles Murray’s Coming Apart

In the New York Times Opinionator blog, Gary Gutting writes:

Conservatives tend to be elated by Murray’s cultural rather than economic understanding of inequality; liberals tend to be outraged at the suggestion that inequality is due to the moral faults of the working class. But Murray’s sociology of inequality is only a preliminary to the real point of his book, which is an impassioned defense of a libertarianism that he sees at the root of the “American project” as envisaged by the founders of our republic. I propose to look at the argument — far more philosophical than sociological — that Murray advances for his libertarianism…

As a philosopher my interest is in the argument he goes on to develop for a libertarian approach to making the lower 30 percent happier. Here he goes beyond sociological data and argues from something much closer to a philosophical thesis about human nature and happiness. The thesis is that happiness requires responsibility: “All of these good things [elements of happiness like self-respect, intimacy and self-actualization] require freedom to act in all areas of life with responsibility for the consequences of actions … . Knowing that we have responsibility for the consequences of our actions is a major part of what makes life worth living.” Call this the responsibility principle.

Murray invokes this principle to support his own version of libertarianism: that, except to prevent “starvation or death by exposure,” a government should not interfere at all in the lives of any citizens, including the lower 30 percent. His argument is that any government intervention to improve the lot of the lower 30 percent decreases the responsibility of the people helped and thereby decreases their happiness. Childcare is a paradigm example: “If you’re a low-income parent who finds it easier to let the apparatus of an advanced welfare state take over” the care of your children, then “the deep satisfactions that go with raising children” are “diminished accordingly.”

I don’t think this gets Murray’s argument right.  By my reading, he was not arguing that removing all social welfare programs will directly and rather mysteriously make poor people happy by forcing them to exercise responsibility.  Instead, Murray is arguing that social welfare crowds out civil society, and civil society is a key venue where people of all income levels can and should exercise responsibility.  That’s a thesis with deep roots in the classical liberal tradition going all the way back to Alexis de Tocqueville.  As with Tocqueville, if anyone has a particularly large share of obligation in Murray’s view, it’s the rich, the well-educated, and the well-connected.  At any rate, these are the only sort of people who are likely to pick up a data-heavy, not-especially-screamy book about what’s wrong with American society today.

It is, in short, a misreading to say that the message of the book is that poor people need to shape up.  Instead it’s a lot more nuanced: rich and poor people alike might do better, but right now the government works very hard to make sure that they can’t.

Gutting is very right about one thing however, and it would be interesting to ask Murray about it:

Murray’s assumption is also undermined by the large amount of assistance the top 20 percent receive from the government. He claims that they are far happier than the lower 30 percent because government seldom intervenes to improve their lives: “the things the government does to take the trouble out of things seldom intersect with the life of a successful attorney or executive.” This ignores, however, the many tax exemptions and government-financed projects like urban development, scientific research, museums and parks that make life much more pleasant for the upper 20 percent. This, of course, is in addition, to the enormous educational and financial benefits they receive from simply being children of their parents. Their situation makes it entirely clear that a very high level of happiness is consistent with receiving considerable benefits for which the individual is not responsible.

My earlier review of Coming Apart is here.