February 10, 2012 essays

Class for Classical Liberals

Charles Murray’s new book raises intriguing questions—but is far less objectionable than one might think.

The reaction to Charles Murray’s new book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, has been fun to watch. I have to wonder, though, how much it is to the book itself, and how much owes to its author.

The story centers on how a new cultural elite has emerged largely within white America. That elite is well-educated, cognitively adept, and markedly more wealthy than similarly situated individuals in 1960. It is also more isolated, clustering in a very few neighborhoods and displaying a remarkable degree of endogamy. Tastes and values are shared within the elite, and disdain prevails for all others. What does the new elite love?  Education.  Recycling.  Exercise. Whole Foods.  What does it hate?  Smoking.  Obesity.  NASCAR.  Domestic mass-market beer.

In a sense these are just class markers, and class markers we will always have with us. Besides, there is much to admire about the new elite, Murray readily agrees. It has produced an artistically diverse and technologically dominant America, one well-situated to do well in the information age. It has remedied many great evils of American life in 1960, above all those of unequal treatment for women and racial minorities. All of this is to the credit of the new ruling class, which has in some ways done its job superlatively well.

But what about everyone else?  What of the cognitive non-elite?  That’s a different and much more depressing story. It’s not just that non-elite white folks like NASCAR, for which I’m sure they could be forgiven. They are also less likely to get married, less likely to stay married, less religious, less represented in government, more dependent on government, and less connected to their communities. The gap is growing, and the people who should be minding it — the ruling class — are ignorant or indifferent about these developments.

Much of this story could easily have been told by a left-liberal, and in some ways Coming Apart would make more sense coming from Matt Yglesias than Charles Murray.  Consider these excerpts:

Executives and professionals in 1963… were self-conscious about being seen as show-offs. Many people in the upper-middle class who could have afforded them didn’t drive Cadillacs because they were too ostentatious…. [P]eople who were not wealthy could get access to the top of the line for a lot less in 1963… The authentically wealthy in 1963 comprised a microscopic fraction of the population… [Their neighborhoods] were substantially whiter and more Asian than the rest of America.

Nowadays, you get wealthy — often fantastically, obscenely wealthy — by being smart. And when you’re fantastically wealthy, you can, and will, segregate yourself from everyone else. You’ll probably marry at least a fairly wealthy person, and certainly one who is above average intelligence. Your kids will be smarter. And they’ll go on to reproduce the class of the smart and the rich:

In an age when the majority of parents in the top five centiles of cognitive ability worked as farmers, shopkeepers, blue-collar workers, and housewives — a situation that necessarily prevailed a century ago… relationships between the cognitive ability of parents and children had no ominous implications. Today, when the exceptionally qualified have been so efficiently drawn into the ranks of the upper-middle class, and when they are so often married to people with the same ability and background, they do. 

The result?  “A new kind of segregation,” says Murray. As commentary, it’s not actually all that new. Strip away the claims about intelligence and it reads a lot like John Edwards’ “Two Americas.” Hardly conservative at all, in other words.

I didn’t choose Matt Yglesias at random, either. In a tweet to Yglesias, Tyler Cowen pronounced Coming Apartsounder [and] less original” than the going commentary would indicate. “You would not change any of your views” by reading it, Cowen adds.

Which I think is about right. Coming Apart would have been a fantastic first book, and one that might have marked Charles Murray as a thoroughly heterodox thinker, content to borrow old ideas from both the left and the right, then fashion them into something that didn’t fit anywhere too neatly. As things stand, Murray’s career has already pigeonholed him as a right-leaning libertarian, if not simply a conservative. This is a shame, because I think the book would otherwise provoke a lot more debate, especially on the left.

Unless I’m badly misunderstanding it, Murray’s argument ultimately has its roots in Alexis de Tocqueville, who viewed America as — yes — exceptional, but only because of a set of shared, consciously chosen cultural values that marked Americans off from the rest of the world.  Those values, Tocqueville argued, were in need of constant maintenance.  If we somehow failed to transmit them to the rising generation, then everything good about America would fade away. 

This is Murray’s story, too — up to a point.  While Tocqueville feared that mass democracy would devolve into demagoguery, or that slavery would destroy the enterprising American spirit, Murray has chosen a much less obvious enemy, and one that at first sight seems ridiculous:  college.

That’s right.  College was the great sorting machine that began, essentially in the 1960s, to identify, to enrich, and to segregate the cognitive elite.  Before 1960, elite universities catered to the wealthiest students, but not particularly to the brightest. By 1970, things were very different.  SAT scores for entering freshmen had risen  dramatically, and the culture of the elite schools was much more suited to people of an intellectual bent. Old money went out; new brains went in.

Sounds great, right?  Murray gives credit where it’s due — he argues (Tyler Cowen notwithstanding) that there was a tremendous burst of creativity starting in the 1970s, largely as a result of giving the best educations to the best prospects around.  We’re richer now, but most of that wealth is in the hands of the new elite.  And that’s our problem.  Great concentrations of wealth generally are, says Tocqueville.

Are we better off today, or worse? On this point especially, I think Murray is apt to be misunderstood. Thus David Frum is simply wrong when he writes that Murray “nostalgically regrets the lost America of his 1950s Midwestern boyhood.” But here’s what Murray actually wrote:

Starting with the prologue, I have described the America of 1960 in ways that have sometimes sounded nostalgic. But if a time machine could transport me back to 1960, I would have to be dragged into it kicking and screaming.  In many aspects of day-to-day life, America today is incomparably superior to the America of 1960.

Technologically, culturally, and morally, 2010 wins.  I’ve never been to 1960, but if a time machine did exist, I’d much sooner fast forward than rewind.  I think most of Murray’s audience would too. Observing a problem today doesn’t spell simple nostalgia for yesterday. 

So is Murray right about the problem?  We discussed this at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen a few days ago, and there at least I think the consensus was against him.  The new elite is perhaps a lot less isolated than Murray believes. That’s tremendously good news, if it’s true. Meanwhile, the old elite was hardly so egalitarian, as Ilya Somin has suggested.

At any rate, Murray’s remedy isn’t anything terrible, and it’s definitely not to turn back the clock:

I am hoping for a civic Great Awakening among the new upper class.  It starts with a question that I hope they will take to heart:  How much do you value what has made America exceptional, and what are you willing to do to preserve it? 

As I have remarked throughout the book, American exceptionalism is not just something that Americans claim for themselves.  Historically, Americans have been different as a people, even peculiar, and everyone around the world has recognized it. I am thinking of qualities such as American industriousness and neighborliness…  American optimism…  our striking lack of class envy, and the assumption by most Americans that they are in control of their own destinies.

Note first of all what this remedy is not. It isn’t a request that the lower classes stop envying the upper classes, or even that they make any particular conscious changes in their behavior at all. It’s aimed at the uppers, not the lowers, and it says, or I infer, that the elite need to stop giving so much reason to envy. The old elite had money, but they felt a bit awkward bragging about it. The new elite has money, and brains (which make money), and it brags about the latter just a bit too much.

That’s a message that might cut a lot of different ways politically, but what Murray really seems to aim at is private charitable giving, a less ostentatious lifestyle, and an engagement with civic institutions that cross class lines.  I’ll admit to doubting the problem, and to doubting the solution, and in particular to doubting whether a book by Charles Murray could possibly bring it about (sorry).  But is it objectionable? Eh. No. It just isn’t.  The outrage I’ve seen here and there seems aimed at the man, and the book (again, sorry) might be better served if he weren’t in the picture.