Charles Murray, an American political scientist and nonacademic researcher, received his doctorate in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1974, but is unusual among influential American social scientists in having done all his work outside academia, from berths at private think tanks. He has worked for the American Institutes for Research (1974–1981) and the Manhattan Institute (1982–1990). He was a resident fellow and has been the W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (2003–present). Murray has written on a variety of topics, including the successes and failures of the welfare state, the conditions under which government can aid its citizens in the pursuit of happiness, and the implications of a growing social stratification in the United States based on how intelligent one is thought to be. He also has written on the practical political implications and potential benefits of applying libertarian insights to the modern American state.

Losing Ground, Murray’s first widely read work, contained data and analysis that questions the wisdom and efficacy of what many consider the American government’s most significant success in the late 20th century—the array of welfare programs associated with the “Great Society” and the years following. Murray demonstrated that, by most available measures, the income transfer programs that characterized the late 1960s—among them greatly loosened eligibility standards for Aid to Families with Dependent Children and massive programs for job training and funding for disadvantaged elementary and secondary school students—did not improve the lives of the poor and, in most cases, made them worse off. He used trendline analyses to show that any improvement in the lives of the poor that occurred after these programs went into effect was merely a continuation of progress that had begun long before more liberal federal efforts and that this progress, in most cases, halted in the 1970s. Crime and unemployment among the poor increased since the welfare state grew in the 1960s, whereas income and educational achievement dropped.

Murray has not relied on the “welfare cheat” rhetoric that welfare supporters think characterized the antiwelfare arguments of the Reagan years. He maintained that incentives for the poor created by the modern welfare state made it more likely that children would be born illegitimate and that men would feel less need to work or to provide for their children. Murray recommended the elimination of all racial preference programs and the issuance of educational vouchers. He also advocated the repeal of all income transfer programs. In their place, he supported the reinstatement of short‐​term unemployment insurance.

In the 1980s, Losing Ground initiated a lively debate over the future of federal welfare programs and is credited with influencing Reagan administration policy. However, the most significant steps leading to a drop in the welfare rolls along the lines suggested by Murray did not occur until the Clinton administration in the 1990s.

Murray’s late 1960s stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand informed his next book, In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government. Murray decided that, despite the relative destitution of life in the Thai villages he knew, the strength of the communities there allowed him to imagine he could have lived a quite happy life there, much happier than with greater wealth in an unsafe, atomized American inner city. This book tried to answer the following question: What does it take to be happy, and how can government social policy help or hinder that attempt?

Murray concluded that human beings need self‐​respect born of satisfaction with their own achievements to be happy, and that the modern state too often deprives people of the opportunity to do things for themselves and their communities. Murray argued that what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons”—the ways that humans join together to solve their own problems—are vital to social happiness. “I am proposing,” he wrote,

that there is nothing mysterious about why people become atomized in modern urban settings. Individuals are drawn to community affiliations and attach themselves to them in direct proportion to the functional value of those organizations. As people attach themselves to individual community institutions the aggregate intangible called “community” itself takes on a life and values that are greater than the sum of the parts. Take away the functions, and you take away the community. The cause of the problem is not a virus associated with modernity, it is a centralization of functions that shouldn’t be centralized, and this is very much a matter of political choice, not ineluctable forces.

Murray specifically roots his political vision in the American Founding Fathers, particularly Jefferson, and has stated his preconceptions about man as a social being thusly: “Man acting in his private capacity—if restrained from the use of the force—is resourceful and benign, fulfilling his proper destiny; while man acting as a public and political creature is resourceful and dangerous, inherently destructive of the rights of his fellows.”

In 1994, Murray collaborated with Harvard psychometrician Richard J. Herrnstein on his highly controversial analysis of intelligence testing and its effects on stratifying Americans. In The Bell Curve, Murray and Herrnstein expressed concern regarding how important intelligence was becoming in a highly meritocratic America. They presented data that they regarded as proving that no less than 40% to 80% of a person’s IQ was attributable to heredity. They predicted a growing stratification in American culture along the lines of intelligence, which social policy would be unable to ameliorate because such a large portion of one’s intelligence was not amenable to environmental influence.

Even more controversial, Murray and Herrnstein discussed how the distribution of intelligence across races seemed to be different, with blacks on average having a lower IQ than whites and whites lower than Asians. They also found that intelligence correlated inversely with various social pathologies, such as crime and illegitimacy. The book was fiercely attacked as racist, and their conclusion that racial IQ differences existed was used to discredit them and their research. In reality, the book was far less focused on race than most of its criticisms, and Murray denies any racial animus behind his reporting, pointing out that he had simply repeated the conclusions of widely known IQ test results. Murray argued that in reality there does not exist a single intelligence that IQ tests measure well except in the popular press and that no expert psychometrician has ever claimed this. Nor, he argued, does a lower score on IQ tests imply that one is inferior and should therefore be treated as such, as the public seemed to believe.

Murray wrote a popular summation of the libertarian position he had come to embrace over his decades of research in the social sciences. In What It Means to Be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation, he presents a minimal‐​government libertarian vision, explaining why he thinks all government regulation of business should be eliminated. At a minimum he argued that all unregulated products and services should be legally permitted to compete with regulated ones. Among his policy recommendations are that government should make no laws respecting race or restricting free association; end the regulation of education and fund it through vouchers; eliminate laws against the use and sale of drugs and those prohibiting prostitution; regulate environmental standards, rather than the methods used to meet those standards; and end all government social service and income transfer programs. Murray summed up his libertarian views in the following language:

Libertarianism is a vision of how people should be able to live their lives—as individuals, striving to realize the best they have within them; together, cooperating for the common good without compulsion. It is a vision of how people may endow their lives with meaning—living according to their deepest beliefs and taking responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

Despite huge reductions in the welfare rolls during the 1990s that might ordinarily have been expected to cheer the author of Losing Ground, Murray still worries that the rising rate of illegitimate births and the burgeoning crime rate, which is only being dealt with by increasing periods of incarceration, suggest a grim future unless we give serious consideration to complete elimination of all welfare programs. To that end, Murray has advocated a negative income tax similar to the one proposed by economist Milton Friedman. Murray’s 2006 book In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State made the case for this proposal.

Further Readings

Murray, Charles. A Behavioral Study of Rural Modernization: Social and Economic Change in Thai Villages. New York: Praeger, 1977.

———. Income Inequality and IQ. Washington, DC: AEI Press, 1998.

———. In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

———. Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980. New York: Basic Books, 1984.

———. The Underclass Revisited. Washington, DC: AEI Press, 1999.

———. What It Means to Be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation. New York: Broadway Books, 1997.

Murray, Charles, and Richard J. Herrnstein. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: Free Press, 1994.

Brian Doherty
Originally published