Mike Kueber's Blog

June 15, 2012

Sunday Book Review #78 – Coming Apart by Charles Murray

Filed under: Book reviews — Mike Kueber @ 2:08 pm
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As someone with an immense philosophical interest in whether America will be able to sustain its greatness into the 21st century, I found Coming Apart to be one of the most informative and insightful books I have ever read. 

Coming Apart is subtitled “The State of White America, 1960-2010” because its author, Charles Murray, argues that the divergence of the upper- and lower-class values during those years threatens to destroy the American project.  (Murray focused on white America because he wanted to examine classes without complicating his analysis by racial and ethnic considerations.)  According to Murray, the American project is our Founding Fathers’ ideal, as articulated by Jefferson in his first inaugural, that the role of government is to “restrain men from injuring one another [and] shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement.”

Although the subtitle suggests that America started coming apart in 1960, Murray actually uses November 22, 1963 (Kennedy’s assassination) as the first day of this new era.  It was then that the cultural transformation that became known as the 60s actually began.  Until then, the upper and lower classes in America shared core behaviors and values; afterwards, not so much.

Before attempting to prove his thesis, Murray points out two things that he is not going to argue:

  1. America was a classless society before 1960.  Murray concedes that America always had its rich and poor, but he believes that in the past America’s rich and poor shared values and behaviors.
  2. America is destined to decline soon as a world power.  Murray believes that America’s military and economic power, at least in the short-term, will be unaffected by its social coming apart.  In fact, this coming apart might have contributed to America’s continuing military and economic dominance since the 60s.   

Coming Apart has three parts – the formation of a new upper class, the formation of a new lower class, and why this matters. 

In Part One, Murray subjectively defines the upper class as people who are financially successful and influential within a community.  For purposes of analysis, he objectively defines them as the top 5% of managers, professionals, or content-production jobs in the media.  (I wonder why he didn’t simply categorize the media as professionals.)  Thus, there are about 1.4 million individuals in America who qualify as the upper class – less than one-half of one percent.  Much of Murray’s data comes from so-called SuperZips, which consist of zip codes whose education and salary levels are in the top 5%.  

Part One shows how people in the upper class are becoming segregated from any significant interaction with anyone except other upper-class people.  Murray suggests that the foundation for the upper class is a highly functional brain, and these brainy people strongly prefer being around other brainy people – something he calls homogamy.  In the past, brains weren’t so important, and there was a lot of mixing of brainy and unbrainy people to have kids.  Now, not so much.  Today, brains are important and they are found inordinately amongst the upper class.    

Murray talks about an ever-thickening bubble that is separating the upper class from all other Americans.  To help the reader understand the bubble, Murray provides a 25-question test that is designed to reveal how much the reader knows about fellow Americans.  Examples include whether you have ever lived in a working-class neighborhood or a town with less than 50,000 people, or lived in a household without much money, or did manual labor, or have a friend who is an evangelical Christian, or if you lettered in a high-school sport, or know what Branson is or who Jimmie Johnson is.  I am pleased to say that I have not lived in a bubble and have an exceptionally strong understanding of my fellow Americans.

Murray ends Part One by noting that, although the isolation and ignorance of the new upper class creates grave dangers for America, it does concurrently bring significant benefits.  One of those benefits is that a society that recognizes and rewards cognitive ability (brains) functions better than one that doesn’t:

  • The result over the long term was that cognitive talent that in an earlier era would have been employed in keeping a store or repairing broken-down engines was employed instead in running large corporations and inventing new kinds of engines….” [The problem is] “getting the benefits of an energized, productive new upper class, on that makes all of our lives in so many important ways, without the conditions that also tend toward a wealthy and detached new upper class.”

While Part One describes how the new upper class – a small number of elites – is separating itself from the rest of working America, Part Two describes the new lower class – an ever-growing number of free-loaders.  Murray believes the growth of the lower class is so destructive to the American project because they don’t share the four Founding Virtues:

  1. Industriousness
  2. Honesty
  3. Marriage
  4. Religion

Murray describes industriousness and honesty as virtues themselves, while he sees marriage and religion as institutions through which right behavior is nurtured.  (He admits that some Founders would have added frugality, philanthropy, and self-reliance to the list.)  Then he methodically shows how these virtues contributed to American exceptionalism and how they have dramatically deteriorated since the 60s in the lower 30% on the socioeconomic scale. 

Part Three is titled, “Why It Matters.”  In this Part, Murray attempts to draw some policy conclusions from all of the class-related data that he presented in Parts One and Two.  He begins the Part with an interesting quote from famed economist John Maynard Keynes, who was accused of changing his mind on monetary policy.  His response – “When the facts change, I change my mind.  What do you do, sir?”  Murray suggests that an honest answer to Keynes’ question is, “Often, nothing.” 

Murray goes on to explain that data analysis can inform some policy decisions, but the effect of data is often limited by an individual’s preconceived notion about the nature of people.  For example, data has almost no effect on policies relating to abortion, the death penalty, legalization of marijuana, same-sex marriage, or the inheritance tax. 

With respect to the data about the new upper and lower classes, Murray concedes that liberals might conclude that more re-distribution of wealth or income would be helpful.  Conversely, social conservatives might decide that government policies should be more supportive of religion, marriage, and traditional values. 

Murray, however, believes the data militates in favor of an alternative:

  • I am a libertarian, and see a compelling case for returning to the founders’ conception of limited government….  The trends of the last half century do not represent just a passing of an outmoded way of life that I have identified with ‘the American project.’  Rather, the trends signify damage to the heart of the American community and the ways in which the great majority of Americans pursue satisfying lives.  The trends of the last half century matter a lot.  Many of the best and exceptional qualities of American culture cannot survive unless they are reversed.”    

Although Murray believes that the greatness of America is on the path to ruin, he notes that the same thing was said of Britain in the 1700s, when Adam Smith wisely and accurately counseled, “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation,” and the British empire survived for many more generations.  Surprisingly, Murray didn’t quote de Tocqueville, who famously warned that America is great because Americans are good, and America will cease being great when Americans are no longer good.

Murray believes that an individual who is dependent on the government will not flourish or be happy because individuals need self-respect to self-actualize.  True happiness and self-actualization, according to numerous studies, come from four domains – family, vocation, community, and faith – and individuals in the new lower class are exceedingly unhappy because these domains are no longer a vibrant part of their lives.  Thus, the American project is not working for them. 

In the past America could thrive because the lower class was an insignificant percentage of its population, but now the lower class is sizable and growing.  If this trend continues, at some point the American project will be considered a failure, not the shining city on a hill.

Murray gives an especially biting description of the European welfare state:

  • Europe has proved that countries with enfeebled family, vocation, community and faith can still be pleasant places to live.  I am delighted when I get the chance to go to Stockholm or Paris.  When I get there, the people don’t seem to be groaning under the yoke of an oppressive system.  On the contrary, there’s a lot to like about day-to-day life in the advanced welfare states of Europe.  They are great places to visit.  But the view of life that has taken root in those same countries is problematic.  It seems to go something like this: The purpose of life is to while away the time between birth and death as pleasantly as possible, and the purpose of government is to make it as easy as possible to while away the time as pleasantly as possible – the Europe Syndrome.”

Spoken like a true libertarian.

Instead of giving in to despair, Murray has envisioned the possibility of an “alternative future” for America that he calls “A Civic Great Awakening.”  This awakening might result if three predictions occur:

  1. Americans will see the failure of Europe.  Although life in Europe is good, the people who live there eventually realize what Margaret Thatcher said about socialism being good until you run out of other people’s money to spend.  Too many too dependent on too few.  
  2. Science will eventually prove that welfare and dependency are inconsistent with human nature and that freedom and self-reliance are essential for a human to flourish.  It’s in our DNA.
  3. Most importantly, Americans, especially the upper class, will have an allegiance to the American project and rediscover “that a life well lived requires engagement with those around us.” 

With an enlightened upper class leading America, it can develop policies that not only stop the growth of the lower class, but ultimately eliminate it.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] Apart.  My reviewof the book Coming Apart included the author’s biting description of the European welfare […]

    Pingback by Further comments on Movie #34 and Book #78 « Mike Kueber's Blog — June 22, 2012 @ 12:42 am | Reply


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