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Culture Charles Murray Coming Apart

Published on June 25th, 2012 | by Jonathan Gifford

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Rich Americans good; poor Americans bad. Charles Murray is Coming Apart.

I have been reading some of the flakier right wing American thinkers, mainly for entertainment, but also because I am fretting about whether there are some interesting ideas about government hidden beneath the strident ranting of most libertarian thinkers. Wanting smaller government and a greater degree of self-reliance and community involvement from citizens sounds good to me. I’d just like to find a libertarian who manages not to use the words ‘black people’, ‘homosexuals’, ‘religion’ and ‘Godless European Socialists’ with disturbing frequency, in whatever context, when it is not obvious what this has to do with their basic premise. I know that all Europeans are known to be rabid socialists but we godless Europeans are in the minority, funnily enough. And the references to American homosexuals and non-whites, though they are always made in a rather covert context, suggest strongly that libertarians are homophobic racists, which hopefully is not the case.

A clever man with nutty ideas: such men are dangerous

Coming Apart is the first book that I have read by the libertarian Charles Murray, and when reading about the author I wondered why he was such a controversial figure. Now I know the answer. He’s nuts. Or rather, his ideas are nuts, but he is evidently a highly intelligent man, which makes him dangerous.

I am a little ashamed at only having discovered this recently, because Murray has been around, being nuts, for a long time: he co-authored The Bell Curve, which was published in 1994 and created a storm of controversy – unsurprisingly, since the book’s basic premise is that intelligence is largely hereditary and that low intelligence is inextricably linked with anti-social behaviour. Ergo, the state will have no option but to defend itself against people of low intelligence – who are on the increase, because people of low intelligence are having more babies than people of high intelligence. These people of low intelligence will become increasingly dependent on a welfare state, and will prevent America from staying exceptional. ‘It is difficult to imagine the United States preserving its heritage of individualism, equal rights before the law, free people running their own lives, once it is accepted that a significant part of the population must be made permanent wards of the states,’ wrote the authors of The Bell Curve. By ‘wards of the states’ they mean permanent recipients of welfare. I don’t think they were suggesting that all people of low intelligence should be locked up. That would be crazy, obviously.

The wrong kind of American

But back to the book in question. In Coming Apart, Murray argues that there are two kinds of American: the right kind and the wrong kind, and that the wrong kind is dragging America down. He quite convincingly identifies a ‘new upper class’ and then he less convincingly identifies a ‘new lower class’.(Murray has had a thing about the existence of an ‘underclass’ for a long time: some of what he writes on the subject is true.) According to Murray, it is the people at the bottom of the pile – the people with the lowest share of America’s wealth; the people with the most stunted life expectations – who are dragging the country down. The really scary news is that Murray seems to believe that `science’ will soon prove that the wrong kind of people are genetically different from the right kind of people. Now, as you may have guessed, Murray clearly doesn’t know anything about genetics. Some of his statements – I’ll give you a quote in a moment – are the kind of garbled nonsense that would make a junior high school student fail their biology examination. This is why Murray is not simply a nut but a potentially dangerous nut: there are words for people who believe that the wrong kind of people are dragging a country down, and that science will soon enable us to confirm our suspicions as to who exactly those wrong kinds of people are and why they are different from us.

I would genuinely like to believe that this is not true, but Murray doesn’t help me to that conclusion. Let’s examine what Murray says and see if you agree with my fears about the apparently disturbing political intent behind what sets out to be a work of social science.

The new American elite and the bubbles they live in

Murray likes to play around with published figures about society. By using measures of income and education, he identifies a ‘new upper class.’ In Murray’s words:

‘Just about all of the benefits of economic growth from 1970 to 2010 went to people in the upper half of the income distribution. The increase was most dramatic at the very top of the distribution. From 1960 through the early 1990s, the top centile of American families had incomes that began at around $200,000. Then in 1994-95, the bottom end of the top centile careened up from $233,000 to $433,000 … The top five centiles are important for our purposes because they contain almost all of the new upper class.’ [1]

This new upper class contains pretty much all of the people who run the country: government itself; the administration; the media; the law; the senior executives of major corporations. Murray uses his measures of education and income to analyse every zip code on the USA and identifies a number of ‘SuperZips’: areas where the new upper class tend to congregate. These SuperZips are cut off from the rest of the country: they are ‘buffered’ by other high status areas. As a result, Murray argues, the ‘overeducated elitist snobs’ (his words) don’t get to see what the rest of America is like. They live, effectively, in bubbles. Also, because the children of the new upper class get better access to education, the new upper class manages to perpetuate its strangle-hold on the nation’s riches (my words). This does not sound, to me, like the recipe for a healthy society.

The elite perpetuates itself

Murray, however, doesn’t mind this outcome. He argues that the elite have deserved the rewards for their efforts (though he does express some doubts about ‘unseemly’ levels of reward for some members of the elite). He also believes that it is inevitable that this elite will perpetuate itself. As Murray says,

‘When the parents are passing cognitive ability along with the money, the staying power of the elite across generations increases.’[2]

Now, you and I might take this to mean that the new upper class pass on their success from generation to generation, not because they are in some way born to be more successful (i.e. not because success is a genetic trait) but because they pass on cognitive talents (via access to the best education) and money (which usually comes in handy in life) and a strong social network of highly useful contacts to help their children further their careers. But Murray is back on his IQ bandwagon again. He believes that

‘The stability of the average IQs for different levels of educational attainment over time means that we can predict the average IQs of children of parents with different combinations of education, and we can also predict where the next generation of smartest children is going to come from.’[3]

He’s quite serious. Two parents with college educations will have high IQs, so we simply have to take the average of their two IQs, make a small adjustment for regression to the mean, and – hey presto! – we can predict the IQ of their offspring with certainty. Crikey!  Do you know any brilliant parents who have really stupid children? Me too. Do you know any complete idiots who have really bright children? Me too.  Something wrong with this whole IQ thing then, probably. (One possibility is that education itself improves people’s IQ. Murray doesn’t like that theory.)

Sadly, Murray is really sold on this IQ nonsense. The obvious corollary of believing that the elite will inevitably produce the brightest offspring (because ‘the exceptionally qualified have been so efficiently drawn into the ranks of the upper-middle class, and … are so often married to people of the same ability and background’) is to believe that the other end of the social spectrum will inevitably produce the dimmest children. A vicious spiral is in place. This, asserts Murray, ‘is not subject to refutation: Highly disproportionate numbers of exceptionally able children in the next generation will come from the upper-middle class, and more specifically from parents who are already part of the broad elite.’ I don’t need to give you a list of all of the reasons why this might be true for reasons other than the ‘IQ is inherited’ argument, and this isn’t the place to list some of the things that might be done to change this. In Murray’s world, there’s no point into trying to change this in any case: it’s a brute fact of life, and we should just live with it.

T’he new lower class’: working class people who don’t espouse Murray’s ‘Founding Virtues’

Next, Murray carries out what I gather from reviews of his earlier work is a trademark sleight of hand. He sets out some highly personal and judgemental arguments about what the behaviour of good citizens ought to be like, and then rather arbitrarily defines a group of people (the ‘new lower class’) who can be shown not to behave like this. The factors that are essential for a successful nation (or at least for the American project) are, declares Murray, ‘the Founding Virtues’: Industriousness, Honesty, Marriage, and Religiosity. He then identifies a ‘new lower class’ as those people who are in a ‘blue-collar, or low-level white-collar occupation, and [have] no academic degree more advanced than a high school diploma.’ Murray leaves out ‘owners of small business, mid-level white-collar workers, K-12 teachers, police officers, insurance agents, salesmen, social workers’ and a myriad of other typical occupations. Why? Because they don’t fit Murray’s thesis: these latter groups don’t behave in the way that Murray wants them to. But his chosen group do behave as Murray wants them to: he looks at their behaviour over the last few decades and finds that this group are getting married less, are less industrious (being unemployed counts a being less industrious for Murray), are less honest (crime levels in their neighbourhoods are increasing) and less religious.

That seems to be it. The so-called `new lower class’ is a carefully defined set of people in working class occupations (or non-occupations) who demonstrate declining interest, for whatever reasons, in Murray’s founding virtues. I’m not being flippant about this: the existence of any kind of hopeless ‘underclass’ is bad news for any society, and some of Murray’s newly defined ‘new lower class’ are clearly an effective ‘underclass’. One could have an interesting debate about this if Murray did not go further: this new lower class apparently have the power to destroy the American project.

‘Most [of the new lower class] don’t have anything obviously wrong with them … Individually they’re not much of a problem. Collectively, they can destroy the kind of civil society that America requires.’ [4]

Murray is conscientious in mentioning that one conclusion to this problem might be that America should take fiscal measures to redistribute the wealth of society more evenly. Murray, as a libertarian, is not in favour of that method.

‘Life outcomes are genetically determined’

The new lower class are condemned to poverty for generations (forever?), it seems, because they pass on their tendency to be pretty hopeless in all departments of life through their genes. This social class of people are genetically different from the rest of us. In case you think that I have myself gone nuts and am putting words into Murray’s mouth, try this deeply disturbing paragraph for size:

`In a fair society, it is believed, different groups of people – men and women, blacks and whites, heterosexuals and homosexuals, the children of poor people and the children of rich people – will naturally have the same distributions of outcomes in life: the same mean income, the same mean educational attainment, the same proportions who become janitors and CEOs, the same proportions who become stand-up comedians and point-guards. When that doesn’t happen, it is because of bad human behaviour and an unfair society.’[5]

Murray is attempting to be ironic here: the idea that we should expect people of all sorts to have similar life outcomes strikes Murray as ludicrous, whereas it strikes me as true, based on the simple proposition that all human beings are identical in their essential make up, and that useful things like cleverness, audacity, industriousness and so forth will be equally distributed amongst all groups of people. Murray clearly disagrees. Hot on the heels of the previous passage comes this little corker:

`People grouped by gender, ethnicity, age, social class, and sexual preference, left free to live their lives as they see fit, will produce group differences in outcomes, because they differ genetically in their cognitive, psychological and physiological profiles.’[6]

I haven’t got enough space to rip that nasty little sentence apart as thoroughly as it deserves, so let’s just consider this: on the basis of what possible warped genetic theory would we NOT expect to find – to use Murray’s examples – women, black people, homosexuals and the children of poor people amongst any nation’s elite, as one would expect to find them in every other strata of society? The answer, sadly, is, ‘On the basis of Murray’s warped genetic theory.’ It is impossible to read Murray and not to conclude that he believes that people of different ethnicities, or of different sexual preferences, or even of different ages (which I assume means ‘young people today’) are not as fit or able to take part in the great American project as those people who do, in fact, have the right stuff. And this is not a matter of culture, or education, or opportunity, but of genetic make-up.

An insult to the American dream

Murray’s final, and remarkably wet, conclusion is that the answer to all of this is that the new upper class should stop being non-judgemental and should `preach what they practice’.  Then the rest of America will presumably buck up its ideas and see that they have not been applying themselves properly to the task in hand, which is to sustain the American project. Oh, but … the new lower class won’t be able to heed this message, even if it is preached because (remember?) they are genetically different from other classes: they are doomed to have insufficiently high IQs to be able to join in the great project, after all.

Am I mistaken, or is Murray’s suggestion – that being in a particular social class is a genetic condition – not only biologically illiterate but also deeply insulting to the American dream? What happened to the inspirational idea that any citizen could rise from the humblest of backgrounds to the highest positions in the land? Am I right in thinking that Ursula Burns was raised by a single mother on a housing project, went through the state education system and became the first African-American female (and highly successful) CEO of Xerox? How can that possibly happen under Murray’s interpretation of how American society works today? Why didn’t Ursula’s ‘lower class genes’ make this impossible?

Murray’s version of libertarianism sounds to me like the worst kind of elitism combined with more than a hint of fascism: he argues that the American elite have been unmanned by political correctness and are afraid to proclaim their allegiance to the Founding Virtues, while the new lower class are locked into a spiral of decline by their genetic make-up, and may yet sabotage the American Project. Pass me the sick bag.


[1] Charles Murray, Coming Apart, Crown Forum, New York, 2012, p 50

[2] Ibid., p 65

[3] Ibid., p 65

[4] Ibid., p209

[5] Ibid., p 298

[6] Ibid., p 300


About the Author

I write and blog about the human aspects of business and leadership, with an interest in the lessons that we can learn from history, including recent history.
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I live in Oxfordshire, England.



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