More commentary on Charles Murray from GMU economists

Arnold Kling recently posted a video discussion of Murray’s work. In the video, Brink Lindsey (who’s inability to understand Murray’s arguments is an unintentionally-hysterical parody of mainstream libertarian thought) makes the following argument that Murray’s works are contradictory, written out by Bryan Caplan:

Losing Ground says that the welfare state gives the poor perverse incentives.

The Bell Curve says that the poor have low IQ.

Coming Apart says that the poor are increasingly lacking in virtue.

Lindsey wants to know which cause is the real cause – apparently he doesn’t notice that the causes are not mutually exclusive. (Caplan’s analysis of this is surprisingly good).

It’s super easy to understand the phenomenon that Murray documents if you approach it from the reactionary perspective. For the reactionary – and this is an oversimplification – people can be broadly divided into two types: those who can lead (even if only themselves) and those who must be led. The problems of the lower classes, that Murray so ably documents, are the problems one would expect to arise when those that must be led are freed. Murray’s work, then, contains two reinforcing themes.

Theme 1: The Bell Curve demonstrates that society is becoming more unequal in terms of IQ. All societies have always had aristocracies – increasingly, our society is an aristocracy of intellectual ability. About half of Coming Apart simply documents the same phenomenon that was documented in The Bell Curve – once again, society is increasingly stratified by intellectual ability.

Theme 2: Losing Ground and the other half of Coming Apart demonstrate that constraints on the behaviors of the lower classes (i.e. those requiring some form of leadership) have been removed. The former documents the removal of economic constraints on behavior. The welfare state, instead of punishing bad decisions, often rewards them. The latter documents the removal of social constraints on behavior.

It’s all a very long way of saying: “we’re screwed because we’ve freed a bunch of people who have no idea how to be free.” Or that people have been freed into oblivion. Of course, Kipling put it much better.

Missing the point

Some of the commentary on Murray’s work has been particularly bad. Let’s go with two examples

The first is a combination of Tyler Cowen and Matt Yglesias (they echo each other a lot lately – make of this what you will) they believe that the best way to solve the problems is to give free money to poor people. Unfortunately, the problems are the direct – and obvious and documented (see Losing Ground) – result of giving people free money. Nothing degrades morals faster than free stuff. Giving the poor more free money to get them to act morally, is retarded. It was a defensible theory 90 years ago, but the past 90 years happened.

Again Bryan Caplan offers a pretty good rebuttal:

First and foremost, he [i.e. Murray] should have harked back to Losing Ground‘s attack on the welfare state The welfare state isn’t the sole reason for the moral decline of the working class. But it is surely one important reason for this decline. Free government money is a key foundation of long-term male unemployment and out-of-wedlock births. Reduce or eliminate that free government money, and you start a virtuous cycle of working class self-improvement. Males would be a lot more likely to find and hold a job. Women would be a lot more likely to focus on men’s industry and dependability instead of aggressiveness and machismo. This in turn would raise the status of working class men who actually work for a living. And if you take behavioral economics seriously, you should be totally open to the view that the working class would be better off as a result.

The second example is Bryan Caplan (I can’t be too nice to him).

Like me, Caplan likes his bubble. He doesn’t want to live near proles any more than I do.

Unlike me, Caplan wants as many other people as possible to live near proles. He likes his bubble, but he doesn’t really think you should have your own little bubble.

The combination of these two views is unsettling. It’s one thing to revel in your elitism (actually, I applaud it), it’s another thing to wish as much dysfunction as possible on those whom you are fortunate enough not to associate with.

Related thoughts on Caplan from Handle are here.

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11 Responses to More commentary on Charles Murray from GMU economists

  1. Chuck Rudd says:

    I’m glad someone else noticed how lost Lindsey seemed.

  2. anon says:

    Looking at political culture over decades gets you see macro-changes in political discourse and structure of taboos. I’m noticing a tectonic movement toward the acceptability of questioning desegregation. This certainly wont come around couched in antique 60s vocabulary. It may come with words like “bubble”.

  3. dearieme says:

    Is a new ideological war on the horizon: bible vs bubble?

  4. josh says:

    You may not want to live near any modern barbarian proles, but in pre-60s America, you would have been a “pillar of the community”, which sounds like it would have been a nice thing to be.

  5. Handle says:

    And let’s ask what happens to the individual who tries to attend Professor Caplan’s courses without permission, authorization, or payment? What’s that you say? That person will be asked to leave and not return? They will be told that their very presence on the grounds constitutes unlawful trespassing. Heck, if that person lied and pretended to be a student and said he had merely lost his ID card, I somehow doubt they would consider him merely “undocumented” and let him remain, while the burden of proof shifted with the University required to expensively demonstrate the fact conclusively to a biased judge. Nor would they let him vote in student elections, nor even attend the athletic center, cafeteria, or parking lot, all of which, with inexplicably and irrational cruelty, require the presentation of authentic credentials.

    And if that person refuses to leave voluntarily, then Professor Caplan will call the authorities at George Mason University, who will likewise expediently call upon some jack-booted thugs or even the brutal Police State to immediately use as much physical force as necessary to expel the individual from the whole of their property and premises? What kind of evil institution is this, that has this kind of tyrannical “deportation” and “criminalizes the victimless crime of mere status”? How can Brian Caplan allow himself to be a member of such an immoral and discriminatory organization, perhaps only half a degree removed from the Nazis and KKK?

    Is GMU within its rights, or even, does it have a duty to its membership to enforce these rules, or not? Why not the nation?

    • sardonic_sob says:

      “Heck, if that person lied and pretended to be a student and said he had merely lost his ID card, I somehow doubt they would consider him merely “undocumented” and let him remain, while the burden of proof shifted with the University required to expensively demonstrate the fact conclusively to a biased judge.”

      Now I can never go to DC, because if I did, I would SO TOTALLY DO THIS.

  6. Bill says:

    The problems of the lower classes, that Murray so ably documents, are the problems one would expect to arise when those that must be led are freed.</i?

    This is backwards and a little disgusting. The elite has been freed of its obligation to be either morally upright or hypocritical.

    The lower classes have not been freed. Well, they've been freed of a lack of syphilis, of a lack of gonorrhea, of two parent families, of literacy, of meaningful work at reasonable pay, of safe communities, of fellowship, of faith, etc.

  7. Doug1 says:

    Bang up post F.

  8. anon says:

    > Well, they’ve been freed of a lack of syphilis, of a lack of gonorrhea

    Syphilis was (very) roughly 50x more prevalent in 1900. Probably 250 times if you don’t count total crackheads, but then why wouldn’t you. If memory serves, the prevalence in Paris was considered to be something like 5%, maybe 10%.

    I don’t know, maybe I’m underestimating the current prevalence in the likes of Detroit. But then Paris in 1900 was 100% European.

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