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.