by Steve Lancaster 5/4/14
Murray is perhaps best known for a book co-authored with psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein in 1994, The Bell Curve. Herrnstein passed away before the book was published and as the only living author Murray took both the kudos and the critical arrows.
The American project is a phrase you will read often in Coming Apart. To Murray, the American project is the effort over 400 years to create a society where free individuals can live as they see fit, joining together to solve common challenges. In the opening chapters Murray explores the American world on 21 November 1963, the good, the bad and the ugly. He places the turning point on 22 November 1963.
THIS BOOK IS about an evolution in American society that has taken place since November 21, 1963, leading to the formation of classes that are different in kind and in their degree of separation from anything that the nation has ever known. I will argue that the divergence into these separate classes, if it continues, will end what has made America America.
It is not the existence of classes that is new, but the emergence of classes that diverge on core behaviors and values— classes that barely recognize their underlying American kinship. My primary goal is to induce recognition of the ways in which America is coming apart at the seams— not seams of race or ethnicity, but of class.
Murray argues that for the first time in American history we have a group of people who constitute a different class than any we have seen in our past. With the latter parts of the industrial revolution it was possible for a broad cross section of people to achieve success. Not only was it possible for someone like Jay Gould to come from humble beginnings but it was almost the trend, and rich or poor Americans shared very common values, today:
A growing majority of the people who run the institutions of America who do share tastes, preferences, and culture. They increasingly constitute a class. They are also increasingly isolated. The new isolation involves spatial, economic, educational, cultural, and, to some degree, political isolation. This growing isolation has been accompanied by growing ignorance about the country over which they have so much power.
On the other hand, the poor have also become a class and, “when families become dysfunctional, or cease to form altogether, growing numbers of children suffer in ways that have little to do with lack of money. The neighborhood becomes a sterile place to live at best and, at worst, becomes the Hobbesian all-against-all free-fire zone that we have seen in some of our major cities.” Detroit, Chicago, Washington DC.
So while the lower cohort on the economic scale are not doing very well, Murray contends that the people who are running the country are doing just fine and they have become so isolated that they fail to see or engage in the problems that exist among their opposites. Murray cites specifics in Europe and summarizes about Europe, “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.”
MY PROPOSITION IS that the hollow elite is as dysfunctional in its way as the new lower class is in its way. Personally and as families, its members are successful. But they have abdicated their responsibility to set and promulgate standards.
Those in the new upper class who don’t care about politics don’t mind the drift toward the European model, because paying taxes is a cheap price for a quiet conscience —much cheaper than actually having to get involved in the lives of their fellow citizens.
Coming Apart, is a curious book, on one hand Murray fillets the elites for their isolation from the rest of America and on the other offers that the only way out of a death spiral for the poor is for the elites to set an example of how to behave. He uses two quasi-fictional towns to illustrate his point. Belmont and Fishtown. Belmont is upper middle-class where almost everyone is college educated and professional. Fishtown is lower class where blue collar work is predominate and no one is college educated. If you are a charts and graphs kind of person you will find Murray’s arguments compelling and disturbing. If you are not just follow the drift, assume the charts present good sociology and consider the conclusions. In the end Murray concludes with statements any conservative will nod in agreement:
The traditional family plays a special, indispensable role in human flourishing and that social policy must be based on that truth.
Human beings enjoy themselves when they are exercising their realized capabilities at the limit of those capabilities.
Challenge and responsibility for consequences is an indispensable part of human motivation to exercise their realized capabilities at the limit of those capabilities.
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.
Regardless of whether people have free will, human flourishing requires that they live in an environment in which they are treated as if they did. Actually, it turns out that humans do have free will in a deep neurological sense.
At some point over the next decade or two, the finances of the welfare state must become ridiculous to everyone.
In the end, we come back to my father’s rules for success in America:
- Get all the education you can
- Work at any job and seek a better one
- Stay with the other parent of your children.
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