Charles Murray’s new book Coming Apart has generated an incredible amount of handwringing on all sides. For those who are skilled at ignoring such debates — good impulse, I say! — his thesis is that the ebb and flow of wealth and status between classes that once characterized American culture has ended.
He marshals vast evidence that we now have two separate worlds, one for the lowers and one for the uppers, and a huge chasm separates them. He demonstrates this with vast amounts of data that label the lower third of all races as essentially falling apart in every way. Increasingly, the lowers are characterized by divorce, unemployment, social alienation, and economic stagnation, while the uppers are stable in all the opposite ways.
There might be something to his worry. He quotes Alexis de Tocqueville (who somehow continues to set the standard for how we should be as a nation): In America, “the more opulent citizens take great care not to stand aloof from the people; on the contrary, they constantly keep on easy terms with the lower classes: they listen to them, they speak to them every day.”
Is that really true anymore? Murray says no.
But why is it not true, what does it all mean and what are we to do about it? This is what the debate is about. To the Left, the answer about what to do is completely obvious. We need massive government programs to boost the lowers, and we need new taxes and punishments to whack the uppers good and hard. Never mind that the programs for the lowers don’t work and the punishments on the rich end up only bolstering a new government elite that lords it over everyone.
The Right has a different solution. Well, not everyone on the right, but those neoconservatives who take it as a given that every coherent nation needs a unified national culture. To quote David Brooks:
We need a program that would force members of the upper tribe and the lower tribe to live together, if only for a few years. We need a program in which people from both tribes work together to spread out the values, practices and institutions that lead to achievement. If we could jam the tribes together, we’d have a better elite and a better mass.
No thanks on this Stalinist plan. The Right is just like the Left in this sense: if there is a national problem, it needs a solution imposed by force. The Left favors looting people, whereas the Right favors tasing people. Either way, it is all about increasing the police powers of the state. On the extremes, the Left wants total expropriation to make everyone equally poor, whereas the Right wants total war to unify us all in a grand project of killing and being killed.
This is what worries me most about the Murray thesis. No matter where you look for answers, the solutions actually seem worse than the problem itself.
More fundamentally, we have to ask: What is the problem we are actually trying to solve? It is hardly a new problem that the elite has separated itself from the lowers. I seriously doubt that this is more intense now than it was in the Gilded Age — gated communities were a sign of wealth then, too — or even in the Founding period, when a tiny group of elite landowners decided to wreck a perfectly decent system under the Articles of Confederation to ram through a Constitution that put them in charge of the entire country.
So long as the elite are an economic elite and not a political elite, they are benefactors to everyone, providing the capital, the great ideas, the norms and codes, the educational institutions and the cultural infrastructure to protect the country from the rapacious state. This is what Hans-Hermann Hoppe calls the “natural elite,” and every society needs them. Resentment against this elite is purely destructive.
Bryan Caplan adds an interesting insight here. One of Murray’s interesting insights is that the elite are largely intact from a cultural and social point of view. This observation contradicts the rhetoric of populism that blames all problems on the elite. Caplan says that traditionalists need to “embrace the elite and boost its self-confidence. Then traditionalists and elites can join hands and preach the Good News of bourgeois virtue.”
Nor is the gap between rich and poor really a problem. The truth is that the poor are living better than the rich did only decades ago. The average working-class guy with a cellphone holds more computing power in his hand than was available to presidents and CEOs a decade ago. That the pace of advancement disportionately affects one group more than another is actually irrelevant at the individual level.
That leaves the fundamental question: Why has this actually happened? From what I’ve read, Murray seems to overlook the political reasons for why the lower third has begun to eschew the bourgeois virtues. It all comes down to economic opportunity and deep integration into the division of labor, for it is through commerce that individuals acquire value in the eyes of themselves and others.
The regulatory and tax states have made the lower classes into pariahs from the point of view of the commercial world. They are expensive to hire and hard to fire, which makes them even more expensive to hire. The minimum wage is bad enough, but that is only the beginning. A giant machinery governs how, where, when, and under what terms they can work and enjoy fulfilling lives. Business creation is harder than ever for anyone but the highly educated elite.
When they do get jobs, the whole system is allied against their social advancement. Cash business is criminalized. Everything requires a permit. The bureaucracy rules, instead of the entrepreneur. The laws, taxes, mandates, programs — and everything else the state has done — work like a giant bed of sharp rocks in the middle of a river that punishes those who tried to get to the other side.
Inflation and the Fed’s interest-rate policy have punished the accumulation of wealth and shortened the time horizon of the lower third of the population classes. The rise of the police state and the criminalization of their lifestyle have driven them into a culturally, socially, and legally marginal existence, so that they are always one step away from entanglement with police, courts, and jail.
As government grows — and the regulatory and tax states expand — and as the prohibitions on behaviors, services, and goods grow and grow, society becomes ever less economically mobile and dynamic. The class system that is part of every society becomes a caste system of entrenched position. It becomes a society of the put-upons versus the privileged.
From my reading so far, I don’t see that Murray is tuned into this reality, which is probably expected, since so much of the cost of statism is invisible to us and not discernible at this time. It consists of the opportunities missed, the jobs not created, the social advancement that does not take place, the wealth creation that does not happen. Conjectural futures evade the statisticians.
To end on note of hope: Murray is looking backward at what the state has already done; the proliferation of technology could end this trend here as it has around the world.