Charles Murray’s Sobering Call to Conservatives

by David French

In Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, Charles Murray penned a true must-read essay previewing his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. For those who follow Murray’s work closely (and you should), much of the essay’s raw information wasn’t surprising. Our class divisions are increasingly framed by differences in marriage and family status, with rich and poor inhabiting entirely separate cultures. Rich and poor live apart, watch different television shows, attend different movies, and eat different kinds of foods. Classic class-mixing institutions (like the military or public schools) divide even further as the rich shun the military and either shun public schools or live in wealthy enclaves where there’s little difference between public and private education.

While Murray recognizes the role of bad public policy in creating and sustaining these divisions, he rightly notes that better public policy won’t cure our culture. The cure — to the extent one exists — relies on the very institutions of marriage and family that are most beleaguered. The answer relies on individual choices, not just to model the right values but also to reach out, to leave the Disneyland of the cultural elite (the “superZIPs” of wealthy, influential suburbs) and engage. Here’s Murray in his own words:

The “something” that I have in mind has to be defined in terms of individual American families acting in their own interests and the interests of their children. Doing that in Fishtown requires support from outside. There remains a core of civic virtue and involvement in working-class America that could make headway against its problems if the people who are trying to do the right things get the reinforcement they need—not in the form of government assistance, but in validation of the values and standards they continue to uphold. The best thing that the new upper class can do to provide that reinforcement is to drop its condescending “nonjudgmentalism.” Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn’t hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms. When it comes to marriage and the work ethic, the new upper class must start preaching what it practices.

Changing life in the SuperZIPs requires that members of the new upper class rethink their priorities. Here are some propositions that might guide them: Life sequestered from anybody not like yourself tends to be self-limiting. Places to live in which the people around you have no problems that need cooperative solutions tend to be sterile. America outside the enclaves of the new upper class is still a wonderful place, filled with smart, interesting, entertaining people. If you’re not part of that America, you’ve stripped yourself of much of what makes being American special.

Such priorities can be expressed in any number of familiar decisions: the neighborhood where you buy your next home, the next school that you choose for your children, what you tell them about the value and virtues of physical labor and military service, whether you become an active member of a religious congregation (and what kind you choose) and whether you become involved in the life of your community at a more meaningful level than charity events.

Isn’t this the true conservative solution? We can’t wave a magic wand in Washington, make the welfare state disappear, and replace it with smarter policies that incentivize just the right kinds of behavior. The welfare state is too entrenched, and we’re too limited in our own wisdom to even be sure that the policies we design will have the impact we want. Peers and parents influence people more than presidents and policies. If parents are absent and peers are aimless, what can a president do?

We can and should argue about the Florida primary and debate the Ryan budget and debt ceilings, but the importance of our voice in the process pales in comparison to the importance of the example and practice of our lives. Volunteer for military service, foster a child, mentor a struggling family, adopt an orphan — all of these actions (and that’s hardly an exclusive list) leave a legacy that outlasts our vote, our blogs, or our ideology.

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