Charles Murray writes important and provocative books. His latest book, Coming Apart, joins Losing Ground (1984) and The Bell Curve (1994) as, in my view, among his most important and most fascinating. Given Murray’s longstanding status as a bête noire of the Left, the book can be expected to produce lots of controversy.
What does Murray think is coming apart? America, along class lines. His approach to persuading us that the class divide is a present danger is first to describe what he means by the “new lower class” and the “new upper class,” then to describe what he considers “the founding virtues” that used to characterize the classes, and then to show, in grim detail, how the classes moved farther and farther apart over the 1960–2010 period on each of these founding virtues. The book’s concluding section is devoted to a consideration of what this coming apart might mean for the nation’s future.
Most of Murray’s analyses refer only to white Americans between the ages of 30 and 49. By focusing on whites, Murray removes a major threat to his coming-apart thesis — namely, that he is merely capitalizing on the well-known problems of minority groups. In addition, focusing most of his attention on whites minimizes the chances that his book will reignite the race debate that marred discussion of The Bell Curve.
The heart of the book is Murray’s analysis of changes over the past five decades in the way the upper and lower classes practice the “founding virtues” — marriage, industriousness, honesty, and religiousness. Crucially, Murray holds that these are the virtues that provide the foundation for what he calls the “American project,” by which he means the creation and maintenance of a society in which people “can be left free as individuals and families to live their lives as they see fit, coming together voluntarily to solve their joint problems.”
Murray amasses a mountain of data to show that a huge and growing gap has opened between the lower class and the upper class on measures of each of these virtues. By every measure of marriage, for example, lower-class Americans have created an unstable and deficient environment for themselves and their children. Their marriage rate has declined from around 85 percent in 1960 to less than 50 percent in 2010, at which point the marriage gap between the classes was an amazing 35 percentage points. The gap in divorce rates was even bigger. By 2010, more than one-third of lower-class marriages in the 30–49 age group had ended in divorce, as compared with a little over 5 percent for the upper class
It is one thing for adults to create instability and emotional trauma in their own lives, but when children are involved, the consequences for everyone are more severe. White nonmarital birth rates started to rise relentlessly in the early 1960s. By 2010, more than a quarter of white babies were born outside marriage. For mothers with a college degree, the rise was slight, their rate remaining under 5 percent — but for high-school dropouts, the number of nonmarital births grew to over 60 percent of all births. When the nonmarital birth rates and divorce rates are combined, around six or seven times as many lower-class children, as compared with upper-class children, live with a single parent. Murray reviews empirical studies showing that children from single-parent homes do much worse in school and in life than children from married-couple families. In this way, lower-class parents pass on their problems to their children, greatly increasing the chances that the children will grow up to be lower-class as well. Murray’s documentation of a growing gap between the lower and upper classes on the other founding virtues of industriousness, honesty (as measured primarily by imprisonment), and religiousness are also compelling.
Addressing his readers, Murray says that he has “devised what I hope you will find an intuitively understandable way to think about the trends in the larger classes from which [the upper class and the lower class] are drawn.” He then creates two hypothetical neighborhoods, which he calls Belmont and Fishtown. Belmont is made up exclusively of the upper class, Fishtown exclusively of the lower class. Murray populates these neighborhoods with people chosen from the nationally representative Current Population Survey who (in the case of Belmont) have at least a B.A. and work in high-prestige occupations (e.g., doctor, lawyer, or senior business executive) and who (in the case of Fishtown) have no more than a high-school diploma and a blue-collar or service occupation.
Murray shows that when he defines the upper and lower classes with respect to their education and occupation, residents of Belmont score well on all four indicators of the foundational virtues, while residents of Fishtown score poorly, and the gap between the two “neighborhoods” grows substantially.
This class separation on the founding virtues is the most remarkable finding in the book. On indicator after indicator, the distance between the classes is huge by 2010 — a result that is especially alarming because Murray shows that the size of the lower class at least doubled between 1960 and 2010. As Murray says, the lower class “is changing national life.”
Probing for weaknesses in Murray’s analysis, as his critics certainly will, I think the case for the separation of the classes in the formation of married-couple families, in work ethic, in adherence to the law, and in religious observation is so striking and so consistent that trying to undermine a statistic here and there will do little to weaken Murray’s argument. However, the case that these are the nation’s founding virtues and that they are unique among nations is inherently more difficult to establish, and can be expected to be more controversial than the case that there is a growing chasm between the classes. Equally open to dispute is Murray’s analysis of why the growing class chasm matters to the nation.
Nonetheless, in one analysis Murray shows that, based on nationally representative survey data, people who are unmarried and dissatisfied with their work, profess no religion, and have low social trust have only about a 10 percent chance of rating themselves “very happy.” If the person has satisfying work, a happy marriage, and strong religious values, happiness explodes to nearly 80 percent. Thus, the gaps between classes on all the founding virtues matter in part because members of the lower class are deteriorating on precisely the factors that make people happy.
In his final chapter, Murray raises the stakes to the highest possible level. Citing Arnold Toynbee, Murray argues that his analysis may well show the decline of the values that have sustained the “American project,” which in turn is leading to the “disintegration” of American civilization. Two factors in the unraveling of American civilization come in for especially caustic treatment at Murray’s hands. The first, Murray’s overriding concern since the publication of Losing Ground in 1984, is the role of government in the decline of virtue. The well over $2 trillion that government spends on social programs “diminish[es] our responsibility” for our own well-being and “enfeeble[s] the institutions through which people live satisfying lives.”
Murray is the champion of the libertarian view that that government is best which governs least. The case is familiar and is now, more than at any time since the Lyndon Johnson era, a vital public issue. Prompted by the deficit crisis, Republicans are again calling for smaller government. They have even embodied their call in Paul Ryan’s sweeping “Path to Prosperity” budget, adopted by House Republicans as their official budget for 2012, which would significantly limit the growth of government social programs and transfer more responsibility to individuals, especially for their health care. Although Murray gives no indication that he intended his book to offer support for the Republican budget, I cannot imagine a more compelling case than Coming Apart for why limited government is best.
The second cause of decline is more surprising and still more difficult to prove: Members of the upper class, Murray believes, are a bunch of cultural wimps. They walk the walk, but don’t talk the walk. Rather than stand up for the founding virtues, and for what Murray calls “seemliness,” they have “lost the self-confidence in the rightness of [their] own customs and values,” and they preach a wishy-washy doctrine of “nonjudgmentalism” instead. Murray gives many examples of the “hollow elite” remaining silent in the face of unseemly conduct: golden parachutes, outrageous CEO salaries, plummeting decorum in the language and behavior portrayed by the media, the profligate ways of the rich, and corruption and influence-peddling in government.
That American civilization is threatened by the demise of the founding virtues for a large and growing fraction of Americans is a view that cannot, as Murray admits, be proven, but the case that there has been a devastating decline in marriage, work, honesty, and religion, so persuasively established by Murray, should be enough to scare everyone on both the left and the right. Unfortunately, the question left hanging is: How do you fix a declining culture?
– Mr. Haskins is co-director of the Brookings Center on Children and Families.