Charles Murray’s new book Coming Apart has generated an incredible amount of hand-wringing 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 a 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.
Jeffrey Tucker,for The Daily Reckoning
I'm executive editor of Laissez Faire Books and the proprietor of the Laissez Faire Club. I'm the author of two books in the field of economics and one on early music. My main professional work between 1985 and 2011 was with the MIses Institute but I've also worked with the Acton Institute and Mackinac Institute, as well as written thousands of published articles. My personal twitter account @jeffreyatucker FB is @jeffrey.albert.tucker Plain old email is email@example.com
David Brooks hasn’t been neoconservative since at LEAST 08 and more likely since 03
I appreciate your message here, but Murry goes to great lenghts on the important and functional cultural differences between the two groups. Take for instance the very high incidence of out-of-welock births because the lowers do not value marriage. The majority of these kids will simply not be as interested in education as they should be and it will likely not be supprted at home to a harried single mom trying to make ends meet. I sure do not know the answer to this – but it involves more than reducing regulations and the other things you suggest. especially so, since we support these kinds of maladaptive behaviors through the social safety nets we provide. Like I said – I do not have the answers, but the questions will need to be answered sooner rather than later.
the trees are obstructing your view of the forest
I don’t think most folks have a problem with successful people who have accumulated wealth. It’s the perception fed by reality, that most of the very wealthiest amongst us, stole the money from the government via bailout that provides so much tender for a social explosion.
Wealth accumulation has become something to despise in the age of instant gratification.
The financial oligarchs have controlled the media for over 100 years, influenced the recording of history and hence our education from cradle to grave. Perhaps we should all be open minded enough to believe we too may have been duped.
If the USA were humble enough to learn from the experiences in other countries it may not be so afraid of socialised medicine for example.
This is not socialism, its just socialised medicine. We would do it if we cared enough for our fellow man. But we don’t.
This is because it is not allowed in the USA. The oligarchs own big pharma, most of the media and have a very large downpayment on the government.
Look in despair at the ratings of Ron Paul who is the only candidate speaking your language.
But this all changes when the people revolt,(and they do), then the point is moot when you are taken out and shot.
The social safety net that you mention is another aspect of the interventionist statism that contributes to the “cultural differences” between people. Bad decisions are not punished by real suffering, because Uncle Sam will reach into your neighbor’s wallet and steal his money to paper over your mistakes. “Bad” behavior is, in effect, rewarded, and so you get more of it.
If you work and produce, the State punishes you by stealing the product of your labor. If you are lazy and don’t work, the State pays you and pays for your medical, dental, child support, etc.
hey, what’s with the comment machine?
daily reckoning is so afraid of alternative opinion they’ve taken to censorship of ideas.
keep the lie alive, daily reckoning.
the 400 most wealthiest families in the US have as much wealth as the bottom 140 million because of nothing more than a can-do attitude and a little elbow grease.
the 140 million exist at the bottom for nothing more than sloth.
thank you to commenters who noted oligarchy and it’s influence over media. it is only right wing propoganda that envy is relevant, a misguiding dilusion.
Poor fritz, still trapped in that left/right paradigm.
perhaps the opposite Model T
If men were truly free, their rights protected – why should they care if some rich guy makes a ton of dough?
If rich people were unable to buy governmental power – what power would they have over any other American?
If the Government had no power to tax and therefore SPEND and subsidize, what power would they have that the wealthy would covet?
If wealthy folks looked out across America and saw THEMSELVES – people of the same tribe maybe they would be more interested in socially cohesive activity. But when they look out and see their hard-earned money being taxed and given to illegal immigrants for doing nothing productive, and their dearest beliefs are maligned and voted away by a horde of people from a different race who hate them for being who they are etc etc etc… Why the HELL would they not want to protect everything that is theirs from those people?
Indeed, how are these people not an existential threat to their freedom and safety?
all of the various welfare programs come about through the argument that everyone is part of a society and therefore must contribute “their fair share”.
What happens when people think to themselves, “This is no SOCIETY that I can recognize. I don’t even recognise or even like these people who call themselves my countrymen but who are from a different race (or country) and pray to a different God and who hate me only take and never contribute. What contract am I bound to honor to these people? And by what right does this so- called ‘government’ enslave me to them?”
This is the staoe of affairs today. The American society has been destroyed and the current tyrants are playing one balkanized group against another. Basically 60% of the country votes itself benefits from the other 40% is the idea. The 40% lose all elections and all rights.
When you've got a room full of 200 oil insiders scratching their heads at current high prices, something's gotta give.
For most investors, it’s weird to think of stocks as their go-to investing option.
The petropoly has bills to pay and setting the price of oil was a simple way to balance their budgets.
Investors don’t seem to care that what's propping up their investments is what will ultimately destroy them: government monetary policy.
For the next decade the energy revolution will be likely confined to the US, displaying the robustness of American entrepreneurship.
Why the Sage of Baltimore’s commentary persists through America’s changing times.
After attending Platt’s oil conference in London I want to relay two important themes you need to know.