Saturday, January 7, 2017

A Note On Charles Murray's Coming Apart


I just finished reading Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010

It was published in 2012,

Murray argues that elites now embody the "founding virtues," once attached to the American working class--religious faith, hard work, honesty and marriage. He says that a telling number of the white working class poor and the poor, about 30% of U.S. whites, have fallen away from these virtues and that they are crucial to what he calls the "American Project." 

The top 20% of whites, the top fifth, the best educated, with the best jobs, the highest incomes, have come on to the founding virtues. So, for Murray, at root, the great American inequality is cultural, and it's that that drives the other inequalities. 

So now, taking marriage for example, for the top 20%, Murray says the data show, divorce rates since the nineties have gone down, as has child bearing outside of marriage. But not so for the working poor and the poor: he says the data here show sky rocketing divorce, marital quality decrease and much higher unmarried child bearing. 

Same pattern for crime, religion and industriousness/work, according to Murray's data. 

While he's focused on white America, he argues that the data tell the same story for all of class riven America.

The American Project, he argues, depends on the strength of the founding virtues. Businesses flounder without industriousness. Correlatively the welfare state grows, which means the size and cost of government grows. With that, the key foundational premises of America, individual liberty, responsibility and self government shrink. 

Murray in answer to coming apart, among other things, exhorts the elite to preach what they embody, spread the word, so to say, rather than simply segregating and replicating themselves by their children absorbing the same virtues, getting better educations and jobs, and marrying amongst themselves.

For Murray, the failure to come together means coming more and more apart till the very bonds of consensus providing the social glue and legitimacy sustaining the nation will fray beyond repair.

While I see much that is telling in his argument, particularly the cultural diagnosis at its core, I find its conclusions faultily apocalyptic, his portrait unpersuasive as to the mass of Americans between the two book end quintiles. And, even if I'm wrong and Murray's dire vision is right, his central remedy of "preach what you practice" is, I think, pious, attenuated and a form of wishful thinking.

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