The Not-So-Great Society


Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980, by Charles Murray, New York: Basic Books, 368 pp., $23.95

Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?, by Thomas Sowell, New York: William Morrow, 162 pp., $11.95

Beneath the surface of our political life lie the governing ideas about society that infuse our moralistic passions of advocacy with purpose and plan. The intellectual paradigm of those who would use politics to do good determines both the objectives of such efforts and the means adopted to pursue them. In the field of social welfare policy, broadly construed, this paradigm is now in a state of flux, the subject of ferocious, frequently acrimonious, debate. The shrillness and emotion with which the debate is often waged reveal the magnitude of what is at stake.

At issue is the definition of the good society. This battle over ideas concerns the kind and extent of obligation that the members of a society properly bear toward its indigent and the methods best suited to discharge such obligation. At a more concrete political level, this debate is about whether the (largely liberal) policies of the past have "failed" and whether the current (essentially conservative) drift in social policy can "succeed."

Two events combine to make this debate among the most important of our contemporary political life. One is the election in 1980 of Ronald Reagan as president. The philosophy of his administration on social welfare matters varies so markedly from the previously prevailing consensus that his election occasioned extended discussion of the objectives and methods appropriate to social welfare policy. The other event is the continuation—indeed, the exacerbation in some instances—of the conditions of poverty and inequality that had provided much of the impetus for the development of that earlier consensus.

This is especially striking in regard to the situation of blacks. A profound transformation of the legal environment confronting black Americans has occurred. It began with the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown decision ruling out separate schools for black children. Through the enactment of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and its subsequent judicial interpretation, a frontal assault on racial discrimination in education was extended to housing, employment, and electoral participation. Yet, by many social indicators, racial disparities are today as large as ever, with the social problems of low-income, innercity blacks approaching crisis proportions.

Two recent works, Losing Ground by Charles Murray and Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality? by Thomas Sowell, make important contributions to the debate on social policy. Each is strongly critical of the intellectual paradigm that has informed the profound changes in policy witnessed in the last two decades.

In Losing Ground, Charles Murray presents a history of social policy since 1950. His central argument is that, in many important ways, living conditions actually worsened for those who were most to be helped by the expansion of the welfare state. This occurred, his argument continues, in spite of general social and economic developments that augured well for the poor. Finally, this retrogression was due in part to the way in which efforts to assist the poor were designed and implemented.

As Murray puts it:

The most compelling explanation for the marked shift in the fortunes of the poor is that they continued to respond, as they always had, to the world as they found it, but that we—meaning the not-poor and undisadvantaged—had changed the rules of their world. Not of our world, just of theirs. The first effect of the new rules was to make it profitable for the poor to behave in the short term in ways that were destructive in the long term. Their second effect was to mask these long-term losses—to subsidize irretrievable mistakes. We tried to provide more for the poor and produced more poor instead. We tried to remove the barriers to escape from poverty, and inadvertently built a trap.

Losing Ground is an effort, largely successful in my judgment, to document this retrogression, to support the assertion that it stems from our having "changed the rules" for the poor and, in the final chapters, to urge a rethinking about what are the appropriate and feasible objectives of social policy. [See the excerpt from the book that begins on page 32 in this issue. —Eds.]

The case Murray makes for retrogression in the circumstances of the poor is compelling. Consider such indices of well-being among poor blacks as the unemployment and labor-force participation rates among young males, the incidence of single-parent families, or the illegitimacy rate. Murray shows that if in 1966, using the experience of the previous 15 years as a guide, one were to have forecast the values that in 1980 would be assumed by such indices, even under the most pessimistic scenario one would have predicted a situation for these people vastly better than that which, in fact, obtained by 1980. This notwithstanding the fact that we have witnessed an enormous expansion of expenditures by the federal government aimed at improving the welfare of the innercity poor. The paradox deepens when one considers that during the same period there occurred major improvements in the occupational and earnings status of employed blacks.

The full-scale attack on discrimination, together with the expansion of opportunities for blacks associated with affirmative action in education and employment since 1966, has led to a dramatic advance in the status of employed blacks, even as those on the margins of society have fallen further behind. Murray attributes this to the fact that, while their opportunities were enhanced, the incentives affecting the behavior of middle-class blacks were not significantly altered by the expansion of federal efforts that began in the mid-'60s. However, the delicate system of reward and punishment regulating the behavior of poor blacks was profoundly and, over the long run, detrimentally changed by the interventions undertaken on their behalf.

Establishment of this link between the liberal ideas guiding and justifying expanded assistance to the poor, and the diminished sway among the poor of internal systems of behavior-regulating sanctions and values, is the crux of Murray's contribution. His argument is subtle and persuasive, ranging far beyond the by-now-too-familiar epithet "welfare destroys work incentives." Murray is concerned to show that, more than work incentives, the very extent to which the poor could feel themselves responsible for and in control of their own destinies was systematically undermined by social policy in the areas of income maintenance, criminal justice administration, and education. His controversial thesis will become, I predict, the focal point of heated debate in the months to come.

No stranger to ferocious, acrimonious controversy over social policy, economist Thomas Sowell has invited more of the same with his extended essay on civil rights policy since 1954—Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality? He evidences acute awareness of this when, in the preface, he states: "Some books are written for the pleasure or the zest of it. Other books are written as a painful duty, because there is something that needs to be said—and because other people have better sense than to say it."

What Sowell by admission lacks the good sense to avoid saying is that the original thrust of the civil rights revolution—as exemplified by that "landmark victory over some of the ugliest forces buried in American history," the Court's decision in Brown—has over the past three decades been transformed into an instrument of special pleading that is increasingly neither "civil" nor "right." Sowell argues that there has emerged a troubling system of thought about these matters, widely embraced by advocates of the cause of women and minorities, which he calls "the civil rights vision."

This vision consists of a set of general principles of morality and of causation distilled from the unique, painful experience of black Americans in the century after emancipation. In brief the generalizations are: (1) most differences in status between groups are due to discrimination; (2) those who think otherwise necessarily attribute these differences to innate inferiority of the lagging groups; and (3) the best way for those lagging groups to redress the differences is through political activity.

These principles have, according to Sowell, come to be applied wholesale to a bewildering array of groups—women, the aged, the handicapped, homosexuals, non-European immigrant groups—whose circumstance and historical experience bear little relation to the "slavery, Jim Crow laws, and some of the most virulent racism ever seen anywhere" that blacks have endured. What began as a long-overdue legal response to the special case of blacks has, Sowell argues, evolved into a system of thought by which can be explained and remedied economic disparity between white males and any group of individuals claiming to have encountered discrimination. What Sowell means by the "civil rights vision" is the presumption, derived from the history of blacks, that any difference of outcome between groups constitutes a moral indictment of the social order, legitimizes intervention through politics aimed at securing "equity," and requires condemnation of any principled opposition to such intervention as racist or sexist or homophobic.

An aspect of this worldview of particular concern to Sowell is the notion that political activity is the preferred method by which to seek improvement in the condition of a "disadvantaged group." He notes that in the history of the United States and throughout the world, despised minorities have many times advanced in spite of, not by virtue of, the exercise of state power. Moreover, the unhappy consequences that have too often accompanied the politicization of ethnic differences in countries like Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Cypress cause Sowell to warn that there is great danger to the republic in making ethnic-racial differences a permanently divisive feature of politics.

A pall of pessimism hangs over this essay. The author virtually despairs of the possibility of constructive, civil discourse on these vital matters. He seems to think that we have stepped onto a "slippery slope" from which logical argument, such as that made in this work, will be inadequate to extricate us. One can only hope he is wrong.

It has not been possible in such a brief space to convey a sense of the intellectual vitality with which these authors argue their respective cases. Suffice it to say that, by calling into question what had become an almost automatic equation of good intentions with virtue, they have advanced the debate on social policy in the United States, to the benefit of us all. It is to be hoped that in the discussion of these matters certain to ensue, the real-life circumstances of those whom we seek to help will carry at least as much weight as the desire to defend a set of ideas whose time may well have passed.

Glenn C. Loury is a professor of economics and Afro-American studies and a professor of public policy at Harvard University.