Charles Murray on Forcing Classes to Mix


In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, Charles Murray, who not so long ago was explaining What It Means to Be a Libertarian, advocates two policies that interfere with freedom of contract in the name of a goal he admits they will not achieve. The goal: narrowing "the divergence between the professional and working classes in white America," the subject of Murray's new book Coming Apart. Toward that end, Murray recommends "four steps that might weaken the isolation of at least the children of the new upper class." Two of these steps—replacing the SAT with achievement tests and ethnic with socioeconomic affirmative action in college admission decisions—seem to rely on private action. But the other two would be implemented by force. Murray says "we should get rid of unpaid internships," requiring nonreligious organizations with more than 10 employees to pay the minimum wage for summer work. The idea is to make internships at "places like the Brookings Institution, the American Enterprise Institute (where I work) or a senator's office" more accessible to middle- or working-class kids. Murray also argues that employers should not be allowed to demand a bachelor's degree as a condition of employment:

The bachelor's degree has become a driver of class divisions at the same moment in history when it has become educationally meaningless. We don't need legislation to fix this problem, just an energetic public interest law firm that challenges the constitutionality of the degree as a job requirement.

After all, the Supreme Court long ago ruled that employers could not use scores on standardized tests to choose among job applicants without demonstrating a tight link between the test and actual job requirements. It can be no more constitutional for an employer to require a piece of paper called a bachelor's degree, which doesn't even guarantee that its possessor can write a coherent paragraph.

It's a mystery how a private employer's educational requirements can be unconstitutional. Presumably Murray is referring to Griggs v. Duke Power Co., which dealt not with the Equal Protection Clause but with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The former applies only to the government, while the latter bans racial discrimination in employment and authorizes class action lawsuits against alleged violators. By advocating such lawsuits against employers who hire only college graduates, Murray is recommending government intervention, via the courts, to achieve the outcome he wants. The fact that it would not involve new legislation does not make the meddling less objectionable.

Worse, Murray concedes these measures "won't really make a lot of substantive, immediate difference," which is why he did not suggest them in his book. He adds that "there may, however, be a symbolic value in these reforms." So Murray is saying two common employment practices that violate no one's rights—hiring unpaid interns and requiring job applicants to have a B.A.—should be forcibly abolished because doing so might have a symbolic effect. 

Murray does reject "a compulsory civilian national service program"—not on principled grounds but because it would dragoon "young people who mostly didn't want to be there, without being able to enforce military-style discipline." He worries that it "would probably create more resentment than camaraderie." Is that really the main problem with forced labor as means of promoting social cohesion?

More on unpaid internships hereherehere, and here.