Charles Murray: Why America is Coming Apart Along Class Lines


Charles Murray, one of America's most influential social policy thinkers, has come out with a widely discussed new book called Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, which argues that Americans are splitting into two divergent classes, and that this growing divide could end American life as we have known it.

A self-described libertarian, Murray started his career as a liberal Democrat who spent six years in the Peace Corps and voted for Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election. His political transformation came while he was researching his landmark 1984 book, Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980, which marshaled exhaustive evidence that American welfare programs were harming the very people they were supposed to be lifting out of poverty.

Losing Ground was fiercely denounced by the political left, but soon won mainstream acceptance that the War on Poverty was failing. The simple fact is there wouldn't have been welfare reform in the 1990s without Losing Ground.

The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, Murray's 1994 collaboration with Harvard psychologist Richard Herrnstein, was more controversial. The book maintained that differences in genes contribute to differences in IQ, which in turn play a significant role in the life outcomes of individuals. Most controversially, Herrnstein and Murray argued that various ethnic groups have distinct differences in inherited intelligence. (Economist James J. Heckman reviewed The Bell Curve for Reason back in 1995.)

Murray has written more than 20 books, including What It Means to Be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation, and he's currently the W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute .

Reason's Ronald Bailey sat down with Murray in March for a wide-ranging discussion of how his earlier work informs Coming Apart, why he remains libertarian in his outlook, and whether younger Americans face an relentlessly negative future.

Approximately 35 minutes.

Written and produced by Jim Epstein.

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  1. Herrnstein and Murray argued that various ethnic groups have distinct in inherited intelligence.

    Not to nitpick, but can you clarify?

    1. I think they went with IQ tests, with ethnic (race) groups scoring different levels as groups. Besides that, some professors like Dinesh D’Souza have observed that this is true for other tests too, he says any test given to diverse groups will show this pattern.

      1. Scores best to worst: Asians, Caucasians, Hispanics, Blacks. OT: bone density by race follows the same pattern.

        1. Correction: The pattern is opposite for bone density. Dense to least dense is: Black, Hispanic, Caucasian, Asian.

          1. Aha! This would explain why Asians are such terrific swimmers, being so light-boned and all.

      2. I remember, back in the day before the PC revolution, that blacks scored better than whites on early childhood studies of depth perception. IIRC the study would let babies crawl around on the flood and measure their reaction to crawling across a deep hole covered by a glass floor. To put it in the extreme, the black babies knew not to crawl over hole, the white babies were oblivious to the potential danger.

        1. So Blacks are more careful even though their stronger skeletons would protect them? This is getting complicated.

          1. I don’t think a baby would consult an encyclopedia for that tidbit of information about bone density. Besides, the danger is present regardless.

            1. Why would anybody consult an encyclopedia for an inherent trait?

  2. Oh, goody, we can have another argument about whether Murray’s a libertarian or not. Those are fun.

    1. Some time in the 1990s he went from calling himself a “liberal” to “conservative”.

  3. Welfare reform was so successful in reducing poverty, after all. Oh no, it just created more “libertarians” blaming poor people for their problems. I don’t see how you can say poverty is a result of genetics and then blame poverty on a moral failing, though. If certain classes or races are genetically predisposed to being poor, then that’s certainly not an argument in favor of laissez-faire economics, but the opposite. Unless you’re just going to be overt about preferring social darwinism.

    1. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life

      That book was silly. But more importantly, people claim that high unemployment for young black males is proof of racism in America. But that’s not true. The reason the why unemployment for young black males is so high is because they have nothing of value to offer.

      1. Now, why they have nothing to offer is another question.

        1. The answer is simply that they haven’t acquired any marketable skills.

          1. At least any skills that can only be sold at $7.25/hour.

          2. And why haven’t they acquired any marketable skills? It must be 1) white racism 2) continued transmission of flawed cultural values or 3) genetic predisposition to lower average intelligence.

            Given that other ethnic groups in the US were able to overcome white racism and traditional counterproductive cultural values, lower average intelligence seems like the most likely answer.

            1. Other ethnic groups are not native descendants of a former slave caste, who were only legally equal a few decades ago. Racism and poverty compound each other, and blacks seem to have suffered from this sort of vicious cycle. Terms lie lower average intelligence reek of pseudoscience. Given a truly equal opportunity to get educated and earn a living, we’d see better outcomes. Since that day has never come you can’t really say otherwise.

              But it’s also clear that you can’t even be black and become president of the united states and be free of racism. Read anything linked from the Drudge report and dare to pretend otherwise.

    2. Superb straw man.

      Poor people are poor because they spend all their money, and wealthy people are wealthy because they don’t.

      It’s that simple.

      1. alot of lottery winners that filed for bankruptcy and went back to their trailers. Money at any given time doesn’t best define the rich from the poor.

        1. I think sarcasmic was being sacasmic, LIT.

      2. Rap stars stop going to jail after they make it big . . . no wait.

        1. They do that for marketing.

    3. Who’s arguing both that poverty is a result of genetics and moral failing? Seems you created an argument made just for you rebuttal.

      As in below…straw man.

      1. Welcome to H&R: this is Tony’s *only* method of argument.

        Oh, and just for you, Tony:


  4. Social darwinism is another phrase that’s essentially meaningless and just used as a signifier for your friends and a club for your enemies.

  5. +1 for Ron Bailey. Excellent interview.

  6. Most citizens are deeply troubled by the large racial differences in well-being. Many are angered by the seeming unfairness and others fear that it threatens to undermine social stability. Virtually all policy makers subscribe to the social privilege theory of social inequality, at least
    publicly, so they attribute the systematic pattern of racial inequalities to a systematic pattern of
    racial discrimination and deprivation. Conversely, they expect racial equality to emerge as discrimination and deprivation are eliminated. When the expected equality does not emerge
    following such efforts, many begin to attack anything that seems to stand in its way, including the race-neutral and objective measures for which they once fought.

    From Social Consequences of Group Differences in Cognitive Ability, by Linda Gottfredson (U. of Delaware), 2004

  7. I like how Murray notes that the wealthy, whose success came from working hard and keeping out of trouble and delaying gratification hesitate to offer that as a suggestion to reducing poverty.

    1. The strategy for becoming wealthy is not paying taxes.

    2. Because Murray knows very well that there is a genetic basis for these habits. You can ask people with low IQs to work hard and delay gratification. Good luck with that, then you can ask monkeys to fly or pigs to spin silk.

  8. I loved his book, Losing Ground. I read it when we lived next door to a welfare family – with no visible means of support, two children were produced. The father, old and on socialist security, the mother, younger an dumber than a box of rocks. While we scraped the ice from our windshields to go to work every fucking morning.

    1. I’m guessing that they are still there and you are not.

    2. They were going to fuck every working morning. They probably had more fun.

  9. A self-described libertarian,

    Yeah, and I’m a self-described ladies’ man.

  10. I’ve now had a chance to watch the video.

    First, thank you for doing this. Great interview. The way the mainstream has tried to silence and demonize Murray over the years is disgraceful.

    Second, I think Murray himself realizes that his prescriptions are pretty lame. The only way to reverse the trends he’s documented would be to change the culture, which basically means there’s nothing we can do. But you can’t end a policy book that way.

    1. I think Murray’s final point – make it difficult to live a terrible life – kind of sums up his prescription. Get out of the way, and don’t help people maintain a poor lifestyle. That’s libertarian.

  11. Murray’s thoughts have parallels to Hayek’s writings and particularly exemplified by the article Hayek wrote titled The Moral Imperative of the Market. I think the salient point that both Murray and Hayek make is that moral systems underpin the success of the market economy in Hayek’s case and the United States success as a country in Murray’s case.

    The problem for a lot of libertarians is that they will demand rational proof for following a given set of morals, of which it will be theoretically impossible to supply those rationalizations. Still, it is practically self evident that a market economy for example could not have evolved had the moral foundations for such not been in place for those who brought it into existence. As the market economy has grown to a point where it supports the behavior of individuals whom other individuals know nothing about, if the morals that brought that into existence are no longer communicated and understood, the system will eventually shift to something else or fail.

    It should be telling that even though our current state of world population and growth is only supportable by a market economy, a vast majority of people no longer believe a market system works and are reverting to small tribal moral ideas like social justice and serving your fellow man for a common good.

    1. As the market economy has grown to a point where it supports the behavior of individuals whom other individuals know nothing about, if the morals that brought that into existence are no longer communicated and understood, the system will eventually shift to something else or fail.

      I think we’ll see this demonstrated over the next 25-50 years.

  12. Murray is a neocon tool. That’s why he’s working at AEI instead of CATO.

  13. Murray is a wannabe libertarian psychologist-philosopher, and he’s a hack, not even a good hack! Yes cultural norms change over time. Address why it’s no big deal that if anyone does anything not in violation of the rights of another, what crime hath occurred? Then I’ll call you a libertarian.

    ~Not to start the next argument about it, folks. That is just my direct reaction to this video.

  14. its not rocket science that the wealfare state is a failure. i see it in my own family and all their friends on the programs. people are better off hitting rock bottom and having to make hard decisions when they are young. after people have been on the dole for 20-30 yrs they are pretty much worthless. what is worse that their kids have it even worse

    1. What failure? The poor vote 99% or more for liberals. Without the poor vote, liberals wouldn’t be able to get elected.

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