Book Review: Coming Apart by Charles Murray

America’s middle class is disintegrating. Is the welfare state to blame?

Coming Apart:
The State of White America, 1960-2010

By Charles Murray
Crown Forum; $27; 306 pages


Charles Murray, the conservative sociologist, has written an incisive, alarming, and hugely frustrating book about the state of American society. No sense withholding the punchline: He thinks we’re in decline. The American rich are living cloistered and isolated lives, depriving the mainstream of their fraternity, their wisdom, and their skills. A growing number at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum are dropping out in another respect—abandoning work, family, and community. At risk is what Murray affectionately terms the “American project.” To Murray, the key to self-government is the modifier “self”; American democracy, he says, can never be stronger than the cumulative strength of character of its individual selves. A government whose citizens lack what Murray terms “the founding virtues”—virtue being one of the unfashionable terms that Murray reclaims with delight—might as well be a dictatorship. It will lack participatory vigor, civic energy, and a sense of inclusion, without which even the Constitution becomes a dead letter.

Murray’s description of (past) American exceptionalism is as inspiring as any I have read. While neoconservatives have invoked the idea to justify U.S. military involvement overseas, Murray simply means that America, as a nation, grew up freer and also more industrious, neighborly, and tolerant than most. The combination of freedom with responsibility produced, until mid-20th century, a more virtuous and happy society. (Murray does not pretend that advantage was extended to African Americans.)

Coming Apart in effect consists of three books, and during the first two—on the well-educated and the underclass—only occasionally does Murray’s moralism and finger-wagging offend. As the subtitle attests, what he actually examines is white America. Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve, restricted his focus as a way of “stripping away distractions” of race to focus on class, a more salient dividing line. His troubling news is that the sociological underclass—once widely assumed to be a subset of black America—is increasingly evident in all ethnicities.

The first section, “The Formation of a New Upper Class,” is a portrait of life in what David Brooks has sardonically termed “latte towns.” Making fun of New Age superparents who take their kids on African safaris as readily as they do to the local zoo is pretty familiar beer. But Murray delivers something fresh: the element of separation, or what he aptly calls self-segregation among the upper class.

The separation occurs in two ways. Through the 1960s, America’s rich were culturally similar to other Americans. They ate better steak, and they ate it more often, but rich and poor both liked steak. They watched the same TV shows; they worked similar hours; they purchased cars from the same (domestic) manufacturers. Now, the cultural habits and preferences of America’s elite would be unrecognizable to mainstream U.S.A. The foods, entertainment—even the birth age of mothers—suggest an anthropological divide. Murray (assuming his readers to be in the elite) offers a pop test to validate his hypothesis. Convincingly, he challenges readers to identify the various military insignia by rank, or asks whether they have ever walked a factory floor.

Murray may be minimizing the extent of cultural differences in the past. I grew up a lawyer’s son; I was well aware that some of my friends, one the son of a carpenter, another of a car dealer, were different. But my house did not look so dissimilar, nor did our neighborhoods. As Murray documents, the well-off used to live in the same or in contiguous neighborhoods as others. Bigger homes were not much bigger; they cost twice as much—not 10 times as much. Even on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, in 1960, only 23 percent of adults had college degrees. Like it or not, the elite rubbed elbows with everyone else. Today, they cluster in what Murray calls “super Zip Codes,” surrounded by vast lawns and neighbored by other rich. They’re separated not just by culture but by geography.

Physically isolated from middlebrow Americans, the elite are less likely to be part of the same associations, PTAs, Kiwanis clubs. Money does not define their culture as much as education. But education enables wealth, and vice versa. Given the increasing rewards that our economy returns for brainpower, differences in wealth tend to be self-perpetuating.

Murray’s second part details the declining hold of the “founders’ values” among lower-class white Americans. Murray identifies these values as industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity. He marshals an array of statistics to show that white Americans are having more babies out of wedlock; indeed, fewer are marrying at all. More are working part-time or have ceased working, independent of the economic climate. They have lost the industriousness that visitors to America since de Tocqueville identified as a national trait; they are perhaps even less honest. Murray all but avoids the fact that crime has been decreasing. Rather, he argues that personal bankruptcy, which has lost its stigma, has become a form of shoplifting—a socially acceptable way to steal.

While acknowledging that relative wages for manual labor are falling, he rejects the notion that this should discourage people from wanting such jobs. He is nostalgic for the era when nonworking men “were scorned as bums.” He thinks the rich have abdicated their responsibility to society by failing to preach that their lifestyle—married, gainful, law-abiding—is indeed superior. The politically correct will find his language obnoxious, or so Murray dearly hopes. Regardless, he builds a strong statistical case that among the lower socioeconomic rung, the bonds of community, work, family, and faith are fraying.

One question I wish he had taken up: Are the “new upper class” and the problems of the lower class related? Coming Apart treats them as separate. That gets to my frustration, which arises in the concluding section. Until then, Murray had merely diagnosed the cultural divide. Now he claims to know the causes. He blames the government and the “welfare state.” This section brims with political resentments; the carefully researched facts give way to bitter generalizations such as “only a government could spend so much money so inefficiently.” The author who tactfully, and wryly, demonstrated how little readers know about the lives of working-class whites, writes of “bureaucrats” with no appreciation, or even interest, in what they actually do. He does not explain why social cohesion should be less today when the Great Society experiment peaked in the 1960s. While blaming the debilitating effect on incentives of social programs, he fails to acknowledge the idea that most Americans probably feel less coddled, less protected today than in 1970.

Murray says we are becoming a European-style welfare state. That conclusion is debatable, but it is a debate that should follow a different book than the searing sociological study he has written. Coming Apart is, he says, his “valedictory on the topic of happiness and public policy.” But nowhere in this volume are public policies truly discussed; their effect is simply assumed. Maybe welfare kept the lower class low. Maybe assistance programs made the rich want nothing to do with anyone else. Hereby a modest proposition is offered: Vastly diverging wages had something to do with it.

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