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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.