Coming Apart (Charles Murray)

This is a deeply pessimistic book. Charles Murray warns, Cassandra-like, of the ill effects that are resulting and will result from the economic and cultural divergence between the upper and lower classes. Even so, he tries to be optimistic, and he succeeds in being optimistic himself, but he doesn’t succeed in convincing the reader to be optimistic.

The first two-thirds of Murray’s book is a detailed statistical comparison of the culture of the upper and lower classes on a wide variety of measures. Murray refers to the modern upper classes as the “cognitive elite,” to be distinguished from the earlier upper classes that were based on money, or based on social position in the Northeast. His basic point, which is really hard to dispute, is that the cognitive elite is getting richer and more insular, but not deteriorating on measures of community such as marriage strength, industriousness, religious belief, criminality, and so forth, while the lower classes are doing the opposite: sinking ever further into bad behavior and bad lives. The last third of the book explains why this divergence is bad for America, not just bad for the lower classes.

As to the cognitive elite, Murray doesn’t see their emergence and dominance as all bad. Murray does see two problems with the cognitive elite, unrelated to their divergence from the lower classes—an immediate problem and a long-term problem. The immediate problem is that the cognitive elite are (geographically, culturally and intellectually) isolated from the rest of America, but they rule the country. And since they have “little direct experience with the lives of ordinary Americans,” they “make their judgments about what’s good for other people based on their own highly atypical lives.” This, of course, is the “flyover country” problem.

As to the long-term problem, Murray sees the emergence of the cognitive elite as a symptom of the decline of our civilization. He spends a lot of time on an explicit and lengthy endorsement of the once-dominant, now nearly forgotten mid-20th Century historian Arnold Toynbee, who wrote a series of books on the development and decay of every world civilization that has ever existed. (Toynbee refused, though Murray does not mention it, to classify our modern civilization within his framework of civilizational lifetimes.) Murray says that, using Toynbee’s terms and framework, our upper classes have shifted from being a creative minority to being a dominant minority, vulgarized and disinterested in the obligations of citizenship, with an accompanying collapse in self-confidence. Even though the upper classes have not suffered the degradation of the lower classes—they still rate highly on being industrious, married, and honest—today’s cognitive elite lack self-confidence in themselves and their civilization, in that they are no longer willing to identify and enforce virtues within their class. This leads to an inevitable decline and ultimate replacement by a new civilization born from the old (prior to which, according to Toynbee and not discussed by Murray, the now-uncreative but dominant minority will create an imperial universal state, before being undermined from within). Murray is clearly fascinated by his re-discovery of Toynbee, and this analysis actually adds a lot to the rest of the statistics-heavy book.

Interestingly, Murray is not concerned with that bete noire of conservatives, that the (ruling) cognitive elite is liberal. He says it is be more liberal in some geographic areas, which are the stereotypically liberal areas, but in voting patterns is not noticeably more liberal than the average voter. On the other hand, Murray does admit that the “narrow elite,” the small group “whose decisions directly affect the economy, politics, and culture of the nation,” are overwhelmingly extremely liberal. He thinks this is bad. But his book is not about that, which plenty of other people have written about.

If this were a book only about the cognitive elite, Murray would be less immediately concerned about the American future. Sure, like all civilizations, it’s not going to last forever. But the real problem Murray sees right now is the gulf between the cognitive elite and the lower classes. He sees this as destroying the “American Project”—the structures, shared beliefs and shared practices that have made American society whole and unique. (If you think America is not exceptional, or if you are groaning under the burden of white guilt, you should not read this book.) When the gaps among classes are so huge, there is no shared community, and it is shared community that has made America great.

Murray begins this analysis by noting that community has essentially disappeared in the lower classes, on any possible measure. It has not, however, disappeared in the cognitive elite. This analysis has much in common with Putnam’s “Bowling Alone,” which Murray cites, and Nisbet’s “The Quest For Community,” which he does not cite. But if community is not found in every class, it cannot link the entire country together, so the disappearance of community and general degradation of the lower classes affects the entire country.

Murray sees that, if one agrees with his analysis that the lower classes are utterly sunk in degradation, a common response is going to be “more government aid to the lower classes!” He refers to this as the “European model,” and he does not like it. His primary objection is not that the welfare state does not work, though he would say that, but rather that it erodes the self-actualization necessary for a high-functioning community. He identifies America as the sole such high-functioning community, at least until the 1960s, and he refers to it as the “American Project.”

Murray believes that if the government steps in, with Tocqueville’s soft totalitarianism of bureaucratic control and consequent enervation, the ability for the lower classes to lead fulfilling lives disappears. His analysis is similar to that in Nisbet in “The Quest For Community,” where Nisbet feared that the disappearance of intermediary institutions that create community leads to the government creating a type of false community, with pernicious results. As Murray says, “When the government intervenes to help, whether in the European welfare state or in America’s more diluted version, it enfeebles the institutions through which people live satisfying lives.” Murray’s thesis is that, statistically, the drivers of life satisfaction are simply four—family, vocation, community and faith. When the government enfeebles those things, as it necessarily must if it attempts to replace the organic versions which have disappeared, the poor are harmed yet more, community is utterly destroyed, and the American Project is over.

Murray squarely rejects the idea that European societies, with a supposed “work to live” mentality, are superior. He says that work is necessary for self-actualization, and he believes, though he does not quite say it, that most Europeans lead relatively meaningless lives.

Of course, since he’s an optimist, Murray does see a way forward. First, he assumes that we will all shortly see the collapse of the European Model. He’s probably right about that, as we see the cracks widening rapidly now (in 2015). Second, he believes that science will buttress his conclusions in many areas, such as that children in single-parent families do poorly, and that in general “many age-old ways of thinking about human nature will be vindicated. The institutions surrounding marriage, vocation, community and faith will be found to be the critical resources through which human beings lead satisfying lives.” Third, he thinks (as he also said in “By The People”), that Americans will wake up and simply realize that they can achieve the common welfare without the welfare state—in essence, that we will all wake from our collective, anti-Hayekian insanity. This is basically a pure libertarian argument for replacing government with technology, fleshed out in “By The People.” Finally, Murray predicts a Fourth Great Awakening, based around “enthusiastic religion,” leading to the “emergence of a ‘postmodern egalitarian agenda,’” which will not be welfare-statist in orientation, but rather lead to increased community. As it takes hold in the cognitive elite, the American Project can be renewed.

Me, I doubt it. I think government, and the cognitive elite which is wholly intertwined with the government (many segments of it being wholly parasites on the government, which is why seven of the ten richest counties in the United States are contiguous to Washington, D.C.), will never give up its stranglehold. Why would they? They’re rich and getting richer, as Murray says. They don’t have to deal with the poor. They don’t care about community or the American Project, and they think Europe is doing just fine and is far superior to evil America. Obama and his coterie are the very model of this. They can simply keep taxing the productive members of society indefinitely to buy off the poor from causing trouble. Bread and circuses, and so forth. No, I think the world of “The Hunger Games” is a lot more likely result of the trends Murray details with so much effort. But it’s nice that he can be optimistic. Me, I have to end this review so I can buy some more ammunition.


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