A Virtuous Reading Note to Coming Apart

Charles Murray, author of Loosing Ground, a declaration against welfare, and Bell Curve, a book that invoked racial controversies, is back. In his new book, Coming Apart, he proposes that four fundamental virtues (industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity) now divide the upper class from the lower class in serious ways.

His upper class is defined by elite education, professional productivity, and shared traditional values as mentioned above, while the lower class is everything to the opposite: they do poorly in education, slack over work, have children outside marriage, don’t go to church, and don’t engage with their communities. Gradually, the upper class has fared well both economically and socially, while problems on the lower class’ side have increased.

The new book has received praise for masterfully illustrating the American class system. George Packer, from the New Yorker, for example, has duly noted:

Visit most towns or rural areas where factories are boarded up and all the economic life is confined to strip malls, and you have to acknowledge the force of Murray’s picture. Rampant drug use, high dropout rates, out-of-wedlock births, epidemic obesity, every other working-age person on disability — it’s true even though Charles Murray says it’s true.

Murray is a rather good writer. But main defect of this book lies in the limited solution he offers to the growing gap. To address this problem, Murray argues that, first, the virtuous upper class should start “preaching what they practice,” and second, they should stop supporting government programs that support the working class.

To the first proposal, Joan Walsh from Salon, argues why it is problematic that only Murray’s upper class people can be trusted to do the right thing:

To be fair, Murray occasionally nods to bad behavior at the top. He rather comically looks at the 2008 banking crash for evidence that maybe today’s rich lack some moral fiber, too, but finds nothing he believes is reliable. He also acknowledges that the Founders didn’t always practice what they preached, when it came to either marital fidelity or religious observance. The important thing is that they tried to embrace and advance those values. And it’s true that even skeptics like Jefferson thought religion was a good thing — for other people, anyway.

And David Frum, one of Murray’s most fervent opponents, questions the effectiveness of preaching:

There have been other periods in US history where the upper class did not shrink from lecturing: the temperance movement for one outstanding example. Was that successful? Historians have studied the question, and the answer is there for Murray to discover, if he wished.

But even if Murray’s virtuous upper class is to preach “what it practices,” the idea that virtue alone can make people less poor is just wrong. Blindly blaming and cutting government support would be missing the point entirely. After all, it is debatable what caused the deterioration. Packer again:

And the predictable left-right argument over causes and solutions doesn’t help. Is it disappearing jobs, or disappearing values? This isn’t an analytical choice I find very useful. Jobs and values are intertwined: when one starts to go, the other is likely to go with it, and the circle becomes truly vicious.

If Murray is right that disappearing values is a cause, then implementing government programs might arguably make sense. But cutting the safety net of the working class is decidedly unlikely to improve virtuousness; it merely makes people more desperate. Desperation would likely destroy whatever working class values remain.

Siyu Hu

Siyu Hu is an intern at the Washington Monthly.