"The American Project Is in Danger"

Friday, October 26, 2012
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Peter Robinson, Uncommon Knowledge: With us today is Charles Murray, a longtime fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and author of books that include Losing Ground, What It Means to Be a Libertarian, In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State, and The Bell Curve.

From his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010: “If the case I have made is completely correct, all is lost.” Doctor Murray, I believe, will join me in hoping that he is not completely correct. Charles Murray, welcome.

Charles Murray: Thank you, Peter.


Robinson: In Coming Apart, having described the world in 1963 just before the assassination of John Kennedy, and having established that there is a widely shared set of cultural norms that you refer to as the civic culture, you then describe the present day and present two fictional towns, Belmont and Fishtown. What are they based on?

Murray: Belmont refers to Belmont, Massachusetts, which is an affluent suburb of Boston, where it turns out—I did not know this—Mitt Romney lives. And Fishtown refers to a neighborhood in Philadelphia that has been a white working-class neighborhood probably since the Revolution.

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Robinson: Everyone in Belmont has been to college, and works at a prestigious job. Everyone in Fishtown has no more than a high school diploma and works in a blue-collar or low-level service job. And your argument is that whereas lawyers and factory workers in 1963 inhabited the same America, Belmont and Fishtown today might as well be in different worlds. Would you expand on that?

Murray: Sure. Marriage in Fishtown is now down to 48 percent of adults aged 30–49. About a third of all white males in that age group have never been married. And with that kind of change goes a collapse in other things as well, because we know that men perform a lot better in the labor market when they are married. Social capital collapses. Social capital is all the thousands of things that used to characterize this unique American culture whereby people living physically in proximity acted cooperatively to solve their problems and help each other.

Robinson: You knew the widow across the street. So you shoveled her driveway in the winter, and she looked out for your little kids when they were playing in the front yard and you were busy in the back of the house? Neighborliness.

“Social capital is all the thousands of things that used to characterize this unique American culture.”

Murray: That kind of thing. But also more substantive forms, like when the guy next door has had a rough patch and has lost his job and the neighbors step in and help, sometimes with money. It is solving all sorts of problems without bureaucracies. But it also includes the ways that parents get involved in schools, fund drives, going to city council to lobby for a four-way stop sign.

Robinson: Marriage in Fishtown you have already said is 48 percent. Belmont?

Murray: 84 percent. And not only that, divorce is down. So a very large proportion of those are first marriages: intact families.

Robinson: Industriousness in Belmont and Fishtown?

Murray: Industriousness is probably the signature characteristic of Americans over history. This is what the world has marveled at. In 1960, everybody worked; males worked. By 2008 (before the recession), about one of eight white males in Fishtown were not even looking for work. They were out of the labor market, living off their girlfriends, or their parents, or their siblings. They’re guys that are in the underground economy. It is a fundamental breakdown among a minority of males in Fishtown in industriousness.

“The founders were unanimous in saying this Constitution will not work with just any kind of population. The population must possess certain virtues.”

Robinson: Religion in Belmont and Fishtown?

Murray: It fell in both pretty severely. The United States has had a great increase in secularism across the board. But, and here is the surprising thing, it was always higher in the upper middle class than in the working class. By 2010, the proportion of people who report that they both attend church regularly and have a strong affiliation with their faith is down to one of eight people in Fishtown. They’re such a small minority at that point that they are increasingly seen as oddballs.


Robinson: From Coming Apart: “The trends of the last half century matter a lot. Many of the best and most exceptional qualities of American culture cannot survive unless these trends are reversed.” Explain that intellectually aggressive assertion.

Murray: Let’s talk about the functioning of a free society, because that is what I go back to. The founders were unanimous in saying this Constitution will not work with just any kind of population. The population must possess certain virtues, and they focused on four that were crucial: the integrity of marriage, industriousness, religiosity, and plain American honesty. They said without those you cannot have a self-governing population. The trends that I describe in Fishtown are in effect saying that the virtues required to be a self-governing community are slipping toward a tipping point beyond return. And at that point we will have a permanent lower class that is different in kind from a lower class the United States has had before, in that it is both sizable and it is no longer participating in American institutions.

So, you will have an upper class that will still be living a fine life. And the middle class will be doing fairly well. But something very fundamental to the common—the universality of being an American, the embrace of all people—that will be gone. And that is going to be a huge loss. It is also going to induce the creation of an extensive welfare state far beyond the one we have now.

“Being nice is a way of moment-to-moment not creating trouble. It is not a way of inculcating standards of behavior that will get you through tough times.”

Robinson: From Coming Apart, a few statistics: voted in the presidential election, down 22 percent from 1960 to 1996. Attended a public meeting on town or school affairs, down 35 percent from 1973 to 1994. Served as an officer of some club or organization (Elks, Rotary, etc.), down 42 percent from 1973 to 1994. Parents with children under age eighteen who are members of the PTA, down 61 percent from 1960 to 1997. And these statistics tell us what?

Murray: These come from Bowling Alone, the excellent book by Robert Putnam. Those percentage reductions represent across the American population, but they were not evenly split. So these reductions are concentrated in Fishtown, in the working-class community. And what difference does that make? Well, the social capital—another word for what has been the glue of American community, the spirit and the vitality of American community—that goes away. And it is all linked up with the other trends we have discussed.

Putnam says about half of all social capital comes directly from the religious population. And even more comes from it because religious people are more likely to be engaged in secular forms of social capital than nonreligious people. So, you are looking at a real mess focused on Fishtown, not in Belmont.

Robinson: From Coming Apart: “The big question is whether the remaining levels of social trust in Fishtown are enough to sustain anything approaching the traditional expectations of American neighborliness and local problem solving. It is hard for me to envision a revival.” When I read that, I think back to New York City, and the high crime rates even as recently as the late ’80s and ’90s. And New York has been transformed. Of course, New York is not Fishtown. I understand there are differences. But that is an example of a revival of a kind. Does it have a wider applicability?

Murray: Well, let’s take the case of the real Fishtown in Philadelphia. In the 1960s, if there was any crime in the community, Fishtown took care of it itself. It was so tight-knit that everybody knew if anybody did something. And they did not bother to call the cops. But it is also true that your kids could be playing out in the street and you did not need to worry that you were not watching them all the time, because there were neighbors who were keeping an eye on them. And if your child did something wrong, you also gave carte blanche to your neighbors to discipline that child. When you lose social capital, the doors have to be locked. The kids can’t play alone in the street anymore. New York City is a good example of life becoming really much safer for the upper middle class in the cities; it had never been dangerous for the upper middle class in suburbs like Belmont. But in the Fishtowns, violent crime is about 4.7 times higher than it was in 1960. It is qualitatively different and worse than it was in the 1960s.


Robinson: In Coming Apart, you make a comparison with ancient Rome. Five centuries before the barbarian invasions from the north, Rome took “its initial downward step . . . its loss of the republic when Caesar became the first emperor. . . . Was that loss important? Not in material terms.” Rome, of course, remained an empire for five centuries. It grew and got richer. “But for Romans who treasured their republic, it was a tragedy that no amount of imperial splendor could redeem. The United States faces a similar prospect: remaining as wealthy and powerful as ever, but leaving its heritage behind.” Explain.

Murray: We have been talking about America’s civic culture. Well, when you think about American exceptionalism, what are people really talking about? Why is it that people all over the world looked at the United States and said we were different? One aspect was the land of opportunity: you could go to the United States and make something of yourself, and your children could live a better life than you did. But another aspect of this exceptionalism was people looked at us and saw the way that Americans solved problems and helped each other at the local level. There are all sorts of cultures that have very strong traditions of hospitality to strangers or guests, but try to find cultures in which people who just happen to live near each other voluntarily help each other. That is really unique. We had that.

Robinson: One reason you feel this so deeply is you have experienced it.

Murray: Yeah, I lived in small-town Iowa, a town of fifteen thousand people. And I experienced exactly that kind of civic culture that has existed there. But I want to emphasize that it also existed in neighborhoods in large cities. So, it’s not urbanization that prevents this from happening. It is other kinds of causes. But whatever those causes may be, that civic culture is unraveling mostly in one segment of American society. We are losing something that is irreplaceable.

“Do you really want your children to grow up as hothouse flowers? Do you really want your children to be unaware of this rich panoply of life that is out there in America?”

Robinson: And you identify the difficulties in Fishtown. Folks who are not getting married, who aren’t doing well, many of whom are out of the workforce. And then you ask, is there hope that the new upper class—these people who have unprecedented wealth, privilege, education, and brains—will do the decent thing and try to redress this? And you are not at all sure.

Murray: I am not.

Robinson: From Coming Apart, “My proposition is that the hollow elite is as dysfunctional in its way as the new lower class is in its way. Personally and as families, its members are successful. But they have abdicated their responsibility to set and promulgate standards.”

Murray: We are now in the age of non-judgmentalism. Here is the problem. I am drawing on the work of historian Arnold Toynbee here. He said that the sign of a growing culture—a vital culture—is a “creative minority” who set the tone. And the rest of society follows along. This creative minority is confident and energetic. And when you have a declining civilization, the creative minority becomes a dominant minority. It still runs the country, but it no longer has the confidence in its own rightness, and of what it’s doing. And that is what I think I see happening in the United States.

“When I say that the American project is in danger, that’s the nature of the loss I have in mind: the loss of the framework through which people can best pursue happiness.”

What do we teach our children now? We teach them to be nice. We teach them to share their toys, not to hit each other, and so forth: the idea that being good is a thing that you aim toward with self-discipline, thinking ahead to long-term consequences, and the rest that being good requires. Being nice is a way of moment-to-moment not creating trouble. It is not a way of inculcating standards of behavior that will get you through tough times. And that is a major part of the hollowness of the elite.

Robinson: Again from Coming Apart: “Over the course of the twentieth century, Western Europe developed an alternative to the American model, the advanced welfare state, that provides a great deal of personal freedom in all areas of life except the economic ones.” You write that more and more Americans, including prominent academics and the leaders of the Democratic Party, believe we should embrace the European model, improving life in Fishtown by expanding the welfare state. Well, why not? The new upper class has gotten so rich. Tax them a little more. Just take care of people in Fishtown.

Murray: Right. What harm can that do? It goes to the pursuit of happiness. And if you take happiness seriously as a concept, you are talking about lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole. Basically you have just got four domains within which that happens: family, faith, community, and vocation. Those institutions of meaning, if you want to use that phrase, have to be rich and vital. Well, how is it that a family structure is rich and vital? It is because the family has things that won’t get done unless the family does them. There has to be responsibility placed on the institution called the family to make it rich and vital. The same thing goes with community. The same thing goes with all of them. And the problem with the welfare state is it drains the life from life. By trying to smooth over the bumps, by trying to lend a helping hand, it inevitably takes away the stuff of life from these institutions. And those are as essential for a person in Fishtown as they are for a person in Belmont.

“The problem with the welfare state is it drains the life from life.”

Robinson: So, what do we do?

Murray: You would ask that, wouldn’t you? Everybody wants to know the solution. Well, I will tell you what the solution is not. It is not a system of domestic service where we draft all the people and send them out to mix with each other. It is not a renewal of the draft.

Robinson: You are not going to force these two cultures to mix?

Murray: It is not a matter of just me being a libertarian and horrified by that prospect. It is a matter of me who made his living as a program evaluator saying, “It ain’t gonna work.” Here is what has to happen before we even have a chance at a solution. We have to have a cultural shift in our attitude toward what’s going on. That means, for example, for the people encapsulated in super rich, super well-educated enclaves with their own culture. They have got to figure out, do you really want your children to grow up as hothouse flowers? Do you really want your children to be unaware of this rich panoply of life that is out there in America, which right now they have not an inkling about? And if you don’t want that, there are things you can do. I did it by moving to a town of 170 people. That worked pretty well, but you do not have to be that extreme.

There has to be a cultural shift, and that will not occur until we are all contemplating the nature of the problem. And that is what I have tried to do in the book. There is almost no immediate concrete policy implication in the book. There are huge implications for how we need to think about the nature of the problem. And I think of the book as starting the conversation. Or, I would like to think that it starts hundreds, or thousands, or millions of conversations. Even though that is a little overambitious.

Robinson: Would you close our conversation today by simply reading a passage from your book?

Murray: I would like that. “A man who is holding down a menial job and thereby supporting a wife and children is doing something authentically important with his life. He should take deep satisfaction from that, and be praised by his community for doing so. If that same man lives under a system that says the children of the woman he sleeps with will be taken care of whether or not he contributes, then that status goes away. Taking the trouble out of life strips people of major ways in which human beings look back on their lives and say, ‘I made a difference.’ Raising a family, supporting yourself, being a good friend and a good neighbor, learning what you can do well and then doing it as well as you possibly can, providing the best possible framework for doing those things, is what the American project is all about. When I say that the American project is in danger, that’s the nature of the loss I have in mind: the loss of the framework through which people can best pursue happiness.”

Robinson: Charles Murray, author of Coming Apart. Thank you.

Murray: It has been my pleasure.

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