A few years ago, I was blessed to have picked up a copy of J.M. Roberts’s “A Short History of the World” and my life has never been the same. I had never before conceived of history with such broad strokes — where patterns manifest themselves over hundreds or even thousands of years. It was a true paradigm shift that has had tremendous influence on the way I’ve thought ever since.
This sort of paradigm shift, applied particularly to politics, can be nearly as beneficial. Taking time out to think in broader strokes, about those underlying patterns that are the true engines of history are the perfect antidote to the twitter feed and horse race presidential campaign coverage. While the patterns may not be hundreds of years in the making, they are no less valuable to mull over.
Few books that I’ve read illuminate some of these undercurrents — particularly those that underlie poverty, inequality, and political polarization — better than Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart: The State of White America.” The book sheds new light on the root source of these ills through brilliant sociological analysis.
In short, the book describes the troubling divergence (material and cultural) between the upper and lower classes in America. Whereas a wealthy CEO used to live next door to a teacher or firefighter whom he grew up with and shared a lot of cultural common ground, this sort of thing is much less common today. The reality is that the wealthier and more educated you are, the more likely it is that you live next door to people wealthy and smart, just like you. Further, the amount of money and education your parents have has become the biggest factor in determining how educated and wealthy you will be. In effect, we have a new upper class of doctors, lawyers, CEOs, journalists and politicians that is increasingly out of touch with how most Americans live.
At the same time, the majority of Americans have become separated culturally from what Murray calls the “founding virtues”, making it more likely that they will be poorer, less educated, and less likely to describe themselves as happy.
These founding virtues are those fundamentally American qualities the founders fostered and have been the hallmark of American society ever since. They include industriousness, honesty (manifested in respect for the law), marriage, and family as the bedrock of the society, and religiosity. Obviously, there are a lot of value judgements here, but whether or not you agree that the family is the bedrock of our society or that religion is important for human flourishing really isn’t the point. Murray simply makes the argument that living a life with a full embrace of these virtues is not only a hallmark of American life, but it correlates in nearly every aspect with higher reported happiness (similar to the findings of other researchers like Arthur Brooks).
As I said above, the majority of Americans who are not part of this “new upper class” are drastically underperforming in all of these areas. Murray amply demonstrates this through survey and statistical research, dedicating an entire chapter to each of the four founding virtues. In the final analysis he finds that while the upper class enjoys on average happier, richer lives founded on these virtues, the rest of America is seeing a drastic decline in adherence to them.
Murray sees this as a byproduct of two things: cultural decay and the inverse relationship between civil engagement and the expanding welfare state.
Whereas it once was socially shameful for a father not to marry the mother of his child or for an able-bodied man to persist in unemployment, these tragedies are today all around us. But the social ostracism that would have resulted in the past does not follow. Murray calls for a resurgence of this type of social shame for these transgressions. I found this aspect of his analysis eerily similar to a rant from my grumpy grandfather about moral decline, but it does make sense. Odds are that the people around you in your neighborhood and family do face similar struggles to your own, and so are thus able to in effect punish those who have habits that are damaging to the community as a whole.
But the second element of his analysis, the Robert Putnam-esque argument that the welfare state has eroded civil society I find much more compelling. The fact is that there has been a high correlation between the rise of the welfare state and decline in civil engagement in the U.S. Whether it is because our constitutional system makes proper administration of transfer programs difficult or our peculiar political culture makes it so is of little importance here. Murray shows that in the United States, there is little doubt that the more the government tries to end poverty, the less people engage in the lifestyles that are most likely to make them happy.
To be sure, it can be argued that the welfare state and strong social capital can exist side-by-side. But this presupposes first that the Scandinavian model is preferable to, say, the Swiss model. It also makes assumptions that such a system is even possible to implement in our heterogeneous society. Then there is the issue of Europe’s economic reality. The fact is that most of Europe (including the Scandinavian countries) has seen anemic growth, with many economies on the brink of collapse due to their crushing debt burden. There is no end in sight to these kinds of problems, and the only thing we can do is to take warning from the European example. Finally, there is little doubt that capitalism has been overwhelmingly effective at ending poverty. The dynamic U.S. economy gives opportunities that workers living in welfare states just don’t have. And these opportunities are simply less available in a welfare state that is crushed by regulation and high marginal hiring costs for employers (as I argued in my last review). Better to keep an open economy with a strong, thriving civil society than to fall into the European trap.
Clearly there are problems in the U.S., sociologically speaking. Charles Murray has given us a very clear picture of some of these problems — and helps to make it even easier to argue that conservatives are usually the ones advocating for policies that will do the most to make more Americans happy. An honest, meaningful job, community engagement, and strong families will make our country stronger. Any policies that will strengthen these institutions are the ones that will truly “make America great again.” But much more importantly, preserving these foundations will keep the American experiment alive.