Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010
By Charles Murray
New York, NY: Crown Forum, 2012
Reviewed by F. Roger Devlin
At 416 pages, Coming Apart is Charles Murray’s most substantial offering since 2003’sHuman Accomplishment. It continues a theme familiar to readers of The Bell Curve: increasing American social stratification. Murray focuses on whites because otherwise the social trends he describes might lazily be explained away as effects of demographic change; he demonstrates that the trends are almost wholly unaffected by race or immigration. As he notes, a constant focus on how racial minorities ‘lag’ whites serves to distract attention from important changes in the benchmark population itself.
The author begins with a description of American life on the eve of the Kennedy assassination, highlighting everything which would shock the younger generation: just three TV channels; no Thai restaurants; ‘coffee’ meant Maxwell House. If you missed a movie when it was in the theaters, you would not get to see it at all.
The products of the entertainment industry still usually validated American norms. Subjects such as abortion and homosexuality were never touched upon in television shows, only rarely and disapprovingly in movies. Most liberals were willing to say that extramarital sex was wrong. Only three and one-half percent of American families were headed by a divorced parent. In many neighborhoods, houses were left unlocked and children could go about unsupervised.
But American women had “much to be outraged about,” the author tells us, such as being expected to marry and have children! If Murray gets portrayed as a ‘hard-rightist,’ it is only because presenting data honestly is now all such a designation requires or implies.
Such class differentiation as existed in 1963 was only reluctantly acknowledged: ninety-five percent of Americans described themselves as either working class or middle class. Poor people refused to think of themselves as lower class, and rich people were almost as reluctant to be considered upper class. A typical house in exclusive Chevy Chase, Maryland cost only twice as much as the nationwide average. People who could afford luxury cars often refrained from a fear of seeming ‘ostentatious’ – an old protestant pejorative which has now mostly disappeared from American English.
This was still recognizably the American society observed by Tocqueville one-hundred-thirty years before: “In the United States, the more opulent citizens take great care not to stand aloof from the people. On the contrary, they constantly keep on easy terms with the lower classes: they listen to them, they speak to them every day.”
The people who had risen to the top in 1963 had little in common except their success. Most had grown up in middle-class or working-class families, and they retained the preferences and tastes of those milieus. Their status was precarious, and often not successfully transmitted across even a single generation. In other words, America was ruled by a rapidly circulating elite, not by an upper class. (The “old money” families of Philadelphia, New York and Boston were an exception, but their numbers were tiny and as a class they had no influence on the nation’s destiny.)
Coming Apart tells the story of how this equilibrium was upset in the years that followed. Murray first discusses the rise of a new upper class; then, turning to the opposite end of the social scale, he shows how the white working class has deteriorated into a proletariat.
The new upper class is a product of our higher-tech economy, which relies heavily on people with exceptional cognitive abilities. A young person with outstanding mathematical ability might formerly have aspired to become a college professor; today he can make a killing writing code or managing a quant fund. Business decision-making has also become more complex and the stakes are higher. “Today, if a first-rate attorney can add ten percent to the probability of getting a favorable decision on a regulatory ruling worth hundreds of millions of dollars, he is worth his many-hundreds-of-dollars-per-hour rate.”
The more efficient exploitation of cognitive ability has created enormous new wealth, but the benefits have been concentrated heavily at the very top of the income distribution. For over half of America, income has remained flat in real terms since around 1970.
American Family Income Distribution
Economic change alone cannot explain how this new elite has become a self-perpetuatingclass. For this we must look at postwar developments in higher education.
At one time, geography largely determined where most people went to college; even the Ivy League catered to the Northeastern social elite rather than the cognitive elite of the entire nation. Since the 1960s, however, our higher education system has come to function as a sorting mechanism for grouping youngsters according to intellectual ability. An American’s cognitive ability can, with ever-increasing exactness, be inferred from the college he attended.
Murray defines the cognitive elite as the top five centiles of cognitive ability. By 2000, just forty-one schools took in half these students. Today, “the typical classroom in an elite school has no one outside the top decile of cognitive ability, and many who are in the top hundredth or thousandth.”
As the author notes, most Americans’ notion of meritocracy is that all the brainy kids scattered across the fruited plains should be offered the same chance to develop their talents. The social class of one’s parents is not supposed to matter. This is not how things worked out, for two reasons: 1) cognitive ability is significantly heritable, and 2) it is now the major determinant of social status.
College education occupies young people during their prime mate-seeking years. Combine this fact with the cognitive sorting now performed by the college admissions process and you get intellectual homogamy: people marrying those with similar cognitive ability. This level of ability tends rather strongly to get passed on to their offspring. Most children within the cognitive elite have parents with an average IQ of 117 or more. Only about 14 percent of them are produced by parents from the bottom half of the distribution.
So while the brilliant son of a plumber from Podunk will still occasionally break into the Ivy League, there will never be enough others like him to determine the character of those schools. Most of his classmates will come from affluent families, and a disproportionate number from the new upper class itself. American meritocracy has ended up producing something like a hereditary upper class.
As Murray acknowledges, this new class has its virtues: they are well-mannered, make good neighbors, seldom get divorced, are devoted parents, careful about their health, and make sincere efforts to be socially responsible. At times, such virtues are driven to comic excess. The obsessive parenting of the new upper class has earned them the nickname “helicopter parents” from harried college administrators. Certain members insist upon drinking their fair-trade organically-grown coffee only from recycled mugs. Others not only jog and take the latest vitamin supplement daily, but react with moral abhorrence to second-hand smoke and saturated fats. The author recommends David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise as a witty anthropological description of this new ‘bourgeois bohemian’ class.
“The culture of the new upper class carries with it an unmistakable whiff of ‘we’re better than the rabble,’” observes Murray. So, as a technical term to designate that class’s members, he suggests “Overeducated Elitist Snobs.” (The small-town Iowa boy still shows through Murray’s Harvard varnish.) He even includes a quiz by which the reader can gauge his own level of elitist snobbery. If you don’t know who Jimmie Johnson is, you may be in trouble.
Like everyone else, Overeducated Elitist Snobs prefer to live near others who share their background, tastes and concerns. Once they concentrate in significant numbers in any neighborhood, they inevitably begin to reshape it in their own image.
When Murray was at Harvard between 1961 and 1965, he reports, the students and professors of Cambridge, Massachusetts did not command the necessary critical mass. The town had some funky bookshops and folk-music joints, but the local eateries still catered to the working class majority. Harvard kids still rubbed shoulders with ordinary Americans.
Over the following generation, the working class was driven out by high-tech professionals and research organizations. Greasy-spoon diners gave way to gourmet espresso bars. A geographical and mental bubble grew up around the inhabitants of Cambridge.
The same process has been occurring in other college towns, the Philadelphia suburbs, Austin, TX, Seattle and elsewhere. These places have become the ‘Bourgeois Bohemian Paradises’ where you can find asiago-encrusted focaccia served with tarragon-infused olive oil after midnight.
To define such neighborhoods objectively, Murray created a scoring system that combined average income with percentage of college graduates. Then he ranked zip code areas nationwide. Those with scores in the top five centiles he designated “SuperZips.” There are 882 of them in America.
As of 2000, the SuperZips were still eighty-two percent white (including Jewish), while the percentage of whites in the rest of the country had sunk to just sixty-eight. Asians were eight percent in SuperZips, three in the rest of the country. Blacks and Latinos were three percent each in SuperZips, but twelve and six, respectively, elsewhere. A second edition ofComing Apart will update these figures from 2010 census data.
SuperZips tend to cluster together. The four largest clusters surround New York, Washington, San Francisco and Los Angeles, which together account for thirty-nine percent of America’s SuperZip inhabitants. Smaller clusters are associated with Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Dallas and Houston. Large swaths of America contain no such zip codes.
Why is the clustering of SuperZips important? “A class that makes decisions affecting the lives of everyone else, but doesn’t know much about how everybody else lives, is vulnerable to making mistakes.” They think having cheap Central American gardeners and nannies is terrific. It doesn’t occur to them that the policies which provide their servants also result in Blacks shot dead in the streets of South Central Los Angeles or less affluent White families forced to flee to Colorado. (My example, not Murray’s)
It will come as no surprise that a class so alienated from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans tends to be liberal. This tendency is especially strong in the four largest SuperZip clusters around New York, Washington, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Conservative SuperZips of a sort can be found elsewhere, but the inhabitants are readingThe Wall Street Journal, not The Occidental Quarterly. Murray emphasizes that the shared culture of the new upper class is remarkably constant across the political spectrum.
After a hundred-odd pages on Overeducated Elitist Snobs, Coming Apart shifts its focus to the bottom end of the social spectrum: the new lower class. In the older America, ‘lower-class’ referred only to blacks, “the broken down denizens of the Bowery and Skid Row, or the people known as white trash.” Apart from blacks, such people were numerically insignificant. The working class was something altogether different. Indeed,
for most of its history, working-class America was America. In 1900, 90 percent of American workers were employed in low-level white-collar or technical jobs, manual and service jobs, or worked on farms. Even in 1960, 81 percent of workers were still employed in those jobs.
Most of America’s ‘poor’ were simply working-class people who didn’t make a lot of money.
Since the 1960s, white working-class America has suffered a catastrophic decline in virtue. Referring explicitly to Aristotle, Murray defines virtue as the habits which people require to live satisfying lives and which communities require to function as communities. A well-policed authoritarian state may be able to carry on after a fashion, if not prosper, in the absence of the virtues. America, however, has traditionally allowed its citizens a large measure of personal freedom:
Americans were subject to criminal law, which forbade the usual crimes against person and property, and to tort law, which regulated civil disputes. But otherwise, Americans faced few legal restrictions on their freedom of action and no legal obligations to their neighbors except to refrain from harming them. The guides to their behavior at any more subtle level had to come from within.
Such internal principles are precisely what the now-unfashionable term ‘virtue’ signifies. Murray distinguishes four virtues which have been especially important in the history of America: industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity.
Industriousness refers to “the bone-deep American assumption that life is to be spent getting ahead through hard work, making a better life for oneself and one’s children.” Henry Adams pointed out that the spirit of industriousness affected those on the bottom of American society more powerfully than those on the top:
Reversing the old-world system, the American stimulant increased in energy as it reached the lowest and most ignorant class, whirling them upward as in the blast of a furnace. The penniless and homeless Scotch or Irish immigrant was caught and consumed by it; for every stroke of the axe and the hoe made him a capitalist, and made gentlemen of his children.
America was understood by both natives and immigrants as a land of opportunity, and the most characteristically American of virtues was the industriousness which permitted Americans to take advantage of their opportunities.
Honesty is a necessary precondition for a republican constitution and a free market. One Scottish visitor remarked upon the tedious regularity with which Americans would ask him whether he did not admire “the extraordinary respect which the people pay to the law.” Our limited data indicate a very low crime rate in early America: one study of Middlesex County, Massachusetts, found an average rate of prosecution for theft of 2.7 per 10,000 population between 1760 and 1810. Tocqueville remarked upon how few public officers were charged with apprehending crime. Sympathy for criminals was nearly non-existent.
Marriage is properly an institution rather than a virtue, of course, but it involves the exercise of certain virtues: loyalty and sexual temperance at a minimum, usually patience as well. There is little explicit evidence for the importance of marriage in early American society because the matter was regarded as self-evident; indeed, our current confusion about the nature and purpose of marriage has no precedent in history.
Some observers, however, did remark on the seriousness with which Americans took their marital vows. Tocqueville wrote that Americans “consider marriage as a covenant which is often onerous, but every condition of which the parties are strictly bound to fulfill.” And the Austrian-born immigrant Francis Grund said: “I consider the domestic virtue of the Americans as the principle source of all their other qualities.”
When Murray named his fourth American virtue ‘religiosity,’ I suspected it might be simply an unforthright way of saying ‘Christianity.’ Yet it is not specifically Christian doctrine he has in mind. In part, religiosity consists in the ethical monotheism bequeathed to Christendom by the Old Testament. John Adams, who was fully cognizant of America’s debt to Greece and Rome, wrote:
I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation [by propagating] to all mankind the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization.
Religion is also a crucial source of what sociologists call ‘social capital.’ Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone) has noted that “nearly half of all associational memberships are church-related, half of all personal philanthropy is religious in character, and half of all volunteering occurs in a religious context.” But this is not all: religious persons also account for a disproportionate share of social capital which is not explicitly religious:
People who say religion is very important to them are much more likely than other persons to visit friends, to entertain at home, to attend club meetings, and to belong to sports groups; professional and academic societies; youth groups; service clubs; hobby or garden clubs; literary, art, discussion and study groups; fraternities and sororities; farm organizations; political clubs; nationality groups; and other miscellaneous groups.
And Putnam is referring to religion’s role in society today!
The decline in the four American virtues was preceded, as the author points out, by a subtle change in American thinking:
The belief that being a good American involved behaving in certain kinds of ways, and that the nation itself relied upon a certain kind of people in order to succeed, had begun to fade [by 1950] and has not revived. It came to be tacitly assumed that the American system itself would work under any circumstances as long as we got the laws right.
Murray then documents that decline, restricting his study to white Americans between the ages of 30 and 49 (‘prime age adults’), who have normally completed their educations and are engaged in careers and/or raising families. Within this set, he defines the working classas those with no more than a high school diploma, who work in blue collar, service, or low-level white collar jobs, or are not working. In 1960, this class included sixty-four percent of prime age Whites; by 2010, it had shrunk to thirty. The author’s principle finding is that the decline in the four American virtues has been steepest among this class.
According to a widespread perception, more prosperous Americans have become highly secular, while those in modest circumstances have tended to remain religious. Murray’s data do not bear this out. According to the annual General Social Survey (GSS), unbelievers account for twenty-one percent of the working class, slightly higher than the figure for the upper middle class.
But besides outright unbelievers, there is a larger set of people who may feel they ‘ought’ to be more religious, and who state a religious preference, but also acknowledge they do not attend worship services more than once a year. Murray denominates this group the “de facto seculars.” It is here that the decline in working class religiosity becomes especially apparent. Adding the two classes together, we find the total level of secularization approaching sixty percent. For the upper middle class, the figure is still around forty, though also growing.
Of working class whites who remain religious, an increasing share has turned to fundamentalist denominations. Such groups are more inclined to wear their religious commitments on their sleeves. Murray believes the increase in these high-profile believers explains the misperception that the working class as a whole has remained religious.
Criminal statistics show a large rise in crime affecting the white working class. Murray computes the proportion of prisoners in the adult working class population and finds that between 1974 and 2004 it grew by a factor of five. The corresponding statistics for the upper middle class are extremely low and remained largely unchanged during the same period.
There has been a well-publicized forty percent drop in crime since 1991, but this does not necessarily reflect a decline in criminality. The American prison population has exploded during the same period. We may just be getting better at locking criminals up.
Criminal statistics clearly do not tell the whole story of the decline in honesty. As Murray observes: “It would be nice to know if there have been trends in the consistency with which people keep their word, insist on taking personal responsibility for their mistakes, and tell the cashier when they have been given too much change.” But it is not easy to find data of this type. He does mention that the “a quadrupling of personal bankruptcies over a period [1986-2005] that included one of the most prosperous decades in American history looks suspiciously like a decline in personal integrity.” He was unable to disaggregate this data by social class.
Murray illustrates his statistics with anecdotes concerning a largely white working class neighborhood in Philadelphia called Fishtown. Back in the early 1970s, the place was the despair of social workers, who could not understand why residents would be disinclined to have governmental ‘help’ administered to them; one concluded they were “psychologically unable to face up to their social, cultural and economic deprivation.” Unfortunately, Fishtown has made a lot of progress since then.
In earlier days, the neighborhood was strongly Catholic. Most children attended parochial school, and “the church’s teachings—among others, that the home is a domestic church—gave validation to the core values of Fishtown.” By the late 1990s, one sociologist described religious observance thus:
Typical attire for most men at mass [includes] blue jeans, sneakers, and “Eagles” jackets with hoods. Older people and some younger parents in their 20s and 30s genuflected before entering the pews. I did not see any children performing this ritual, or saying any prayers for that matter. Most were standing around with their coats on throughout the service; they looked rather blank.
One Fishtown parochial school closed due to low enrollment in 2006; a second followed in 2011.
Crime was not much of a problem in earlier days, when residents sometimes administered rough justice without resorting to the police. If you found your car broken into, “you went to where the [glue sniffers] hung out, bashed some heads and found out who did it easy enough.” Even the local gangs “were kind of like vigilantes—beat the crap out of thieves, dopeheads, etc.”
When intact families were the rule in Fishtown, there was a great deal of solidarity between them:
If a neighbor saw a child misbehaving, it was considered appropriate for the neighbor to intervene. The parents would be grateful when they found out, and they would take the word of the neighbor if the child protested his innocence.
The increasingly common unmarried and divorced Fishtowners are less likely to behave this way today, and many parents try to curry favor with their children through lax discipline. One Fishtown woman’s apathy at the deteriorating situation has become so conspicuous that it has earned her the nickname “Not-my-kid Sue.”
Perhaps the biggest changes to come over white working-class neighborhoods like Fishtown in recent decades has been a decline in marriage. In 1960, over eighty percent of prime age working class whites were married; the figure has since plummeted to around fifty. Meanwhile, the number who have never married has risen from under ten percent to about twenty-five. He claims the increase “was driven mostly by the retreat of men from the marriage market.”
The decline in marriage has impaired the happiness of adults, but it has been catastrophic for the rising generation. Whether one considers delinquency, criminality, school problems, physical or emotional health or early mortality, children do best when raised by biological parents who remain married and worst when raised by a single mother (results for children of divorced parents fall in the middle).
The number of children born to white, unwed mothers has skyrocketed from three percent in 1960 to nearly thirty percent today. For mothers without a high school diploma, the figure is now around sixty percent. Many of these mothers are teenagers, and their children often end up being raised by the grandparents. Yet among mothers with a college degree, the proportion of unmarried births has yet to rise above three percent.
As marriage has declined, so has male industriousness. White men with only a high school education began dropping out of the labor force in the 1970s; the figure stood at twelve percent on the eve of the current recession. Since the 1980s, working class men have also become more likely than the American population as a whole to be unemployed (but seeking work), and twenty percent of them with employment of some kind are working fewer than forty hours a week. Murray sees no explanation for this, merely noting that it mainly affects the working class. I shall offer some thoughts of my own below.
One small but telling statistic concerns working class men who claim to be unable to work due to a physical disability. As the author notes, this figure must have gone down since 1960, given medical advances and the proliferation of labor saving devices. Yet it has risen from two percent to an utterly incredible ten percent. Disability has become a racket.
A time-use study cited by Murray reveals that “between 1985 and 2005, men who had not completed high school increased their leisure time by eight hours a week.” The greatest share of this increase was devoted to television viewing, followed by sleeping.
Murray recognizes the strong correlation between the declines in marriage and in male industriousness. Unmarried men are over three and a half times more likely to be out of the labor force than married men, between two and three more times likely to be unemployed but looking, and at least half again as likely to be working fewer than forty hours a week. Some of this difference is due to the preference of women for hardworking men, but more is probably due to the effect on men of marriage itself.
These patterns are also apparent in the history of Fishtown. One local mother reported that her sixteen-year-old daughter had been to six baby showers in four months—just a modest fraction of her fifty-two pregnant classmates. The mother estimated the comparable number from her own youth at around four per year.
A nun teaching at this same Catholic school remarks that some women in the neighborhood are married to men who seem less like husbands than extra sons: “There are women with two bags of groceries in their hands, children hanging on to both sides of their coats, and the husband with his computer game walking behind her down the street. There’s something wrong here!”
One group of Fishtown men calls itself the Sunshine Club. They work summers on the Jersey Shore, then get “some stupid job for a couple of months just to get time in to collect unemployment for the rest of the year until summer rolled around again.”
Another set of men prefer to live off their girlfriends‘ welfare checks; they are known as ‘runners,’ because they must constantly move to keep one step ahead of child support collectors, the police, their girlfriends or their children.
Murray writes that “being a single mother is tough, and it is appropriate to sympathize with women who are in that situation.” He does not say it is appropriate to be sympathetic to the manchildren of Fishtown, and most readers will be left with the impression that what they need is a good kick in the pants. Yet I wonder whether the same factors did not produce the undesirable behavior of both men and women that he notes today.
In the America of 1963, a high school graduate might expect to find a job which would allow him to marry and permit his wife the leisure to stay home raising a few children. He could buy a freestanding house and a car, and still afford to take the family on a two week vacation every summer. The wife would have been reared with a view to preparing her for the duties of marriage and motherhood; she may even have taken ‘Home Ec’ in school.
Then gradually, beginning in the 1960s, women became convinced marriage was an imposition to be ‘outraged’ about. Helen Gurley Brown began whispering in their ears that an independent career path could be filled with exciting romances involving attractive men, free of the ‘drudgery’ to which marriage consigned their mothers. The family income was abolished in favor of ‘equal pay for equal work.’ The law was changed to permit women to divorce their husbands unilaterally and without grounds. (Wives are responsible for around ninety percent of divorces.)
None of this much affects the men at the top of the income and status hierarchy. They make enough money that even women with personal incomes perceive them as supporters and are willing to marry them. If a wife leaves after the baby is born, child support payments are manageable and a replacement wife is easily found.
The Fishtown girls who might have married working men in 1960 may well be earning more than such men today just by sitting at desks entering data. They can obtain higher quality sperm from more desirable men without submitting to the constraints of lifelong monogamy; the ‘ex’ and/or the taxpayer is made to provide for any resulting children. They even enjoy the sympathy of male commentators for the terrible hardship all this supposedly represents. Is it any wonder such women are reluctant to devote their lives to raising the children of ill-paid construction workers?
The contemporary Fishtown man, his wages reduced by female competition and the ever-decreasing market value of upper-body strength, has correspondingly slim chances of earning enough to make himself an acceptable suitor to any woman with an income of her own. These men are not ‘retreating from the marriage market’; they are being driven from it as a matter of deliberate policy.
Even if a particular working class man beats the odds and finds a girl to marry, he cannot expect the satisfaction of supporting her; she may well end up supporting him. And what self-respecting man wants to end up like that poor sap uselessly tagging along behind his wife who just bought all the groceries?
But this is still not the worst. Prospective husbands stand a good chance of losing everything in the divorce settlement within a few years of the wedding. Child support is not so easy when it must be paid through low-skilled labor. Even if you avoid being jailed as a ‘deadbeat dad,’ you will certainly not have enough left over to contemplate a second marriage.
In short, the American dream of a home and family through honest labor is now far out of reach for an increasing number of low-status men. Under these circumstances, what is such a man to do with his life? I’d say an unconstrained bachelor existence with plenty of time for amusements looks very much like a rational choice. The male commentariat may make you out to be a bum, but that sure beats years of performing all the hard work traditionally required to support a family and then not getting the family.
Aristotle understood that certain virtues have social presuppositions: liberality, for example, can hardly be expected from persons living hand-to-mouth. Male industriousness, I would suggest, also presupposes certain social arrangements. Monogamy and the family wage system give you the Irish immigrant who strives to make gentlemen of his children with every blow of his axe; liberated women earning equal pay for their equal work bring forth the men of the Sunshine Club.
So single motherhood and the decline in male industriousness our author describes cannot be spirited away simply by getting men and women to the altar. ‘Outrageous’ though it may seem to a generation steeped in feminist propaganda, the natural economic basis of marriage must also be restored. White men are programmed by evolution to be providers. If you deliberately rearrange society to render this function superfluous, do you have any right to complain when men stop knocking themselves out to perform it?
Murray goes on to describe “the selective collapse of American community”—selective because, so far, it has largely spared the upper middle class.
One of the best known passages in Democracy in America discusses how ‘Americans are forever forming associations,’ and a look at almost any American locality one hundred years ago reveals a complicated interweaving of fraternal, charitable, educational, civic and religious associations busily engaged in all sorts of activities. Biographies of eminent Americans of years gone by are apt to include so bewildering a variety of memberships that the modern reader is left wondering how anyone could have found time for all of them.
Another defining quality of American society was the extent of its neighborliness, i.e., voluntary assistance among unrelated people who happen to live alongside one another. This made the community in which one grew up an important aspect of an American’s identity. One reason the Fishtown of years gone by was so dear to the people who lived there was that neighbors helped one another, looking out for one another’s children and informally exchanging services.
By the 2000s, seventy-five percent of Fishtown residents were socially disengaged, meaning that they no longer belonged to any “sports clubs, hobby clubs, fraternal organizations, nationality organizations (e.g., Sons of Italy) or veterans groups.” Eighty-two percent were civically disengaged, meaning they belonged to no “service groups, youth groups (e.g., being a Scoutmaster), school service groups or local political organizations.”
Much of this decline is due to the erosion of social trust: the expectation that the people around you will do the right thing. Whites’ estimation of the trustworthiness, fairness and helpfulness of others has declined across the board, but that of working class neighborhoods has declined more steeply and from an already lower base.
Robert Putnam’s research has demonstrated that social trust erodes as ethnic diversity increases. This erosion occurs even within each particular ethnic group in a multi-ethnic neighborhood. (Putnam suppressed these results for several years, embarrassed that they contradicted liberal happy-talk.)
The author expresses the hope that the distrust which has accompanied ethnic diversification will diminish over time, but acknowledges that this is only a hope. Of course, we never had to take the gamble: it was decided upon for us by irresponsible elites who have bought their own way out of all the negative consequences.
Murray moves on to a fine discussion of happiness in the spirit of Aristotle. He identifies four principle factors that go to make up a successful human life: family, vocation, community and faith. It is not difficult to see how each of these components of the good life is related, respectively, to the virtues of marriage, industriousness, honesty and religiosity. Easy as it is to ridicule the old Stoic doctrine that virtue equals happiness, it is also easy to demonstrate a high correlation between the two, especially on the level of society as a whole. A hardworking nation of harmonious families actively involved with one another and living according to the tenets of a generally accepted religious teaching—this is about the closest approach to blessedness compatible with the human condition.
Crunching the data on reported happiness, Murray finds that marriage and vocation are the two most important factors. There is also a strong synergy between them: the benefit from a satisfying vocation (often but not always one’s paid employment) combined with a happy family life is greater than the sum of each considered separately.
It seems reasonably clear that religion plays a significant role in human flourishing, but the precise nature of its role remains elusive. In Murray’s data set, only twenty-three percent of those who never attend religious services describe themselves as ‘very happy.’ This figure gradually rises in tandem with frequency of attendance, reaching forty-nine percent among those who attend more than weekly. Mere belief does not seem to do anything for people apart from participation in worship services and the life of a congregation; on the other hand, Murray’s data do not support Pascal’s famous recommendation that merely going through the motions will cure unbelief.
I can think of one significant fact which seems to fly in the face of the religiosity-happiness correlation: Denmark, with the highest self-reported happiness in the world, is also the most secular nation in Europe. I have no explanation for this.
High levels of community involvement also correlate positively with reported happiness. Volunteering and charitable giving make the biggest difference, but group membership and activities, informal social interaction and even electoral politics also produce benefits.
Income, once it rises above the subsistence level, does not correlate well with reported happiness: “there is no inherent barrier to happiness for a person with a low level of education holding a low-skill job.” But all the virtues that do promote happiness are presently deteriorating among lower-income Americans.
Toward the end of the book, Murray integrates nonwhites into his data. “It was a surprise to me and perhaps it will be a surprise to you: Expanding the data to include all Americans makes hardly any difference at all.” From this he infers:
We are one nation, indivisible, in terms of whites and people of color. Differences in the fortunes of different ethnic groups persist, but white America is not headed in one direction and nonwhite America in another.
I don’t believe this optimistic conclusion is warranted, for two reasons. Firstly, it is contradicted by Robert Putnam’s evidence that racial diversity adversely affects social trust. Murray’s warning—“don’t kid yourselves that we are looking at stresses that could be remedied by restricting immigration”—is unconvincing in this context. Stopping and reversing ethnic diversification might not restore the American sense of community all by itself, but there is every reason to expect it would do a great deal of good.
Secondly, racial conflict tends to express itself politically, and hence tends not to show up in the sorts of social surveys from which the author derived his data set; in Murray’s terminology, it is an artifact of the study. It is true whites have begun suffering from a number of problems formerly associated with the black underclass, but this newfound community in vice and social pathology no more makes whites and blacks indivisible than our pre-existing solidarity in wearing shoes or watching television. If anything, a mutual decline in virtue is likely to intensify political conflict over government benefits.
America in the early twenty-first century is still a powerful and prosperous country but, as the author observes, it is rapidly losing the special qualities which made it a distinctive nation. He compares the process to the transition from republic to empire in ancient Rome:
In terms of wealth, military might, and territorial reach, Rome was at its peak under the emperors. But Rome’s initial downward step, five centuries before the eventual fall of the Western Roman Empire, was the loss of the republic. Was that loss important? Not in material terms, but for Romans who treasured the republic, it was a tragedy that no amount of imperial splendor could redeem.
By analogy, the soul of America was the unprecedented freedom it granted private citizens to shape their lives as they wished, leaving them to face the consequences of their own behavior. The very fabric of American society grew out of such freedom, as Murray explains:
Marriage is a strong and vital institution because the family has the responsibility for doing important things that won’t get done unless the family does them. Communities are strong and vital because the community has the responsibility for doing important things that won’t get done unless the community does them. [From such responsibility,] an elaborate web of expectations, rewards, and punishments evolves over time that leads to norms of good behavior that support families and communities in performing their functions. When the government says it will take some of the trouble out of doing the things that families and communities evolved to do, the web frays [and behavior deteriorates].
In essence, this is what is happening to America, and the poorest, least educated class has been first to feel the effects. The disease is progressive, however, since the welfare state inevitably tries to palliate the unfortunate results it produces by assuming still greater responsibilities. But this process cannot go on forever, and eventually civilization becomes unsustainable.
Can America expect five hundred years of imperial grandeur before the final curtain? Apparently, Murray thinks so. Nothing in Coming Apart surprised me as much as the following passage which occurs early on:
The economic dynamics that have produced the class society I deplore have fostered the blossoming of America’s human capital. These dynamics will increase, not diminish, our competitiveness on the world stage in the years ahead. Nor do I forecast decline in America’s military and diplomatic supremacy.
I take this to mean that the new economy’s success in turning high intelligence to account more than makes up for the inefficiencies of the welfare state and military adventurism.
Many nationalists treat it as axiomatic that the Washington regime’s ability to squander its subjects’ wealth, courage and ingenuity will eventually overcome any possible economic arrangement. If Murray is correct, however, the post-collapse strategy recommended by nationalist luminaries such as Guillaume Faye and Yggdrasil could prove dangerously mistaken.
Murray has his own version of the ‘worse is better’ strategy, however, involving the increasingly obvious unsustainability of the welfare state. When the large nations of Northern Europe begin falling into chaos of the sort Greece has recently experienced, it is just possible that Americans will reconsider their options and change direction in time. Alternatively, the irrationality of our own welfare system may soon become apparent to even the dimmest social democrat. Whatever the merits of the welfare state’s core goal—providing a basic income for all American adults—it could now be achieved simply by cashing out all current income transfer programs. (See 2006’s In Our Hands for an argument that this could be done while leaving Americans responsible for their own lives.)
Murray’s final hope is for what economist Robert Fogel has called a ‘Fourth Great Awakening.’ Historians commonly speak of three “Great Awakenings” in American history: in the 1730s, the early decades of the 1800s, and the period 1880-1910. Each was characterized by charismatic revivalism and brought otherwise unforeseeable political change with it. The last Great Awakening ushered in the progressive era, whose message of uplift for the poor is repeated by liberals to this day. But, as Fogel says, such slogans have little resonance for an age when “even the poor are materially rich by the standards prevailing a century ago and where many of those who are materially rich are spiritually deprived.”
Amen to that. Murray remarks upon how many persons of our day seem to live according to the principle that “the purpose of life is to while away the time between birth and death as pleasantly as possible, and the purpose of government is to make it as easy as possible to do so.” Many are happy to pay the taxes on which the underclass subsists as long as it frees them from any personal involvement with such people.
The author does not try to predict the specific form a new Great Revival would take, but he expects a return to civic engagement may form a part of it: “age-old human wisdom has understood that a life well-lived requires engagement with those around us.”
As Murray acknowledges, many among our elites behave reasonably responsibly on a personal level, including staying married and investing in their offspring. But a healthy and self-confident elite would do more: they would ‘preach what they practice’ and set a better tone for the rest of society. They would demand more of themselves than a life of eating health food and being ‘tolerant.’
If the present elite experiences no Great Awakening soon, perhaps some other class of men will. They might even end up providing America with its next ruling elite.