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Freedom, Welfare and Dystopia
July 27, 1994
Charles A. Murray


Introductory Remarks by David J. Theroux

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My name is David Theroux, I am the president of The Independent Institute. I am delighted to welcome you to our Independent Policy Forum.

As many of you know, the Institute regularly sponsors programs featuring outstanding experts to address major social and economic issues, especially as they may relate to important new books. For those of you new to the Institute, you will find background information on our program in the packet at your seat. The Independent Institute is a non-profit, non-politicized, scholarly research and educational organization which sponsors comprehensive studies of critical public issues. The Institute’s program adheres to the highest standards of independent inquiry, and the resulting studies are widely distributed as books and other publications, and are publicly debated through numerous conference and media programs, such as in our forum today.

Our purpose is a Jeffersonian one of seeking the truth regarding the impact of government policies, and not necessarily to just tell people what they might want to hear. In so doing, we will not take the public pronouncements of government officials at face value, nor the conventional wisdom over serious public problems. Hence, we invite your involvement, but be prepared for new and challenging perspectives.

Webster defines “dystopia” as the opposite of utopia, “in which conditions and the quality of life are dreadful.” Today, it does not take much to see the extent of urban America’s problems: drugs, shootings, teen pregnancy, poverty, illiteracy, racial hatred, despair. The degree of social pathologies is staggering and is getting worse. Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned in the 1960s of threatening trends in America’s civic culture with the disintegration of the black family, trends he credited to government social welfare programs. Yet his forecasts pale to the reality around us today. For example, where in 1965, 26% of black births were to unwed mothers, today, 68% of all births among African Americans are to unwed women, and the trend is following a similar course for whites, for whom the rate has risen to 22%. Furthermore these births are not to the well-heeled, well-educated Murphy Browns, who only comprise 4% of unwed mothers. Instead, the bulk of these births, 82% in fact, are to women with a high school education or less. Fully 44% of births to white women below the poverty line are illegitimate. And it is now widely recognized that this illegitimacy begets illegitimacy—crime, violence, school failure, etc. It is Charles Murray who has demonstrated so overwhelmingly how government social welfare policies are driving these trends and us all down a road to dystopia.

Where political leaders once led a “War on Poverty” funded with vast billions of dollars confiscated from the public to fuel the armies of social workers and bureaucrats, today, virtually no one believes in such notions. Instead, both liberals and conservatives are seeking ways to get people back to work, reconnected to their families and communities. Bill Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it,” and recently, even Donna Shalala has decried the epidemic of fatherless children and the maladies resulting. But the debate still lingers over whether government is a force for betterment or the crippling factor.

Is the welfare state, for decades viewed as the progressive embodiment of virtue and salvation for the plight of the disadvantaged, actually the major engine of social decline? Is the welfare state actually a “War on the Poor” and us all? Is the welfare state itself pathological? Could the Jeffersonian notion of less and less government be the route out of this malaise?

At this special Independent Policy Forum, a decade after his landmark book that created a national sensation, Losing Ground, Charles Murray will discuss the problem of civil disintegration and how a society built upon individual liberty and personal responsibility is central to our overcoming the growing social maladies around us. In his book, In Pursuit, he examines the basis of community as rooted in individual behavior and the institutions necessary to create and maintain what Tocqueville marveled at in his book, Democracy in America—a free and prosperous society consisting of a complex assortment of non-governmental organizations designed to handle the myriad problems of both economic and civic well-being.

We are delighted to be sponsoring this special program today. More than anyone, Charles Murray has demonstrated in his published books and articles and his many TV and other public appearances, how to understand the serious problems of urban decay, family disintegration, crime, and so forth.

The Washington Post has stated that, “Charles Murray will get you thinking,” and we know that this will be the case. A member of the Board of Advisors of The Independent Institute, Charles Murray is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He has been a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and chief scientist at the American Institute of Research where he supervised studies in urban education, welfare, adolescent pregnancy, criminal justice, and much more. He received his B.A. in history from Harvard University and Ph.D. in political science from M.I.T., and earlier served in the Peace Corps in Thailand

I am very pleased to introduce him now to speak on “Freedom, Welfare and Dystopia,” after which he will be happy to answer your questions. May I present Charles Murray.

Charles Murray

I am delighted to be here today speaking at The Independent Institute because this marks the release of In Pursuit, a book of mine which has just been recently republished. We all have favorites I believe; those of us who write books—and whereas I respect Losing Ground and I am grateful for all it has done for me, I love In Pursuit. To see it back in print is very gratifying.

I finished In Pursuit in 1988, and I took a long time thinking about what I wanted to do next. Finally, in November of 1989, I engaged in a collaboration with Richard Hernnstein designed to produce a book dealing with the relationship of I.Q. to a wide variety of social issues. Some of my friends took me aside and firmly but gently asked me if I was out of my mind. It’s still an open question as to whether I was, but the fact is it is now 1994, and in my hotel room this morning I was working on the page proofs for the appendices. The book will be out in October, and the title that has evolved over the last four years is The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Social Structure in American Life.

Why on earth, I was asked, did I want to take on I.Q. Not only because it is a pariah among ideas, but also because as a classical liberal, even a wishy-washy one as I am often described as being. The whole point of the United States is that the people are treated as individuals. What can there possibly be in the social policy realm that should be influenced by the fact that people differ in I.Q.? It is a good question and could be answered by saying that if this country were still being run as it was as recently as 1950, there would be no good reason for worrying about individual differences and intelligence as they relate to social policy issues. But the fact is that a variety of changes have occurred since then in the way we govern this country, which makes the issue very salient indeed.

What I would like to do today is augment some of the material you have in the packet passed out to you. In my discussions of “The Coming White Underclass,” I give a brief over-view of what I see as a very dangerous direction in which the country is heading. More briefly, I also try to describe what, at least, I believe are the outlines for how we should deal with this.

As I was eating lunch, I was looking at the outline of my speech and I kept saying to myself, “This is not a 30-minute talk.” This speech will resemble a telegram in some respects. In the “Q&A” perhaps we can talk some more about the details that I skip over. But if I seem to be saying things without proving them to you, believe me I understand, but my forthcoming book is 900 pages long, and it will give you ample opportunity to fill in the details.

I have an apocalyptic vision; that is my co-author, Dick Hernnstein, and I do. Fortunately, apocalyptic visions are usually wrong. Yet I am unable to figure out why it is this particular one is wrong. Still it has a bright side. The bright side starts with a revolution that occurred in the United States, oddly enough, most rapidly in the 1950s. That revolution was a kind of invisible migration: the United States suddenly became much much more efficient in identifying talent, especially intellectual talent, and getting it to college even if you were poor, even if you were disadvantaged, even if you came from a little town in Kansas. No matter where you came from or what your background was, suddenly in the 1950s, the nation got a whole better at finding you and taking advantage of you. A real quick example: In 1952, the first year for which we have data on this, the mean SAT verbal score at Harvard for its incoming freshman class was 583. Now, if any of you have children that want to apply to Harvard next year and their mean verbal is 583, I do not suggest that you have them apply. It is a good score but it’s certainly nothing special, and can be duplicated in the classes of any good state university. Within eight years, by 1960, the mean verbal score for incoming Harvard freshman was 680. Harvard in the period of 8 years went from being a socioeconomic elite school with a few smart students to a cognitively elite school with a lot of rich kids in it.

This was a change reflected throughout the entire university system in the United States for reasons Dick Hernnstein and I are still not entirely confident we understand, but which we know happened. At the same time, the occupational structure of this country was changing radically so that “brains” were being rewarded in ways they had not before. This may be offensive to some people in the room but it used to be that some years ago, if you had a certain kind of real high cognitive ability in math, let’s say, the kind of thing that makes you a super mathematician, what could you do with it? Well, you could teach math in a university, probably. What can you do today? You can make millions of dollars in the software industry and sometimes even run for governor of California.

If this is the case, then I’m certain Ron Unz could have done many other things as well, but there are some people who have very narrow intellectual abilities that are now being rewarded in the market-place in ways which they were not a few years ago. Furthermore, the numbers of these positions expanded explosively so that the number of jobs in this country that are involved with things that require a high I.Q. has gone from a few percent of the jobs to on the order of 40 percent. In other words, there was for the first time in human history enough jobs to soak up the cognitive talent that was around. Here is where I start to head into the dark side of the picture. In 1900, by mathematical necessity, we know that the vast majority of people with high I.Q. were working in ordinary occupations scattered throughout the country. A great many of these people were housewives. Many others were carpenters, small store owners and the rest. We know that by mathematical necessity because there just were not enough jobs to soak up people with high intelligence.

Today, jobs migration has, among other things, created a parfait out of American society that did not used to exist. The people in this room are living proof of what is going on. And with that has come a kind of isolation and segregation of what we call the cognitive elite from the rest of the country. Mickey Kaus, the social critic who wrote the book, The End of Equality said that he went to Harvard in 1969 and that he seriously doubts he has known anybody with combined SAT scores of less that 1200 since. He is probably right. The people in this room by and large, I’m sure there are statistical exceptions to this, but the people in the room, by and large, associate with, live with, and are married to people who are in a very small fraction of the right-hand tail of the bell curve of ability. So that when I mentioned a SAT verbal of 583 a minute ago, a lot of you were thinking of your kids and saying “Gee, that’s nothing special at all.” The fact is 583, if you take all 18 year olds in the United States, is about the 98th or 99th percentile. But for you folks in this room, 583 is a pretty pedestrian score. This is the kind of segregation I am talking about. And as this happens, a bunch of other things happen. For example, people in the cognitive elite tend to watch a lot less commercial television than the rest of the population. They watch different movies; they even drive different cars; they don’t listen to talk shows nearly as much. I could go on down the list in which the experience of a segment of this population is increasingly divorced from the rest of society.

This would not be a problem except for something else which is going on, which is that the cognitive elite also has acquired an enormous amount of power. Furthermore, that power is cutting across traditional lines of antagonism. It used to be that the intellectuals were on the Left and business people were on the Right, and they fought it out. Well, technically speaking, most intellectuals still are on the left but, on the other hand, if you’re a professor at Stanford you may do very well when you put together your salary and royalties from your books and your consul-ting fees and so forth, you’re making well over six figures. A lot of your interests have thus become the interests of people with money. Similarly, if you go look at the mail boxes of young corporate lawyers you will see in a depressing number of instances copies of The New York Review Books there, which leads them to share with intellectuals a variety of the same concerns.

What makes this especially dangerous is that in the 1960s and 1970s, we had a major change in what you can do if you control the levers of government. Until the 1960s, the cognitive elite, like Archemedes, lacked a place to stand even if it had ideas about how it wanted to move the world. Whatever you think of what has happened to social policies in the 60s, 70s and 80s, this much you cannot deny: For better or for worse, the reach of the federal government was opened up so that now there is nothing left that the federal government may not do if the federal government has sufficient votes in Congress to pass the legislation. There are no clear, bright lines anymore in American jurisprudence that limit what the federal government can do. There is nothing set aside whereby we can say, “We don’t care how many votes you have, that is off limits.” In that context comes the cognitive elite with enormous political power because now it not only has the brains, but it also has the money and it has the positions.

If you want to see an example of why one should be scared of the cognitive elite, look at Clinton White House. The Rhodes scholar, as far as I.Q.s are concerned, are real high. They all know each other; they’ve all associated with each other; they’re all part of a network. It’s scary.

Now, lets turn to the other tale of the distribution, the left-hand tale of the bell curve. I have written about this issue before without referring to I.Q. I have been writing about it for 10 years. What now has to be added to this problem is: It used to be that if you were poor in the United States it didn’t have much to do with any of your other personal qualities. For example, we have taken the poverty line back to about 1939 using census data to compute what proportion of people in the United States who were poor according to the official definition. Again, I don’t want to be quoted on the number, but it was well in excess of 50 percent of the American population in 1939. Fifty percent was below the poverty line, and, by the way, that’s not because of the Great Depression. If you go back to 1928 and 1927, before the Depression started, the best estimates are you’re probably looking at 70 or 80 percent of the population that was, in official terms and using constant 1990 dollars, poor. But to paraphrase the conversation between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, the only difference between the poor and everybody else was that they had less money. The poor constituted a very broad cross-section of the population. Many of the people in this room, including myself, had parents or grandparents who were poor at that time.

As the poverty line goes down, as you reach a point where you only have 10 or 11 percent of the population below the poverty line, you change the selection of that group and they become identifiably different. Similarly, with all sorts of other social problems, there is a marked eschew in the distribution of abilities so that if you are going to have job training programs for chronic welfare mothers, as we are going to do with the Clinton welfare plan, you had better design those programs so that they will work for the population with a mean I.Q. of about 85, 86, 87.

Mind you, if in your minds you are thinking what race has got to do with this, the phenomena I’m talking about applies to whites as well. You simply have a large population at the bottom of American society that is doing very badly and that is going to continue to do worse because as the economy changes, there is, frankly less and less that we can teach someone with an I.Q. of 86 or 87 that will repay the cost of the teaching. If that sounds harsh, it is because the reality is harsh. It is not that we do not know how through educational interventions, through any kind of interventions, to shift the cognitive functioning at the low part of the distribution to any extent. You add into that a set of public policy-created situations through which we have systematically made life more difficult for people on the low end of the distribution.

As I’m listening to myself right now, and this is one of the first time I’ve talked about these issues in public, I am sort of editing myself as I go along and I’m saying, “For Heaven’s sake, you have just raised an issue you cannot possibly explain this afternoon.” But I will start to right now: There are all sorts of ways in which people of a very wide range of abilities can do just fine if you don’t make life difficult for them. Yet a great deal of what we have done with social policy makes life difficult. Let me give you an example. (I’ll skip the 1040 form.)

Let’s take something like crime. Everybody has a moral compass and is capable of living a morally autonomous life, but a friend of mine once said that everyone has a moral compass, but some are more susceptible to magnetic storms than others. If you have a society in which not very many things are crimes, but the things that are crimes are really bad: robbery, destruction of property, rape, murder, assault, fraud, etc. If when you commit one of those crimes, you are usually caught, and then if when you are caught you are processed rather rapidly into a situation where you are punished and the punishment is meaningful, if all of this happens fairly regularly, it is real easy to have a moral compass pointing in directions of right and wrong. You simply know what you should do.

But if you have a criminal justice system in which a huge number of things become crimes, if when you commit one of these crimes you are very seldom caught anyway, if when you are caught you are often times simply let out without anything happening to you, if what you are actually prosecuted for is not what you really did but was something else that was plea-bargained, and if, after all that, what happens to you bears no relationship to the severity of your crime, it is real tough to figure out what is right and what is wrong.

Now, you may say, “Well, Murray is just giving a rationale for getting tough on crime.” I hope you don’t react that reflexively. I want you to take seriously what I’m saying as it’s a lot tougher to live a moral life when the signals are that mixed. It becomes even tougher when the intellectual elites are fascinated by sophisticated kinds of moral reasoning, like the moral reason-ing that is behind sophisticated situations, like, “Is it right if your wife is dying of a disease to steal medicines from the pharmacy?” You can decide that indeed, it is right. I’m willing to buy that, but the trouble is that it’s real hard to live a moral life if instead of saying, “Thou shalt not steal,” the lesson is, “Thou shalt not steal unless there is a really good reason to,” and that is what we have done.

I can give you other kinds of ways in which we have made life very difficult for people of limited ability that have to do with marriage, the rewards of marriage, and with sweat equity. One of the things that this country was best at was telling people to parlay a whole bunch of assets into success, to simply work real hard to compensate for shortcomings. Any of you in this room who have tried to operate or run a small business recently or open one knows you had better be pretty smart for reasons that have nothing to do with how difficult it is to run a business but have everything to do with jumping the bureaucratic hoops in the way.

The prognosis: Bleak. We have a situation now wherepeople with money and people with influence and the people with brains, all of them are coalescing into a single group that does not want to think of itself as made up of bad people. They want to see themselves as helping and compassionate. On the other hand, they have some fairly exigent interest in having their children go to schools that they find satisfactory, of having their streets be safe and of not stumbling over the homeless when they go on their way to work. The result of all this, it seems to me, is very likely to be what I have called and we together call in the new book, the “Custodial State.”

The Custodial State will be characterized as it develops and th is is not in some respects so much a prediction as a report of things already in progress. It will be characterized by a variety of things. First, child care in the poor neighborhoods of town will increasingly become a function of the state as it is more and more acknowledged that an awful lot of the people who are parents in that part of town are incompetent and there is too much neglect and abuse. The solution will be we just have to take care of those kids all day. The homeless will vanish. This is the safest prediction of the lot. We have sort of had our compassion fatigue as it is sometimes called, and the homeless will disappear. By the way I’m not against that. What I am against is and what I am being cynical about is the way it will be incorporated into what I’m sure will be an elaborate rationale for why its good now whereas before it wasn’t. Policing will become strict, yet it won’t necessary become strict in the poor neighborhoods. The affluent and the cognitive elite will make damn sure that crime doesn’t go on in their part of town, which may also still leave them with plenty of time to talk about how the United States incarcerates the highest proportion of people of any country in the world and to deplore the way in which we’re putting people in jail from the poor part of town, all the while knowing that those folks if not put in jail are very unlikely to victimize.

The underclass will grow. The underclass has been fairly stable in terms of its numbers for a while. It will start to grow again because of a variety of phenomena, particularly because it is going to get increasingly difficult for kids to escape from the underclass because of what is holding them back now is going to get worse. It is not any inherent lack of abilities or any inherent lack of desire to get out, but rather if you grow up socialized in a society that is as different from the mainstream society as the underclass society is becoming, you can’t assimilate. You can’t function in another world.

Racism is likely to re-emerge in a much more virulent form. This country has had for the last ten or twenty years in its public pronouncements, the most pristine conversation about race. Oh, the things we shall not say about race in public, yet listen to the conversations in private, after a few drinks and when nobody is listening. You’ve all heard them. They’re getting worse instead of better and they’re getting worse in all the races. This is not strictly a white phenomena. And that also will continue I’m afraid because we have been so unwilling to raise those issues. At the same time, we are going to have an underclass that is increasingly frightening. The rubber band that has been stretched so tight in the national dialogue about race is likely to be released and snapped too far in the other direction.

In short, I am describing a situation in which the natural course of events is likely to take us in a direction whereby the underclass is treated pretty much as we treat Indians on reserva-tions. We spent a lot of money on American Indians, yet reservations are generally awful places to live. Still we do spend a lot of money to make ourselves feel good. I don’t want that future to occur. But it is not going to be avoided by changes at the margin. The Clinton welfare plan is not going to make a whole lot of difference, nor am I afraid is Jack Kemp’s plan. If we are going to change social policy so that this future does not come to pass, we must fundamentally rethink what it is we are trying to accomplish. I try to state that in In Pursuit, the book I mentioned earlier as well as I could, and we tried to state it again in the Bell Curve.

I will summarize it in a way I’m afraid will sound unpersuasive because I cannot get into detail. But it comes down to this: A great deal of what needs to be done in order to enable people to pursue happiness in this country is what was done in the original conception of this country, but then lost. Namely, it was understood that the stuff of life and the ways in which people have a place in the world that makes them valued is the working of the little platoons as Evanburg put it. The way we reach the age of 70 and can look back on who we have been and what we have done with pride, no matter what our level of ability, has been mostly measured in terms of the life immediately around us. I think that is true for everybody. I think when I am 70, should I be so fortunate to live that long, I don’t think I’m going to sit out in the front porch being satisfied about the books I’ve written. I think I’m going to be a lot more satisfied if at that time, I can see myself as having been a good husband to my wife, a good father to my children and a good neighbor to my friends.

I think that applies to everybody, but it applies in another kind of way to the folks who have got the short end of the stick in the kinds of cognitive gifts I’ve been talking about because if I haven’t been a good husband, a good father and a good neighbor, I can still say at least I wrote some good books. But if you haven’t had that kind of outlet, the only alternatives, the main alternatives, are those rules. What we have to do is return to the family and to the neigh-borhood the functions that are necessary in order for people to play those roles for that is what social policy is.

A second thing we have to do is to stop making rules that are congenial to people who are smart and make life difficult for people who are not. That means simplify this country and simplify this government. Not in little tiny ways; I’m not talking about cutting the growth of government regulation. I’m talking about the equivalent of zero-base budgeting and thinking about what it makes sense for the government to get involved in. I want to go back to a notion whereby it is assumed unless there is an utterly compelling reason otherwise, let people live their own lives and do as they damn well please as long as they don’t physically harm anybody else. I’m talking about the Jeffersonian notion, the Washingtonian notion, the Madisonian notion, that this is the way people live satisfying lives. Getting from here to there is going to be a difficult task; it is not the kind of thing which lends itself to specific Congressional agendas right now. The first thing that must be done is to understand that is the direction we need to go and not just for abstract reasons of liberty, but as a way for providing for our neighbors that most precious gift we can confer on each other: a place of value for our fellow citizens.


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