A review of Charles Murray’s ‘Coming Apart’: do the poor suffer because they are bad or because they are dumb?

By Alan Bean

Charles Murray took so much flak for controversial The Bell Curve that he decided to write a book about white people rooted in much the same argument. 

Coming Apart, a book about the diverging fortunes of upper and lower class white Americans, begins where The Bell Curve ended.  The big factor driving the growing gap between the educated and the uneducated, Murray suggests, is “cognitive homogamy”, the fact that individuals with similar cognitive ability are having children.

In the old world, Murray says, most people lived and died in rural communities and small towns.  The smartest males might have left home for a few years of college, but they generally returned to marry the prettiest (not necessarily the smartest) girl in town.  The result, kids of normal cognitive ability.  Wealth was distributed largely on the basis of inheritance, not ability and the kids at Harvard weren’t much smarter than the kids at a good state school.

Since the early 1960s, however, smart people have been marrying other smart people and having smart kids.  The sons and daughters of these blessed unions have increasingly clustered in segregated neighborhoods in which “everybody has a bachelor’s or graduate degree and works in high-prestige professions or management or is married to such a person.”  Among this new elite, wealth is distributed on the basis of merit, the elite colleges compete for the brightest and the best and lesser institutions make do with students who will never be ready for prime time.

At the other end of the social spectrum, cognitively challenged individuals are marrying one another, largely by default, and having cognitively challenged children who have an increasingly hard time adapting to a high-tech economy.  

Initially, Murray focuses on “SuperZips”, neighborhoods inhabited by the top two or three highest income percentiles.  SuperZips are 82% white, 8% Asian, 3% black and 3% Latino.  This lack of ethnic diversity is a source of strength, Murray suggests, because “ethnic diversity works against social trust.”   At any rate, Murray sidesteps the racial justice issue by focusing on the white folks at opposite ends of the social divide.

The new upper class is just as likely to be conservative as conservative, Murray says, it largely depends where you live.  Move away from coastal cities and the new upper class reflects the conservatism of the heartland.

But the liberal elite is no myth.  “The SuperZips surrounding New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco are the home of almost all of the narrow elite whose decisions directly affect the economy, politics and culture of the nation.”  When Murray talks about the new upper class he is really talking about this coastal elite.

In the SuperZips, Murray suggests, people don’t just hold advanced degrees; the diplomas carefully displayed on the study wall are from elite colleges and universities.  But Ivy Leaguers aren’t just socially fortunate, they are demonstrably smarter than normal people.  This is where the same reductionist assumptions Murray trotted out in The Bell Curve are pressed into play.  Two high school dropouts, Murray tells us, will have children with an average IQ of 94; two parents with high school diplomas will produce offspring with an average IQ of 101; with 2 college degrees the average is 109, for two graduate degrees its  116, and two parents with degrees from elite colleges will produce kids with an average IQ of 121.

Then Murray’s argument turns on a dime.  New upper class people aren’t just doing well because they’re smarter than everyone else; they are doing well because they embrace the “founding virtues” on which “the American project” was founded: marriage, industriousness, honesty and religiosity.  America is an exceptional nation because we live out these founding virtues, and the American project will founder if we abandon them.

And abandoning the founding virtues is precisely what the new lower class is doing.

To make this point, Murray divides America into two communities, Belmont (the symbolic locus of the new upper class) and Fishtown (the home of the new lower class).  He admits that roughly half of the American population doesn’t live in either Belmont or Fishtown, but argues that a true picture snaps into focus when we compare the, roughly, upper 30% with the lowest 20%.

The unsurprising conclusion is that while Belmont is thrives while Fishtown goes to hell.

Murray uses his four founding virtues to contrast the cohesion and dynamism of Belmonters with the disintegration and despair of Fishtowners. 

In Belmont, people get married and stay married: 90% of children living with both biological parents.  By contrast, only 30% of the white children in Fishtown are born to two biological parents and that number is falling fast.  In fact, Murray says “the absolute level” of family stability in Fishtown “is so low that it calls into question the viability of white working class communities as a place for socializing the next generation.”

Educational level is the best predictor of non-marital births, Murray says.  Only 5% of the children born to women with 16 or more years of education are non-marital; among women who didn’t finish high school, it’s 60% and rising.

Belmont people, naturally, are almost obsessively industrious while Fishtown folk (men especially) are increasingly inclined to drop out of the labor force altogether.  Is this because they lack the skills to compete in a high-demand marketplace, or is it because they haven’t been taught the value of hard work.  In the first part of the book, Murray seems to blame cognitive dysfunction; in the second half, moral ignorance is the culprit.  Fishtown was once characterized by virtually full employment because being out of work was considered shameful, but those days are gone.

Belmonters, as indicated by amazingly low crime rates, are an honest bunch; Fishertowners are hobbled by their dishonesty.  “In inmate surveys conducted periodically by the federal government from 1974 to 2004,” Murray tells us, “80% of whites in state and federal prisons came from Fishtown and less than 2% from Belmont.” 

Moreover, “For every 100,000 Fishtowners ages 18-65 in 1974, 213 were imprisoned.  By the time of the 2004 survey, that number was 957.”

Are Fishtowners 4.5 times as dishonest (and therefore criminally active) as they were a quarter century ago?  Apparently so.  Murray never considers that declining economic opportunity is part of the mix; in fact, he sees that kind of explanation as part of the problem.

Murray values religion for the same reasons American presidents from Jefferson to Eisenhower valued it.  Religious belief and church attendance produce social cohesion and cultural capital; declining rates of religious involvement correlate with social disintegration and powerlessness.  The truth or falsity of particular religious beliefs isn’t relevant to this discussion.

Murray isn’t pushing orthodox Christianity, he’s puffing an American civil religion rooted in the founding virtues of marriage, industriousness, honesty and religiosity.  Like the English Victorians, he says, Americans once pounded these values into the heads of impressionable school children.  When we stopped indoctrinating our children in the founding virtues, the American project started coming apart.

Virtue is the sister of happiness.  Studies indicate that rates of personal happiness increase when people are married, when they are engaged in challenging and rewarding work, when they have high levels of social trust (because they and those around them are trustworthy) and when they are part of a religious community.  Religious belief, per se, doesn’t correlate with happiness; you must also practice what you preach.  

As one would expect, folks in Belmont are happy as clams; Fishtowners are not.

Church attendance isn’t the only form of civic engagement that creates happiness and social capital, Murray says, any form of group membership will produce this effect.  Unfortunately, as scholars like Robert Putnam and Theda Skocpol suggest, Americans are far less likely to belong to civic organizations than were their parents and grandparents and, for most people, churches provide the best opportunity for social engagement.

While Belmonters are beginning to reconnect socially; Fishtown is sinking into a slough of dislocated dysfunction.  To illustrate, almost everyone in Belmont votes; but voting rates in Fishtown have been dropping steadily for decades. 

The implication is that Fishtown needs a healthy dose of the founding virtues.  The fear is that a lack of cultural capital, social cohesion and civic engagement leaves Fishtowners with very little to work with. 

Murray has mixed feelings about Belmonters.  They practice the founding virtues, but they no longer preach them.  In fact, America’s new upper class seems constitutionally incapable of passing moral judgment on anything or anybody.  “Ecumenical niceness” prevails, and that is no foundation for nation building.  Even criminals, he observes, get a pass from the new upper class.  And that has got to stop.  People must be taught that virtue is the key to success; that people who reject the founding virtues will be unsuccessful unhappy, and that economic and moral failure are related.  “The new upper class knows the secret of maximizing the chances of leading a happy life, but it refuses to let anyone else in on th secret.”

Government, unsurprisingly, is worse than useless.  “When the government intervenes to help,” Murray cautions, “it only diminishes our responsibility for the desired outcome, it enfeebles the institutions through which people live satisfying lives.”  Welfare programs, in Murray’s view, are rooted in a European model in which human beings are infinitely perfectable and ease of life and equality of outcomes is the goal.  To the extent the United States has moved down that road it has abandoned the American project.

The problem isn’t that Fishtowners don’t have enough money or enough job openings, Murray insists, they are deficient in cultural capital because they are deficient in virtue.  As a result, “a significant and growing portion of the American population is losing the virtues required to be functioning members of a free society.”

Liberals make a fundamental mistake when they cite poverty, poor schools or lack of economic opportunity as the source of social problems.  “The problems that children suffer because of poverty disappear when the community is no longer poor . . . But when families become dysfunctional, or cease to form altogether, growing numbers of children suffer in ways that have little to do with lack of money.”

The only saviors on the horizon, in Murray’s analysis, are the folks in Belmont.  Unfortunately, they appear to be perfectly at ease in the exurban Zion they have fashioned for themselves.  Belmonters have inherited virtues they no longer appreciate.  Standards of honorable behavior are disappearing.  A collapse of self-confidence is indicated by the fact that the new upper class takes its social cues from the streets, what Arnold Toynbee called the “proletarization of the dominant minority”. 

Murray suggests that the new upper class endorses an extensive and incompetent welfare system because paying taxes is cheaper than rolling up your sleeves and trying to help.

But what, exactly, can folks in Belmont do for their Fishtown compatriots?  That depends on how you define the problem.  If the primary problem is a collapse of America’s founding virtues, the new upper class could mount its soap box and extol the virtues of marriage, industriousness, honesty and religiosity to their social inferiors.  That sounds like a winning proposition. 

But what if the big problem (as Murray suggests in the first half of his book) lies on the negative side of cognitive homogamy: dumb parents begetting dumb kids?

In his final chapter, Murray returns to this theme and the result is a truly stunning sentence: “There are genetic reasons, rooted in the mechanisms of human evolution, why little boys who grow up in neighborhoods without married fathers tend to reach adolescence not socialized to the norms of behavior that they will need to stay out of prison and to hold jobs.”

Murray appears to be arguing, although he would deny it with a curse, that the dumbing down of the lower class is intimately related to their rapid abandonment of the founding virtues.  If that’s the case, nothing (short of forcing smart people to marry their intellectual inferiors) can be done. 

And what if America is becoming a zero-sum nation in which the folks in Belmont do well because the denizens of Fishtown are doing poorly.  Or, more accurately, what if Fishtowners must decrease so that Belmonters might increase.  Murray hasn’t wrestled with this possibility.

Moreover, moralistic sermons on Murray’s founding virtues are already a commonplace feature of American politics and religion.  Has Murray never heard of the Religious Right?  People are nattering about the founding virtues ad nauseum.  But is this preaching designed to reclaim Fishtown, or is it merely the self-serving equation of virtue and success?  Is the message “We feel your pain and want to help?”, or, “You have failed because you are bad, so don’t come to us for a handout”?

Which brings us to one of the key problems with Murray’s analysis: when he talks about Belmont he really has his despised liberal coastal elite in mind.  These are the people who practice the founding virtues, almost to a fault, while eschewing moralism.  These are the people who created the welfare state.  These are the people who have turned over the charitable obligations of nobility to the government.  These are the people who, like the European sophisticates they emulate, view security and comfort as the highest good.  These are the people who no longer value the socializing influence of religion.

If Murray’s target audience is the blue coastal end of the Belmontian spectrum his complaints become more comprehensible.   America’s liberal elite has concluded that cultural pluralism (a virtue from their perspective) requires a strictly secular politics in which Jews, Protestants, Catholics, agnostics and atheists work together in harmony.  In the process, they have abandoned the religious realm to a wide variety of fundamentalist zealots who use Murray’s founding virtues as political wedge issues. 

Although most Democrats are people of faith, America’s liberal elite is uncomfortable with religion.  A deeply religious electorate senses this reticence and responds predictably.  Voters are looking for a coherent worldview in which politics, patriotism and religion coexist in harmony.  Country, political party, and church are all of a piece, a unified, consistent reality.  America is a Christian nation, we talk about Jesus at political rallies, and my pastor extols the virtues of a Christian America.  Everything fits.

This may not be the kind of civil religion Murray is advocating, but it is what we’ve got, and the conservative section of Belmont has found ways to make this country, party, church symmetry work for them.  The liberal end of Belmont has nothing to offer but a secular republic where faith and politics don’t mix.  That’s a hard sell in these United States.

Murray notes that religious revivals, or awakenings, have played a shaping role in American history.  The First Great Awakening in New England influenced the American Revolution while a Second Great on the American frontier spun off a host of progressive reform and led, many believe, to the Civil War.  But Murray believes two subsequent Awakenings have carved out the current political landscape.  Progressives have been influenced by a Third Great Awakening (roughly 1890 to 1965) that gave us the modern missions movement, the Social Gospel, the Civil Rights Movement and set the stage for New Deal politics.  Then came a Fourth Great Awakening, characterized by a blend of enthusiastic Christian religion and conservative, small-government politics. 

Murray contends that contemporary American politics pits the children of the Third Great Awakening against the scions of the Fourth Great Awakening. 

There can be no doubt that the civil religion that prevailed in 1950 was a spinoff from New Deal era, Protestant-Catholic-Jew ecumenism.  A vague, content-free religion linked to pro-military patriotism, anti-communism and the American can-do spirit.  That kind of civil religion is essentially dead.

The Fourth Great Awakening that gave us Ronald Reagan and Rick Santorum is very different.  Conservatives have worked out a rough-and-ready ecumenism linking conservative Protestants with conservative Catholics.  The new civil religion is decisively pro-Israel, but the American Jewish community is excluded: this new civil religion is predicated on an explicit, in-your-face brand of Christianity.

Having largely abandoned their Third Great Awakening species of civil religion, the American liberal elite (and, yes, there is one) has nothing new on offer.  But if American progressives could arrange a marriage between Murray’s founding virtues (which are just as critical as he says they are) and a radically ecumenical religious ethic stressing justice and mercy, their political fortunes would improve, especially among minority voters and white heartland moderates.  This isn’t what Murray has in mind, of course, but it is desperately needed nonetheless.

Finally, I am unimpressed with Murray’s hymn to American exceptionalism.  I was indoctrinated in the “founding virtues” and I grew up in Canada.  It could be argued that America, until very recently, didn’t expect much from un-white and un-propertied folk because they weren’t Americans in any meaningful sense.  Murray says that we should return to the philosophy of the Founding Fathers, minus their enthusiasm for chattel slavery.  But slavery and racial domination have been part of the package from the start; our moral heritage is a mixed blessing.  

On the other hand, Murray’s critique of our bureaucratic, top-down and woefully inefficient welfare system is shared by many social democrats.  Poor neighborhoods need to solve their own problems, but they can’t do it without social capital and a shared moral vision.  The answer is community organizing flowing from a clear-eyed analysis of the problem and a simple strategy with a chance of real world success.  The mere provision of services can create powerlessness and dependency. 

In moral terms, is America advancing or receding? If we are talking about a willingness to embrace the human worth of all Americans, we have come a long way.  If the standard is Murray’s founding virtues, we’re definitely losing ground.

I readily affirm the cardinal significance of marriage, industriousness, honesty and religiosity, but so do most people in my native Canada and, as Murray’s own research reveals, so do most people in Fishtown

People in Belmont practice the founding virtues because, if you live in Belmont, they are an unavoidable key to success; Fishtowners would like to practice the founding virtues but the brutal economic realities of Fishtown life make it very difficult.  When momma and daddy are both bringing in $150,000 plus, it’s a lot easier to keep a marriage together.

Charles Murray thinks like a normal educated white conservative; he just has the guts to say it.  In doing so, he performs a service. 

Sometimes Murray gets it right–there is an undeniable moral logic to conservatism that should not be minimized.  We aren’t just looking for a better future; we’re also trying to keep the good stuff we’ve inherited from the past. 

Sometimes Murray gets it horribly wrong–for instance, when he fails to understand that mass incarceration is a big part of the problem in Fishtown.  By being wrong in such obvious ways, Murray reminds us what we are up against.

Charles Murray laments the coming apart of America, but as a rigid libertarian he has no solution.  The government makes everything worse and it is never clear how, given the limits on human perfectability Murray correctly espouses, we can expect the comfortable, sequestered citizens of Belmont to preach good news to the poor. 

It isn’t going to happen, and Charles Murray knows it.  The rich must get richer because they are more virtuous than the rest of us.  They are virtuous because they are smart.  The poor are going to hell for equal and opposite reasons. 

It may signal the end of the American Project but . . . what can be done?  

Surely, we can do better than this.

2 thoughts on “A review of Charles Murray’s ‘Coming Apart’: do the poor suffer because they are bad or because they are dumb?

  1. The arguments do leave so much out, but I’m sure like “The Bell Curve” this book will be an truthy reference for those who feel that any taxes that go toward the least powerful of us in society are worse than wasted. And this one even proves that he is not racist ; )

  2. His IQ thing is full of it. Anecdotal evidence can provide reams of incidents of kids of the same generation with IQs very similar and very different achievement levels.

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