Reconciling Murray

GMU’s Bryan Caplan has an interesting 2012 post on reconciling the work of controversial political scientist Charles Murray. Caplan views Murray’s three main books on poverty–Losing Ground, The Bell Curve, Coming Apart–as complementary. To review:

Charles Murray

Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 criticizes the welfare state for giving the poor perverse incentives.

The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (written with the late psychologist Richard Herrnstein) argues that the poor tend to have lower IQs.

Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 claims that the poor are generally lacking in particular virtues and social norms, namely marriage, industriousness, religiosity, and honesty (in relation to rising crime rates).

Caplan sets it up as follows:

  • The Bell Curve emphasizes the most stable difference between the rich and the poor: The poor tend to be less intelligent. Cognitive ability is an important determinant of success in almost any society. Smarter workers are simply more productive, and competing employers reward them accordingly. In the long-run, therefore, people with low intelligence tend to have correspondingly low incomes.”
  • “People with low IQs aren’t just less productive; they’re also more impulsive…Implicit: One of the best ways to help impulsive people reach decent long-run outcomes is to give them a lot of strong short-run feedback.”
  • “In Losing Ground, Murray shows what happens when the welfare state shelters people from this short-run feedback.”
  • “The impulsive are swayed more by guilt and shame than careful calculations about the distant future. In Coming Apart, Murray shows that over the last few decades, this tradition/social pressure mechanism has gradually broken down for the working class – and transformed the working class into a dysfunctional leisure class…Removing short-run feedback led to worse behavior, which undermined traditional norms about work and family, which reduced social pressure, which led to worse behavior.”
  • “Elites live in a high-IQ, low-impulsiveness Bubble. When they introspect, they correctly conclude that the welfare state has little effect on their behavior. They then incorrectly infer that the welfare state has little effect on anyone‘s behavior.”

Caplan concludes, “Murray wrote Losing Ground first, but the best way to grasp his perspective on poverty is to start with The Bell Curve, move on to Losing Ground, and finish with Coming Apart.  You have to connect the dots yourself, but Murray’s Big Picture is both clear and plausible.” While this take may sound harsh or cold (and perhaps even a bit overstated), the social science behind many of Murray’s claims isn’t all that controversial. For example, family breakdown does have psychological, economic, educational, and social effects on those involved.1 Religious involvement typically has a positive impact on behavior, well-being, and the building of social capital.2 Even The Bell Curve, which was criticized for supposedly supporting “scientific racism,” was quite rigorous and eye-opening in its assessment of difference in abilities. Nobel laureate James Heckman, who penned what is considered the critical review of The Bell Curve in the March 1995 issue of Reason, thought

the book was very important. It broke a taboo by showing that differences in ability existed and predicted a variety of socioeconomic outcomes. So, I thought the book was important in raising that issue, but it failed totally when it focused so much on genetic determination of ability…I thought the book played a very important role in raising the issue of differences in ability and their importance. It stimulated discussion if only by being a target of attack. There’s an awful lot of convention in academic life. And The Bell Curve was important precisely because the topic of ability had become off-limits to “right-minded” people. It forced scholars to confront important facts about differences among people. I think that was the contribution of the book. So, actually, I’m a bigger fan of it than you might think…The brilliant feature of that book was that most of the analysis in the first part of the book is for whites. They show that the AFQT is very powerfully predictive of a whole range of behaviors for whites…My review didn’t attack them on the grounds frequently raised. I did say that they misinterpreted their own data by focusing on genetics…Everything we’ve learned since then suggests that the traditional way people measure genetic effects ignores interactions, and ignores a growing body of important literature about gene-environment interactions.3

Murray may not always be right. But trying to be as practical and clear-eyed as possible about pressing issues is admirable. When approaching such issues, there is much to learn from Murray. And there is much to learn about not throwing out the baby with the bathwater.