Looking for Virtue in All the Wrong Places

Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010
By Charles Murray
Crown Publishing, 2012

Reviewed by Jack Metzgar

Charles Murray is concerned that the white “lower class” (now about 20 percent of white folks) is “economically ineffectual” because they are less virtuous than previous generations. In the aggregate, according to Murray, all Americans are less virtuous than we used to be, but the main point of Coming Apart is that the decline in virtue among upper-class whites (the top 20 percent) has been relatively minor and has now stabilized, whereas the bottom fifth is steadily and dramatically declining in virtue. For Murray, there is a kind of moral rot at the bottom that threatens to “destroy the kind of civil society that America requires,” slowly strangling what Murray calls “the American project,” as the rot moves up the class ladder, undermining previously sturdy working and middle classes.

Murray is clear about what he calls “the founding virtues.” There are only four of them: marriage, industriousness, honesty, and religion. Murray does almost nothing to justify this choice of virtues, and most reviewers have just accepted them as specified. But they strike me as extremely arbitrary and limited. Though he quotes de Tocqueville when he writes that Americans’ “morals are far more strict . . . than elsewhere,” he does not mention de Tocqueville’s emphasis on the extraordinary “equality of condition” in 1830s white America as a potential founding virtue. More strangely, since Murray repeatedly identifies himself as a libertarian conservative, why is liberty not a founding virtue? I can see why, as a libertarian, he might not want to include “fraternity,” but are not the American founders’ commitment to liberty and equality (however hypocritical at the time) part of our core values and virtues?

Given the virtues Murray has chosen, he has no difficulty in showing that the top 20 percent of whites are more likely than not to be married, have more and steadier work, experience and commit less crime, and attend church than the bottom 20 percent. His claim that steadier work indicates greater “industriousness” is highly unlikely, as is the tenuous relationship between crime statistics and holding “honesty” as a virtue. Likewise, declining commitments to marriage and religion, though they might be worrying to traditional conservatives on a practical level, also reflect late-twentieth-century gains in freedom of thought and action. Murray’s various measures of virtue take more than the usual advantage of the standard socialsciences practice of first explaining all the imperfections of the available data and then using that data as if it had no imperfections. Nonetheless, I want to try to take seriously his stated concern about a decline in values and virtues, because I suspect that broad concern resonates pretty strongly within the working class itself, white and otherwise.

Most of Coming Apart is built around statistical comparisons of a fictional (i.e., statistically regressed) upper-class white “Belmont” and a fictional working-class white “Fishtown.” Late in the book, Murray introduces the “Real Fishtown” and includes a string of quotes from people who actually live there (or did in the late 1990s, when Fishtown was the subject of the doctoral dissertation Murray draws on). He finds that most of the people in Fishtown define themselves as family people who feel beleaguered by what they see—or what Murray sees—as the low-class moral decay that is threatening to engulf what was once a tight-knit, upright, and relatively prosperous community.

This rare bit of direct observation in Murray’s book resonates with my own extended family in a deindustrialized, overwhelmingly white former mill town. The poverty rate there is now more than 30 percent, and the unemployment rate has been in or near double digits for more than twenty years. For decades now, the adults in my family have been self-consciously fighting the moral rot Murray and the real Fishtown people fear, and though they started from a strong place and have fought valiantly, the rot seems to be growing with each generation, both outside and now inside the wide extension of the family.

As a semi-annual visitor, I think I am more aware than they are of the physical deterioration of our hometown and of how the ongoing economic catastrophe has been steadily eroding their lives and culture. By my lights, they make the same mistake Murray does, by focusing on the moral struggle to maintain individual integrity rather than the grinding economic circumstances that make that struggle steadily more difficult. This means they focus on how each person handles unsteady employment, not the reasons for its unsteadiness. They focus on how so-and-so just “laid around for weeks” after losing his job, or how somebody else finally struck back at an abusive boss and is still paying the price. Individual sobriety watches are common topics of family discussion, not the widespread lack of health insurance that had one of the twenty somethings trying to pull his own painfully impacted teeth while drunk.

The reasons for this misplaced focus, however, are different from Murray’s. My relatives are not unaware of the devastating impact that plant closings, and their related economic declines, have had on their own lives and the prospects for young people. But these economic forces are seen as irrelevant because nothing can be done about them, whereas getting sober and staying sober, enduring bad bosses, or making the best of bad situations is something each and every one of them can accomplish through feats of steady and relentless willpower. I agree with the old-timers in my generation, with the majority in Fishtown, and with Murray that there has been a long-term decline in virtue among the white working class in the U.S., but for me the virtues are somewhat different, and there is plenty the government could do to strengthen them.

Of Murray’s “founding virtues,” it is undoubtedly true that working-class whites are not as committed to marriage and religion as my generation was. Industriousness and honesty are another matter. Yes, as poverty increases there is more crime and personal bankruptcy (Murray’s measures for “honesty”), but I don’t see any diminishment in the down-to-earth authenticity that so contrasts with middle-class status-positioning and calculating self-regard. In any case, nobody in my family worries about a decline in personal honesty, even among the current crop of teenagers. Industriousness, on the other hand, is a common worry, but the worry is more complicated than Murray could follow. On the one hand, there is concern about so-and-so’s ability to hold a job, but on the other, the older generations are well aware of and appalled by how sped up and stressful (and poorly paid) work has become. And there is a lot of family pride in almost everybody, even the unsteadily employed, being “good workers when they have work.”

Illogically, but fortunately, Murray does not stick with his founding virtues, however, as he promiscuously adds other virtues as they seem handy for his purposes. One of his add-ons is social capital and civic engagement. Using Robert Putnam’s studies, he documents that these now famous national declines are much steeper in the working class than in the professional/ managerial middle class. Indeed, when it comes time for Murray to bemoan the lack of religiosity, his moaning is less about the loss of faith and more about the decline in regular church attendance and lack of involvement in the rank-and-file activities of a church. This is a good insight, I think, as Murray focuses on churches as social institutions where working-class men and women have traditionally developed leadership skills and built social networks beyond (but intersecting with) their families and into a larger community beyond the church.

Likewise, Murray mentions, in passing, the role of labor unions in building social capital. In my hometown, once an especially strong union town, fewer members of the family belong to unions because there are far fewer union workplaces—but even those who still do are not active as local leaders and stewards, as their fathers were. This is the real rot I see across the generations in my own extended family—a precipitous decline in mediating institutions like churches, unions, and ethnic lodges; and in what sociologists call collective efficacy, a sense that, collectively, people can affect their circumstances in ways it is impossible for individuals, or even a very large extended family, to do. When there is no sense of the potential for collective action and little engagement in collective endeavors of any sort, when any hope of changing larger circumstances is abandoned, nothing is left but individuals engaged in endless downward cycles of strenuous efforts to make the best of bad situations.

Charles Murray is blind to all this, of course, because he never actually talked with the people of the real Fishtown. As he claims of the white cognitive elite (the top 5 percent of whites who are decision-makers) that he says are “coming apart” from the national community, Murray lives in a particularly thick bubble. Still, his statistical correlations and concern for the moral well-being of working-class whites could be insightful if he were not himself so morally obtuse and ideologically incoherent.

In the book’s final chapter he, again, evokes the real Fishtown (i.e., folks quoted in a late-1990s doctoral dissertation) and, again, expresses sympathy for the family people. He restates his thesis like this: “The United States is stuck with a large and growing lower class that is able to care for itself only sporadically and inconsistently. Its concentration in Fishtown puts more and more pressure on the remaining Fishtown families who are trying to hold the line.” Murray has no sympathy for the “new white lower class” (let alone the “older” lower classes of color) because he thinks they have made values choices to be sexually promiscuous and unmarried, lazy, dishonest, and irreligious, and thus are reaping the rewards of those values. But you’d think he might want to explore what a democratic community could do to lend a hand to those still-virtuous “families who are trying to hold the line.” Instead, like Pontius Pilate, Murray finds no blame (and even finds admirable virtue) among the majority of family people in the white working class, but he washes his hands of their fate, even though he thinks their demise will destroy everything that is good and everything that is exceptional about the America he professes to love and that he thinks has been the hope of the world since 1776.

I have long respected thoughtful conservatives’ emphasis on virtues and values and, as I have tried to suggest, these concerns resonate widely. Though political conservatives bring different assumptions and come to different conclusions than I do, the writers and scholars among them have not usually been as morally feckless and illogical as Murray is in Coming Apart. Mainstream and progressive reviewers have challenged his statistical manipulations and politically cagey rhetoric, but by summarizing his “arguments” they greatly exaggerate the logical coherence (and thus the depth) of his thinking.

Most reviewers and TV interviewers, for example, take Murray at his word that he is simply describing a problem without addressing causes and solutions. They must not have read Murray’s last chapter, in which “the welfare state” (very loosely and broadly defined to include Social Security and Medicare) is the one and only cause of our declining moral fiber. How does it do this? By “taking the trouble out of life”!

In the end, Charles Murray has nothing serious to say about the state of white America. Conservatives like David Frum are right to react with panic at the intellectual and moral vacancy of Murray’s latest effort. Controlling the public discourse for three decades has weakened conservative thought. It has not only lost the edge it had when it was an underdog battling the “liberal consensus”—if Murray’s line of thinking is representative, conservative thought has also lost the capacity to reengage its own core values and principles to honestly address our national problems. In its desperate attempt to hold on to its formerly effective but now empty shibboleths, it is increasingly reactionary, not conservative. That makes it especially bold and dangerous at the moment, but it is already dying from the head down.