The plight of children is one of the most compelling arguments for government activism, say Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray. But in their 1994 book The Bell Curve, they argue that governments should resist the urge to intervene in dysfunctional families and communities. They warn that attempts to protect children will begin the slide towards a ‘custodial state‘ where politicians and bureaucrats try to control the lives of disadvantaged individuals, families and communities.
At Leftwrites, Michael Berrell claims that Murray’s ideas "largely underpin the direction of welfare policy under the current Howard Government." Berrell couldn’t be more wrong. As Jason Soon points out , Murray’s idea of welfare reform is to give every non-incarcerated adult an obligation-free $10,000 a year.
Of course the free money is only half of Murray’s plan. The other half involves dismantling the welfare state — no more subsidised housing or health care and no extra money for families with children. Many of those on the left — Mark Bahnisch for example — like the idea of a guaranteed minimum income, but don’t like the idea of abolishing the welfare state.
To understand just how different Murray’s views are from those of the Howard government, it’s worth taking a look at his ideas on the coming ‘custodial state’.
Is welfare child abuse?
Confronted by communities filled with neglected and abused children, what kind of politician would willingly sit by and do nothing? Herrnstein and Murray say that they understand the desire to rescue children, but warn against doing anything to help:
…inadequate nutrition, physical abuse, emotional neglect, lack of intellectual stimulation, a chaotic home environment — all the things that worry us when we think about the welfare of children — are very difficult to improve from outside the home when the single mother is incompetent (p 519).
According to Herrnstein and Murray, most welfare dependent single mothers in disadvantaged communities are incompetent. Worse still, government programs can’t change that. The root of the problem is an innate lack of intelligence combined with the bad incentives created by welfare. While government intervention can’t boost a person’s intelligence it can provide incentives for destructive behaviour. Without welfare there wouldn’t be so many abused and neglected children.
In his book Losing Ground and his essay ‘The Coming of Custodial Democracy‘ Murray argues that government anti-poverty policies have actually made things worse. And in the Bell Curve he argues that welfare payments for single mothers encourage low-IQ women to have children and discourage them from getting married. Inevitably, their children also lack ability and are far more likely than others to fail at school, fail in the labour market and fall foul of the law. Unable to overcome these problems, policy makers and intellectuals will become increasingly frustrated.
Send in the troops
Eventually, say Herrnstein and Murray, the dysfunction becomes too obvious to ignore. Policy makers can no longer pretend that they are dealing with the problem by providing income support and social programs:
Politicians and intellectuals alike will become much more open about the role of dysfunctional behavior in the underclass, accepting that addiction, violence, unavailability for work, child abuse, and family disorganization will keep most members of the underclass from fending for themselves. It will be agreed that the underclass cannot be trusted to use cash wisely. Therefore policy will consist of greater benefits, but these will be primarily in the form of services rather than cash. Furthermore, there will be new restrictions (p 523).
The government will take over many of the responsibilities normally left to parents. "Children will get balanced diets because they will be eating breakfast, lunch, and perhaps supper at school" say Herrnstein and Murray. Support will grow for a "national system of identification cards, coded with personal information including criminal record" (p 524). Custodial democracy will also change the relationship between national and state governments:
As states become overwhelmed, the current cost sharing between the states and federal government will shift towards the federal budget. The mounting costs will also generate intense political pressure on Washington to do something. Unable to bring itself to do away with the welfare edifice — for by that time it will be assumed that social chaos will follow any radical cutback — the government will continue to try to engineer behavior through new programs and regulations. As time goes on and hostility towards the welfare-dependent increases, those policies are likely to become authoritarian and rely increasingly on custodial care (p 525).
Custodial democracy will have arrived. With one set of institutions for ordinary citizens and another for those who depend on the state, the government will have installed a form of social apartheid.
Murray’s preferred to solution is to abolish the welfare state. But if that seems too drastic, he’s willing to compromise. In his latest book, In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State, Murray combines the abolition of all welfare programs with an annual $10,000 grant to every adult American. There are only three qualifications — you have to have a bank account, you don’t get the money if you’re in prison and you have to spend at least $3000 of the grant on health care.
Murray describes his plan as a direct descendent of Milton Friedman’s Negative Income Tax proposal. Murray’s aim is not to eliminate poverty, but to eliminate involuntary poverty. "I’m not saying that no one would live in squalor after the plan goes into effect, but nobody needs to", says Murray. But this isn’t exactly true. As sociologist Dalton Conley points out, poor children don’t choose their parents. Their poverty is involuntary.
This isn’t an oversight on Murray’s part — it’s deliberate. One of his major objections to the welfare state is that it encourages incompetent, low-ability women to have children without having husbands. For Murray illegitimacy is at the root of problems like crime, violence and unemployment (pdf). In The Bell Curve he and Herrnstein argued that unmarried mothers should have no legal right to demand support from the child’s father (p 545).
Over time, Murray thinks his plan will reduce the number of ‘underclass‘ women raising children. Some of the babies will be adopted, some of the women will get abortions, and others will avoid getting pregnant in the first place. Young women will learn that the only way to raise a child and avoid poverty is to get married.
Are there really only two alternatives?
Murray presents us with a choice, either we dismantle the welfare state or we risk seeing the rise a custodial state that treats entire categories of people as non-citizens. This choice depends on a crucial assumption — that there is nothing the welfare state can do to help people work their way out of poverty.
futility–the claim that all attempts at social engineering are powerless to alter the natural order of things; perversity–the argument that interventions will actually backfire and have the opposite of their intended effect; and jeopardy–the idea that a new, possibly more radical reform will threaten older, hard won liberal reforms.
Murray leans heavily on the futility and perversity theses. According to Murray, programs which attempt improve outcomes for children will almost always fail. Those that do not will produce such small effects that they are not worth the cost. These programs are futile. Income support programs that attempt to reduce poverty by supporting single women with children will have a perverse effect — rather reducing child poverty, they will increase it. Income support payments linked to family size make it more likely that single women will have babies.
Murray’s case for the futility thesis is particularly open to criticism. Not only does he argue that social programs don’t work, but he claims that they can’t work. Even tough-minded Chicago economists like James Heckman find this claim implausible. Heckman argues that early childhood programs can work but that Murray’s obsession with raising IQ prevents him from understanding how. "Enriched early intervention programs targeted to disadvantaged children have had their biggest effect on noncognitive skills: motivation, self-control and time preference" he says. Heckman goes on to argue that:
If we don’t provide disadvantaged young children with the proper environments to foster cognitive and noncognitive skills, we’ll create a class of people without such skills, without motivation, without the ability to contribute to the larger society nearly as much as they could if they’d been properly nurtured from an early age. Neglecting the early years creates an underclass that is arguably growing in the United States. The family is the major source of human inequality in American society.
Not all efforts to improve early childhood development are successful, but there is a growing body of evidence on what works (for an overview of some of the research see here). Murray seems suspiciously eager to give up on government programs.
From science fiction dystopia to outback reality?
In 1995 Heckman wrote that Herrnstein and Murray’s vision of the coming custodial state "reads more like a story borrowed from science fiction novels than a plausible extrapolation of existing social trends." Would he say the same thing today?
More links on Charles Murray and the idea of obligation-free welfare
Lawrence Mead, ‘The Check Is in the Mail‘ First Things
Toward the end of In Our Hands, Murray makes clear that his priority is not really to overcome the dysfunctions behind poverty. Rather, it is to restore the small-government society of the nineteenth century. Then there were no government social programs.
Ezra Klein, ‘Mr Big: Charles Murray’s Nuttiest Idea Yet‘ The New Republic
Well, OK, somebody needs to say it: Murray is harebrained. His particular brand of nuttery manifests itself in an obsession with bigness. Other conservatives can propose cutting this or privatizing that. Murray insists on something far more massive and extravagant. (Goldfinger wasn’t content just robbing a bank: He wanted to contaminate Fort Knox with a nuclear bomb.) In the Plan, Murray’s insistence on bigness has reached its final, loopy culmination.
Philippe Van Parijs, ‘A Basic Income for All‘ Boston Review
Van Parijs argues for a Universal Basic Income (UBI)– "an income paid by a government, at a uniform level and at regular intervals, to each adult member of society".
True, a UBI is undeserved good news for the idle surfer. But this good news is ethically indistinguishable from the undeserved luck that massively affects the present distribution of wealth, income, and leisure. Our race, gender, and citizenship, how educated and wealthy we are, how gifted in math and how fluent in English, how handsome and even how ambitious, are overwhelmingly a function of who our parents happened to be and of other equally arbitrary contingencies.
Elizabeth Anderson, ‘What Is the Point of Equality?‘ Ethics
Not an article about Charles Murray but an argument against ‘luck egalitarians‘ like Van Parijs.
Those on the left have no less reason than conservatives and libertarians to be disturbed by recent trends in academic egalitarian thought. First, consider those whom recent academic egalitarians have singled out for special attention: beach bums, the lazy and irresponsible, people who can’t manage to entertain themselves with simple pleasures, religious fanatics. Thomas Nagel and Gerald Cohen give us somewhat more sympathetic but also pitiable characters in taking stupid, talentless, and bitter people to be exemplary beneficiaries of egalitarian concern. What has happened to the concerns of the politically oppressed? What about inequalities of race, gender, class, and caste? Where are the victims of nationalist genocide, slavery, and ethnic subordination?
Gary Sauer-Thompson at Public Opinion:
Murray’s position is simple. Inequality is good. Inequality is natural and intelligence is hereditary. By not accepting that we are embracing the second rate and so doing nothing excellence. This is conservatism, not libertarianism, since liberalism has held that equality is a basic or core value of the liberal tradition along with freedom.
Jason Soon at Catallaxy:
In effect Murray predicts that a society with less government would be spontaneously a more communitarian society comprised of neighbourly, self reliant two parent families steeped in the bourgeois virtues. All these are big ‘if’s and though not totally implausible certainly need more work demonstrating, as does Murray’s implicit claim that the welfare state is somehow completely or almost completely ‘crowding out’ voluntary charitable and other activity.
Harry Brighouse at Crooked Timber:
Before writing about it I did a quick google search, and was glad to see it being attacked by some of his colleagues on the right; it confirmed my sense that there’s a lot of good stuff in it, and that the wool is not being pulled over my eyes.
Ezra Klein at Ezra Klein
The question has always been why folks take his ideas seriously. The best I can come up with is the Murray discovered and skillfully exploited a fairly foundational flaw among journalists — their generalist nature. Most commentators are not wonks, and they’re definitely not statisticians. Therefore, when faced with one of Murray’s opuses, they’re dazzled by the array of statistics, multivariate regression analyses, and other impressive techniques he uses, the flaws of which the reviewers are often ill-equipped to assess.