The Magazine

Gaining Ground

Instead of the Welfare State, a check for $10,000.

May 29, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 35 • By REIHAN SALAM
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Murray embraces the view of the old egalitarian liberals: that the rich are different from you and me, but only insofar as they have more money. The pathologies of the inner city are a function of perverse incentives. Why embrace the demanding and difficult bourgeois virtues when the deck is stacked against you, and the prospects of climbing out of poverty are slim? Providing a clear and visible lifeline changes everything. More would be expected of the listless, passive young men who are the source of so much turmoil, from mothers and girlfriends, and, over time, perhaps even wives.

Consider that the rich associational life of the early United States (a recurring theme of In Our Hands) was devised by individuals with far less education and far less free time than modern Americans. The vast expansion of literacy in the early 19th century, a historic achievement, occurred in the absence of any centralized plan. The expansion of the franchise and the changing nature of economic life made the value of literacy plain. In due time, literacy spread.

Yet today we assume that young people will only learn if they are poked, prodded, and tested into submission. Our educational system--like our welfare system--has become a nightmarish inversion of democracy, where passive students prepare for life as passive citizens, or rather passive consumers.

You can dismiss Murray as a romantic, with his heroic view of what the so-called common man could be. But this deeply unfashionable perspective also makes him one of our most powerful social critics. Like Christopher Lasch, Murray stands against the progressive surrender of decision-making authority to a highly mobile, credentialed class of experts.

But Lasch was a pessimist; Murray, champion of markets and choice and freedom, believes that history is on his side, and that the days of the stultifying welfare state are numbered.

Yet in the past he entertained darker views. In The Bell Curve, Murray and Herrnstein concluded that American society had taken a dangerous turn. Returns to intelligence narrowly conceived had sharply increased, and would likely increase unabated, reinforcing--and, indeed, exacerbating--existing inequalities. The end result would be a deeply divided society, with a fabulously wealthy cognitive elite using some combination of bribery and force of arms to pacify an unruly, violent, and impoverished underclass.

Since then, there has been a great and significant change in the social landscape. Though the problems plaguing the inner-city poor remain formidable, the Clinton boom and the sharp decrease in crime made them seem far less intractable. Perhaps more important, the rise of offshore outsourcing points to a future in which the "impersonal services" offered by members of the cognitive elite have increasingly become tradable commodities.

Whereas global trade has, until recently, only affected those working in the manufacturing sector, we can now easily imagine a not-distant future in which members of the credentialed, salaried upper-middle-class face the same pressures. Some will counsel the creation of new entitlements to guarantee economic security, to make the American economy a museum piece, preserving our particular standard of life and distribution of income. Others, including Murray, will see this as an opportunity for a reinvigorated conservatism--one dedicated to restoring the practice of self-reliance and self-help.

This effort will not, in all likelihood, take the form of one fell swoop, as Murray would have it. But how we get to Murray's intended end is going to be the central question for conservatives in the years to come.

Reihan Salam is a writer in Washington.