The Magazine

Mind the Gap

The rich get richer and the poor are broken.

Mar 19, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 26 • By YUVAL LEVIN
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Charles Murray’s profound and important new book has, for the most part, been received as merely the latest volley in the inequality debates. Its champions have tended to praise it for shedding light on overlooked aspects of the gap between rich and poor, while its critics have faulted it for ignoring some elements crucial to any proper understanding of the causes of inequality in America—and especially for paying too little attention to working-class wage stagnation.

Photo of The cast of ‘Jersey Shore’

The cast of ‘Jersey Shore’ (MTV)


Murray has made it easy to assume that his book should be understood as fundamentally an argument about inequality: It is, after all, a book about how America’s elite and lower classes are increasingly becoming separate cultures. Page after page, chart after chart, it copiously documents a growing distance between the top and the bottom. But Coming Apart is far more than a study of inequality and, indeed, when carefully considered it renders our ongoing inequality debates a little ridiculous.

To be carefully considered, the book must first be understood as the culmination of Charles Murray’s decades-long effort to define, describe, and protect America’s exceptional character. As with all of Murray’s books, every page of Coming Apart radiates an intense yet unpretentious love of country. And what makes America so loveable, in Murray’s telling, is its unique national ethic: “The American project,” he writes, “consists of the continuing effort, begun with the founding, to demonstrate that human beings can be left free as individuals and families to live their lives as they see fit, coming together voluntarily to solve their joint problems.” Sustaining such a balance between freedom and self-government requires a thriving civic culture, and the existence of such a culture has always made America unique.

That culture has, in one way or another, been the subject of all of Murray’s work—a fact powerfully evident in his most famous book (The Bell Curve, 1994, coauthored with Richard Herrnstein) and in his most influential book (Losing Ground, 1984), but most fully articulated in what, before Coming Apart, was his best book, In Pursuit (1988), a superb and underappreciated work of political philosophy.

But this virtuous culture—a highly cohesive, self-confident culture defined by strong families, faith in God, untiring industriousness, and an almost instinctive law-abidingness—is increasingly endangered today, and it is that danger that is the focus of Coming Apart. Through exhaustive empirical analysis—sifting through census statistics, decades of public opinion surveys, and mountains of other social science data—Murray systematically demonstrates that the commitment to each of those virtues has faded in American life, and that it has faded in very different ways for our upper class (which Murray defines as roughly those with college degrees and mid- to upper-level white-collar jobs) and our lower class (those without college degrees and blue-collar or low-level white-collar jobs, if any), who now have far less in common than they used to.

“America is coming apart at the seams,” Murray writes, “not seams of race or ethnicity, but of class.”

That evidence does not explain itself, of course, and Murray is careful to be modest about analyzing causes—“I focus on what happened, not why”—and although he describes a sharp divergence between Americans at the top and the bottom, he does not actually describe this transformation in terms of growth in inequality, but rather in terms of a decline in the broadly shared practice of crucial American virtues.

Indeed, his careful laying-out of the facts raises some serious questions about whether the process he describes is even properly understood in terms of differences between the top and bottom. It would seem, rather, to be above all a description of the collapse of cultural and moral norms at the bottom and of the growing cultural isolation of the top. Both may be worrisome trends, but surely not of comparable importance, and in Murray’s description—just as in the arguments of those most concerned about economic inequality in our time—the precise connection between what is happening at the top and at the bottom is often far from clear.

Murray obscures this some by attempting a parallel structure in his laying-out of the trends. The book’s first part is titled “The Formation of a New Upper Class,” and the second part (of almost exactly equal length) is called “The Formation of a New Lower Class.” But each part in fact describes very different kinds of changes.