Losing Ground, The Bell Curve, and Coming Apart: A Reconciliation
By Bryan Caplan
During Arnold’s video conference on Coming Apart, Brink Lindsey pointed out the curious fact that Charles Murray wrote three different books about poverty, each with a different explanation.*
Losing Ground says that the welfare state gives the poor perverse incentives.
The Bell Curve says that the poor have low IQ.
Coming Apart says that the poor are increasingly lacking in virtue.
I agree that Charles Murray could have tried harder to integrate the three accounts. And I obviously don’t speak for Murray. But in my view, his three books on poverty are complementary. Quick version:
1. 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.
2. But the effects of intelligence go much deeper. People with low IQs are aren’t just less productive; they’re also more impulsive. Take pregnancy:
The smarter the woman, the more likely that she deliberately decides to have a child and calculates the best time to do it. The less intelligent the woman is, the more likely that she does not think ahead from sex to procreation, does not remember birth control, does not carefully consider when and under what circumstances she should have a child. How intelligent a woman is may interact with her impulsiveness, and hence her ability to exert self-discipline and restraint on her partner in order to avoid pregnancy.
A lack of foresight, which is often associated with low IQ, raises the attractions of the immediate gains from crime and lowers the strength of the deterrents, which come later (if they come at all). To a person of low intelligence, the threats of apprehension and prison may fade to meaninglessness. They are too abstract, too far in the future, too uncertain.
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.
3. In Losing Ground, Murray shows what happens when the welfare state shelters people from this short-run feedback. People with ordinary levels of impulsiveness don’t change their behavior very much. Why not? Because the long-run consequences of impulsive behavior remain bad. But highly impulsive people change their behavior a lot – and end up with bad career and family outcomes:
The most compelling explanation for the marked shift in the fortunes of the poor is that they continued to respond, as they always had, to the world as they found it, but that we – meaning the not-poor and un-disadvantaged – had changed the rules of their world. Not of our world, just of theirs. The first effect of the new rules was to make it profitable for the poor to behave in the short term in ways that were destructive in the long term. Their second effect was to mask these long term losses – to subsidize irretrievable mistakes. We tried to provide more for the poor and produced more poor instead. We tried to remove the barriers to escape from poverty, and inadvertently built a trap.
4. Another important mechanism that helps impulsive people reach decent long-run outcomes is tradition enforced by social pressure. 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. The welfare state is an important underlying cause of this transformation: 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.
5. Murray doesn’t just explain poverty; he explains elites’ failure to understand poverty. 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. If elites understood the world outside their Bubble a little better, they would have foreseen – and largely avoided – the welfare state’s negative effects on work and family.
In sum: 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.
* If memory serves me, Brink made these comments after Arnold ended the “official” part of the videocast. So they probably don’t appear in the footage Arnold uploaded.