An Optimist's Take on Charles Murray's Coming Apart
By Bryan Caplan
On Friday, I read Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White American, 1960-2010, cover to cover. Murray’s given the world another social science page turner, written with earnest eloquence and full of fascinating information. His main claim: Class divisions in fundamental values have vastly expanded over the last half century. College graduates in high-IQ occupations aren’t just doing well economically; they continue to practice the Founding Virtues of marriage, industry, honesty, and religion. The working class, in contrast, has fallen apart. Never mind their stagnant wages; they’ve almost completely lost touch with the Founding Virtues that allow college graduates to live successful, meaningful lives.
Murray admits that America before 1960 was, by today’s standards, poor and boring. But he’s deeply depressed by what we’ve become. Middle America is falling apart – and elites are too busy navel-gazing to notice.
I learned a lot from Murray’s book. But it’s a classic case of glass-half-empty thinking. His results on the white working class didn’t surprise me. I already knew that their marriage rates were way down, their divorce rates were way up, their kids growing up in broken homes. And I knew that lots of working class men dropped out of the labor force long before the last big downturn. What I didn’t realize was that college grads have been almost completely immune to these changes.
Take divorce. Between 1960 and 1980, Murray shows that working class whites’ divorce/separation rate rose from about 5% to about 15%.* The trend continued: Between 1980 and 2010, it rate rose from 15% to 35%. Elites saw a parallel rise between 1960 and 1980: from about 1% to about 7.5%. No big surprise there, either. The shocker: the elite divorce/separation rate has been flat for the last thirty years. The same goes for kids growing up in broken homes: steady increase for the working class, low plateau for elites. Murray actually shows that the percentage of elites in happy marriages has sharply rebounded, while the percentage of the working class in happy marriages has crashed from almost 60% to about 25%.
Murray repeatedly laments that American elites refuse to “preach what they practice.” Elites are the spiritual heirs of Ozzie and Harriet. Their values lead to successful, meaningful lives. But they sadly lack the courage to loudly share their winning formula.
It’s an excellent point. I’ve long argued that we should humbly emulate successful people instead of giving them the evil eye. But all things considered, traditionalists should be delighted by Murray’s results. Consider:
1. Contrary to popular perception, American elites still embody the Founding Virtues.
2. American elites’ resistance to the Founding Virtues is largely a fraud. They’re Puritans in Unitarian garb.
3. The amazing success of American elites confirms that the Founding Virtues continue to work. The more the economy and society change, the more the formula for success stays the same.
The upshot: Traditionalists don’t have to sell an ancient, alien lifestyle to get the whole country back on track. They don’t have to convert a radically hostile elite. They need to bury the hatchet – to embrace the elite and boost its self-confidence. Then traditionalists and elites can join hands and preach the Good News of bourgeois virtue.
I’m not kidding. If Murray is right, traditionalists need to forget populism. Their “cultural differences” with the elite are largely cosmetic. Elites are the answer to traditionalists’ prayers. They work hard, avoid trouble, get married, and give their kids a good home. The sooner everyone realizes this, the better.
* The sample is limited to ever-married non-widowed whites aged 30-49. See Murray’s text (or this primer) for how he classifies people as working class (“Fishtown”) and elite (“Belmont”).