Murray's WSJ Solutions for the Formerly-Known-As-Working Class
By Bryan Caplan
If Coming Apart is right, what should we do? Charles Murray already proposed one frankly bizarre set of solutions in the NYT. Now he offers a rather different set of solutions in the WSJ. Or to be precise, one solution.
At first, Murray sounds like he’s going to push my recommendation: Drastic cuts in the welfare state.
Whether because of support from the state or earned income, women
became much better able to support a child without a husband over the
period of 1960 to 2010. As women needed men less, the social status that
working-class men enjoyed if they supported families began to
disappear. The sexual revolution exacerbated the situation, making it
easy for men to get sex without bothering to get married. In such
circumstances, it is not surprising that male fecklessness bloomed,
especially in the working class.
I barely mentioned these causes in describing our new class divide
because they don’t make much of a difference any more. They have long
since been overtaken by transformations in cultural norms. That is why
the prolonged tight job market from 1995 to 2007 didn’t stop
working-class males from dropping out of the labor force, and it is why
welfare reform in 1996 has failed to increase marriage rates among
working-class females. No reform from the left or right that could be
passed by today’s Congress would turn these problems around.
If Murray doesn’t advocate cuts in the welfare state, what is his one solution? Increasing stigma:
The prerequisite for any eventual
policy solution consists of a simple cultural change: [R]easonably
healthy working-age males who aren’t working or even looking for work,
who live off their girlfriends, families or the state, must once again
be openly regarded by their fellow citizens as lazy, irresponsible and
unmanly. Whatever their social class, they are, for want of a better
To bring about this cultural change, we must change the language that
we use whenever the topic of feckless men comes up. Don’t call them
“demoralized.” Call them whatever derogatory word you prefer.
Unlike Murray’s “solutions” in the NYT, raising stigma focuses on the real problem – the dysfunctional formerly-known-as-working class, instead of the near-model citizens of the professional class. And I can easily believe that a widespread increase in stigma would improve dysfunctional male behavior. So far, so good.
Unfortunately, Murray is far too quick to dismiss complementary policy changes. Imagine the welfare state were completely abolished. Does Murray really think that this wouldn’t make it considerably harder for lazy men to sponge off the women in their lives? Convince a lot of men to swallow their pride and take a low-wage job? Change the way that women look at a macho but habitually unemployed man? And that’s only the short-run impact. In the medium-run, what’s socially typical changes what’s socially acceptable. Murray has been wisely saying so for decades. Why on earth should he fatalistically assume that this interaction only moves in one direction? I say that cutting welfare is a great way to reinvigorate the word “bum.”
Murray might object that he never claimed that policy changes are useless, merely that “No reform from the left or right that could be
passed by today’s Congress would turn these problems around.” But “turning these problems around” is a silly standard. At this point, we should be happy to moderately reduce dysfunctional working class behavior – or simply prevent their dysfunctions from getting even worse. Consider: There’s no reason to think that name-calling would “turn these problems around” either. But that’s neither here nor there: We shouldn’t make the best an enemy of the good.
It’s possible that Murray agrees with me, but thinks that cutting the welfare state is too politically remote to bother mentioning. After all, he merely dismisses reforms “that could be
passed by today’s Congress,” not reform per se. If so, Murray ought to be clearer. If policy reform would work if tried, why not say so? Yes, it’s a long shot. But so is an exogenous upsurge in moral outrage against feckless men.