Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart,” the book that’s launched a thousand arguments this winter, is a brilliant work with an exasperating conclusion. What’s brilliant is Murray’s portrait, rich in data and anecdote, of the steady breakdown of what he calls America’s “founding virtues” – thrift and industriousness, fidelity and parental responsibility, piety and civic engagement – within America’s working class, and the personal and communal wreckage that’s ensued.
What’s exasperating is what the author suggests policymakers can do about the social crisis: in essence, nothing.
Or at least nothing realistic. Instead, Murray argues that our leaders should embrace his own libertarian convictions, scrap all existing government programs (and the dependency and perverse incentives they create) and replace them with a universal guaranteed income. This is a fascinating idea; it’s also fantastically impractical, and entirely divorced from American political realities. Which means that it’s divorced from any possibility of actually addressing the crisis that Murray so vividly describes.
That said, much of the criticism that “Coming Apart” has received from liberals is exasperating as well. Murray’s critics accuse him of essentially blaming the victim: The social breakdown he described may be real enough, they allow, but it’s an inevitable consequence of an economic system that Republicans have rigged to benefit the rich. In the liberal view, there’s nothing wrong with America’s working class that can’t be solved by taxing the wealthy and using the revenue to weave a stronger safety net.
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If Murray’s prescription for the social crisis is an exercise in libertarian wishful thinking, this liberal alternative is a mix of partisan demonization and budgetary fantasy. It was globalization, not Republicans, that killed the private-sector union and reduced the returns to blue-collar work. It’s arithmetic, not plutocracy, that’s standing between the left and its dream of a much more activist government. Even if liberals get the higher tax rates on the rich they so ardently desire, the money won’t be adequate to finance our existing entitlements, let alone a New Deal 2.0.
So let’s step back. The crisis in working-class life Murray describes is arguably our most pressing domestic problem. But we are not going to address it by gut-renovating our welfare state to fit a libertarian ideal, or by dramatically expanding the same state in pursuit of an unattainable social democratic dream.
What we can do instead is take modest steps, in areas where culture and economics intersect, to make it easier for working-class Americans to cultivate the virtues that foster resilience and self-sufficiency. Here are four such steps:
First, if we want the poor to be industrious, we should do everything possible to make their industry pay off. The current tax-and-transfer system imposes a tax on work – the payroll tax – that falls heavily on low-wage labor, and poor Americans face steep marginal tax rates because of how their benefits phase out as their wages increase. Both burdens can and should be lightened. There are ways to finance Social Security besides a regressive tax on work, and ways to structure benefits and tax credits that don’t reduce the incentives to take a better-paying job.
Second, if we want lower-income Americans to have stable family lives, our political system should take family policy seriously, and look for ways to make it easier for parents to manage work-life balance when their kids are young. There are left-wing approaches to this issue (European-style family-leave requirements) and right-wing approaches (a larger child tax credit). Neither is currently on the national agenda; both should be.
Third, if we expect less-educated Americans to compete with low-wage workers in Asia and Latin America, we shouldn’t be welcoming millions of immigrants who compete with them domestically as well. Immigration benefits the economy overall, but it can lower wages and disrupt communities, and there’s no reason to ask an already burdened working class to bear these costs alone. Here the leading Republican candidates have the right idea: We should welcome more high-skilled immigrants, while making it as hard as possible for employers to hire low-skilled workers off the books.
Finally, if we want low-income men to be marriageable, employable and law-abiding, we should work to reduce incarceration rates. Prison is a school for crime and an anchor on advancement, and there’s a large body of research – from scholars like UCLA’s Mark Kleiman and Berkeley’s Franklin E. Zimring – suggesting that swift, certain punishment and larger police forces can do as much to keep crime low as the more draconian approach to sentencing that our justice system often takes.
This agenda would not require the kind of radical (and implausible) transformations of government that both libertarians and liberals often pine for. Neither, admittedly, would it radically transform the lives of the people it aims to help. But it would do good at the margins of a large and growing problem, and that is no small thing.