Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010
Before there was "Hillbilly Elegy", there was "Coming Apart". Murray - who is one of the most prominent and persuasive conservative thinkers of our time - explains how the "the increasing market value of brains, wealth, the college sorting machine, and homogamy" are driving the formation of a self-contained and self-perpetuating elite in America. He explores this class-based divergence by tracing its fault lines in four major areas - industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religion.
Murray convinced me that the divergence is real. I'm less convinced by his diagnosis of the root causes or of his prescription for the future. In true conservative fashion, Murray thinks that the welfare state has taken away people's responsibility for their outcomes and thus their satisfaction/purpose in life:
In each of those domains [family, vocation, community, and faith], responsibility for the desired outcome is inseparable from the satisfaction
He proposes that if rich, white people abandoned their politically correct moral relativism and spoke their mind about the failures of the "lower" classes, things would somehow get better:
A large part of the problem consists of nothing more complicated than our unwillingness to say out loud what we believe. A great many people, especially in the new upper class, just need to start preaching what they practice.
I suppose I'd be more convinced if this didn't sound like a classic "grumpy old man" perspective. But hey - this is a grumpy old man with a lot of data! And if we're going to have a nanny state anyways, maybe the nanny needs to inculcate some moral values as well. Worth a read because it's still one of the best books on an issue that is receiving increasing play in the national media.
My highlights below.
Economists have since reconstructed earlier poverty rates using decennial census data, and determined that 41 percent of Americans were still below the poverty line in 1949. A drop from 41 percent to under 20 percent in just fourteen years was a phenomenal achievement. No one knew those numbers yet, but the reality of the progress they represent helps explain why the average American wasn’t exercised about poverty in 1963. Things had been getting better economically in ways that were evident in everyday life.
This book is about an evolution in American society that has taken place since November 21, 1963, leading to the formation of classes that are different in kind and in their degree of separation from anything that the nation has ever known. I will argue that the divergence into these separate classes, if it continues, will end what has made America America.
It is not the existence of classes that is new, but the emergence of classes that diverge on core behaviors and values — classes that barely recognize their underlying American kinship.
The American project—a phrase you will see again in the chapters to come—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.
My primary goal is to induce recognition of the ways in which America is coming apart at the seams — not seams of race or ethnicity, but of class.
Part 1 - The Formation of a New Upper Class
The narrow elite numbers fewer than a hundred thousand people, and perhaps only ten thousand or so.
These considerations lead me to conclude that using the top 5 percent lets in just about everyone who is unequivocally part of the new upper class, plus a large number of those who are successful but borderline. I hereby operationally define the new upper class as the most successful 5 percent of adults ages 25 and older who are working in managerial positions, in the professions (medicine, the law, engineering and architecture, the sciences, and university faculty), and in content-production jobs in the media. As of 2010, about 23 percent of all employed persons ages 25 or older were in these occupations, which means about 1,427,000 persons constituted the top 5 percent. Since 69 percent of adults in these occupations who were ages 25 and older were married in 2010, about 2.4 million adults were in new-upper-class families as heads of household or spouse.
1 - Our Kind of People
But besides being a tiny group numerically, there was another reason that they did not form an upper-class culture that made any difference to the rest of the nation. Those who hadn’t made the money themselves weren’t especially able or influential. Ernest Hemingway was right in his supposed exchange with F. Scott Fitzgerald. In 1963, the main difference between the old-money rich and everybody else was mainly that they had more money.
By and large Mrs. Post, like others among America’s wealthy, spent her leisure time doing the same kinds of things that other Americans did. The wealthy just did them in fancier surroundings and had servants.
The children of the new upper class are the object of intense planning from the moment the woman learns she is pregnant.
Other mothers love their children just as much as upper-class mothers do, but their children experience different upbringings, with cultural implications in the long term. One major reason will be discussed in chapter 8: A much larger proportion of working-class than upper-middle-class children are raised in broken homes or never-formed homes. All by itself, that difference has pervasive implications for the child’s socialization and for different social norms across classes.
2 - The Foundations of the New Upper Class
FOUR DEVELOPMENTS TOOK us from a set of people who ran the nation but were culturally diverse to a new upper class that increasingly lives in a world of its own. The culprits are the increasing market value of brains, wealth, the college sorting machine, and homogamy.
Just about all of the benefits of economic growth from 1970 to 2010 went to people in the upper half of the income distribution.
The human impulse behind the isolation of the new upper class is as basic as impulses get: People like to be around other people who understand them and to whom they can talk. Cognitive segregation was bound to start developing as soon as unusually smart people began to have the opportunity to hang out with other unusually smart people.
To have exceptional cognitive ability isolates a young person as no other ability does.
Cognitive stratification among colleges occurred extraordinarily fast. As of 1950, elite colleges did not have exceptionally talented student bodies. By 1960, they did.
According to sociologist Joseph Soares’s analysis in The Power of Privilege, consistent with other such analyses, 79 percent of students at “Tier 1” colleges as of the 1990s came from families in the top quartile of socioeconomic status, while only 2 percent came from the bottom quartile. For Soares, these numbers are evidence of obvious bias against the most able students who are not from the upper-middle class and above. “Unless one believes that only rich people can be smart,” he writes, “we have a staggering distance to travel to achieve a fair opportunity for all to reach every level of our educational system.”
The reason that upper-middle-class children dominate the population of elite schools is that the parents of the upper-middle class now produce a disproportionate number of the smartest children.
Homogamy refers to the interbreeding of individuals with like characteristics. Educational homogamy occurs when individuals with similar educations have children. Cognitive homogamy occurs when individuals with similar cognitive ability have children.
But increased educational homogamy had another consequence that the academic literature on homogamy avoids mentioning. Increased educational homogamy inevitably means increased cognitive homogamy.
Which Comes First, Education or IQ? Educational attainment is correlated with IQ, but education does not have much effect on IQ after the child enters elementary school. By that, I do not mean that the absence of any education after age 6 wouldn’t make a difference, nor that exceptions do not exist. Rather, I mean that if a thousand children are administered a good IQ test at age 6, and those children then attend a wide variety of elementary and secondary schools, their IQs at age 18 will be very similar to what they were at age 6, and statistical analysis will not show that the children who went to the expensive private schools got an IQ boost as a result. This finding goes back to the famous Coleman Report in the 1960s. Scholars still debate whether additional years of education are associated with increments in general mental ability or just increments in test scores, but no one contends that education routinely transforms average children into intellectually gifted adults.
The result is that each level of educational attainment—high school diploma, AA, BA, MA, and professional degree or PhD — implies a mean IQ for people attaining that level that has been remarkably stable among whites at least since the beginning of the 1980s. I must limit the numbers to whites as I present these data, because aggressive affirmative action has produced means for African Americans and Latinos at each level of educational attainment that are substantially lower and more variable than the white means. But since we are talking about the new upper class, there are good reasons to think in terms of the white means — partly because African Americans and Latinos who enter the new upper class have passed a number of career tests signifying that they approximate the white means on cognitive ability for each level of educational attainment, and partly because the new upper class is still overwhelmingly white.
Another consequence of increased educational and cognitive homogamy is the increased tenacity of the elite in maintaining its status across generations. The adage “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” grew out of an observed reality: If the children and grandchildren are only average in their own abilities, money from a fortune won in the first generation won’t keep them at the top of the heap. When the parents are passing cognitive ability along with the money, the staying power of the elite across generations increases.
In any case, the bottom line is not subject to refutation: Highly disproportionate numbers of exceptionally able children in the next generation will come from parents in the upper-middle class, and more specifically from parents who are already part of the broad elite.
3 - A New Kind of Segregation
IN 2009, AMERICA’S leading scholar of residential segregation, Princeton’s Douglas Massey, joined by coauthors Jonathan Rothwell and Thurston Domina, published a major study of American residential segregation over the course of the twentieth century. The good news was that racial segregation had receded in the aftermath of the civil rights revolution. Racial segregation was still substantial, but the trend had been in the right direction for almost four decades. The bad news was that socioeconomic segregation had been increasing.
But if the numbers were obscure, the authors’ summary judgment was clear enough: “During the late twentieth century, in other words, the well educated and the affluent increasingly segmented themselves off from the rest of American society.” They were reminded of a phrase coined by Robert Reich when he first described the new class of symbolic analysts back in 1991: “The secession of the successful.”
One of the most distinctive aspects of the SuperZips is their ethnic profile. As of 2000, the 882 SuperZips were substantially whiter and more Asian than the rest of America. Inhabitants of SuperZips were 82 percent white compared to 68 percent of Americans who don’t live in SuperZips. Asians constituted 8 percent of the population of SuperZips, compared to 3 percent of Americans who don’t live in SuperZips. Meanwhile, blacks and Latinos each constituted just 3 percent of the SuperZip population, compared to 12 and 6 percent, respectively, in the rest of the zip codes.
Overeducated elitist snobs may even be self-deprecating about their cultural preferences. They just quietly believe that they and their peers are superior to the rest of the population, intellectually and in their nuanced moral sensibility.
As mature adults, fully a quarter of the HPY graduates were living in New York City or its surrounding suburbs. Another quarter lived in just three additional metropolitan areas: Boston (10 percent), Washington (8 percent), and San Francisco (7 percent). Relative to the size of their populations, the Los Angeles and Chicago areas got few HPY graduates — just 5 percent and 3 percent, respectively. Except for the Philadelphia and Seattle areas, no other metropolitan area got more than 1 percent.
That it is possible to select a sample exclusively on the basis of whether they were admitted to Harvard, Princeton, or Yale as a teenager, knowing nothing else whatsoever about what became of them, and produce the extreme concentration of those people in SuperZips when they were in their forties is remarkable on many counts.
As I noted in the introduction to part 1, it is difficult to hold a nationally influential job in politics, public policy, finance, business, academia, information technology, or the media and not live in the areas surrounding New York, Washington, Los Angeles, or San Francisco. In a few cases, it can be done by living in Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, Dallas, or Houston — and Bentonville, Arkansas — but not many other places.
Sixty-four percent of the people living in the SuperZips surrounding the Big Four are represented by doctrinaire liberals, compared to 19 percent who are represented by a conservative of any stripe. The reason Figure 3.9 is significant is, of course, that the SuperZips surrounding New York, Washington, Los Angeles, and San Francisco are the home of almost all of the narrow elite whose decisions directly affect the economy, politics, and culture of the nation. These are also the SuperZips that are aggregated into the largest and most heavily buffered SuperZip clusters in the nation. The representatives they elect reflect a component of the new upper class that is just as liberal as its reputation.
4 - How Thick Is Your Bubble?
That’s not true anymore. As the new upper class increasingly consists of people who were born into upper-middle-class families and have never lived outside the upper-middle-class bubble, the danger increases that the people who have so much influence on the course of the nation have little direct experience with the lives of ordinary Americans, and make their judgments about what’s good for other people based on their own highly atypical lives.
Many of the members of the new upper class are balkanized. Furthermore, their ignorance about other Americans is more problematic than the ignorance of other Americans about them. It is not a problem if truck drivers cannot empathize with the priorities of Yale professors. It is a problem if Yale professors, or producers of network news programs, or CEOs of great corporations, or presidential advisers cannot empathize with the priorities of truck drivers. It is inevitable that people have large areas of ignorance about how others live, but that makes it all the more important that the members of the new upper class be aware of the breadth and depth of their ignorance.
5 - The Bright Side of the New Upper Class
So are we sorry that we have this new kind of upper class? The question has to be put in that way, because we don’t have the option of getting all the benefits of an energized, productive new upper class, one that makes all of our lives better in so many important ways, without the conditions that also tend toward a wealthy and detached new upper class.
Part II - The Formation of a New Lower Class
6 - The Founding Virtues
“No theoretical checks, no form of government can render us secure,” James Madison famously observed at the Virginia ratifying convention. “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.”
For Benjamin Franklin, this meant that “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
For Patrick Henry, it seemed a truism that “bad men cannot make good citizens... No free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue.”
Or as he put it most simply in his Farewell Address: “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.” In their various ways, the founders recognized that if a society is to remain free, self-government refers first of all to individual citizens governing their own behavior.
Two of them are virtues in themselves — industriousness and honesty — and two of them refer to institutions through which right behavior is nurtured — marriage and religion. For convenience, I will refer to all four as the founding virtues.
American industriousness fascinated the rest of the world. No other American quality was so consistently seen as exceptional. Francis Grund made it the subject of the opening paragraph of his book: Active occupation is not only the principal source of [the Americans’] happiness, and the foundation of their natural greatness, but they are absolutely wretched without it... [It] is the very soul of an American; he pursues it, not as a means of procuring for himself and his family the necessary comforts of life, but as the fountain of all human felicity.
A side effect of this passion for industriousness was embarrassment at being thought a failure. Francis Grund wrote that during a decade of life in the United States, “I have never known a native American to ask for charity. No country in the world has such a small number of persons supported at the public expense... An American, embarrassed by his pecuniary circumstances, can hardly be prevailed upon to ask or accept the assistance of his own relations; and will, in many instances, scorn to have recourse to his own parents.” If just one American virtue may be said to be defining, industriousness is probably it.
John Adams, whose fifty-four years with Abigail Adams constitute one of America’s historic marriages, confided to his diary, “The foundation of national morality must be laid in private families... How is it possible that children can have any just sense of the sacred obligations of morality or religion if, from their earliest Infancy, they learn their mothers live in habitual Infidelity to their fathers, and their fathers in as constant Infidelity to their mothers?”
Near the end of Democracy in America, he summarized his position with a remarkable passage. “If I were asked, now that I am drawing to the close of this work, in which I have spoken of so many important things done by the Americans, to what the singular prosperity and growing strength of that people ought mainly to be attributed, I should reply — to the superiority of their women.”
Religion was essential to the health of the new nation. They made the case in similar terms, which Catholic philosopher Michael Novak summarized this way: Liberty is the object of the Republic. Liberty needs virtue. Virtue among the people is impossible without religion. George Washington put it explicitly in his Farewell Address: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable... Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
John Adams made the same argument less elliptically: We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
“Of all the systems of morality, ancient or modern, which have come under my observation, none appear to me so pure as that of Jesus,” he wrote, and invested great effort in compiling what became known as the “Jefferson Bible,” the teachings of Jesus stripped of miracles and theology. Benjamin Franklin took the same position. “As to Jesus of Nazareth,” he wrote to Ezra Stiles, president of Yale, “I think his system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see.” He thought that belief in Jesus’s divinity did no harm “if that belief has the good consequences, as probably it has, of making his doctrines more respected and observed.”
By the mid-twentieth century, the idea that school was a place to instill a particular set of virtues through systematic socialization had been rejected, the McGuffey Readers had disappeared, and so had some of the coherence in the idea of what it meant to be a good American.
8 - Marriage
Over the last half century, marriage has become the fault line dividing American classes.
The family structure that produces the best outcomes for children, on average, are two biological parents who remain married. Divorced parents produce the next-best outcomes. Whether the parents remarry or remain single while the children are growing up makes little difference. Never-married women produce the worst outcomes. All of these statements apply after controlling for the family’s socioeconomic status.
That information reveals an extraordinarily strong relationship between the mother’s education and the likelihood that she gives birth as an unmarried woman. If she has a college education, she almost never does.
The absolute level in Fishtown is so low that it calls into question the viability of white working-class communities as a place for socializing the next generation.
9 - Industriousness
EUROPEANS HAVE BEEN disdainful of Americans’ enthusiasm for work. “Americans live to work,” they say, “while Europeans work to live.” Many Americans have agreed, me among them, and felt sorry for Europeans.
But this much should not be controversial: Vocation — one’s calling in life — plays a large role in defining the meaning of that life.
Working hard, seeking to get ahead, and striving to excel at one’s craft are not only quintessential features of traditional American culture but also some of its best features. Industriousness is a resource for living a fulfilling human life instead of a life that is merely entertaining.
Yet the percentage of people qualifying for federal disability benefits because they are unable to work rose from 0.7 percent of the size of the labor force in 1960 to 5.3 percent in 2010.
Why should the difference between Fishtown as a whole and the bottom 30 percent be so much greater for labor force participation than for marriage? The answer is that cognitive ability has a much stronger relationship with employability and job productivity than it does with marriageability.
To sum up: There is no evidence that men without jobs in the 2000s before the 2008 recession hit were trying hard to find work but failing. It was undoubtedly true of some, but not true of the average jobless man. The simpler explanation is that white males of the 2000s were less industrious than they had been twenty, thirty, or fifty years ago, and that the decay in industriousness occurred overwhelmingly in Fishtown.
Put plainly, single prime-age males are much less industrious than married ones.
10 - Honesty
And there is the sobering reality conveyed in Figure 10.2: The reduction in crime has occurred at the same time that large numbers of Fishtown males have been taken off the streets and put into prison, and to some degree because they are no longer around to victimize their neighbors.
11 - Religiosity
People who are religious also account for a large proportion of the secular forms of social capital. Robert Putnam again: Religious worshippers and people who say religion is very important to them are much more likely than other persons to visit friends, to entertain at home, to attend club meetings, and to belong to sports groups; professional and academic societies; school service groups; youth groups; service clubs; hobby or garden clubs; literary, art, discussion, and study groups; school fraternities and sororities; farm organizations; political clubs; nationality groups; and other miscellaneous groups. Apart from augmenting social capital in general, churches serve specifically as a resource for sustaining a democratic citizenry. Various studies have found that active involvement in church serves as a kind of training center for important civic skills.
In an international survey of religious attendance conducted in 1998–99, the percentages attending church regularly in Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands, France, and Great Britain ranged from 2 percent in Denmark to 14 percent in Great Britain, compared to 32 percent for the United States. America is still exceptional in this regard; it is just less religious than it used to be.
None of the graphs I have just shown you fit the conventional wisdom that working-class white America is still staunchly religious while white American elites are dominated by secular humanists. There are two explanations for the discrepancy between those popular images and the data from the GSS. [The top 5% is large and not just scientists... and we mistake rising fundamentalism with broad-based religious revival]
Part III - Why It Matters
THE ECONOMIST JOHN Maynard Keynes, accused of changing his mind about monetary policy, famously replied, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”1 The honest answer to Keynes’s question is “Often, nothing.”
14 - The Selective Collapse of American Community
Another problem regarding social trust, and one that may help explain the decline, has surfaced more recently: The key ingredient of social capital, social trust, is eroded by ethnic diversity. In the years after Bowling Alone appeared, Robert Putnam’s research led him to a disturbing finding: Ethnic diversity works against social trust within a community — not only against trusting people of the other ethnicity, but against trusting even neighbors of one’s own ethnic group. In addition, Putnam’s research found that in areas of greater ethnic diversity, there was lower confidence in local government, a lower sense of political efficacy, less likelihood of working on a community project, less likelihood of giving to charity, fewer close friends, and lower perceived quality of life.
15 - The Founding Virtues and the Stuff of Life
THE DETERIORATION OF social capital in lower-class white America strips the people who live there of one of the main resources through which Americans have pursued happiness. The same may be said of the deterioration in marriage, industriousness, honesty, and religiosity.
But the core nature of human happiness is widely agreed upon in the West. It goes all the way back to Aristotle’s views about happiness in the Nicomachean Ethics. Distilling his discussion of happiness into a short definition leaves out a lot, but this captures the sense of Aristotle’s argument well enough for our purposes: Happiness consists of lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole.
The relationship of marriage to happiness is simple as can be. There’s hardly anything better than a good marriage for promoting happiness and nothing worse than a bad one.
Do children make people happy? As any parent can testify, that’s a complicated question. Infants are a source of joy, but they are a lot of work, especially for the mother, and they disrupt pleasant patterns of life that prevailed before the birth. Teenagers are notoriously a source of anxiety and unhappiness for the parents. And yet it is also true that most parents see their children as a defining aspect of their lives, often the defining aspect. When the children turn out well, they are also the source of perhaps the deepest of all human satisfactions.
In the end, people who are high on all four measures have a remarkably similar probability of reporting they are very happy, regardless of whether they belong to Belmont or Fishtown. This is worth pondering. There is no inherent barrier to happiness for a person with a low level of education holding a low-skill job. The domains for achieving happiness can work as well for the people of Fishtown as for the people of Belmont.
16 - One Nation, Divisible
The main story line is that the baseline figures in 1960 were 95 percent and 95 percent, respectively, and that the disaster has struck Fishtown no matter which racial aggregation is used — and that the intact family remained strong in Belmont, no matter which racial aggregation is used.
17 - Alternative Futures
The European model assumes that human needs can be disaggregated when it comes to choices about public policy. People need food and shelter, so let us make sure that everyone has food and shelter. People may also need self-respect, but that doesn’t have anything to do with whether the state provides them with food and shelter. People may also need intimate relationships with others, but that doesn’t have anything to do with policies regarding marriage and children. People may also need self-actualization, but that doesn’t have anything to do with policies that diminish the challenges of life.
People need self-respect, but self-respect must be earned — it cannot be self-respect if it’s not earned — and the only way to earn anything is to achieve it in the face of the possibility of failing.
Recall from chapter 15 the four domains that I argued are the sources of deep satisfactions: family, vocation, community, and faith. In each of those domains, responsibility for the desired outcome is inseparable from the satisfaction.
Europe has proved that countries with enfeebled family, vocation, community, and faith can still be pleasant places to live. I am delighted when I get a chance to go to Stockholm or Paris. When I get there, the people don’t seem to be groaning under the yoke of an oppressive system. On the contrary, there’s a lot to like about day-to-day life in the advanced welfare states of western Europe. They are great places to visit. But the view of life that has taken root in those same countries is problematic. It seems to go something like this: The purpose of life is to while away the time between birth and death as pleasantly as possible, and the purpose of government is to make it as easy as possible to while away the time as pleasantly as possible — the Europe Syndrome.
The alternative to the Europe Syndrome is to say that your life can have transcendent meaning if it is spent doing important things — raising a family, supporting yourself, being a good friend and a good neighbor, learning what you can do well and then doing it as well as you possibly can. Providing the best possible framework for doing those things is what the American project is all about. When I say that the American project is in danger, that’s the nature of the loss I have in mind: the loss of the framework through which people can best pursue happiness.
The code of the American gentleman has collapsed, just as the parallel code of the American lady has collapsed.
That’s what I mean by loss of self-confidence. The new upper class still does a good job of practicing some of the virtues, but it no longer preaches them. It has lost self-confidence in the rightness of its own customs and values, and preaches nonjudgmentalism instead.
When you get down to it, it is not acceptable in the new upper class to use derogatory labels for anyone, with three exceptions: people with differing political views, fundamentalist Christians, and rural working-class whites.
Washington is in a new Gilded Age of influence peddling that dwarfs anything that has come before.
As the welfare state evolved over the twentieth century, two more specific beliefs about the nature of Homo sapiens were woven into its fabric. The first of these was the belief that people are equal not just in the way that the American Declaration of Independence meant — equal in the eyes of God and before the law — but equal, or nearly so, in their latent abilities and characteristics.... The second of the beliefs about Homo sapiens that became an intellectual underpinning of the welfare state is that, at bottom, human beings are not really responsible for the things they do. People who do well do not deserve what they have gotten—they got it because they were born into the right social stratum. Or if they did well despite being born poor and disadvantaged, it was because the luck of the draw gave them personal qualities that enabled them to succeed. People who do badly do not deserve it either. They were born into the wrong social stratum, or were handicapped by personal weaknesses that were not their fault. Thus it is morally appropriate to require the economically successful to hand over most of what they have earned to the state, and it is inappropriate to say of anyone who drifts in and out of work that he is lazy or irresponsible.
Here are some more examples of things I think the neuroscientists and geneticists will prove over the next few decades: Human beings enjoy themselves when they are exercising their realized capabilities at the limit of those capabilities. Challenge and responsibility for consequences is an indispensable part of human motivation to exercise their realized capabilities at the limit of those capabilities. People grouped by gender, ethnicity, age, social class, and sexual preference, left free to live their lives as they see fit, will produce group differences in outcomes, because they differ genetically in their cognitive, psychological, and physiological profiles. Regardless of whether people have free will, human flourishing requires that they live in an environment in which they are treated as if they did. Actually, it turns out that humans do have free will in a deep neurological sense.
It has been muttered by some conservatives since the 1960s: “If we’d just divide up all the money we’re spending on poor people and give them the cash, they wouldn’t be poor.” For most of that period, doing that wasn’t really feasible. Now it is.
And yet in 2002, as I was writing In Our Hands, the federal government alone spent about $1.5 trillion in transfer payments, including Social Security, Medicare, and all forms of corporate welfare. The states spent another few hundred billion dollars in transfer payments. And yet we still had millions of people in need.
But sooner or later, at some budgetary figure, the amount of money we are spending to achieve easily achievable goals will eventually persuade everyone that using armies of bureaucrats to take trillions of dollars, spend a lot of it on themselves, give back a lot of it to people who don’t need it, and dole out what remains with all sorts of regulations and favoritism is not reasonable or necessary.
Nobel economist Robert Fogel argued the affirmative in a book titled The Fourth Great Awakening & the Future of Egalitarianism (2000).
A large part of the problem consists of nothing more complicated than our unwillingness to say out loud what we believe. A great many people, especially in the new upper class, just need to start preaching what they practice. And so I am hoping for a civic Great Awakening among the new upper class. It starts with a question that I hope they will take to heart: How much do you value what has made America exceptional, and what are you willing to do to preserve it?
Finally, there is the most lovable of exceptional American qualities: our tradition of insisting that we are part of the middle class, even if we aren’t, and of interacting with our fellow citizens as if we were all middle class.