Charles Murray is best known as the co-author of The Bell Curve, the book which unleashed a storm of controversy when it was released over a decade ago. Sadly, the highly-charged topic of that book – the relationship between race and IQ – has tended to overshadow the rest of Mr. Murray’s career – a career which includes a highly-effective defense of libertarianism found here.
This year, The American Enterprise Institute recognized Mr. Murray’s achievements by awarding him the annual Irving Kristol Award. While his acceptable speech (which is titled “The Happiness of the People”) is quite good, it also contains a major flaw. I’ve posted some of the best (and worst) material below.
The speech opens strong...
My text is drawn from Federalist 62, probably written by James Madison: "A good government implies two things: first, fidelity to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people; secondly, a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained." Note the word: happiness. Not prosperity. Not security. Not equality. Happiness, which the Founders used in its Aristotelian sense of lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole.
I have two points to make. First, I will argue that the European model is fundamentally flawed because, despite its material successes, it is not suited to the way that human beings flourish--it does not conduce to Aristotelian happiness. Second, I will argue that twenty-first-century science will prove me right.
Since happiness is a word that gets thrown around too casually, the phrase I'll use from now on is "deep satisfactions." I'm talking about the kinds of things that we look back upon when we reach old age and let us decide that we can be proud of who we have been and what we have done. Or not.
To become a source of deep satisfaction, a human activity has to meet some stringent requirements. It has to have been important (we don't get deep satisfaction from trivial things). You have to have put a lot of effort into it (hence the cliché "nothing worth having comes easily"). And you have to have been responsible for the consequences.
There aren't many activities in life that can satisfy those three requirements. Having been a good parent. That qualifies. A good marriage. That qualifies. Having been a good neighbor and good friend to those whose lives intersected with yours. That qualifies. And having been really good at something--good at something that drew the most from your abilities. That qualifies. Let me put it formally: If we ask what are the institutions through which human beings achieve deep satisfactions in life, the answer is that there are just four: family, community, vocation, and faith. Two clarifications: "Community" can embrace people who are scattered geographically. "Vocation" can include avocations or causes.
Seen in this light, the goal of social policy is to ensure that those institutions are robust and vital. And that's what's wrong with the European model. It doesn't do that. It enfeebles every single one of them.
Scandinavia and Western Europe pride themselves on their "child-friendly" policies, providing generous child allowances, free day-care centers, and long maternity leaves. Those same countries have fertility rates far below replacement and plunging marriage rates.
What's happening? Call it the Europe syndrome. Last April I had occasion to speak in Zurich, where I made some of these same points. After the speech, a few of the twenty-something members of the audience approached and said plainly that the phrase "a life well-lived" did not have meaning for them. They were having a great time with their current sex partner and new BMW and the vacation home in Majorca, and saw no voids in their lives that needed filling.
It was fascinating to hear it said to my face, but not surprising. It conformed to both journalistic and scholarly accounts of a spreading European mentality. Let me emphasize "spreading." I'm not talking about all Europeans, by any means. That mentality goes something like this: Human beings are a collection of chemicals that activate and, after a period of time, deactivate. The purpose of life is to while away the intervening time as pleasantly as possible.
When life is a matter of whiling away the time, the concept of greatness is irritating and threatening. What explains Europe's military impotence? I am surely simplifying, but this has to be part of it: If the purpose of life is to while away the time as pleasantly as possible, what can be worth dying for?
Every element of the Europe Syndrome is infiltrating American life as well.
There is every reason to believe that when Americans embrace the European model, they begin to behave like Europeans.
This is all pretty depressing for people who do not embrace the European model, because it looks like the train has left the station.
And yet there is reason for strategic optimism, and that leads to the second point I want to make tonight: Critics of the European model are about to get a lot of new firepower. Not only is the European model inimical to human flourishing, twenty-first-century science is going to explain why.
I agree with all that. But here’s where things get murky…
Harvard's Edward O. Wilson anticipated what is to come in a book entitled Consilience. As the twenty-first century progresses, he argued, the social sciences are increasingly going to be shaped by the findings of biology; specifically, the findings of the neuroscientists and the geneticists.
Over the next few decades, advances in evolutionary psychology are going to be conjoined with advances in genetic understanding and they will lead to a scientific consensus that goes something like this: There are genetic reasons, rooted in the mechanisms of human evolution, that little boys who grow up in neighborhoods without married fathers tend to reach adolescence unsocialized to norms of behavior that they will need to stay out of prison and hold jobs. These same reasons explain why child abuse is, and always will be, concentrated among family structures in which the live-in male is not the married biological father. And these same reasons explain why society's attempts to compensate for the lack of married biological fathers don't work and will never work.
There's no reason to be frightened of this new knowledge.
Quite frankly, this is nonsensical. First of all, Mr. Murray’s interpretation of science is about 35 years out of date. The “consilience” paradigm of E.O. Wilson and the rest of the hard-core reductionists isn’t gaining steam. Rather, it’s starting to falling apart. But let’s go with Mr. Murray’s prediction, anyway. If Mr. Murray is right – and reductionist science continues to destroy man’s traditional values – it would be “quite frightening” indeed. The example he uses – in which science supports the traditional view that young boys need fathers – is a poor, unhelpful one. The idea that young boys do better WITH fathers than WITHOUT fathers is grounded in common sense and has never been controversial.
What IS controversial is the entire reductionist paradigm - a paradigm grounded in the idea that - as Mr. Murray explains - human beings are simply a "collection of chemicals." Indeed, it was Mr. Murray who participated in the AEI panel, “Genes, Neuroscience, and Free Will” (which I wrote about here). The consensus of that panel is that free will is almost certainly an illusion (even though no one used those exact words).
In his acceptance speech, Mr. Murray correctly diagnoses the "bag of chemicals" philosophy as the source of the "Europe Syndrome," but he doesn't recognize that the syndrome can't be defeated by only treating the symptoms (in this case, rolling back the welfare state). The syndrome itself (reductionism) must be treated, as well. In some of the best unintentional comedy ever found in a political speech, Mr. Murray thinks reductionist science will help advance the conservative movement and facilitate the "happiness of the people!" Ha!
Thankfully, Mr. Murray finishes with a strong conclusion ….
That [knowledge] will not get rid of the slippery slope that America is sliding down toward the European model. For that, this new raw material for reform--namely, a lot more people thinking like grown-ups--must be translated into a kind of political Great Awakening among America's elites.
I use the phrase "Great Awakening" to evoke a particular kind of event. American history has seen three religious revivals known as Great Awakenings--some say four. They were not dispassionate, polite reconsiderations of opinions. They were renewals of faith, felt in the gut.
I use the word "elites" to talk about the small minority of the population that has disproportionate influence over the culture, economy, and governance of the country. I realize that to use that word makes many Americans uncomfortable. But every society since the advent of agriculture has had elites.
When I say that something akin to a political Great Awakening is required among America's elites, what I mean is that America's elites have to ask themselves how much they really do value what has made America exceptional, and what they are willing to do to preserve it.
American exceptionalism is not just something that Americans claim for themselves. Historically, Americans have been different as a people, even peculiar, and everyone around the world has recognized it.
The exceptionalism has not been a figment of anyone's imagination, and it has been wonderful. But it isn't something in the water that has made us that way. It comes from the cultural capital generated by the system that the Founders laid down, a system that says people must be free to live life as they see fit and to be responsible for the consequences of their actions; that it is not the government's job to protect people from themselves; that it is not the government's job to stage-manage how people interact with each other. Discard the system that created the cultural capital, and the qualities we love about Americans can go away. In some circles, they are going away.
The possibility that irreversible damage will be done to the American project over the next few years is real. And so it is our job to make the case for that reawakening.