On the American Project

A large part of the problem consists of nothing more complicated
than our unwillingness to say out loud what we believe
–Charles Murray

Charles Murray’s goal in his new book, Coming Apart, the State of White America 1960-2010 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.”

Not surprisingly, the ink on the book was hardly dry before liberals began screaming “Foul!” Murray, a libertarian, has been a pariah among liberals ever since his first book, Losing Ground, published in 1984, led to a complete restructuring of America’s disastrous welfare system.

The author’s focus in Coming Apart is the evolution in the last fifty years of two new classes: the new upper class, and the new lower class, which together are imperiling what he terms the American project–the continuing effort to demonstrate that human beings can be free as individuals to live their lives as they see fit, coming together voluntarily to solve their joint problems.

Tocqueville observed that Americans thrive in democracy because they naturally share four values: Industriousness, Honesty, Marriage, and Religiosity. Murray writes that the new lower class is steadily abandoning these values, and the new upper class exacerbates the problem by its failure to understand this.

Murray’s description of the condition of the new lower class is disturbing. These are Americans who have abandoned the core values Tocqueville observed long ago, in favor of living dissolute lives.

The new upper class has a subset Murray labels the narrow elite, numbering not more than 100,000. These are the people who run the nation’s economic, political, and cultural institutions. This is the cohort who most influences and makes social policy. Because they congregate in what Murray calls Superzips-enclaves of high wealth, education and priviledge, they are  physically and culturally isolated from the new lower class, thus oblivious to the conditions and mores of the people for whom they legislate.

The new upper class has liberals and conservatives in their number. Their debate on how to solve the social issues plaguing the country is ineffective because it revolves around how much welfare should be extended. The real issue is how to restore among the new lower class the old ideals: that any kind of honest work is self-actualizing, and that family and faith are the bedrock values for personal happiness. In short, the discussion needs to be about what should be done to create social capital in the community of the new lower class.

The core values are alive and well in the new upper class. However, the unseemliness in many of their life-style excesses diminishes their ability to be the standard bearers for America’s wonderful traditions.

In most parts of the country the new lower class is barely visible, making it easy for those of us who remain culturally in the middle class to say its not our problem. It becomes our problem when the crime, the exploding prison population and indigent health care costs of  the new lower class  put an ever rising tax burden on us.

The American project is in trouble. Rather than present solutions, Murray suggests two ways in which the future of the nation might evolve–one pessimistic, and one optimistic. What we all do in the years ahead will determine how this plays out.

Coming Apart is an important description of a society in peril. If you are reading this, you have a stake in the outcome. Now more than ever, I believe, Americans should consider the state of our community in a thoughtful way and vigorously engage the issues wherever we can. Reading Coming Apart is a good start on the matter.



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