Conservative Liberal Political Analysis Today

The controversial social analyst Charles Murray has written an important book on the unprecedented class divide in America today.  The link is to an article summarizing the book's key arguments.

Before getting to what’s going on right now, I’d thought I’d say something about Murray’s general approach, which originated, as he suggests, in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

Tocqueville came to America to figure out why democracy—contrary to the fears of the recently dispossessed French aristocrats—could be so compatible with human decency and human liberty.  The Frenchman discovered all sorts of features that made America exceptional—so exceptional, in fact, that it’s not so clear Tocqueville thought the American solution could be exported elsewhere.

America democracy, we would say today, works so well because of “cultural capital” that may not be, strictly speaking, of democratic origin.  Freedom depends on a high respect for morality and a high level of habitual moral behavior. Liberal political and economic institutions depend on a conservative foundation.

Murray says that he Americans have been regarded “as different, even peculiar, to people around the world” in at least nine ways.  It goes without saying that my comments on each way will be somewhat different from his.  And I’ll only have space in this post to discuss one feature of American exceptionalism—INDUSTRIOUSNESS:

  • As Murray explains, Americans not only work hard, they understand work to define, in some large measure, who they are.  Tocqueville said to be American is to be middle class, or somewhere in between being a servant and being an aristocrat.  The Americans are free to work for themselves, but they must work for themselves.  A life of leisure is not for them.  They are free like aristocrats, they know, to work like slaves.  Tocqueville explains that the Americans hate the theory of the permanent equality of property through government redistribution, just as they hate the idea of a permanent aristocracy.  They think neither rich nor poor should be exempt from work, and they have trouble distinguishing the life of cultivated leisure from that of the bum.
  • In the history of our country, we can see an increasing premium being placed on productivity as the source of one’s worth.  So lives devoted to voluntary caregiving or religious prayer or philosophy become increasingly devalued. And Americans, of course, criticize both the European aristocracy of the past and the European social democracy of the present as ways of letting too many people get by without working for a living. Europeans, such as Tocqueville himself, think of Americans as plagued by a rodent-like restlessness that keeps them from relaxing and enjoying life, even in the midst of prosperity. Americans admire the poor insofar as they are “the working poor,” or trying hard not to be poor.  They are somewhat repulsed by the content poor—such as the bohemians of old or the panhandler.
  • Murray wisely borrows from David Brooks in identifying today’s American meritocratic elite as bourgeois bohemians.  They know that pursuing the lifestyle options of the bohemians depend on being bourgeois—or earning the resources required to pick from our diverse society’s lifestyle menu of choice.  For the bourgeois bohemian, bourgeois trumps bohemian.  The virtues required to be industrious and productive come first.  One’s bohemian pursuits shouldn’t get in the way of getting to work on time and completely ready for action.  That’s why even our professors have become careerists tied to assessable, measurable standards of productivity. And that’s why we no longer identify substance abuse as part of the deal when it comes to pursuing artistic excellence. Most readers of BIG THINK are bourgeois bohemians—not that there's anything wrong with that.
  • Murray is also alarmed that lower-middle-class Americans are losing the habits connected with work.  He notices that “the norm” that “healthy men in the prime of their life are supposed to work” is eroding. The key indicator here is the number of men who say they just aren’t available for work, who think they can define themselves in the absence of work, even when work is available.
  • Is it really true, as Murray claims, that we're now defined by two classes?  The first is all about personal productivity, entrepreneurial ingenuity and so forth.  It is less “aristocratic” or classy and laidback and more an "achievetron" meritocracy based on productivity than ever.  The other class, meanwhile, is losing the virtue of industriousness or what’s required to be middle class.  Are Americans less united than ever by the shared virtue of industriousness?  (I have to admit I'm not at all sure about that.)
  • I know that everything I’m saying is questionable and that Murray's analysis is way short of perfect, and I invite your criticism.

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