Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Murray Coming Apart 3: The Essential American Virtues

This week I will be blogging on Charles Murray's new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960 - 2010. If you would like to read the short version of his argument, see "The New American Divide" in the Wall Street Journal.

"If just one American virtue may be said to be defining, _______ is probably it."

How would you fill in that blank?

I would have said "liberty" or "the love of liberty."

Charles Murray does not. Instead, he says "industriousness" is the defining American virtue.

Murray offers four virtues as foundational for the American project: industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religion.

He considers frugality and philanthropy as virtues that eighteenth century Americans might also have argued for.  And he allows that social conservatives might argue for self-reliance. 

This is an interesting list in many respects.

I think it is very curious that a libertarian like Murray would not put liberty first, and that instead he thinks social conservatives would put a cousin of liberty (self-reliance) on the essential virtues lists.  I think he is just wrong about what either group primarily values.  I can see how social conservatives might be content with religion, marriage, and philanthropy as covering the crucial bases, with liberty as a necessary enabling (but secondary) virtue.

I think it is also curious that he does not even offer what social liberals might think of as essential virtues - first and foremost, equality.  I believe this is because Murray believes that too much emphasis on equality is what is undermining the American project.

The four virtues that he keeps are important to America, though perhaps moreso today than in the founding era.  American virtues were developed against European virtues, and compared to Europeans we are now, and have long been, more religious, more committed to marriage (which is proven by our high divorce and remarriage rate), and more industrious.  I have never thought of America as notably more honest than Europe, though perhaps 18th century visitors thought so because we eschewed false court manners. In any case, Murray finds it hard to find good indicators of honesty.

I would offer one further nominee for a distinctive American virtue, though perhaps only sociologists think of it this way: our social mobility.  As everyone knows, we have a very unequal society in class terms.  Nonetheless, most Americans believe our social structure is legitimate because we believe we can move up or down by our own merits.  This is a cousin to "self-reliance," but with more recognition of the trajectory that most Americans expect over their life course, not just their ability to be independent at any one moment.

And treating social mobility as a distinctive virtue requires treating liberty and equality, despite their obvious tension with one another, with equal seriousness.


Nate Kratzer said...

Worth pointing out that we currently have less social mobility than Europe, so if that's our distinctive virtue then we are losing it.

Also, Tyler Cowen links to a lot of different reactions to Murray's book:

Having only read the WSJ article by Murray and not the book I think the most effective critique of the book I've read so far is that he doesn't look adequately at 1910-1960 to figure out what was going well then and suddenly reversed from 1960-2010.

Sister Edith Bogue said...

Perhaps Murray's libertarianism comes through in his choice to list as values only characteristics that can be fully realized in an individual. Liberty is a virtue of group interaction that clears the way for the individual virtues.

Murray's choice to compare whites with whites might, to some extent, equalize "liberty" by avoiding inpact of race discrimination. Or perhaps he is avoiding the third rail he touched with The Bell Curve.

Isabel Penraeth said...

I don't think of "liberty" or "equality" as virtues (behavior showing high moral standards) but as values (one's judgment of what is important in life).

gruntled said...

Love of liberty and reverence for equality, then, as the virtue form of these values?

Isabel Penraeth said...

That does correct the semantical issue, if a little awkwardly :)

Two things come to mind on re-reading this discussion. One, thee leaves out his emphasis on these virtues being foundational to happiness as human beings as opposed to ideological reasoning to arrive at the quintessential American virtues. Two, it seems to me he is pretty clearly contrasting Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft social viewpoints. If Christenson's analysis is correct (, these virtues Murray puts forward align more obviously with the Gemeinschaft viewpoint and the ones thee mentions align more with Gesellschaft--which perhaps don't need all that much encouragement these days.