restricted access Looking for Virtue in All the Wrong Places
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Looking for Virtue in All the Wrong Places
Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 By Charles Murray Crown Publishing, 2012

inline graphic Charles Murray is concerned that the white "lower class" (now about 20 percent of white folks) is "economically ineffectual" because they are less virtuous than previous generations. In the aggregate, according to Murray, all Americans are less virtuous than we used to be, but the main point of Coming Apart is that the decline in virtue among upper-class whites (the top 20 percent) has been relatively minor and has now stabilized, whereas the bottom fifth is steadily and dramatically declining in virtue. For Murray, there is a kind of moral rot at the bottom that threatens to "destroy the kind of civil society that America requires," slowly strangling what Murray calls "the American project," as the rot moves up the class ladder, undermining previously sturdy working and middle classes.

Murray is clear about what he calls "the founding virtues." There are only four of them: marriage, industriousness, honesty, and religion. Murray does almost nothing to justify this choice of virtues, and most reviewers have just accepted them as specified. But they strike me as extremely arbitrary and limited. Though he quotes de Tocqueville when he writes that Americans' "morals are far more strict . . . than elsewhere," he does not mention de Tocqueville's emphasis on the extraordinary "equality of condition" in 1830s white America as a potential founding virtue. More strangely, since Murray repeatedly identifies himself as a libertarian conservative, why is liberty not a founding virtue? I can see why, as a libertarian, he might not want to include "fraternity," but are not the American founders' commitment to liberty [End Page 104] and equality (however hypocritical at the time) part of our core values and virtues?

Given the virtues Murray has chosen, he has no difficulty in showing that the top 20 percent of whites are more likely than not to be married, have more and steadier work, experience and commit less crime, and attend church than the bottom 20 percent. His claim that steadier work indicates greater "industriousness" is highly unlikely, as is the tenuous relationship between crime statistics and holding "honesty" as a virtue. Likewise, declining commitments to marriage and religion, though they might be worrying to traditional conservatives on a practical level, also reflect late-twentieth-century gains in freedom of thought and action. Murray's various measures of virtue take more than the usual advantage of the standard social-sciences practice of first explaining all the imperfections of the available data and then using that data as if it had no imperfections. Nonetheless, I want to try to take seriously his stated concern about a decline in values and virtues, because I suspect that broad concern resonates pretty strongly within the working class itself, white and otherwise.

Most of Coming Apart is built around statistical comparisons of a fictional (i.e., statistically regressed) upper-class white "Belmont" and a fictional working-class white "Fishtown." Late in the book, Murray introduces the "Real Fishtown" and includes a string of quotes from people who actually live there (or did in the late 1990s, when Fishtown was the subject of the doctoral dissertation Murray draws on). He finds that most of the people in Fishtown define themselves as family people who feel beleaguered by what they see—or what Murray sees—as the low-class moral decay that is threatening to engulf what was once a tight-knit, upright, and relatively prosperous community.

This rare bit of direct observation in Murray's book resonates with my own extended family in a deindustrialized, overwhelmingly white former mill town. The poverty rate there is now more than 30 percent, and the unemployment rate has been in or near double digits for more than twenty years. For decades now, the adults in my family have been self-consciously fighting the moral rot Murray and the real Fishtown people fear, and though they started from a strong place and have fought valiantly, the rot seems to be growing with each generation, both outside and now inside the wide extension of the family.

As a semi-annual...