The Bell Curve … and Its Author, Part II

Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Charles Murray
Title: The Bell Curve … and its Author, Part II
VTR: 1/20/95

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of two programs with the provocative social theorist, Charles Murray, whose recent Free Press book, written with the late Richard Herrnstein, “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life,” has proven perhaps even more controversial than his earlier volume, “Losing Ground,” a decade ago. Now, that book’s central thesis was almost self-explanatory, however much of a firestorm it caused. If Murphy’s Law is that if anything can go wrong in human endeavors, it will, to it was added Murray’s Law of Net Harm: However well-intended activist social policies designed to transfer the good things of life from the privileged to the underprivileged, in fact, generally result in losing ground. And losing ground, he wrote, was precisely what Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society did in its well-meaning efforts at social engineering. With “Losing Ground” Mr. Murray seemed to become the willing, or perhaps unwilling, guru of what then became known as “conservative chic.” But his “Bell Curve” has proven harder to define, or at least his opponents have defined it in ways Dr. Murray might not. Last time at this table he performed something of an exegesis of his own text, which is fair enough. And now perhaps we can do more of that, or even try to set the whole experience of these two major books and the reactions to them in some larger perspective.

I think, Dr. Murray, that maybe the thing to do is to go back and take the title, “The Bell Curve,” and ask you to spell that out for our viewers.

MURRAY: Sure. First, everybody should know what the bell curve is. A bell curve is a normal distribution. I mean, you find it with height and weight and all kinds of things. Whereby most people are grouped in the middle; you have fewer and fewer people on each tail of the distribution. And this book is a tale of the tails, if you want to think about it that way. We talk about people on the low end …

HEFFNER: In terms of IQ.

MURRAY: In terms of IQ. We talk about people on the very low end of IQ, and the relationship of a variety of social problems to low IQ. And we also talk about the people on the high end and talk about a variety of issues of social stratification that are changing for people of high IQ.

HEFFNER: Has that been a matter of concern too, the high IQs?

MURRAY: Isn’t it interesting? In all the discussion of this book you hardly ever read about the fact that Dick Herrnstein and I are looking very suspiciously at the population of people with high IQs and what they’re doing to this country. And sometimes it occurs to me that most of the people writing the op-ed pieces excoriating Dick and me are members of this very group we look upon so skeptically. The fact is that if there’s one thing that Dick and I thought had to be addressed in American society, it’s the increasing influence that a relatively small set of the population has on American life and the way in which that group is being sucked up from Hope, Arkansas and all sorts of other places by a system that’s very efficient these days in finding the best and the brightest.

HEFFNER: But why should that be a matter of concern, unless one were looking at the last time the best and the brightest did their thing?

MURRAY: Well, in one sense it’s a success story. I mean, it’s a good thing that today if you are a bright youngster from a poor background or a small town in the Midwest, that you have a good chance of going to some of our best universities. I mean, that’s part of what the American dream is all about. The problem is that when you put people together in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or New Haven, or Stanford, California, you’re going to socialize them. Now, when you had the old socioeconomic elites, they got socialized in Cambridge, but you weren’t really talking about a population that was that uniformly talented. And you also had an awful lot of people entering the halls of power in this country who were coming from not only the state teacher’s colleges but were coming from high school degrees and never going to college at all. Increasingly now you have, with the cognitive elite, a set of people who are being funneled through a system where you’re combining a couple of incendiary elements. First, they are getting more and more power. Second, they are more uniformly affluent. It used to be you had poor intellectuals and you had rich businessmen. And that whole set of things has been blurred. And the third thing is that this group is becoming large enough to become a kind of political bloc of its own. Now, all of these I’m giving in almost in a telegraphic sense of a variety of things we talk about in the book. But the upshot is that an awful lot of what happens in this country is being dictated by an elite that is more sinister, if you want to use that word, even though it doesn’t think of itself as being sinister, than the old fashioned socioeconomic elites that did not have this, so much talent.

HEFFNER: Now, sinister in the sense that it’s on the left?

MURRAY: Not really. I mean, an awful lot of the policies that I would pick out and get most irritated about are policies of the left. But in fact, Dick and I talk about the ways in which there is increasingly a common set of interests. I’ll give you an example we use in the book. We use a hypothetical Stanford professor who writes books, let’s say, railing against the punitive criminal justice system, and then you have a conservative owner of a chain of shoe stores or something. Well, in the old days they were pretty much antagonists in all sorts of ways. But today, that Stanford professor who writes that book is also moving to a suburb that is safe, he is putting his or her own children in schools that are appropriate, and if they have to be lily white, so be it. If necessary, they will live in a gated community. And the owner of the shoe store is the Stanford professor, sort of an economic and a cognitive elite conjoining, are both having increasingly common interests in dealing with the crime problem, however it needs to be dealt with, coming from a background in which everybody is perfectly happy using the powers of the state in whatever ways seem to be best. That seems to us, and I think you can see in current politics a lot of this happening, a new kind of conservatism, which is not the conservatism of Edmund Burke, and it’s not the conservatism of Adam Smith; it is the conservatism of the Latin American city where you have the mansions on the hill and you have the slums beneath, and the people on the hill are doing whatever they need to do to keep the people in the slums beneath them in control.

HEFFNER: Why do you distinguish this from the conservatism of Edmund Burke?

MURRAY: Because Edmund Burke was deeply attuned to the importance of the organic processes of community, of human interconnections, deeply suspicious of using the state to interfere with other people’s lives, reliant and trusting in tradition to deal with lots of problems. What I am talking about is a kind of, remember the old cliché about a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged? I guess I’m referring to some of that here where I’m saying that we are now taking a large set of people who are perfectly comfortable using the powers of the state in what they deem to be good causes. In the past, those good causes have been to uplift the poor and the disadvantaged and so forth. They are increasingly, these good causes are going to be construed in terms of getting these people out of my face.

HEFFNER: Now, why wasn’t it that end of the interpretation of The Bell Curve that disturbed most of your critics? It was the other end that disturbed them the most.

MURRAY: Yeah. You know, it would be an interesting question, just as an empirical question, how many of the people who have written about this book even read the chapters that talk about these things. I think that probably it’s not that they deliberately ignored them; I don’t think a lot of them read them. A great many people turned directly to Chapter 13, 269 pages into the book, to read about ethnic and race differences and IQ scores. And in fact, Dick Herrnstein and I knew that, so we open up Chapter 13 saying, “A great many of you have turned first to this chapter, and we wish you wouldn’t.” But that’s where they went.

HEFFNER: And? What happens at Chapter 13?

MURRAY: In Chapter 13, Dick Herrnstein and I present a deeply temperate, moderate, thoughtful, humane, unhysterical presentation of what we know about ethnic differences in IQ.

HEFFNER: May I quote your characterization? (Laugher)

MURRAY: (Laughter) I put it that way because of all the chapters that, all the topics – Dick and I knew, of course, this was just an incendiary topic – and we wrote that chapter in such a way that we were convinced that if people gave us a fair chance they would see what our true message was, which is: Folks, you can face all of these facts, and you need not run screaming from the room. This is not a big deal. And instead the people would just run screaming from the room.

HEFFNER: How can you though, with a straight face, say you needn’t go screaming from the room? When you know what our sensitivities are in this country at this time.

MURRAY: Here is the basics, boiled down real thin. Okay? There is a difference in cognitive test scores between Asians, Whites, Blacks, and Latinos. It is a difference in means. Within each population you have people across the entire range, from the very dumbest to the very smartest, if you want to use those terms.

HEFFNER: But that’s not the statistic that sticks out.

MURRAY: It’s the statistic we talk about first. Now, Richard …


MURRAY: … there is, it is Richard Herrnstein’s job and my job, if we’re going to deal with this topic, it is our job to do it carefully and precisely and thoughtfully. Okay? What I am saying is, we did our job. The people who are responding to the job have not done theirs.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

MURRAY: They have responded spastically is the best, it’s as if, you know, it’s like the hammer on the knee and the reflex. Bang, it goes up. It’s as if they can’t even see the pages that they’re reading. I’ll give you a specific example. In the book, when talking about the heritability of IQ in general, we say it’s between 40 and 80 percent heritable, which is mainstream science. But this is talking about the variation in intelligence, how much of it is accounted for by heredity versus environment, in human beings in the Twentieth Century in the United States. Then, when we come to talk about racial differences, and we come to talk about, well, is it genetic or environmental, we start out that discussion by saying the place to start is by clearing up a common point of confusion. Just because there is a high heritability in human beings doesn’t mean that group differences are also heritable. We then put in italics the statement, we then give a specific example involving seed corn as to why this is true. All right? In other words, Dick Herrnstein and I did everything that can be done on the printed page to make certain nobody was confused in this issue. And if you pick up Time and Newsweek and the Economist, and I could go through a list of prestigious publications, they simply, grotesquely got that wrong. And I say to myself there is no way they could have gotten it wrong unless they were reading this book in the way I described a few minutes ago. Spastically. They weren’t thinking.

HEFFNER: Suppose one reads it in a thinking-person’s fashion. No running screaming from the room, you suggest. What do you do though? What does one do? Reading leads to action. Reading leads to action at least up here in one’s noggin. What does someone who reads this fairly and non-spastically do with it?

MURRAY: At the end of it, they have gone through an exercise where they realize that Herrnstein and Murray have spelled out something that needs spelling out. That just because group differences exist should have no effect on any encounter between people of different ethnic groups. So that when, you know, you can look at all these facts, and the next morning, when if you are an Asian you meet a White, or if you are a Black you meet a White or an Asian, any of these encounters, nothing has changed.

Now, now, just one sentence. People then say to me, “You’re being disingenuous,” to use that word, which is, I think that that’s almost programmed into the computer to pop out when they talk about “The Bell Curve.” It is disingenuous because, don’t you understand the way people actually respond they’re such and such and such and such, and people will take what you’ve written and do such and such and such and such. And what Dick Herrnstein and I are saying is, we understand what people are like. What we are telling them is why that is incorrect.

HEFFNER: Yes, but you know, it’s funny, you say, “We understand what people are like,” and this is the very point that puzzles me most about you – not about the book – you understand what people are like, and as you quote Burke at the beginning of the book, your objective clearly is to describe what is. And as Jack Kennedy said, “Life isn’t fair,” not in its distribution of IQ. You’re saying what it is, not whether it’s fair or not. But you know that the reaction to this is. That’s a fact. It’s as much of a fact as the distribution you describe. In a funny way, while you claim to be fairly, dispassionately describing a fact, you yourself get rather exercised about another fact of life, and that is that your dispassionate description of the bell curve distribution of IQ will be met in this way.

MURRAY: (Laughter) Fair enough. Fair enough. But that doesn’t mean that what, that what Dick and I did was not the right thing to do.

Look, let me make a couple of points about this issue. The first is, don’t be too sure that you know how the population as a whole is reacting to this book. What people say to me all the time, or what people write for publication, is, “Don’t you understand that all these mean-spirited rednecks out there are going to take all this stuff and run with it?” Well, people have been telling me for ten years about how all these other folks, all of these ignorant folks out there are going to misuse what I do. I have seen very precious little evidence that they actually are misusing it, that anyone is.

Another thought is that a lot of the reaction to the fact that we’ve discussed race was, “Well, even if this material is true, you shouldn’t have said it.” And you know, that’s, there is an analogy with the priesthood kind of attitude which I think is more and more prevalent in academia, whereby there are the things which it is okay for us to know, but one must, of course, be careful how much … You don’t want the masses to read The Bible on their own. You want them to get our filtration of it. Well, Dick and I used the analogy in the book of sex in Victorian England with the America’s obsession with race right now. Because, Dick, if you could say to me – Richard, sorry – that “Everything was just hunky-dory racially in this country, and there was all these amicable relations, and here you’ve come along and been the dog in the manger and raised all these issues,” then I say, “Well, okay, maybe.” That’s not the case. You know it’s not the case.

HEFFNER: There must be an awful lot of guilt on the part of those you describe at the good end of the bell curve about the lot of people at the bad end of the bell curve. And they’re the ones you’re talking about now, right?

MURRAY: Yeah, but there is also a bone I had to pick with them on feeling bad. There is a curious phenomenon that I have noted. And I guess that I will ask you and our viewers to see if this works. If I ask you, “Do you envy people who are 15, 20 points higher than you in IQ?” My answer to that question, most people’s answer is, “No.” I’ve known a lot of people that are smarter than I am. But what I bring to the table is a bundle of a variety of qualities, and I don’t feel, I know I can’t be a theoretical mathematician. Okay, fine. But I don’t feel inferior. The next question is, “Do you feel condescending and a little bit sorry for people who are 20 points lower than you are in IQ?” And here, the more common answer is, “Well, you know, of course. I mean, wouldn’t they like to be more like me?” And I suggest to you that that’s not necessarily true. That it is wrong to say, “If I have an IQ of 120, that a person of an IQ of 100 must be very depressed by the knowledge that I’m 20 points higher than that person is.” There is an asymmetry in the way we look up and down from our own position on the IQ scale which is very instructive.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but if you took, going back to the Jack Kennedy statement, “Life is unfair,” haven’t we been taught in the Judaic Christian tradition to be concerned about unfairness? And doesn’t The Bell Curve, therefore, disturb us, mustn’t it necessarily disturb us with this notion? And you cannot deny, Charles, I think that you can’t deny that when you’re looking at The Bell Curve, this wonderful curve on the cover of your book, the left-hand side is not where you want to be …

MURRAY: That’s right. Now …

HEFFNER: … and you’re concerned about the people there.

MURRAY: Now, the point I was making before is, don’t be so quick to condescend toward people just because they don’t have as much IQ. But now let’s go and say, in the late Twentieth Century, having a low IQ is a handicap, a real handicap in the same sense that a severe physical handicap can be a handicap in getting ahead in the world.


MURRAY: That is true. And there, I think the word “unfairness” is not the word that we ought to be searching for. Should people feel compassion, should people feel, “There but for the grace of God …,” should people be concerned about how people at the low end of the distribution are also going to get a shot at a satisfying life? Absolutely. That’s one of the central messages of The Bell Curve.

HEFFNER: But then, to that you add the question – I don’t know what your response is to this – “Am I my brother’s keeper? Am I the keeper of those at the lower end of the bell curve?” And I don’t know. What is your response?

MURRAY: My own view is that I certainly am. What I think we have to rethink is the notion that that translates into, “Oh, therefore we must have the government do something about it.” Now we’re heading into conversation where I’m saying, “Now, how can I keep people who are watching us to say, ‘Oh, well, now here he goes,’ you know, ‘Now we know what he’s up to. He just wants to get rid of social programs and save money.’” I’m asking another question. I’m saying, look, when you have people who are less fortunate or have had mishaps or the rest of it, isn’t it time to give serious consideration to the possibility that in a free society the best way to handle that, the compassionate way to handle that, the effective way to handle that is through individual actions and actions at the lowest level of society; it’s not to create a government bureaucracy. I ask people to consider that as a possibility.

HEFFNER: I consider that. I really do. And I’m sure many people watching consider that. And I think we want to ask you a little more about what do you mean. How do you achieve that?

MURRAY: Himmelfarb wrote a wonderful book. Well, she’s written a number of wonderful books. But, the one called “The Idea of Poverty” a few years ago in which she describes late Nineteenth Century England, which we all know, of course, was Dickensian England, which of course was a sink of misery and slums and the rest of it. Well, in fact, at a period when England was far less wealthy than it is now, had a fraction of its current wealth, as the United States had a fraction of its current wealth, at a time of incredibly wrenching social change, you had incredibly elaborate, sophisticated and effective systems going on which are not Lady Bountiful going out with a food basket, but rather self-help, mutual aid, fraternal societies, charitable organizations that were very effective in promulgating middle-class values downward, and very effective in doing such things as reducing crime, in creating a social fabric in the slums and so forth. I’m not trying to say that Victorian England was perfect in this regard; I am saying the closer we look at history – and I think de Tocqueville talking about the North versus the South in 1830 may also make this point – free societies tend to do a very good job of responding to human needs. I put that forward as a proposition that needs a lot of defense, it’s a lot of exegesis, but I think it’s a legitimate proposition.

HEFFNER: Well, we could talk about poorhouses, and we could talk about orphanages.


HEFFNER: Don’t we have to talk about a quarter of a billion people plus in this country now? And I wonder if you in your analysis are really willing to make use of Himmelfarb’s recounting of a tiny nation and the way it dealt with its problems.

MURRAY: Let me give you an example of how maybe you can blend the two. All right? Suppose you say to me, “No, we can’t at the end of the Twentieth Century just remove everything.” Well, how about taking Milton Friedman’s idea of a negative income tax? So now we’re talking about … And we’re taking all of the programs we currently have to help the poor, and we fold them into a cash payment so that everybody’s lifted up to a floor, let’s say it’s the poverty line. So now we have a way of guaranteeing that we have cash into people’s hands sufficient to live a modest but decent existence. And at that point we say, “But the activities, the human activities whereby we address the needs that will continue to be there, those human activities must be returned once again to the only place we know how to deal in a one-on-one compassionate way with our fellow man, and that’s through things other than bureaucracies.” So let’s take care of the money. Let’s use government to do the one thing that government does very efficiently, which is to write checks.

HEFFNER: If I read “The Bell Curve” more carefully, will I find Herrnstein and Murray making that suggestion?

MURRAY: Oh, yeah.

HEFFNER: Will I find it sticking out?

MURRAY: You will find … And see, this is something we talked about on the first program, but I’ll briefly review here. What we’ve just been saying the last five minutes comes from Chapter 22 which is openly labeled a very personal statement by Richard Herrnstein and me of how we see strategies for dealing with these problems.

HEFFNER: One minute. Go ahead.

MURRAY: Having said that, you will see in that chapter a clear statement. You want to solve the economic problem? Make sure we’ve got enough money in people’s hands? Dick Herrnstein and I have no problem with that. Go ahead. Fix the money problem. But let’s talk about the stuff of life, the ways in which people find value places in families and communities, and let’s restore the vitality of those institutions in order to let people at the low end of the bell curve reach the age of 70 and have the same satisfactions that people at the high end of the bell curve have.

HEFFNER: I have a great idea: Next book, put the last chapter first, and let people no longer able to say you’re simply advocating that we destroy the social fabric.

MURRAY: I will keep that idea in mind, but I don’t think it’s going to help, Richard.

HEFFNER: Charles Murray, thank you very, very much for joining me again on The Open Mind.

MURRAY: My great pleasure.

HEFFNER: And I recommend “The Bell Curve”

Thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, about our intriguing guest, please write: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts, send $2 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

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