Charles Murray

In Pursuit of Happiness

VTR Date: January 7, 1989

Guest: Murray, Charles


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Charles Murray
Title: “In Pursuit of Happiness”
VTR: 1/7/89

I’m Richard Heffner, you host on THE OPEN MIND.

Charles Murray’s provocative, best selling study of the down side to attempts to right social wrongs – its title Losing Ground – was already the in book when he last joined me here on THE OPEN MIND. I noted then that there was a whole school of thought – call it “conservative chic” if you well – that embraced Mr. Murray as its guru for writing that a generation earlier our government should have done much less tinkering with social policy…because so much of what it did do to fabricate a “great society” actually led us to lose, not to gain, so much ground. In short, social engineering just doesn’t work. And to Murphy’s law – if anything can go wrong, it will – was added Murray’s law of net harm: social policies designed to transfer the good things of life from the privileged to t he underprivileged result, in fact, in losing ground. Unintended consequences, if you will. So, don’t tinker.

Now, Mr. Murray didn’t then reject my characterization of his book’s popularity and his own guru status as “conservative chic” of a kind. Indeed, he deplored it even as he conceded it. But about solutions to the problem of how to undo social policies that did harm, though designed to do good (without, of course, losing even more ground – his law of net harm – by tinkering with still earlier tinkering), about “what to do”, he was reticent, asking only for “three or four years of thinking about the problem…to get some more accurate ways…some better ideas”.

Well, three or four years have more than passed now. Simon & Schuster has published Mr. Murray’s intriguing new book In Pursuit of Happiness and good Government. His guru status seems strengthened in conservative circles. “The Tom Paine of the Reagan Revolution” remains a good Murray descriptive.

But some of us still feel that my guest cries out not so much for a better future, which is problematic, that he cries out instead for a better past which is, after all, so safely, so comfortably past, so simply, unshakably always there. Now, I wouldn’t ever be so bold as to say there was no there there. There was. But “was” is “was”, not “is” or “will be”.

So I’d like to ask Mr. Murray now that those three or four years of “thinking’ have gone by, what are his better ideas, and what do they have to do with the pursuit of happiness? Mr. Murray?

Murray: Big question to start with.

Heffner: Right.

Murray: I guess that if I were to characterize the theme of the solutions, and I even hesitate to start out with the solutions, it would be that a lot of the problems that we consider so intractable these days, if looked at from another perspective, if you just sort of turn it all around, and look at it from a different way, they’re very easy. I’ll give you an example. The easiest example is education, where everybody from George Bush to people on the left say that the educational system in this country is in need of drastic over haul. We need better teachers, we need to figure out some way to teach inner city youngsters, this, that and the other thing, and if you back off from that and say, “Wait a minute. Teaching children is, first of all, one of the most intrinsically rewarding things that society has in its offer for people to do, and historically, we have never wanted for people who enjoy the act of teaching children”. That’s point number one. The second one is that from time immemorial we have known how to teach kids. This is not an arcane art. Farmers have known how to teach their sons to be farmers, artisans haven known how to teach their sons and daughters to be artisans. We have a whole history of people knowing how to teach children, which persisted for a whole long time until very recently suddenly, mysteriously, we aren’t able to teach effectively anymore. It seems to me that we ask the question not what clever new curriculum we can come up with, not what new innovation we can come up with. We start with the question “What are we doing to impede people from doing the things they would ordinarily do, if we didn’t get in their way? And that has produced this problem”.

Heffner: And you feel you have an idea or solution, an answer at least to the question you’ve just asked that enables us to move forward. What is that? What have we done?

Murray: Stay with education again, as an example. And let’s talk about getting better teachers. Now if you had the chance to be a teacher in a public school, would you want to do it? Now you can say, as one part of your answer, “Well, I can make more money doing something else”. Fine, let’s accept that answer and put it aside, and then let’s say, “Well, suppose money weren’t a problem. Would you like to teach in the nation’s public schools?” And your answer is very likely to be, “Well, no”. And the reasons why you wouldn’t are very simple. Because particularly in urban school systems, you aren’t going to have a classroom of kids that you can control. You aren’t going to be free to teach because you’re going to get bogged down in everything from teachers’ union rules to the vast labyrinth of the bureaucracy, you aren’t going to be able to do that thing called teaching, and that is a fundamental reason why we don’t end up with people in our schools who teach. And then I say if you have the private school sector that you look at in contrast, you end up with lots of bright young kids. Teaching in there, you end up with lots of dedicated teachers who teach fro twenty or thirty years there. They don’t get any more money than they get in the public schools. Maybe out there something is happening right, and the reason why it’s happening right is because parents have much closer control over their schools and truncating a very long argument into a very few (laughter) minutes, I’m saying “what if we gave poor parents the same kind of control over their schools”?

Heffner: Now, you think the matter of localism, the matter of bringing closer to our own impact, to our own effectiveness, the instruments of control over education, and I’m sure you mean other social policies, too, that you find to be a response to the large problem of our time.

Murray: Yes, I will agree with it, and then add a few caveats. I call them little platoons in the book.

Heffner: Right.

Murray: Borrowing from the book, and it’s not the notion of let’s let the municipal government do everything instead of the federal government, that’s not necessarily it. A lot of times it doesn’t involve governmental units at all, but I am saying first that local organizations do occur naturally. You don’t’ have to teach them how to occur. They will fill these functions. They will do so much more effectively in a very hard-headed sense of effective, than larger governmental units. All of those things I will say, agreeing with your suggestion, and then I will add to that the reason why they work is grounded in the freedom of individuals to be pursuing their happiness.

Heffner: May I ask you whether you think that we are a fit people now to pursue our happiness in that way, whether at the end of the twentieth century…it is likely that we can return to, embrace, re-embrace that concept that was peculiar to our founders, and you identify it as peculiar to our founders, can we incorporate…call it localism of a kind, in our own times?

Murray: why wouldn’t we be able to? What’s changed that makes that impossible?

Heffner: Well, your descriptions in both of the books…

Murray: Yes.

Heffner: …of our present situation is a description of a changed situation.

Murray: Ah, it’s changed in the sense that we have passed a whole set of laws and established a whole set of policies that get in the way of that, but if one is asking “is there something about modernity that prevents that, is there something about the large, complex society that we have become that intrinsically prevents that”? I think the answer, for this moot question right now, is no.

Heffner: Do you…

Murray: It, it hasn’t…and just throw out one other possibility…in many ways it’s made it much easier to return to this kind of thing.

Heffner: do you, indeed, think that largeness and a huge population have in any way made it easier? Has it done anything other than make it so incredibly difficult?

Murray: Let me give you a specific example. Consider the way in which the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries actually were very dangerous times to have this much local control because it was so easy to have small tyrannies. That is to say, you can call up a Southern sheriff, if you want to have that image in your mind, you can call up a company town with a rapacious coal company that makes everybody shop at the company store, and enforces it with their hired goons, and because of the isolation of those days, those small tyrannies could persist. It would be much harder, it is much harder today for those small tyrannies to persist. It has nothing to do with the federal government, has everything to do with the six o’clock news, has everything to do with modern communications, and the ways in which exposing small tyrannies is real good business.

Heffner: Yes, but if you say it has to do with the six o’clock, if it has to do with mass communications…you were talking about a century that sees now the emphasis put upon large units, not upon small units, the emphasis put upon our all-seeing, hearing, learning and perhaps, doing the same things, which is not very much of a key to the kind of pursuit of happiness that you describe, is it?

Murray: You haven’t been watching the six o’clock news out in Cedar Rapids, Iowa! That’s quite obvious (laughter)…

Heffner: You’re right.

Murray: …because…

Heffner: You’re right.

Murray: …this is not…most of the country does not live in megalopolises, and the six o’clock news or the counterpart in terms of the newspaper, the radio stations, and the rest of it often times find, again if we’re maybe crass about it, they find the highest ratings for the local shows that emphasize the smallest and most local topics. If the national news is a loser, the local news and the more local the better, is a winner. There are other examples. In the nineteenth century and the eighteenth centuries it was very tough to move, I mean it was tough physically. It was much tougher emotionally to move. It’s a lot easier to move these days. It’s a lot easier to find a congenial environment; it’s much easier to escape a bad environment, whether you’re moving across town or whether you’re moving across the country. I pose these possibilities not because any one of them makes the case, and I can walk away and say “see, it’s easy after all”. I’m saying that we’re too glib. We tend to, we tend to say “well, we have this complex society now and it’s not like it was in eighteenth century Virginia when Thomas Jefferson was writing, so obviously we can’t do it”. I don’t think it’s at all obvious.

Heffner: May I ask if you would make your bet, is that an unfair thing to ask of you? Would you bet that we will embrace the thousand points of light?

Murray: Oh, will we or should we?

Heffner: No. Will we? Will we?

Murray: No, there’s…as far as I can tell, and this is where I think the founders were profoundly right in their understanding of how governments, particularly republican governments, tend to collapse…I think we are in the process of witnessing a kind of tyranny of the majority. A kind of faction of the majority which they foresaw as a danger, of which for a long time we managed to hold back, but which now means that we have been operating a successive interlocking set of struggles among different folks trying to impose their view of the way the world ought to run on the federal system. And the federal system will constantly be superior and you can’t go home again. So I’m in a position of believing very deeply that there is a better way of doing things, and also being profoundly pessimistic that we’re going to change.

Heffner: When you say “we can’t go home again”, you’re saying that making the bet is not “in pursuit of happiness and good government” as Charles Murray writes it.

Murray: Nope, I’m not at all optimistic. I…I, the bet is that that won’t happen. I could, I suppose, point to a few reasons to be a little more optimistic than I am.

Heffner: Please. I’m looking for them.

Murray: There are lots of ways in which I think large government is becoming more obviously useless. If you want to take a fairly trivial example., take the post office, and look at all the ways in which, as time goes on, whether it’s fax machines, or whether it’s the Federal Express, or other private services, that we have found that we can simply circumvent the government. Lots of the functions that government used to serve as a repository of information, a collector and disseminator of information, are becoming atrophied as the computer revolution sweeps through. So there are a variety of ways in which centralization of, not only in terms of economies, but in terms of social processes, is becoming more obviously obsolete, but, and here I’ve got to stop being optimistic. The fact is that people like you and me are doing just fine under this system. Just as people like you and me have done fine under virtually every system of government that’s ever been run except certain kinds of totalitarian governments. Which is to say that people who are in the “have” group have the freedoms they need, the resources they need and they jigger the laws to make sure that happens. And because we aren’t hurting, I don’t see where the energy is going to come for a kind of revolution which is not intended to benefit people like you and me so much, as it is intended to benefit the guy who’s working in the factory and can’t get his kid in a decent school.

Heffner: Does he care, do you think? Does he know enough to care, not in terms of his basic instincts but in terms of what he knows he could have for his child, or that his child could enjoy?

Murray: I think it’s ahistorical to argue that he doesn’t.

Heffner: And won’t he at some point rise up, and demand that for himself? Don’t you posit something that must lead eventually, whatever it is you and I do…

Murray: Ah, yes, but it’s…you can also…it’s the old problem of knowing the thing that one should do, but being bought off. I use the example, which I think lots of your viewers I suppose can sympathize with, which is that if my wife were to announce that from now on she will never turn the thermostat down before she goes to bed then I would remember to turn it down, Alright. In the absence of that it’s not that I say I want her to do it, I don’t want to be bothered. I just don’t bother to remember, and in some sense there is with lots of the things that people would be happier doing (laughter), and ways of living that they would be happier living. There is an inertia that’s very hard to overcome because it’s a lot easier to sit in front of the TV set. It’s a lot easier to accept the government check, it’s a lot easier to have the security that a lot of these systems provide than to say “You know, I’d really be happier the other way”.

Heffner: Did…has…does any of your sense of what is wrong stem at all from perhaps a different answer that you would offer than has been offered by many people in government to the question of “Am I my brother’s keeper”? Since our first program, since you wrote and we discussed Losing Ground, you’re the one person I’ve wanted to ask that more than anything else, your response to the sense of being your brother’s keeper.

Murray: I hesitate because…well, I’ll go ahead and spit it out. The way we do things now is the very antithesis of being our brother’s keeper. We sign 1040 forms and think that that is our…we’ve done our job. We’re paying professionals to go out and take care of these problems, “look at all the money we spend on all these systems”. I am saying that if the government doesn’t say it’s doing the…that all of our behavior changes. My behavior, your behavior, the behavior of people who have never gone out and volunteered a night in their life, people who don’t consider themselves to think of themselves as their brother’s keeper. The fact is in a free society people don’t let other people starve in the streets, and the kind of connections that I think are important, not only as a better way of taking care of problems of homelessness and hungry children and the rest of it, but a better way of leading our own lives…I’ve gotten lost in my sentence, involves putting the responsibility for dealing with these problems on ourselves.

Heffner: On themselves, or ourselves?

Murray: On ourselves, because, well here is where I would ask people to collect data from themselves because I hear a lot of times people saying, “Well, you know, most people don’t feel that way. A lot of people are very happy to let the people starve in the streets”. What would happen if tomorrow it were announced that the federal government was not doing anything in any of these areas, you name it, from AFDC to food stamps to the rest of it? It’s all gone tomorrow? Would that change your behavior?

Heffner: What do you think?

Murray: I know it would change mine.

Heffner: You would do more.

Murray: Sure. Would you?

Heffner: Yes, I suppose so, but we’ve had the example over the past eight years of a President who said “voluntarism must take the place of a government’s total participation in warranting that there will not be hungry people and homeless people”. I don’t think we found in these past years that that has happened. Do you disagree?

Murray: Oh, oh, wait a minute. We have to talk about reality.

Heffner: Yes?

Murray: And the reality is that the food stamp budget is about the same size or larger than it was eight years ago; that health and human services is spending much more money today that it was eight years ago. That if you take any service the government provides of the kind I’m talking about and plot, in constant dollars, and in constant food units, and in constant any other kind of unit, that you will find again and again that the stingy Reagan years are providing vastly more service than generous Johnson years.

Heffner: Does that mean that there was no Reagan Revolution?

Murray: There was, as far as I can tell, a rhetorical change. Revolution is too strong a word, whereby it was perceived by large portions of the population that services were being cut, that the safety net was being stripped bare, and the rest of it. The actual changes that took place were quite modest, and to people like me, very disappointingly modest. There was a reaction that I find intriguing, which has to do with the amount of money that’s being given to philanthropic areas, which as a proportion of the national income, after years and years of dropping suddenly took a sharp turn upward again at the beginning of the Reagan years, and I wonder whether that isn’t a response to the rhetoric. I wouldn’t go to the wall saying that it is, but that much may have been triggered by it.

Heffner: but, of course, you know you said a moment ago, we’re not the kind of people, this isn’t the kind of nation that will let people, I believe you said, go hungry or homeless, and yet we hear so much more now, and it can’t only be rhetoric, about people…

Murray: Hungry and homeless.

Heffner: …we’re sitting here in New York…

Murray: Of course.

Heffner: …and they are hungry and homeless.

Murray: Of course. I think here you’ve got a lot of good, solid psychological literature to look at. It’s fascinating in this regard…The Good Samaritan literature whereby they set up, as psychologists do, a variety of situations in which unknowing people being experimented on see other people in various kinds of need, and the one decisive fact…decisive variable that explains whether people do or do not go to somebody else’s aid is whether they are under the impression that it’s up to them. The more people there are around, that the less likely you are to get involved. This is the kind of thing that psychologists demonstrate in a variety of dynamics, and I think all of us can look at ourselves and say, “Well, of course, we all knew that”.

Heffner: You believe, I gather, that that is true whether we are talking about a person helping himself or herself, if someone else is helping me, I don’t jump to my own assistance, as well as looking at government providing services. I don’t provide them then, I don’t get into the fray, so that you take a kind of “don’t mix with the natural order”…

Murray: That’s right.

Heffner: …point of view.

Murray: But it’s not, it’s not that I want to apply a variety of sticks and carrots so that people can do all this stuff and we can save money on the budget. I’m saying something very different in the book.

Heffner: That they will help themselves and to happiness.

Murray: Yeah, you know there’s something we don’t think about, at least I didn’t used to think about in any systematic way, which is that one does have to fill up the time, you know, and we are awake for sixteen, seventeen, eighteen hours a day. You’ve got to fill it up with things, and you will fill it up, come what may. But the way I’m talking about structuring society, I think, will tend to fill it up with the kinds of activities that have lots more intense satisfaction and enjoyment than the kinds we fill it up with now.

Heffner: If someone said, “Murray, you’re a Darwinian, a social Darwinian out of the nineteenth century”, what would your response be?

Murray: I can see absolutely no connection between social Darwinism and what I’ve just been saying.

Heffner: And yet there was the feeling that the continuing interference with the natural order deprived individuals of the need for, and therefore, the ability to gain strength to provide for themselves.

Murray: No, I’d…we didn’t use the word “strength” before. I’m not, this is not a sort of moral exercise course I’m prescribing for people.

Heffner: But that’s what “in pursuit of happiness” really meant.

Murray: No, I think that social Darwinism, as I understand the popular use of the term, and I certainly don’t want to attribute all of this to poor old Spencer, who I think was as much misrepresented as anybody I know, but social Darwinism has the sense of red and tooth and claw, and the strong shall rise to the top and the weak go by the wayside, but that’s probably good for the genetic pool anyway, and so what the hell. I am trying to say, I think, exactly the opposite, that in a just society everybody, rich and poor and lazy and industrious and with all the other variations and qualities, should have the wherewithal to pursue happiness; that is should be a society in which you can go out and make a satisfying life. Meaning this, that when you get to be 70 years old or whatever, you can look back on your life, and say, “I can be reasonably proud of who I have been and what I have done”. Everybody ought to lead lives that bring them to that point, and my question is how do you structure society so that happens?

Heffner: And I gather you’re saying the “should” and the “ought” won’t come about if government does this for them. That isn’t what you mean.

Murray: government doing things for people is bad because people are all too ready to let government do that…

Heffner: And if they do?

Murray: …and this backfires.

Heffner: And if they do?

Murray: It’s the same phenomenon that characterizes almost any relationship in which people fail to exercise their abilities, broadly defined. There is a fascinating body of work that I talk about in the book, that deserves much wider attention…

Heffner: In about 15 seconds.

Murray: …which says that people enjoy themselves to the extent that skills that they have match the challenges they meet, and I’m suggesting that that is a good way of looking at what we should be seeking in our form of government.

Heffner: And I gather, and I haven’t quite gotten the cut sign yet, but I gather your feeling is that if you had to make a bet, you’re not going to bet that that’s going to happen.

Murray: No, but I’ll do my part, and I will write these kinds of books and make these kinds of arguments because maybe over a period of time there will be some other people who at least agree with some of what I say.

Heffner: Charles Murray, that’s a fair way of summarizing what it is that you mean and I appreciate your joining me today, and I guess In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government is again one of those books that one has to read in order to understand the more deeply philosophical point you make. Thank you for joining me again today.

Murray: thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $3.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; Mutual of America; Lawrence A. Wien; and The New York Times Company Foundation.