Charles Murray

Murray’s Law: Don’t Tinker

VTR Date: May 11, 1985

Guest: Murray, Charles


VTR: MAY 11, 1985

RICHARD HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Don’t just do something, stand there, is the waggish suggestion Adlai Stevenson occasionally made in times of crisis particularly when so many others were scurring wildly around trying to fix things. And now there’s a whole school of thought, call it conservative chic if you will, with its own guru, Charles Murray, that says, basically, America herself should just have stood there back a generation ago and done much less tinkering with social policy. Because what we did do by way of fabricating what was to become a Great Society, actually led us to lose not gain so much ground in righting the Nation’s wrongs. In short, social engineering doesn’t work. Or at least it didn’t. And to Murphy’s Law, if anything can go wrong it will, has been added Murray’s Law of net harm: social policies designed to transfer the good things of life from the privileged to the underprivileged result in fact in losing ground which, of course, is today’s in-reading, the basic book written by today’s guest, Charles Murray, senior research fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. Mr. Murray, thanks for joining me today. I really do appreciate that.

MURRAY: It’s my pleasure.

HEFFNER: LOSING GROUND. One doesn’t lose ground, one gains it reading your new book. It is, of course, a fascinating experience, and I was interested to note that when you make reference to the elite wisdom of the 60’s the notions that carried us forwards or backwards as you suggest in LOSING GROUND that in a sense your own point of view is part of that new elite wisdom today. And I wondered what it feels like.

MURRAY: I’m worrying about the extent to which what’s being picked up is what I said.

HEFFNER: Tell me what you mean by that.

MURRAY: It seems to me that at this point the discussion about the book is going on almost without reference to what the book says. Because what I said lends itself to caricature on both sides. It can be seen from the left as a typical welfare bashing approach whereby you say that young women get pregnant so that they can get a bigger welfare check. And from the other side there’s the caricature from the right and saying, see we wasted all this money, you just have people out there who really don’t need it. These problems aren’t as bad as we’ve always thought they were. We can just stand back and not worry about them.

HEFFNER: Neither one of those things is true. Then I should ask, what is Murray’s Law?

MURRAY: Murray’s Law is that in trying to do good, which is what we did in a variety of ways, I will state it very loosly, you have to worry a great deal about all the ways that things can backfire. And specifically, when you try to do things for other people that they are not prepared to do for themselves, it’s very difficult to achieve anything. Let me give you a quick example.

HEFFNER: Please do.

MURRAY: A training program. I think training programs for the underprivileged kids are terrific. But the youngster has to bring to that training program the readiness to go to that classroom, work hard, do what the teacher says. In other words, make that investment in himself. And if he’s not ready to do that, we’ve found it very difficult to convince him to take advantage of opportunities.

HEFFNER: Where in the world could he get that readiness? If he comes from a part of society where it isn’t built in?

MURRAY: This is what I find very interesting in the discussion about the book.

HEFFNER: You think it’s demeaning, don’t you, that point of view?

MURRAY: Yes. To me the most natural thing in the world in a state that has not been fiddled with by well-meaning affluent folks is that poor young men and women will go out and work hard and try to do better for themselves. That is not something you have to create in society. That’s the way the world works naturally. And what we did was create a world in which people’s behavior in some ways was deformed. That there’s cistern things that they would have done if only we’d stayed out of the way.

HEFFNER: Why do you say, I’m not challenging it, but I really want to know why you say, that’s the way the world works naturally?

MURRAY: We don’t come by wealth or for that matter by the food we eat or shelter without working ordinarily. And for someone who has spent six years in Thailand as I did in Thai villages that hit’s you very strongly … that you do have to go out and grow that food and make that shelter. But even in more advanced societies poor parents tend to bring up their children saying here’s what you have to do to survive in this world. That’s what I mean by that’s the way things are naturally.

HEFFNER: Do you think, then, is what you’re saying then, that it is our tinkering with social policy, however well-meaning, that has undercut, cut out from underneath us, cut out from underneath the underprivileged class, so called, or classes, the willingness to work the way they have to work?

MURRAY: And here’s where we get very close to caricature because now we’re thinking in terms, if we aren’t careful, of somebody who really would rather live contentedly off the dole. And I think that what happened is somewhat more complicated than that. It’s not that people don’t want to work, it’s not that they don’t want to be successes because they do. The problem is that the way you get to be a success if you have a poor education and you are poor yourself is not by getting into a career ladder. It is … you go out when you’re 18 years old and you get a job in a gas station or you get a job sacking groceries or you get a job dishwashing. And you stick with that job and as time goes on you make friends and maybe you become the assistant chef or maybe you have a friend who gives you a job driving a truck. After a period of years, you’re making a decent living, you are taking care of a family, you have a little bit of security, you aren’t rich, you aren’t famous. But you have stuck with a step-by-step pattern. What we did when we changed social policy in lots of different ways, and the size of the welfare check is only one small part of that, is to cut out the intermediate links. So that the youngster who is in that same situation, 18 years old now, gets into a job, holds onto it for a little while, it’s a lousy job, he gets in a fight with the boss. He quits and he says, I’m going to get something better later. But he stays out of the job market for a while. Then he gets back in, something else goes wrong. It’s not a good job. He hasn’t done what he wanted. He moves in and out. He reached his mid-20’s, no skills, stuck for the rest of his life at the margins of the labor market.

HEFFNER: Now what brought about that change?

MURRAY: There is no single mistake. There are a few major ones that I would tick off. One I think has a lot to do with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, the subsequent riots, and the enormous sense of … (inaudible) … very appropriately felt, I should add about what we’ve been doing to Black people in this country for centuries. And as part of that guilt we said the system is to blame. It’s not their fault, and indeed in many ways it was not their fault. But the problem was we constructed social policy around that. If a youngster is getting arrested for burglarizing homes it’s because of his background. If a youngster can’t deal with a classroom situation, it’s because of cultural deprivation. It’s not his fault. If a young woman has a baby, it’s not her fault that she has that baby. You can’t call it an immoral act in any sense. And by removing responsibility, for what people have done, you do a couple of things. One is you give a terrible message particularly to that youngster. Because you’re not only saying it’s not your fault, in some sense you’re saying there’s not that much that you can be expected to do about it. And that’s a very self-defeating message. Another thing you do, is you penalize all of those people who are doing exactly the right thing. And this is perhaps what I feel most strongly about in the book and which, by the way, very few of the reviews have talked about … (inaudible) … some poor people on behalf of other poor people.

HEFFNER: Now you feel that this is a result of the changing of the rules, of society’s rules really, that came at the beginning of the Great Society movement. Is that fair?

MURRAY: Roughly in that period, yes.

HEFFNER: All right. Do you think you really want to tinker again? And change once more?

MURRAY: I don’t know what the specific steps are to be taken right now. I think that LOSING GROUND is much better at identifying the nature of the problem than it is specifying solutions. In fact, I say that rather explicitly in the book. I think we start by taking small steps in the right direction, and to some extent we are. I think education in the inner city schools is getting better now in the ways that it should have gotten better. Not by spending a lot more money from the Federal Government on special programs for disadvantaged children, but rather by restoring in the schools a learning environment which is absolutely essential if those kids who are ready to learn are going to learn. I think it’s a step in the right direction that law inforcement has gotten somewhat stricter. I think one of the great overlooked difficulties of living in the inner city is that it’s extremely dangerous. That if you are trying to hold down a job and move from your job to your house and go out to buy groceries, it’s an extremely dangerous world. It’s a good thing that we’re moving in that direction.

MURRAY: Are there steps that we might take? Well, I wrote the book in part to prompt that kind of discussion.

HEFFNER: Well let’s have the discussion then, because it does seem to me in reading LOSING GROUND that you suggest almost as if, poof and there’ll be change, and now – that – you consider a caricature, unfair I’m sure in your estimation. And yet there is the feeling as I read LOSING GROUND that you would say, let us now put a stop to any number of very specific social programs. There was a change in social policy. It was manifest in any number of governmental activities. Let’s stop those activities. Is that a fair statement?

MURRAY: Well, I say this. Let’s look at what the world would be like if we didn’t have a lot of those programs. I’m not saying how we get from here to there, but suppose we did not. I say a lot of good things would happen and maybe some bad things, but there would be some good things as well. For example, the tragedy of the young woman having and keeping babies is one of those things which we are trying to ignore and we cannot for very long. I’m not talking about the Farrah Fawcett’s who have a child. I’m not talking about a moral condemnation of a single woman having children. I’m talking about what happens when large proportions of entire communities of poor people consist of mothers and their children and no fathers. We can’t have communities work like that. How might that change? I suggest, too, that in just about every society in which you have not established such programs as these one thing that society does very naturally and very effectively is make sure by and large that children have two parents. It’s either through customs or through shot-gun weddings, or whatever else. But that’s one thing that society simply manages to have happen. I’m suggesting that if tomorrow there were no support whatsoever in the welfare system, food stamps, Medicaid, the whole thing’s gone, you’d have a whole lot fewer children born to poor single mothers.

HEFFNER: But you know it’s not unfair, it seems to me, for me to then say to you do you mean, Mr. Murray … now I know you say you’re offering no prescriptions, that’s not your intention … but one does have to come back to you and say do you mean then that would essentially dismantle those instruments of the Great Society? Would you dismantle that kind of aid to …

MURRAY: Yes. I think we did it the wrong way.

HEFFNER: Would you undo it now, that’s the question?

MURRAY: Now there’s the rub because you’ve got it set up and we have a social contract with millions of people because we have led them to behave in ways which are predicated on the fact that they’re going to get certain kinds of assistance. And that the world is going to respond in those ways. And you simply don’t say to those, we changed our mind. We’re going to pull the rug out from under you. Now what you might be able to do is to have different rules for the next generation than you have for the existing one. But that, too, gets very dicey.

HEFFNER: Dicey, I presume, because as you have suggested in LOSING GROUND you’re basic assumption is we don’t know what we are doing when we do many of the things that we do.

MURRAY: That’s right. And so when you said at the beginning of the show that it is conservative chic of a kind, I think you are right. I think it has the elements right now, a lot of the discussion in the book has the elements … isn’t this an interesting way of looking at things. And we really haven’t thought through a lot of these issues as well as we could. I find it, in discussing the book, very interesting that one is not permitted not to have solutions. I’m saying, look, we have been thinking about this problem from the wrong way, in the wrong way, for many years. A few people have been sounding the warnings for us, Milton Freidman and Tom Soule and others. But we really haven’t paid attention to them. And it is my hope that after three or four years of thinking about the problem in what I consider to be more accurate ways, people are going to get some better ideas of how to deal with some of these problems.

HEFFNER: But, of course, when you say you really are not allowed to analyze without offering in return, solutions, that’s fair. You come on a television program. The host, the moderator, obviously is going to say, now tell me what you really mean … what you want us to do. But we live in a very political world and as you suggest, your book has been used politically, whether you intended it to be used that way or not. You’ve suggested that we have tinkered, we have not wisely enough, sufficiently enough, considered what the impact of that tinkering would be. You can, of course, leave us high and dry. That’s your privilege. But I have the feeling that you don’t really want to do that.

MURRAY: There are a few steps that we can take.

HEFFNER: What would I take now?

MURRAY: … (inaudible) … almost certainly better than what we have now. In inner city education, I think that we ought to immediately start experimenting in a serious way with the voucher system, because affluent people make this choice all the time. They can get their kids into decent schools because they’re willing to pay the money. There are lots and lots of poor parents out there that want that kind of education for their children. Give them a voucher. They might take advantage of it.

HEFFNER: Okay. That’s point one. What’s the next step we could take?

MURRAY: Next step we could take is that in constructing all kinds of programs that provide opportunities, whether they be training programs or anything else, that we put those people at the front of the line who have already made the most investment in themselves. The problem with a lot of the programs that we’ve had is that you had to qualify for them by becoming a drug addict. You had to qualify for them, it might be, by becoming a criminal or by being an unwed mother. Let us change the incentives so that the people we help first are those poor youngsters who have already taken the first steps themselves.

HEFFNER: That means, of course, that we put last those who are themselves at the moment at the bottom of the ladder.

MURRAY: That’s right. And to that I have two responses. One is that I don’t think a perfect world is what we’re talking about. What we’re talking about is doing more good than harm. And at least I can get, through the kinds of changes I’m proposing, I can get some good. I can take lots and lots of kids out there, young men, young women, who presently are being held down rather systematically by a lot of our compassion. We’re going to get them moving in the directions that all their natural energies would take them otherwise. That’s good. But we’re going to do something else as well I think. And that is, we’re going to set up feedback loops if you want to think of them that way. Consider a training program, for example, which is really tough. I mean if the youngsters come in and if they aren’t willing to do the work, if they aren’t willing to follow the prescriptions of the course, they’re out. If that happens, you’re going to have a very high drop-out rate and a very high flunk-out rate. But I think you are also, as time goes on and you continue the program and it goes through succeeding cycles, you’re going to see some of those youngsters coming back. Ones who flunked out the first time who now are seeing what the requirements are and are making themselves eligible as it were.

HEFFNER: You know, what’s interesting to me, Mr. Murray, is in reading LOSING GROUND and coming to that section where you spoke about guilt. That to some considerable extent much of what we did in basically an unthinking, not sufficiently thinking through the potential impact, we were acting out of guilt. It seemed to me that we were acting to a very considerable extent out of fear. And I wonder whether that fear doesn’t remain if as you suggest of necessity in the plan you offer at the bottom of the ladder, they drop out. The kids drop out, and there remains a large and there grows to be a larger and larger sub-structure to society. That is a very threatening thing in a world such as ours. Do you think that fear is going to disappear?

MURRAY: It has been growing … this … this … whatever you want to call it … the under class or whatever else. But the point is, it has been growing under the aegis of the programs I’m talking about. And so I accept your point about fear being one of the motivators, but I think it is incorrect to say that the kinds of changes which are in effect toward more personal responsibility, running social policy that way, I think it’s a mistake to say that’s going to create a larger under class. I think it’s likely to diminish it.

HEFFNER: In response to this point that you make that under class grew, in your estimation, as a consequence of the changed social policy … if someone were to say to you the real problem was that we didn’t have the nerve to do enough of what we set out to do. Would you consider that as a possible insight into our present problems?

MURRAY: I don’t know where that person is going to find a model to explain to me how trying more extensive measures would have helped. I don’t know to what nation he is going to point to, what social experiment. My own reading is that generally speaking he efforts have been frought with failure. I would also ask people to explain to me why these problems swelled at a time when actually the economy was running at full employment in the mid-1960’s and late-1960’s. At a time when we had a lot of things going in the right directions, supposedly, to have elevated the people we were trying to help.

HEFFNER: Am I correct in assuming that you believe that changed social policy gave us a sense of ourselves that made it impossible really to climb up the steps of that ladder even when times were good. That what had happened was a change in psychology in that under class that deprived them of the enterprising attitudes that they would have had and did have in an earlier age?

MURRAY: Perhaps did not deprive them of the enterprising attitudes, but deprived them of wherewithal to make good on them. The sequence I described earlier … we knew, for example, that poor youngsters have aspirations every bit as high as middle class youngsters. The problem is that unlike middle class youngsters they don’t see a step-by-step process whereby these can be realized. A lot of times the aspirations are also very unrealistic. It is a problem, I think, with our changes in social policies. On the one hand dangling a large, shining target for them to say, this is what I want. And at the same time almost denigrating the kinds of behaviors that would give them any chance of achieving that target.

HEFFNER: I picked it up certainly in your book, and I want, in the minutes we have remaining, to at least ask a couple of questions about, you’ll forgive me, very specific instances again. Let’s take the question of what has been color blindness and affirmative action. Would you as a movement away from the present situation, would you work to eliminate affirmative action programs? Would you do away with quotas? Would you not be concerned with recognizing race and perhaps gender as a basis for job programs?
MURRAY: Think about the early days of affirmative action, which I would still be enthusiastically supporting, which said … you’ve heard employers when you go out to look for people … there are lots of people you have passed up. They have just not fallen within your ken. You’ve never seen them. Start looking for those people. Go out and try to find qualified Black applicants and the rest of it. That is benign. It’s helpful. I’m for it. Affirmative action that involves a kind of racial discrimination for good ends, quotas, whatever else you want to call them, I think has had enormously pernicious effects. And I guess one of the things I would do as a very practical matter is take away every vestige of Supreme Court decisions, laws, regulations, anything which requires or recommends or awards preferential treatment by race.

HEFFNER: Where then would you draw the line between yourself and those who embrace LOSING GROUND as the ideological basis for turning upside down the changes that have come about, the specific legislative changes? Where do you draw the line? What do you want to maintain that they want to get rid of?

MURRAY: I think that it’s not so much a matter of programs as an attitude. If I am incorrect that the Federal Government is very limited in the kinds of programs it can install that are going to solve certain kinds of problems, the inescapable conclusion is that responsibility must devolve to lower levels. Specifically, right down to the neighborhood, the community, and individuals. And those who want to applaude the critique in LOSING GROUND and then say fine, lets get away to the programs, but that doesn’t involve me, I have to say to that person, no. You’re going to have to spend a lot more of your own time and your own money, voluntarily given, to try to deal with these things. Because it’s not that they problems don’t exist. It is that the ways we try to deal with them haven’t worked.

HEFFNER: Do you think there are any ways, really, in which we can adequately and sufficiently tinker … engineer society?

MURRAY: … (inaudible) … opportunities. I think opportunities are good. You have educational opportunities, you have training opportunities, you have chances, a second chance, a third, a fourth chance … that’s fine. That’s not engineering. That’s just simply doing what this country was supposed to be about. Do you think that the Social Darwinians of the last century, maybe even those of today, come closer to truth and wisdom in dealing with social policy?

MURRAY: It wasn’t the Social Darwinians. There is a wonderful book by Gertrude Himmelfarb about the idea of poverty. In which she recounts the English intellectuals of the 18th and 19th Century and their discussion of this … not the Social Darwinians. They have anticipated all of these issues with so much more subtlety and intellectual rigor than we in the last 20th Century have, that I recommend it to everyone who is interested in this issue. No. I think it’s not the Social Darwinians who are right. It was those who said that in trying to do good, in trying to help the poor, you cannot do it on the basis of adding only one side of the ledger. You can’t just look at what you have given and give yourself credit for that. You have to look at the deficits, the costs associated with that, and try to add up the net amount of good and harm.

HEFFNER: Net loss. Once again that’s what we’ve been the victims of.


HEFFNER: I do appreciate your coming here and discussing LOSING GROUND. I hope there is some way some how in which we can begin to gain ground, but somehow the notion of tinkering as being bad makes me feel that’s just not in the cards. Anyway, join me again on this program so we can continue our discussion. Meanwhile, Charles Murray, thank you for being here today.

MURRAY. Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you’ll join us again next time here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, goodnight and good luck.