On Thursday, March 2, hundreds of students at Middlebury College staged a riotous protest against Charles Murray, who visited the campus for a speaking engagement. When the controversial figure, best known for co-authoring The Bell Curve, stepped before the lectern, students shouted him down, making it impossible for him to give his talk. Turning their backs on him, they chanted, “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray go away!” Once they saw the futility of the situation, organizers of the event escorted Murray to a private room, where he gave a closed-door interview, which was broadcast over a live video stream. Protestors tried unsuccessfully to sabotage the interview by making more noise and pulling fire alarms. Later, the scene got uglier. While exiting the back of the building, Murray and the professor who interviewed him escaped an angry mob of protestors, but not before being roughed up a bit by several masked hooligans.
Conservative pundits were quick to frame the event as an attack on free speech, as yet another example of left-wing political correctness run amok. Bill Kristol’s tweet the next day expressed the general reaction on the right: “What happened at Middlebury to Charles Murray threatens not just campus free speech, but free speech—indeed freedom in America—generally.” Brit Hume was more succinct, tweeting, “Intolerant left strikes again.”
The violence on display that evening in Middlebury was unfortunate and indefensible, not least because it turned Murray into a victim deserving of our sympathy and thereby overshadowed the legitimate concerns of the protestors. Indeed, if we understand this event mainly as an illustration of how the left poses a grave threat to First Amendment rights, particularly on college campuses, we surrender to a tired conservative trope, which distracts us from what hundreds of Middlebury students and alumni found so objectionable about Murray.
The Southern Poverty Law Center gets to the heart of the matter, calling Murray a “white nationalist” who invokes “racist pseudoscience and misleading statistics to argue that social inequality is caused by the genetic inferiority of the black and Latino communities, women and the poor.” While his conservative apologists are quick to dismiss this claim (“Bias, pure & simple,” says Brit Hume), a review of Murray’s work over the last three decades shows that the Southern Poverty Law Center is spot on. Subtly but unmistakably, Murray has espoused views about race and inequality that agree with the white nationalist agenda, which appears to have an outsized influence on the Trump administration, thanks largely to Steve Bannon and Jeff Sessions.
No doubt, the Middlebury protestors saw their actions as part of the larger resistance against what is happening in Washington. Our sympathies should lie with them, despite the unforgivable actions of a violent few. They were reacting against a set of ideas that have been embraced by conservatives for quite some time. The only difference is that conservatives in the era of Trump have become emboldened to eliminate filtered and coded language, allowing their bigotry to rise to the surface in unadulterated form. Murray’s bigotry— shrouded in academic pretension, further legitimized every time he publishes a book or speaks at a college campus—is less obvious. But, as the protestors in Vermont understood, it helped lay the pseudo-intellectual groundwork on which Trumpism was built.
To get a handle on Murray, it is probably best to start with the book on which his notoriety primarily rests. A fine example of crypto-Social Darwinism, The Bell Curve caused quite a stir upon its release in 1994. In an intimidating tome that runs over 800 pages and includes countless graphs and tables reporting the results of seemingly sophisticated statistical analyses, the authors make a highly provocative claim: the class structure in American life largely reflects the variations in genetically inherited intelligence, and no amount of government intervention on behalf of those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder will significantly alter the class structure or racial disparities in America. Regardless of the investments that government makes in assisting those from disadvantaged backgrounds, the most intelligent will always rise to the top of the socio-economic ladder, while the less intelligent will sink to the bottom.
Categorically rejecting the mainstream argument among social scientists today that members of underperforming groups have been denied opportunities to reach their full potential, the authors attribute all group differences to immutable genetic factors. Just like Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner, propagators of Social Darwinism in the late nineteenth century, Herrnstein and Murray dismiss structural forces, positing that American society erects no significant impediments to individuals hoping to make their way in the world. Each individual will succeed or fail by virtue of inborn character traits.
What awaits the patient reader who manages to get to the end of The Bell Curve is a harrowing vision of the future in which a growing underclass occupies city centers, continues to have illegitimate children, and relies completely on the “custodial state” for subsistence. “In short, by custodial state, we have in mind a high-tech and more lavish version of the Indian reservation for some substantial minority of the nation’s population, while the rest of America tries to go about its business.” Then, Herrnstein and Murray lay out a pastoral alternative to the custodial state, in which each person must find ways to contribute something of value to his small community. Though their vision appears heartwarming and quaint, the chilling subtext is clear: Without support from the custodial state, the genetically inferior will depend on family and private charity, and thus their numbers will remain respectably low, never exceeding that which a small community can support ad hoc. In accordance with their Social Darwinist predecessors, Herrnstein and Murray believe that the generosity of the welfare state is misplaced and find hope in what they see as a benign neglect of the least fortunate, including the poor, blacks, Hispanics, and other groups.
To support such bold claims about class, race, and public policy, Herrnstein and Murray rely on theories and results that have the veneer of scientific rigor but in fact do not meet accepted scholarly standards. In his famous and devastating takedown of The Bell Curve, the late Stephen Jay Gould, writing in The New Yorker, exposed the fallacious premises on which the authors’ arguments ultimately rest. To start with, if their argument is to have any worth, they must be able to demonstrate the validity of four premises. “Intelligence,” said Gould, “must be depictable as a single number, capable of ranking people in linear order, genetically based, and effectively immutable. If any of these premises are false, their entire argument collapses.” As Gould makes quite clear, most of the premises are clearly invalid or dubious at best.
Murray and Herrnstein try to make these inconvenient truths go away by engaging in flagrant intellectual dishonesty. For example, while Gould cites several experts who challenge the first premise, that general intelligence or cognitive ability can be measured with a single number, Murray and Herrnstein assure the reader that the use of IQ is unassailable. “Among the experts,” they claim, “it is by now beyond much technical dispute that there is such a thing as a general factor of cognitive ability on which human beings differ and that this general factor is measured reasonably well by a variety of standardized tests, best of all by IQ tests.” This kind of deception is par for the course. In an effort to maintain their ruse and sell their argument to an unwitting audience, the “authors omit facts, misuse statistical methods, and seem unwilling to admit the consequences of their own words.” In the end, their entire project rests on unpersuasive theory, shoddy scholarship, and inconclusive empirical findings.
Championed by luminaries on the right, who seek arguments that support laissez faire and the dismantling of the welfare state, The Bell Curve is ultimately a piece of advocacy dressed up in scholarly garb. As Gould put it, The Bell Curve amounts to no more than a “manifesto of conservative ideology” which “evokes the dreary and scary drumbeat of claims associated with conservative think tanks: reduction or elimination of welfare, ending or sharply curtailing affirmative action in schools and workplaces, cutting back Head Start and other forms of preschool education, trimming programs for the slowest learners and applying those funds to the gifted.”
While it purports to make an original contribution to social science, Gould is right when he says that this manifesto, “with its claims and supposed documentation that race and class differences are largely caused by genetic factors and are therefore essentially immutable, contains no new arguments and presents no compelling data to support its anachronistic social Darwinism.” That the book has garnered so much attention, he suggests, is a reflection of “the depressing temper of our time—a historical moment of unprecedented ungenerosity, when a mood for slashing social programs can be powerfully abetted by an argument that beneficiaries cannot be helped, owing to inborn cognitive limits expressed as low IQ scores.” It is because we live in a time when modern conservative ideology has become mainstream that such “anachronistic social Darwinism” can rear its ugly head and yet appear reasonably attractive, if not downright beautiful, to so many.
The link between modern conservatism and crypto-Social Darwinism becomes clearer when one considers the fact that The Bell Curve is a sequel of sorts to Charles Murray’s earlier book, Losing Ground, which upon its release in 1984 not only received rave reviews from conservatives but also helped them frame the welfare reform debate over the next decade. Much to the chagrin of progressives, he concludes in this book that the War on Poverty not only failed to help the people mired in the underclass but also exacerbated their condition by creating a culture of dependence on government handouts and a perverse incentive to break up families.
The central argument of the book, which clearly draws from the concept of moral hazard, is that government efforts to solve the problem of poverty will always make matters worse, for there are plenty of capable people on the dole who would prove their mettle and escape the culture of poverty if forced to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. His policy prescription is simple and familiar: dismantle the welfare system entirely, if possible, or at least make deep cuts in social spending. We will be doing the poor a favor by liberating them from the shackles of welfare dependence and giving them the motivation to succeed. One can see why the book quickly achieved canonical status in the Reagan administration.
If Losing Ground purports to show how the welfare state encourages laziness and poor life choices among those who have the ability to succeed in life, The Bell Curve explains why the welfare state has no chance of helping those who are inherently inferior. In other words, government either creates problems by holding back the capable or throws its money away by trying to improve the life prospects of the incapable. The arguments of these complementary books rest on the Social Darwinist premise that government should refrain from interfering with the competition of life. Failing to do so, says Murray, deprives many people of the opportunity to rise to the occasion—to be the best that they can be—and harms the general welfare by wastefully redistributing wealth from the productive to the unproductive, from the smart and hard-working to the dumb and lazy.
While the rhetoric may be less egregious, the message does not differ all that much from what Spencer and Sumner argued a little over a century ago. Both Social Darwinists then and conservatives today have argued that people who have native ability, work hard, and play by the rules will thrive in a free enterprise system and those who do not will get their just deserts. Somehow they find it inconceivable that the slings and arrows of misfortune do not discriminate between the ostensibly capable and incapable. No one is invulnerable to the savageries of life, especially when markets reign without restraints.
The fact that success or failure in life is largely a function of luck, contingencies beyond the control of any individual, deserves special mention here. Murray and Herrnstein insist that we live in a meritocracy wherein the best and the brightest rise to the top. That is clearly not true. The structural forces that discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, class, and gender are undeniable.
But even if we lived in a society that removed all barriers to success for those people who had been denied equality of opportunity in the past, we would still be left with a deeper problem—the unequal distribution of wealth and power. Until we address this problem, hierarchies and inequities on the basis of arbitrary categories will persist. Those people with characteristics that happen to be valued in the economic system in which they find themselves will have the good fortune of ending up at the top of the social ladder.
Although the characteristics that unequal societies like to reward are the result of pure chance, their underlying ideology is the notion that some people deserve more—and some less—by virtue of their character and choices in life. Meritocracies are no different than, say, aristocracies and plutocracies in this respect. Unlike those regime types, of course, meritocracies reward intelligence, industry, thrift, salesmanship, competitiveness, and perseverance—the very qualities that, as Max Weber pointed out, pay off so well in the capitalist system. But, just like those regimes, meritocracies justify the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of an elite few.
The lesson here is that once we embrace meritocracy as the final aim of a just society, we fall into the trap of accepting the terms of the debate used by the right. In so doing, we make it easier for Murray and others of his ilk to contend that people generally end up where they are supposed to be if government leaves well enough alone. The left needs to make a robust case against socio-economic inequality. Regardless of the supposed choices people make in life, no one deserves to drink water contaminated with lead, live without health insurance, earn less than a living wage, attend low-performing public schools, experience hunger or homelessness, or face any other indignities.
Robert J. Lacey is Associate Professor of Political Science at Iona College. Significant portions of this article are excerpted, sometimes in slightly altered form, from his recent book, Pragmatic Conservatism: Edmund Burke and His American Heirs. The author thanks his publisher, Palgrave Macmillan, for authorizing republication of these sections.