Bryan Caplan  

Murray's Blind Spots

PRINT
A Little Optimism from Walter ... Gridlock vs. Compromise on the...
I'm an admirer of Charles Murray's Coming Apart.  But two big blind spots stand out:

1. Drugs.  Murray chronicles the massive increase in the U.S. prison population without mentioning, much less condemning, the War on Drugs. 
[S]urveys on drug use wouldn't begin until the late 1970s - but there certainly wasn't much happening that attracted the interest of the police.  In 1963, there were just 18 arrests for drug abuse violations per 100,000 Americans, compared to 1,284 per 100,000 for drunkenness.
For an explicit libertarian like Murray, this is a massive omission.  Yes, consumer demand and willingness to work in the illegal sector may have changed, too.  But if we retained the lax drug enforcement of 1963, there would be vastly fewer drug arrests and vastly fewer human beings behind bars.  This in turn would have important secondary consequences: A larger supply of free, legally employed men, trying to impress women with their industry rather than their machismo, leading to more marriage and more two-parent homes.

In the acknowledgments, Murray profusely thanks former Drug Czar Bill Bennett:
Bill Bennett deserves a special acknowledgment.  We had originally decided to write a book together and prepared a proposal on the same broad topic as Coming Apart.  At the last minute - and I do mean the last minute - I realized that the book I wanted to write would be such a personal statement that I couldn't collaborate with anyone, not even someone as simpatico as Bill.
I can imagine how a libertarian and Bill Bennett could be dear friends.  But I can't imagine how a libertarian could entertain the idea of co-authoring a book on the underclass with a drug warrior.  Even stranger, after dropping Bennett from the project, Murray still wrote a narrative that Bennett could easily accept.

2. The welfare state.  Murray strongly rejects social democracy, but he makes an undeserved concession:
With regard to advocacy of the European model: If you think that providing economic equality and security are primary functions of government, you should be a social democrat.
On the contrary: If you think that providing economic equality and security are primary functions of government, you should favor open borders.  Free immigration is the mightiest poverty program known to man.  It also greatly enhances security more broadly defined - as the Jews denied asylum by Roosevelt tragically remind us.  Open borders Gilded Age America was vastly more humane than any European social democracy could ever hope to be. 

Why not open borders and the European model?  Friedman's view that "You cannot simultaneously have free immigration and a welfare state" is greatly overstated.  But there probably aren't enough resources on earth to give European-level benefits to anyone who scrapes together the cost of a boat ticket.  Realistically speaking, you'd have to be more austere than the U.S. to make open borders work.  Murray should have proudly recommend this open borders + austerity package to the friends of equality and security, and affably insisted: "My policy beats yours on your own terms."



COMMENTS (10 to date)
ghost of christmas past writes:

But many of us don't weight reducing the poverty of foreigners as highly as improving the lot of Americans. Open immigration would clearly harm current Americans, so it's hardly Murray's job to advocate it.

Also, you may have misestimated the extent to which the differences in the impact of drugs decades ago compared to today relate to enforcement vs consumption. Crack consumption is way down now, but it was very, and destructively, high 20 years ago--and then harms from abuse clearly "pulled" enforcement (and so harms from enforcement). Yet crack was unknown when Murray's story begins. Social costs from drugs, Libertarian dogma notwithstanding, really do result partly from consumption rather than wholly from enforcement.

Doug writes:

As strong as Murray's work is on certain points, David Simon is still a better sociologist of the underclass.

Curmudgeon writes:

Completely open borders? To whom? Can policy be based solely on the basis of economic considerations? Londonistan and similar places elsewhere in Britain, some neighbourhoods of Belgian, Dutch, French cities. make me skeptical. Some irresponsible dreamers even promote Turkish membership in the European Union.

ajb writes:

I predict that you cannot have a substantially larger fraction of the US population be composed of low skilled Latin American immigrants and their descendants and attain economic/social equality comparable to the 1950s or 60s without a welfare state (and probably not even then, short of full on socialist redistribution).

I predict that if in 20 years US total population were to grow substantially, and low end immigration were to increase disproportionately, that the U.S. would be both more unequal (a much stronger 1%) and have more pressures to move away from market oriented policies.

Unfortunately it's hard to have a clean test of this because economic policy is already interacting with immigration policy. And fortunately, Caplan's unconstrained call will go unheeded. But it is quite possible that pressure to open marginally will increase.

Brian writes:

Murray is against the drug war. Have you not read "What It Means To Be a Libertarian"?

Mercer writes:

" think that providing economic equality and security are primary functions of government, you should favor open borders. Free immigration is the mightiest poverty program known to man. "

This attitude is one reason the white lower class is failing in America. Policymakers care more about reducing poverty outside the US then they do about the economic plight of American citizens.

Silas Barta writes:

I condemn the Drug War too, but it is really locking up a bastion of highly-productive, high-potential males? Seriously?

People who take drugs are going to great lengths (secrecy, cost, etc) to do something clearly illegal, incessantly warned against throughout schools, and which is known to bring about prison time.

That kind of person ranks very low on the conscientiousness scale, and thus is likely to be unproductive and self-destructive in numerous other ways.

Yes, I have trouble controlling my own cravings for unhealthy things, like ice cream. But if it were illegal, I'd look for a substitute, not go deeper into self-destruction.

Evan writes:
This attitude is one reason the white lower class is failing in America. Policymakers care more about reducing poverty outside the US then they do about the economic plight of American citizens.
According to the government's tax dollars calculator they spend 21.9% of income tax dollars on programs to help poor and unemployed people in America and another 10.7% on Medicaid. By contrast they spend 0.7% of tax dollars on foreign development assistance and 0.4% on foreign military assistance. And I don't think social security is factored into those numbers!

Now, obviously there are confounding factors, such as the fact that some of those anti-poverty program recipients will be recent immigrants. And there's also the argument that some of these programs actually hurt poor people by reducing their incentive to work. But we're attempting to measure caring, not effectiveness. And at a glance it looks like the average politician cares about helping poor people in America at least 30 times more than it cares about helping poor foreigners.

I sometimes kind of wish policy makers did care a little more about poor foreigners, since they're objectively much poorer than poor Americans. But then I remember that if they did, they'd probably find some way to screw up helping them as badly as they screw up anti-poverty programs here.

Nicolas Martin writes:

Charles Murray is to libertarianism what Ron Jeremy is to thespianism.

Nathan Smith writes:

re: "Realistically speaking, you'd have to be more austere than the U.S. to make open borders work."

Yes and no. You'd have to accept a lot more visible poverty. But for natives, you could make the welfare state even more generous, financed by migration taxes. (See my book.) If that sounds unfair, it is. But for the claim that it's anything but vastly less unfair than migration restrictions, I defy anyone to offer even a remotely tenable argument.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top