The traditional—or at least doctrinaire—response of conservatives and libertarians to the phenomenon of income inequality has been, “So what?” The common attitude of many on the Right is that, in a free-market economy, individual differences in ability, skill, and effort will lead to inequality of income. James Madison summed up the sentiment nicely in Federalist 10 when he stated that the “first object of Government” consists of “the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property,” which “immediately results” in “the possession of different degrees and kinds of property.” In a free society, it is often believed that unequal results are inevitable—for some, even desirable.
It is not easy to summarize Charles Murray’s latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America: 1960-2010 (Crown Forum), and the author himself never lays out his argument. But it seems to go something like this: Since 1960, two new classes have formed in America that are fundamentally shifting the nature of the society: 1) A New Upper Class, larger than that which preceded it, that is the product of an cognitive meritocracy and increased returns on brains; and 2) a New Lower Class that is the product of—well, he never says. (Although Murray does not use the term, the class is essentially what Marx called the lumpenproletariat—criminals, isolates, the mentally ill, and others outside of the labor market.) The two classes are diverging in terms of taste and geographical segregation such that they cannot understand and empathize with each other. They are also diverging in the four “founding virtues” that have been the sine qua non of the American republic: industriousness, honesty (by which he typically means law-abidingness), marriage, and religiosity. While the New Upper Class has seen small decreases in adherence to these virtues, the New Lower Class has suffered precipitous declines that threaten the very ability to support a functional community. These declines have occurred independently of the economy as a whole, and independently of race and ethnicity.
While the New Upper Class is not doing badly per se, it is increasingly a “hollow elite” lacking in the self-confidence and moral fortitude required by its station: to set and promulgate standards for the entire society. Unless drastic change occurs—namely, the elimination of all forms of welfare, including Social Security and Medicare—the confluence of the softening of the New Upper Class and the degeneration of the New Lower Class will lead us to our “doom,” the acceptance of the model of the European welfare state.
We will thus witness the end of the “American project”—the exceptional effort that “human beings can be left free as individuals and families to live their lives as they see fit.” This will have a disastrous effect on our happiness, defined to mean something like Maslow’s self-actualization. Hope remains, however, that we will avoid that path by heeding the lessons of Europe’s looming bankruptcy.