Charles Murray vs Mal Brough

The plight of children is one of the most compelling arguments for government activism, say Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray. But in their 1994 book The Bell Curve, they argue that governments should resist the urge to intervene in dysfunctional families and communities. They warn that attempts to protect children will begin the slide towards a ‘custodial state‘ where politicians and bureaucrats try to control the lives of disadvantaged individuals, families and communities.

At Leftwrites, Michael Berrell claims that Murray’s ideas "largely underpin the direction of welfare policy under the current Howard Government." Berrell couldn’t be more wrong. As Jason Soon points out , Murray’s idea of welfare reform is to give every non-incarcerated adult an obligation-free $10,000 a year.

Of course the free money is only half of Murray’s plan. The other half involves dismantling the welfare state — no more subsidised housing or health care and no extra money for families with children. Many of those on the left — Mark Bahnisch for example — like the idea of a guaranteed minimum income, but don’t like the idea of abolishing the welfare state.

To understand just how different Murray’s views are from those of the Howard government, it’s worth taking a look at his ideas on the coming ‘custodial state’.

Is welfare child abuse?

Confronted by communities filled with neglected and abused children, what kind of politician would willingly sit by and do nothing? Herrnstein and Murray say that they understand the desire to rescue children, but warn against doing anything to help:

…inadequate nutrition, physical abuse, emotional neglect, lack of intellectual stimulation, a chaotic home environment — all the things that worry us when we think about the welfare of children — are very difficult to improve from outside the home when the single mother is incompetent (p 519).

According to Herrnstein and Murray, most welfare dependent single mothers in disadvantaged communities are incompetent. Worse still, government programs can’t change that. The root of the problem is an innate lack of intelligence combined with the bad incentives created by welfare. While government intervention can’t boost a person’s intelligence it can provide incentives for destructive behaviour. Without welfare there wouldn’t be so many abused and neglected children.

In his book Losing Ground and his essay ‘The Coming of Custodial Democracy‘ Murray argues that government anti-poverty policies have actually made things worse. And in the Bell Curve he argues that welfare payments for single mothers encourage low-IQ women to have children and discourage them from getting married. Inevitably, their children also lack ability and are far more likely than others to fail at school, fail in the labour market and fall foul of the law. Unable to overcome these problems, policy makers and intellectuals will become increasingly frustrated.

Send in the troops

Eventually, say Herrnstein and Murray, the dysfunction becomes too obvious to ignore. Policy makers can no longer pretend that they are dealing with the problem by providing income support and social programs:

Politicians and intellectuals alike will become much more open about the role of dysfunctional behavior in the underclass, accepting that addiction, violence, unavailability for work, child abuse, and family disorganization will keep most members of the underclass from fending for themselves. It will be agreed that the underclass cannot be trusted to use cash wisely. Therefore policy will consist of greater benefits, but these will be primarily in the form of services rather than cash. Furthermore, there will be new restrictions (p 523).

The government will take over many of the responsibilities normally left to parents. "Children will get balanced diets because they will be eating breakfast, lunch, and perhaps supper at school" say Herrnstein and Murray. Support will grow for a "national system of identification cards, coded with personal information including criminal record" (p 524). Custodial democracy will also change the relationship between national and state governments:

As states become overwhelmed, the current cost sharing between the states and federal government will shift towards the federal budget. The mounting costs will also generate intense political pressure on Washington to do something. Unable to bring itself to do away with the welfare edifice — for by that time it will be assumed that social chaos will follow any radical cutback — the government will continue to try to engineer behavior through new programs and regulations. As time goes on and hostility towards the welfare-dependent increases, those policies are likely to become authoritarian and rely increasingly on custodial care (p 525).

Custodial democracy will have arrived. With one set of institutions for ordinary citizens and another for those who depend on the state, the government will have installed a form of social apartheid.

Murray’s alternative

Murray’s preferred to solution is to abolish the welfare state. But if that seems too drastic, he’s willing to compromise. In his latest book, In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State, Murray combines the abolition of all welfare programs with an annual $10,000 grant to every adult American. There are only three qualifications — you have to have a bank account, you don’t get the money if you’re in prison and you have to spend at least $3000 of the grant on health care.

Murray describes his plan as a direct descendent of Milton Friedman’s Negative Income Tax proposal. Murray’s aim is not to eliminate poverty, but to eliminate involuntary poverty. "I’m not saying that no one would live in squalor after the plan goes into effect, but nobody needs to", says Murray. But this isn’t exactly true. As sociologist Dalton Conley points out, poor children don’t choose their parents. Their poverty is involuntary.

This isn’t an oversight on Murray’s part — it’s deliberate. One of his major objections to the welfare state is that it encourages incompetent, low-ability women to have children without having husbands. For Murray illegitimacy is at the root of problems like crime, violence and unemployment (pdf). In The Bell Curve he and Herrnstein argued that unmarried mothers should have no legal right to demand support from the child’s father (p 545).

Over time, Murray thinks his plan will reduce the number of ‘underclass‘ women raising children. Some of the babies will be adopted, some of the women will get abortions, and others will avoid getting pregnant in the first place. Young women will learn that the only way to raise a child and avoid poverty is to get married.

Are there really only two alternatives?

Murray presents us with a choice, either we dismantle the welfare state or we risk seeing the rise a custodial state that treats entire categories of people as non-citizens. This choice depends on a crucial assumption — that there is nothing the welfare state can do to help people work their way out of poverty.

In The Rhetoric of Reaction, Albert Hirschman summed up conservative attacks on the welfare state in three theses:

futility–the claim that all attempts at social engineering are powerless to alter the natural order of things; perversity–the argument that interventions will actually backfire and have the opposite of their intended effect; and jeopardy–the idea that a new, possibly more radical reform will threaten older, hard won liberal reforms.

Murray leans heavily on the futility and perversity theses. According to Murray, programs which attempt improve outcomes for children will almost always fail. Those that do not will produce such small effects that they are not worth the cost. These programs are futile. Income support programs that attempt to reduce poverty by supporting single women with children will have a perverse effect — rather reducing child poverty, they will increase it. Income support payments linked to family size make it more likely that single women will have babies.

Murray’s case for the futility thesis is particularly open to criticism. Not only does he argue that social programs don’t work, but he claims that they can’t work. Even tough-minded Chicago economists like James Heckman find this claim implausible. Heckman argues that early childhood programs can work but that Murray’s obsession with raising IQ prevents him from understanding how. "Enriched early intervention programs targeted to disadvantaged children have had their biggest effect on noncognitive skills: motivation, self-control and time preference" he says. Heckman goes on to argue that:

If we don’t provide disadvantaged young children with the proper environments to foster cognitive and noncognitive skills, we’ll create a class of people without such skills, without motivation, without the ability to contribute to the larger society nearly as much as they could if they’d been properly nurtured from an early age. Neglecting the early years creates an underclass that is arguably growing in the United States. The family is the major source of human inequality in American society.

Not all efforts to improve early childhood development are successful, but there is a growing body of evidence on what works (for an overview of some of the research see here). Murray seems suspiciously eager to give up on government programs.

From science fiction dystopia to outback reality?

In 1995 Heckman wrote that Herrnstein and Murray’s vision of the coming custodial state "reads more like a story borrowed from science fiction novels than a plausible extrapolation of existing social trends." Would he say the same thing today?




More links on Charles Murray and the idea of obligation-free welfare


Lawrence Mead, ‘The Check Is in the MailFirst Things

Toward the end of In Our Hands, Murray makes clear that his priority is not really to overcome the dysfunctions behind poverty. Rather, it is to restore the small-government society of the nineteenth century. Then there were no government social programs.

Ezra Klein, ‘Mr Big: Charles Murray’s Nuttiest Idea YetThe New Republic

Well, OK, somebody needs to say it: Murray is harebrained. His particular brand of nuttery manifests itself in an obsession with bigness. Other conservatives can propose cutting this or privatizing that. Murray insists on something far more massive and extravagant. (Goldfinger wasn’t content just robbing a bank: He wanted to contaminate Fort Knox with a nuclear bomb.) In the Plan, Murray’s insistence on bigness has reached its final, loopy culmination.

Philippe Van Parijs, ‘A Basic Income for AllBoston Review

Van Parijs argues for a Universal Basic Income (UBI)– "an income paid by a government, at a uniform level and at regular intervals, to each adult member of society".

True, a UBI is undeserved good news for the idle surfer. But this good news is ethically indistinguishable from the undeserved luck that massively affects the present distribution of wealth, income, and leisure. Our race, gender, and citizenship, how educated and wealthy we are, how gifted in math and how fluent in English, how handsome and even how ambitious, are overwhelmingly a function of who our parents happened to be and of other equally arbitrary contingencies.

Elizabeth Anderson, ‘What Is the Point of Equality?Ethics

Not an article about Charles Murray but an argument against ‘luck egalitarians‘ like Van Parijs.

Those on the left have no less reason than conservatives and libertarians to be disturbed by recent trends in academic egalitarian thought. First, consider those whom recent academic egalitarians have singled out for special attention: beach bums, the lazy and irresponsible, people who can’t manage to entertain themselves with simple pleasures, religious fanatics. Thomas Nagel and Gerald Cohen give us somewhat more sympathetic but also pitiable characters in taking stupid, talentless, and bitter people to be exemplary beneficiaries of egalitarian concern. What has happened to the concerns of the politically oppressed? What about inequalities of race, gender, class, and caste? Where are the victims of nationalist genocide, slavery, and ethnic subordination?


Gary Sauer-Thompson at Public Opinion:

Murray’s position is simple. Inequality is good. Inequality is natural and intelligence is hereditary. By not accepting that we are embracing the second rate and so doing nothing excellence. This is conservatism, not libertarianism, since liberalism has held that equality is a basic or core value of the liberal tradition along with freedom.

Jason Soon at Catallaxy:

In effect Murray predicts that a society with less government would be spontaneously a more communitarian society comprised of neighbourly, self reliant two parent families steeped in the bourgeois virtues. All these are big ‘if’s and though not totally implausible certainly need more work demonstrating, as does Murray’s implicit claim that the welfare state is somehow completely or almost completely ‘crowding out’ voluntary charitable and other activity.

Harry Brighouse at Crooked Timber:

Before writing about it I did a quick google search, and was glad to see it being attacked by some of his colleagues on the right; it confirmed my sense that there’s a lot of good stuff in it, and that the wool is not being pulled over my eyes.

Ezra Klein at Ezra Klein

The question has always been why folks take his ideas seriously. The best I can come up with is the Murray discovered and skillfully exploited a fairly foundational flaw among journalists — their generalist nature. Most commentators are not wonks, and they’re definitely not statisticians. Therefore, when faced with one of Murray’s opuses, they’re dazzled by the array of statistics, multivariate regression analyses, and other impressive techniques he uses, the flaws of which the reviewers are often ill-equipped to assess.

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14 years ago

Amazing the presumed power of a Husband (as in farming..?)to lift those feckless women out of their uterine uselessness.
Hands up those who would prefer to be raised in a Father Knows Best (wot he wants)broodhouse or by an adequately resourced (and not even maddy Murray opines that Male-occupation means munificence) single mother or female couple?

14 years ago

I thought that such strident determinism was a thing of the long lost past. Apparantly not.

14 years ago

According to one review of early childhood intervention programs:

“An extensive body of research indicates that high quality early intervention for at-risk infants, toddlers and young children and their families is a sound economic investment. Studies have found a number of long-term cost savings in terms of decreased grade repetition, reduced special education spending, enhanced productivity, lower welfare costs, increased tax revenues, and lower
juvenile justice costs.”

In respect of IQ (which in any event isn’t as significant as Murray indicates), I suspect that female children helped by a successful intervention program are less likely as adults to give birth prematurely or to engage in risky behaviours like poor diet or drug and alcohol consumption.

You are being to kind when you say Murray “seems suspiciously eager to give up on government programs”. I suggest he is just another dishonest Libertarian sleaze.

The Libertarian mantra about the evils of Government intervention is a fraud as the empirical evidence in so many areas, including the efficacy of early childhood interventions for “at risk” kids, is incontrovertible.

14 years ago

Oops- “too kind” not “to kind”.

Ken Lovell
14 years ago

Picky point of detail I know but why TF do they want to force people to spend 30% of their incomes on health care? I wouldn’t have spent $3,000 on health care in a single one of my many years on earth … well apart from my birth maybe. Don’t remember how much that cost. It seems a bizarre requirement.

Syd Webb
14 years ago

G’day Don,

I’m a little surprised to see you quoting approvingly from The Bell Curve. I seem to recall that that had been extensively debunked.

Doing a quick Google I see my recollection is correct. Searching on the terms “the bell curve” and “fallacy” you’ll get 32,200 hits.

14 years ago

Jacques, if both parents are incompetent, and many are, the child will struggle also. It could be argued that many people should not be allowed to procreate!

paul frijters
paul frijters
14 years ago

The real choice here is between targeted programs with their well-known desincentives versus negative income taxes, i.e. lump-sum transfers to every adult. The idea that blanket benefits for everyone is going to help us get out of welfare traps is a very old one and has never been implemented by any state. There are good reasons for that. The main ones are:

– think of the cost. If you dont want to seriously reduce welfare levels, you’re going to have to give every adult over 18 at least 10,000 AUS per year. Also, you’re going to have to give everyone with dependent children a blanket subsidy (most of the disincentives come in via taper rates on the benefits for the kids), in the order of 6,000 per dependent child. That’s 32,000 AUS for your average 2-adult, 2-kids family. For the whole of Australia (some 15 million adults and 6 million kids) that would be a bill around 186 billion AUS per year. That’s 20% of GDP, whereas the current bill is about 7% of GDP. Murray’s solution to welfare problems is thus to trebble welfare!

– think of the desincentives. A negative income tax means telling every kid and adult that if they dont want to work later in life, the state will look after them without any stigma involved (since the whole population gets welfare). And this is supposed to help work incentives?

– think of the desincentives, part 2. How are the extra costs going to be financed? By additional taxes on those that work of course. Hence the plan would involve massive work desincentives for those currently working as well as opening up the attractive option to welfare for everyone. Hmmm.

– dont believe that this is the end of the problem. The costs above are not the only costs. The state would still bear the continuing costs of schooling, health, retirement, and all the rest of it.

Though negative income taxes have long been the darling of the economic community, the reality is that their introduction would amount to a massive expansion of the state and an increase in work desincentives. The idea that one can get rid of the incentive problems associated with welfare by having more welfare is silly and strongly misleading. Whilst I sympathise with much of the analysis of the problem, Murray is not seriously talking about solutions. He’s not the only one though to pretend to offer policy solutions to hard problems that are in reality not a solution at all.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
14 years ago

Syd – The point I’m making in is that Murray’s views are from those of the Howard government.

Anyone who wants to get an idea of what’s wrong with the analysis in the Bell Curve can click the link in the first paragraph. They’ll find criticisms by Stephen Jay Gould, Howard Gardner, and Leon Kamin.

The fact that James Heckman, a Nobel Prize winning Chicago economist, disagrees with Murray’s analysis shows how far outside the mainstream Murray’s views are. Heckman is notoriously pessimistic about the effectiveness of government programs, yet even he thinks that Murray goes too far. In his Reason Magazine article he writes:

Operating on the empirical playing field chosen by Murray and Herrnstein, a die-hard interventionist could find much credible evidence to support an active social policy to eliminate skill differentials. Their implicit claim that ability drives the economic return to education, and the recent increase in the economic return to education, fails to pass empirical muster.

Over at Catallaxy I’m being attacked because of the way I disapprove of Murray’s work.

14 years ago

“The Libertarian mantra about the evils of Government intervention is a fraud as the empirical evidence in so many areas, including the efficacy of early childhood interventions for at risk kids, is incontrovertible”

This seems like one blanket comment versus another. Obviously all government programs are great, I’ll believe that — I might quit my job and go on work for the dole, just for the benefits of such a great program. More seriously, the idea that early childhood intervention programs work is highly disputed (and another blanket statement), and the programs themselves are non-homogenous in terms of the types of things they are trying to target. Hundreds of millions of dollars in the US, for example, is spent on various literacy programs (e.g., Fast Forword), yet the benefit is tiny if anything, and many of the evaluation studies are extremely poorly run.

If the is evidence is really so conclusive, as you say, I’ll be impressed if you can provide evidence of a single study looking at early literacy programs that has been run with a proper design (i.e., randomized groups, one-control group doesn’t do any other study and a second group that gets a task of a similar nature in terms of demands but not to do with literacy — e.g., mathematics program) that finds any reasonably large effect.

Andy McAndy
Andy McAndy
14 years ago

If you’ve got time, check out the GetP campaign at, and think about sending a message before Tuesday to the Senate, about the NT National Emergency Response laws – the senators are going to vote on the laws then, without having had time to read through the submissions to the hearing, or really think about the implications of controlling Aboriginal lives (many rights that most of us take for granted will be denied to Aborigines in the NT), or think about whether instead of spending 200 million on controlling every Aboriginal’s social security payments, it might be better to spend the money on training Aborigines to build and maintain houses, training more Indigenous police officers, providing education, advice and support to victims of sexual abuse.

14 years ago

My pleasure Conrad, and here are the results:

“In this study, we conducted the first cost-benefit analysis of the federally financed Title I Chicago Child-Parent Center (CPC) Program. The major question addressed was: Do program benefits exceed costs? The CPC program is a school-based preschool and early school-age intervention for low-income children that emphasizes parent involvement and the development of literacy skills. Previous studies have indicated that program participation beginning in preschool is independently associated with higher school achievement, higher rates of school completion through age 20, lower rates of school dropout, lower rates of juvenile arrest for violent and non-violent charges, and with less need for school remedial services (see Reynolds, Temple, Robertson, & Mann, 2001, and Reynolds, 2000).


Given limited financial and human resources for health and educational interventions, greater levels of public investments in programs with demonstrated cost-effectiveness are warranted. Unlike most other social programs, the Child-Parent Center Program provides benefits to society that far exceed costs and is routinely implemented through a large urban school district. The present value of public benefits of the preschool program for the 1,000 study children totaled $26 million. Since 100,000 children have been served by the program to date, these benefits translate to as much as $2.6 billion in public savings since the program opened (1998 dollars). As states and localities increase access to early childhood care and education programs, public schools appear to be the location of choice for these initiatives. The findings of this study show the long-term payoffs that these public programs can provide.”

You will find further studies confirming the efficacy of early childhood intervention programs if you peruse my earlier link and also that provided by Don Arthur in his post.

The fact that some badly planned, poorly funded, half-arsed interventions have not yielded such good results is to be expected and it doesn’t invalidate the well established fact that well designed, funded and implemented programs do work.

Murray and the conga line of Libertarian suck-holes who deliberately ignore the evidence are (a) ideological zealots, (b) dishonest or (c) both a and b.

Once again we see Libertarianism falsified and Social-Democratic interventionism triumphant.

14 years ago

As you seem not to have noticed, I said literacy programs, being a subset of general programs. I’m not an expert on general programs, and haven’t ever thought too hard about those results. However, I have thought about the results in terms of literacy programs, and Fast Forword is the biggest of these programs in the US (it attracts huge government funding). It also opperates in Australia (without government support I believe). You should feel free to examine their own hyperbole on their own site. For example, here are their results on dyslexia:

As can be seen from the diagram, there is a small improvement of the non-control over the control. Yet if you dig further, you will notice the control group does nothing in-between. This is a poor design, and my bet (in fact, it’s not really a bet, I’ve collected similar data in a big government study, and I know of other people that have too) is that all they are finding is a motivational effect — if the control kids had done say, a maths condition that was equally as demanding , they would have improved on “literacy” too. Thats nice, but nothing to do with literacy. Its also data collected by themselves. I’m not saying its been diddled or anything — but you can’t do that for things like drug testing and the like, for obvious reasons. Compounding this is that I also believe there are restrictions on publishing scientific data using this program.

You might also like to click on all the neuroscience papers. All these papers show is that you get brain activation changes. Thats nice, but since it isn’t clear what those activation changes actually mean in terms of cognitive function, they’re basically spin designed to impress an ignorant public.

I don’t know of any other programs with better data than this, or perhaps I’m just ignorant of the data — thats why I asked you, as you obviously must.

14 years ago

Incidentally, just to show you why I think that you should be wary of the data in these sorts of programs, here is a link to the main director being charged with fraud (although not of the scientific variety):

derrida derider
derrida derider
14 years ago

Graeme – it might seem unjust (I think you’ve been making some effort at civility, concision and thread relevance lately), but given your past behaviour you really can’t blame Jacques and co for erring on the side of excessive censorship.

As a long-time BI person, I’m bemused to see Murray on board even if I think the man is a dishonest toad.

Paul is right to point to the main issues with a BI, but a couple of points he makes are a feature rather than a bug. We’re rich enough to afford more leisure – what’s wrong with giving those who sufficiently hate poorly renumerated drudgery a very modest competence to let them explore other ways of life? Or with giving workers more ability to transfer rents from employers by reducing the cost of job loss? Also I’m not at all convinced that a heavy but linear tax would have the dire incentive effects that opponents predict (though that’s a long story for a different thread).

Certainly a BI is the diametric opposite of the currently fashionable “welfare to work” approach (IMO the latter is in practice a conservative – even reactionary – policy that those who consider themselves libertarian or liberal oughtn’t to touch with a barge pole). But it really does depend on what your vision of the good society is – this goes way beyond a technical question of aggregate labour supply. Unfortunately my vision of the good society is not the same as the median voters’ vision; that’s why no government has tried a BI (as Paul points out) and why I expect they never will.

Peter Whiteford
Peter Whiteford
14 years ago

Apart from the points, Paul frijters makes there is also the question of who are the main winners from a GMI. Put another way who currently lose from Australia’s targeted system? I would have thought that two of the biggest groups would be persons of age pension age who are income-tested out of the pension plus the low income spouses of employed people. So what a GMI would do – depending on how it was financed – would be to increase the income of retired civil servants and single income families.


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