Charles Murray: Champion of elitism, enemy of the elites

"A degree from Harvard or Yale is not a pre-requisite for president", says talk show host Glenn Beck while Christine O’Donnell begins a campaign ad by disclosing "I didn’t go to Yale". If there’s one thing tea party champions agree on, it’s that a new elite has taken over America. It’s an elite that’s out of touch with ordinary Americans, and its claims to power rest on its supposedly superior intellect.

According to Harvard graduate Charles Murray, the tea party has a point. America’s new elite really is "isolated from mainstream America and ignorant about the lives of ordinary Americans." One thing Murray and the tea partiers agree about, is that America is run by an elite that sneers at the values of mainstream America and is leading the country to ruin. It’s the elite’s rejection of mainstream values, not their educational qualifications, that Murray and the tea partiers object to.

Some critics think it’s ironic that a Harvard graduate would sympathise with an assault on Ivy League elites. But as the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg explains, "Attacking the Ivy League is a very old, very recognizable shorthand in American political discourse." When critics like Beck, O’Donnell or Sarah Palin "denigrate Ivy League elitists," he writes , "they have a particular elite in mind."

While Murray’s attacks have always appeared cool and academic, the tea party is white hot with rage. What enrages the tea party supporters most is the sense that they’re being looked down on by people who think they’re smarter and more moral. It’s a feeling Glenn Beck expressed in one of his on-air rants:

… researchers have just found the liberal gene that adults have a specific gene and they are more likely to be liberal as adults. Wow. So if I’m a conservative, am I missing a gene? You are born that way into all that kindness and goodness and intellectual prowess?

Tea party supporters don’t accept that they are intellectually or morally inferior to ‘the elite’ but this doesn’t mean they are champions of egalitarianism or the underdog. As Will Wilkinson writes: "The tea party is a movement of relatively well-to-do, relatively religious citizens aroused by the conservative identity politics of a handful of elite right-wing opinion-makers who seek to unseat their liberal counterparts."

According to psychologist Jonathan Haidt, the tea partiers believe that the liberal elite is undermining the moral foundations of America. The passion of the tea party movement is not liberty, but karma — the idea that a natural order will ensure good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds punished. The tea partiers believe that America’s market economy more or less achieves this, but that the liberal elite has subverted the fairness of the market through government intervention aimed at equality of outcome.

Work shy high school drop-outs who have babies out of wedlock are rewarded with welfare payments — their indolent lifestyles underwritten by the taxes of working Americans. Minority groups like blacks are able to rely affirmative action rather than talent and hard work to gain entry into college and secure the best jobs. And people who were too unskilled and low paid to ever think of becoming home owners are now being bailed out by the government when they recklessly borrowed more than they could repay. This is how tea party supporters see the America created by the elite — a topsy turvy world where vice is rewarded and virtue punished.

Where the tea party movement tends towards anti-intellectualism, Murray insists on the importance of intellect and excellence. Beck insists that "you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to lead America", but Murray says it’s inevitable a modern nation like America will be run by a cognitive elite. While there may not be a ‘liberal gene’, Murray argues that intellectual prowess is largely a matter of genetics.

In books like In Pursuit, Murray draws on the work of political theorist Martin Diamond. Like the tea party’s champions, Diamond appeals to the ideals of America’s founding fathers. Thomas Jefferson’s ideal was a nation governed by a ‘natural aristocracy’ — an aristocracy of virtue and talent rather than one founded on wealth and birth. According to Diamond:

… not only did the original American posture toward equality and democracy accept the social flourishing of inequality, but it was even the proud claim of Americans that their democracy would be the political system in which natural moral and mental superiority would in fact be justly rewarded by discerning people.

But even if Murray is right about the inheritance of intelligence this does not imply that America’s ‘cognitive elite’ are born to rule. As Diamond puts it, human beings may differ in their talents and virtue but:

… this inequality among men is not deemed great or significant enough to warrant the rule of the superior over the inferior as a matter of right. The "Precedency" warrants only voluntary, prudential, social approbation; it does not extend to political rule. Political rule is legitimate only when the people consent to it; no man is superior enough to rule another without that other’s consent.

Diamond’s teacher, Leo Strauss, argued that democracy was threatened by a failure in the education of the elite. In a technological age, the sciences threaten to crowd out the humanities. And the reigning opinion in the sciences is that there is no way to rationally settle disputes about values. Right and wrong along with virtue and vice are reduced to the status of individual preferences. Lingering utilitarian habits lead many scientists to assume that:

… health, a reasonably long life, and prosperity are good things and that science must find means for securing or procuring them.

But after the fact/value distinction is accepted and enforced, there is no reason to think that these things are any better than their opposites. Scientists, including social scientists like economists, end up serving the ends of their ‘customers’. So the uneducated end up guiding the educated.

Strauss’ answer was a return to the study of liberal education — not for the majority, but for a privileged minority:

Liberal education is the necessary endeavor to found an aristocracy within democratic mass society. Liberal education reminds those members of a mass democracy who have ears to hear, of human greatness.

In a similar vein, Murray argues that the most intellectually gifted citizens should be singled out for special treatment. And this includes the study of ethics. As he wrote in an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald: "It is not enough that gifted children learn to be nice; they must know what it means to be good."

According to Murray, our civilisation is threatened by a collapse of moral courage in the ranks of the elite. The old moral code that distinguished between virtue and vice is breaking down, he says. It is no longer shameful to bear a child out of wedlock, for example. The old code is being replaced by something he calls ‘ecumenical niceness’, the requirement that we "treat people equally regardless of gender, race, or sexual preference," that we oppose "poverty and war" and support "fairness and diversity." But according to Murray there’s a problem:

The code of the elites is supposed to set the standard for the society, but ecumenical niceness has a hold only on those people whom the elites are willing to judge—namely, one another. One of the chief tenets of ecumenical niceness is not to be judgmental about the underclass.

Murray wants this to stop. He argues that less intelligent people need clear, simple rules and these should be set by the elite. And this is why he calls for:

… a revival of the classical definition of a liberal education, serving its classic purpose: to prepare an elite to do its duty. If that sounds too much like Plato’s Guardians, face reality. Plato wanted to choose an elite. We in America and Australia alike are stuck with one. Our economies and cultures are run by a cognitive elite that we do not choose. It is a reality embedded in the nature of modernity. All we can do is try to educate the elite to be conscious of, and prepared to meet, its obligations.

It’s not hard to see how this might lead elitists like Murray to form common cause with the populists of the tea party. Offering clear, simple moral rules for the majority might well mean reinforcing exactly the kind of traditional values championed by people like Beck and O’Donnell. And while most highly educated people recognise that markets aren’t engines of karma, Murray’s elite may wonder whether it’s a myth that does more good than harm.

So perhaps Murray understand the significance of the tea party better than his critics give him credit for. It’s not an attack on elitism or academic meritocracy — it’s an attack on a particular intellectual elite that conservatives believe has undermined the legitimacy of its own moral arguments.

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11 years ago

“It’s the elite’s rejection of mainstream values, not their educational qualifications, that Murray and the tea partiers object to.”

I think that might be better stated as “the elites rejection of values that tea partiers think are mainstream” or maybe “the elites rejection of the value tea partiers want, regardless of whether they are mainstream”, as it’s not clear to me that the tea partiers do have mainly mainstream values, even if they themselves believe they do (assuming mainstream equals majority, not common minority points of view). It reminds me of the loud conservative movement here, some of whose members seem to they think they’re right and most people agree with them, even when they don’t.

A good example from your own writing is the following: “Work shy high school drop-outs who have babies out of wedlock are rewarded with welfare payments — their indolent lifestyles underwritten by the taxes of working Americans”. This one really gets over used, but do people really care it in Aus? I don’t think so. Is that also true of the US? I don’t know (perhaps there is real data on the issue), but given their country has rather deep problems right now for other more obvious reasons, I would hope not.

Edward Mariyani-Squire
Edward Mariyani-Squire
11 years ago

What a strange man. If I’m understanding him, he is saying (in part):

1. The members of ‘the elite’ are smarter than the average Joe and that’s why they are ‘the elite’.
2. But they are too dumb to identify and apply the ‘correct values’.
3. So they need to be taught the ‘correct values’.
4. A liberal education (for them only) will teach them the ‘correct values’.

But what if a liberal education produces humane and compassionate elites who think, say, that John Rawls or Amartya Sen is the best thing since sliced bread and proceed to enact some kind of social democratic model?

If that were to occur, then one assumes Mr Murray would say that they had not imbibed the ‘correct values’. And that would presumably have to be put down to the kind of the ‘liberal education’ they received – reading Plato, sure, but also Hegel, Marx, Durkheim, Weber and the rest, right up to Rawls and Sen.

One imagines that a ‘rectification’ of that education would be required – a screening out of ‘left-wing’ influences. Not exactly a book-burning would be required. We are more civilised than that (now). But certainly a book-hiding, at least, would be in order. How come this stuff always has the whiff of fascism about it?

Edward Mariyani-Squire
Edward Mariyani-Squire
11 years ago

1. Regarding a link between Murray and Strauss: since the term ‘link’ is pretty vague, one imagines one could easily say there is one (in some sense or other). If one were to be more specific about it, however, then I suppose it would be possible to dispute the claim. E.g. if one focuses exclusively on the basis for a ‘natural’ elite, Murray seems it to be biological: a few are ‘born smart’, and this can be enhanced by education, whereas the majority are ‘born dumb’ and no amount of education can change that, thus it is sensible to groom the ‘smart’ with a liberal education for elite positions in society. Does Strauss also hold that the basis for elite-hood is also biological? If not, then that could be a potentially important difference between them.

2. Regarding:

Murray would probably be happier to talk about a liberal education fostering ‘wisdom’ than promoting ‘correct values’.

I’m not so sure about this. I suppose it depends on what ‘wisdom’ means here. If we want to be ‘virtue ethicists’, then we could be referring to practical or moral wisdom (phronesis), which would seem to presuppose the inculcation of the virtues (what I’ll call ‘correct values’). Now, if Murray is going down this Greek road as he seems to …

The gifted should not be taught to be nonjudgmental; they need to learn how to make accurate judgments. They should not be taught to be equally respectful of tribal cultures and classical Greece; they should be learning the best in the arts and sciences that has come before them, which will mean a light dose of tribal folkways and a heavy dose of Greeks.

…then at would imply the teaching (the drawing out) of the virtues, and then wisdom (which incidentally, comes not exclusively from education, but sheer wealth of experience).

11 years ago

This strikes me as a version of ‘one rule for the elites, one rule for the rest’. I’ve seen it among some UK (high) Tories. It tends to involve the assertion that the elite can have their drugs and promiscuous sex (insert other experimental lifestyles to taste), but the ‘rest’ can’t, because they are not clever enough to moderate their impulses when necessary or to deal with unintended consequences when it goes wrong. This — according to the same Tories — has been exacerbated by the welfare state, which provides council housing and welfare to (say) young unmarried mothers.

To use the ‘young mother’ example, more libertarian leaning types among these Tories want the welfare stopped but abortion laws made very, very liberal. The more traditional Tories want ‘traditional values’ rammed home at home and school, plus the cutting of welfare. Some combine the two: liberal abortion laws coupled with very clear, simple rules hammered home at every opportunity, but clearly designed to teach the poor restraint and the ability to delay gratification.