Class and Virtue

February 13, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

How to inculcate virtue in the lower classes?  Since Victorian times, if not before, this question has troubled the upper classes.

I’m sure that it’s pure coincidence that Charles Murray’s new book* hit the stores just a few days before the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens.  To us, looking back to the England of Dickens, it seems obvious that the virtue of the upper class was a luxury afforded by their wealth (largely inherited).  And the absence of virtue, the vice, of the lower class was a reasonable response to the cruel conditions of their position in society. 

I can’t really do a Tale of Two Charleses here since I haven’t read Murray’s book (I confess I never read that other Charlesbook, the two cities one, either), but the reviews make it clear that Murray’s central theme is virtue, especially the decline of virtue among the white lower classes.  Here is economist Bryan Caplan paraphrasing:
College graduates in high-IQ occupations aren’t just doing well economically; they continue to practice the Founding Virtues of marriage, industry, honesty, and religion.  The working class, in contrast, has fallen apart.  Never mind their stagnant wages; they’ve almost completely lost touch with the Founding Virtues that allow college graduates to live successful, meaningful lives. 
Pay no attention to those stagnant wages behind the curtain. Focus on virtue.

But maybe even virtue can be confusing.  Take family for example.  Murray provides the statistic that among white women who never went past high school, the proportion who have had out-of-wedlock children has risen to 40%.  This should have disastrous consequences –  for the children themselves, for the women, for the working class, and maybe for whole sectors of society. 

But apparently it is not inherently damaging.  If bastardy (to use Dickensian diction)  indicates lack of virtue, and if a healthy economy rests on virtue, countries with high rates of out-of-wedlock births must be in for a rough time. By contrast, a country with a very low rate of out-of-wedlock children, a virtuous society, would be rich in other ways too.

Just to confirm this, I looked up some data on OECD countries. 

(Click on an image for a larger view.)
The US is at just about the OECD average, but look who’s above us. The Scandinavian countries, France, Belgium, the Netherlands – they all have national rates that are above that of our “fallen apart” white working class.  And yet, their economies are relatively solid, even in these uncertain times.  And who’s way below us?  Greece, for one, along with some other countries – notably Italy and Spain –  which are said to be near the brink of economic disaster.

The point is that the consequences of having an out-of-wedlock child are not automatically disastrous. Governments can do things to make having children – in or out of wedlock – more economically difficult or less so. 

The marital status of a mother may be less important than her age.  Having a child at an early age makes everything more complicated.  And the US has many more teenage mothers than do other advanced countries.

Our adolescent fertility rate has decreased considerably since 1980, but it’s still three times that of most European countries.  Should we chalk this up to lack of virtue?  Murray seems to blame the kinds of people who drive to Whole Foods in their Priuses, or better yet, go on their bicycles, and then of course recycle.  You know them, the liberal elite – the ones that conservatives accuse of wanting the US to be more like Europe.  Maybe on this teen motherhood thing, these elitists have a point; being more like Europe might not be so bad.

* Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010


Jake said...

The "pay no mind to stagnant wages" part of Murray's argument is wrongheaded, but liberal commentators on his book have consistently overshot the mark. Norms matter. People repond to immaterial incentives as surely as they do to material ones, and moral entrepreneurship has a role to play in empowering people to fight for what's theirs. Consider the Nation of Islam or Harlem Children's Zone. Both seek to undo some of the cultural damage done by the market and racist oppression, and in the process give formerly disempowered people a greater sense of agency. This is a necessary precondition for people to stand up to oppression. Unless it's just liberal academics and elites who'll be storming the barricades, we should be taking seriously the useful parts of Murray's book rather than just dismissing it wholesale as reactionary claptrap.

Jay Livingston said...

Jake, I don’t think that liberals disdain efforts like the ones you mention. Liberals are all descended from Saul Alinsky, and giving people a greater sense of agency is what Alinsky was all about. And the Kenyan Socialist was himself, like Alinsky, a Chicago-based community organizer.

Murray is probably right that poor people would be better off if they were more virtuous. That was probably true in Dickensian London. But there’s also the question of how steep the gradient of rewards for virtue is. If a whole lot of virtue makes you only slightly better off than your unvirtuous peers, you may decide that it’s not worth it.

I also wonder about which is more important – the effect of virtue on economic situation or the effect of economics on virtue. In the 1990s, unemployment was low, and wages were rising. So was virtue. Crime, illegitimacy, and other indicators of lack of virtue were declining. (I know only about national data. I’m not sure if this was applied to the white working class, but I would expect the trends to be the same there.) Could Murray have written this same book in 2000?