In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government

by Charles Murray

Simon and Schuster, 341 pages, $19.95


In January of 1964 President Lyndon Johnson’s Council of Economic Advisers helped launch the War on Poverty by including in its annual report a chapter on “The Problem of Poverty in America.” The final paragraph glowed with confident resolution: “Poverty is not the inevitable fate of any man. The condition can be eradicated; and since it can be, it must be.” A decade later the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin sponsored a conference to evaluate the degree to which the War on Poverty had been successful. In an overview essay introducing the published volume of conference papers, Robert Haveman, a distinguished student of anti-poverty policies, declared that “the day of income poverty as a major public issue would appear to be past.”

No one was writing in that tone at the end of the 1980s. What has happened? Were both the optimistic forecasts of 1964 and the positive assessments of a decade later fundamentally misguided? Or did Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement undo and reverse the achievements of the War on Poverty? Among those who try to bring religious insights to bear on the problems of society, it is almost axiomatic that we experienced a moral failure. Franklin Garnwell, Dean and Professor of Ethics and Society in the University of Chicago Divinity School, declared in a recent chapel address:

In truth, the presence or absence of poverty in this economically advanced society is now a matter open to public choice. However much in other times and places widespread want belonged among the things that could not be changed, it endures in our land only because we consent to it, or, at least, do not decide to cast it out.

Poverty, in short, is a matter of will, and our will has failed. Poverty persists in our society because of the selfishness and indifference of those with wealth and power.

It is easier to hold such a belief if you imagine that government “can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board.” The metaphor is Adam Smith’s, who went on to observe in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that “the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them,” whereas “in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that with the legislature might choose to impress upon it.” It may be no more (and no less) true that the elimination of poverty is “open to public choice” than that traffic accidents continue to occur in our land only “because we consent to it.” The relevant truth is that we do not know how to eliminate poverty or traffic accidents at costs acceptable to those whose behavior we must affect, which means in fact that we do not know how to eliminate them at all. In the case of poverty, it is surely not sufficient for its elimination that we affect the behavior of the wealthy and powerful. In their eagerness to avoid “blaming the victim” (a valuable concept when William Ryan first promulgated it in 1971, but increasingly a cant phrase used to shut off inquiry), many advocates for the poor are refusing to face the issues that must be addressed if poverty policy is to do more good than harm.

Charles Murray is the most articulate voice insisting today that we do not know how lo eliminate poverty or even reduce it substantially and that we need to rethink from the beginning what it is we can realistically hope to accomplish in this area. His first effort was Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980, published in 1984. There Murray tried to demonstrate, with an imposing array of technical information, that the War on Poverty had eventually aggravated most of the problems it set out to solve. When the defenders of government social policies recovered from the initial impact of Murray’s assault and launched their counterattack, they concentrated on his interpretation of the statistical data. That made sense. It was the hard numbers that had given the arguments of Losing Ground so much authority when they were first published. This unfortunately meant, however, that the larger questions Murray was raising slipped from view and went largely undiscussed.

With In Pursuit, Murray returns to those larger questions. What is it we really want to accomplish? What would the social world look like if we were successful? What resources are actually available to us for encouraging evolution in the direction we want to go? This time he confronts the reader less with technical and statistical data than with an invitation: “Come, let us reason together.” The book offers no “knock down arguments,” because Murray is determined not to bulldoze his readers but to lead them on a course of discovery. His own experiences, beginning with the Peace Corps in the 1960s and including extensive involvement in domestic social programs, his reading, and his reflections have led him toward certain conclusions. He does not think his experiences were extraordinary or his reading esoteric, and he believes that any reader willing to reflect with him will be led in the same direction.

What, then, are we after? Murray’s answer: the happiness of citizens. And what is happiness? It is, he concludes at the end of a carefully-reasoned chapter, “lasting and justified satisfaction with one’s life as a whole.”

Now it cannot be the task of government to “make” its citizens happy. Government’s responsibility at most is to provide the “enabling conditions” for the pursuit of happiness. What are those enabling conditions? Material resources would seem to be fundamental. But caution must be exercised at this point. We have grossly exaggerated the quantity of material resources essential to the pursuit of happiness while underestimating the importance of other enabling conditions. One of them is safety, which Murray interprets as the sense of living in a community dominated by lawfulness and civility. Another is self-respect, which must be grounded in a genuine acceptance of responsibility for meeting the basic standards of the community. The last is challenge that can be met and mastered in an on-going process of self-actualization. These other enabling conditions, Murray points out, are inextricably bound up with the way in which people go about obtaining material resources. A social policy, therefore, that first provides food, clothing, shelter, and medical care and only then attends to the other circumstances that permit or prevent the pursuit of happiness will undermine the social practices through which those other enabling conditions are ordinarily created.

We often trap ourselves in an engineering model when we turn to the construction of social policy, a model that can lead us to impose solutions that are no solutions at all. Murray’s illustrations of this point are striking and effective. We compel people to behave in ways that they clearly do not wish to on the basis of aggregated data whose irrelevance would become obvious if we translated them into individually meaningful terms. Thus we support a reduction in the speed limit because it will “save 7,466 lives every year,” though we would not do so if we recognized that such a law merely reduces the probability that an individual will die in a car accident from .0005 to .0004, a benefit too trivial to be noticed and, for any individual faced with the choice, far below the value of the additional driving time it entails.

The limitations of the engineering approach to social problems become clear as the reader follows Murray through the two chapters in which he discusses the public education system. We discover why the usual proposals for improving the quality of public education, proposals to impose solutions, will not succeed. We learn in concrete and vivid ways about that relative of the invisible hand, the invisible foot, which operates to prevent social designs from succeeding whenever they are inconsistent with the objectives of the individuals who must implement the design. We realize at the end that social policy can do no better (though it can do far worse) than provide conditions that will facilitate the evolution of the circumstances we wish to create. If people want a better system, they will create it, unless they are prevented from doing so; and if they do not want it, it cannot (and should not) be forced upon them.

The most important conclusion to emerge from this “queer mixture of hard data, soft data, thought experiments, and speculations” is that social policy cannot afford to ignore what Edmund Burke called “the little platoon we belong to in society.” And that brings Murray back to the issue of government policy and poverty. These little platoons are not creations of the state. Effective communities are the by-products of efforts people make to overcome challenges and achieve their purposes. A key part of Murray’s argument is the claim that, for people with no special skills, the enabling conditions for the pursuit of happiness must be created within and through their immediate geographic neighborhood. The alternative communities that provide a variety of options for professionals and others with high skill levels are simply not available to the ordinary unskilled person. The tragedy Murray perceives is that government policies have in a variety of ways destroyed these neighborhoods by displacing or preventing the development of the institutions that give neighborhoods warp and weft.

If Murray is correct, then we do not know how to abolish poverty in our land unless we know how to restore and nurture urban neighborhoods. Can government do this? The evidence is almost all against it. The actions of government have tended to promote the disintegration of neighborhoods, sometimes on the ground that “neighborhood” is a euphemism for racism, more regularly and consistently by the government’s undertaking to do for people what neighbors ought to be doing for one another. And as urban neighborhoods disintegrate, the least skilled members of our society find themselves alone, deprived of a functioning community within which they can find safety, self-respect, and the challenges that are prerequisites for self-fulfillment and happiness.

No brief summary can do justice to the book’s imaginative blending of philosophical literature and social science research, to the wealth of small insights tucked into every chapter, or to the graceful writing that carries the reader along so effortlessly. I started reading In Pursuit as a duty at the beginning of a long airplane flight and ended up forgetting to look at the spectacular scenery.

At the end, though, I have a serious disagreement with Murray: I find him much too optimistic. In calling attention to the variety of ways in which government has subverted urban neighborhoods, he completely ignores the powerful role that the market also plays in this process. It is true that urban dwellers no longer perform certain neighborly acts because government has taken over the responsibility for doing so. There are even more neighborly acts that they fail to perform, however, because it is so much more convenient to have them performed through the market. We don’t have to bother our neighbors because we find the help we need in the Yellow Pages. That is an enormously liberating fact. But by liberating all of us from dependence on our neighbors, the market deprives us of the relationships that seem essential to the evolution of urban communities.

Murray observes in the last chapter that “human beings acting in a private capacity if restrained from the use of force have a remarkably good history” (author’s emphasis). And in the same paragraph: “It is really very difficult for people” including large associations of people and huge corporations”to do anything very bad, for very long, when they are not buttressed by the threat of physical coercion.” That is true. But Murray fails to point out that it can also be extremely difficult for individuals to do certain very good things without the use of coercion. This fact has undergirded the economist’s case for coercion since Adam Smith stated it in the last book of his Wealth of Nations. There are “publick institutions” which are “in the highest degree advantageous to a great society,” Smith wrote, which nonetheless will not be erected or maintained through private efforts, because private individuals will not be able to capture enough of the benefits to repay the costs of their erection and maintenance. The requisite cooperation cannot be secured because it is in each person’s interest to behave like a “free rider.” The urban communities that are essential to any effective anti-poverty program may be just such institutions. While they are not likely to be created by government, they may be impossible to create without government.

Charles Murray shows clearly in this book why we must abandon the myth that the federal government can fix whatever is broken in society. I do not think he has made a convincing case that the vision of Thomas Jefferson is a wholly adequate alternative. His principal achievement is to have opened up an important dialogue. If the religious communities in our society can suppress their urge to moralize, they could make important contributions to that dialogue.

Paul Heyne teaches economics at the University of Washington in Seattle.