Charles Murray's war on equality

15 Nov 2012

Libertarian ideas won't help the disadvantaged gain back control over their lives, writes Paul O’Callaghan.

When it comes to equality of opportunity, free market think tanker Charles Murray is a professional pessimist. He argues that there’s nothing governments can do to improve the life chances of disadvantaged citizens. His solution is to give up on early childhood interventions and welfare to work programs and rely on a system of unconditional cash payments instead. Murray wants us to accept that our society will always be unequal and to stop trying to change it.

Murray is coming to Australia as a guest of the Centre for Independent Studies, a free market think tank devoted to making government smaller. Australian commentators often talk about the debate between Murray and his critics as if it were part of a larger debate between the right and left. That’s misleading. Many on the right, including some at the Centre for Independent Studies, disagree with Murray’s views.

Murray is not a conservative or a generic ‘right winger’ — he’s a libertarian. As a libertarian he wants to radically limit the role of government. He’s less worried about how much it costs than he is about how much it does. In a 2001 interview with Susan Windybank of the Centre for Independent Studies he sketched an outlines of a libertarian plan to reform welfare:

  • “Suppose that a deal could be struck with the Left saying we will bring everybody in the entire country above the poverty line and let’s say that poverty line has been defined in a way with which the Left agrees. That’s our part of the bargain. Everybody will have a cash income adequate to meet their needs. Your part of the bargain is to dismantle the institutions of the welfare state, the bureaucracies. Well, if the deal could be struck, if we could dismantle this very intrusive, expensive, unlovely welfare state apparatus, it would certainly have the effect of shrinking vastly the size of government and it’s affordable.”

In his 2006 book In Our Hands he developed the plan in more detail. The idea is to replace the welfare state with a no-strings-attached payment of $10,000 a year. Under this plan there’d be no mutual obligation, no early childhood programs, no compulsory job search or training, and no services for the homeless. The only requirement is that recipients spend $3,000 of their grant on health care.

Murray worries that the alternative is a welfare state that becomes more intrusive and unlovely over time. In The Bell Curve, his 1994 book with Richard J. Herrnstein, Murray warned that American welfare policy was sliding towards a ‘custodial state’ where government provides the nation’s most disadvantaged citizens with basic necessities while their lives are strictly supervised. “It will be agreed that the underclass cannot be trusted to use cash wisely”, the authors write. “Therefore policy will consist of greater benefits, but these will be primarily in the form of services rather than cash.” The disadvantaged will no longer be expected to manage their own lives or take responsibility for their own children. They and their children will become virtual wards of the state, trapped forever in the welfare system.

Murray and Herrnstein’s prediction has resonance in Australia because many people fear this is exactly where our welfare policy has been heading with measures like the Northern Territory intervention and income management trials. Instead of cash, members of disadvantaged communities are given a BacicsCard that can only be spent on government approved goods. Income support is increasingly tied to compliance with bureaucratic demands. These policies are supported by both major parties so can’t easily be characterised as left or right.

Fortunately, an obligation free handout or a permanent custodial state are not the only two alternatives for welfare policy. As economist James J Heckman points out, Murray’s mistake is to think that there’s nothing we can do to improve people’s skills and their ability to take control of their own lives. Murray believes that intelligence determines economic success and that this is largely determined by a person’s genes. Low IQ people tend to partner with other low IQ people and they tend have low IQ children. His claim that black Americans have a lower average IQ than whites triggered outrage when The Bell Curve was published.

The custodial state is one response to this kind of pessimism while Murray’s abandonment of mutual obligation is another. What Heckman argues, however, is that it possible to work with disadvantaged parents and children to build up skills and reduce economic inequality. He stresses the importance of skills and personality traits that go beyond IQ. In a paper for the Boston Review he writes: “Contrary to the views of genetic determinists, experimental evidence shows that intervening early can produce positive and lasting effects on children in disadvantaged families.”

By focusing our efforts on disadvantaged families and communities we can move beyond the kind of paternalistic and illiberal policies Murray warns about. We can do a lot better than perpetually supervising people so they don’t damage themselves or their children; we can give them back control over their lives. As Heckman argues, the skills developed through effective interventions “empower people to be what they want to be and do not force them to make particular choices or adopt one way of life over another.”

The idea that government has the ability to expand equality of opportunity by working with highly disadvantaged children, families and communities shouldn’t be an ideological one. In Australia Heckman’s research has been cited approvingly by academics, the Productivity Commission and MPs on both sides of politics.

Australia has also taken some small steps towards a preventative, early intervention approach with programs like Communities for Children that support children’s development by investing in parenting skills and strengthening families and communities. We could and should do much more.

Despite Murray’s rhetoric about reinvigorating community, philanthropy and the spirit of volunteerism, these kinds of programs won’t survive without government support. We don’t fund our military, schools, and hospitals that way and we shouldn’t fund crucial social programs that way either. While volunteers have an important role in delivering successful social services, programs dealing with highly disadvantaged and vulnerable people require a high level of professional skill and experience.

In a political environment dominated by opinion polls and focus groups, we can’t count on government to pay attention to things we don’t pay attention to. If we stop caring about the opportunities of Australia’s most disadvantaged families and communities then, chances are, the government will stop caring too.

We need to demand that our governments reach out to people trapped in disadvantage and make sure everyone has a chance at success. And despite what Murray says, it is possible to expand equality of opportunity.

Paul O’Callaghan

Executive Director Catholic Social Services Australia

Photo: Flickr / HazelMotes

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