Charles Murray, Farmer

I finished Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart. He is quite convincing on his main empirical claim: the behavior of US high and low classes have indeed come apart in the last half century, mainly as low classes reject religion, marriage, and full-time work.

This raises the obvious question of whether classes have been similarly coming apart in the rest of the world. But Murray seems uninterested in that question – he is fervently nationalist, and mainly laments the US losing its exceptional status of having fewer class differences, and becoming more like other rich nations. Since regression to the mean is what we should expect about most any nation with an exceptional feature, this shouldn’t be very surprising, and we shouldn’t expect a reversal.

Curiously the US may have “regressed past the mean”, achieving classes that are even more distinct classes than in most rich nations. Perhaps the US allows more change and mobility overall.

Near the end of the book Murray allows himself a rant on what he thinks was great about the US, and bad about Europe. This seems to me an unusually vivid presentation of a farmer-style intellectual point of view, a rare find in the modern world:

There’s a lot to like about day-to-day live in the advanced welfare states of western Europe. They are great places to visit. But the view of life that has taken root in those same countries is problematic. It seems to go something like this: The purpose of life is to while away the time between birth and death as pleasantly as possible, and the purpose of government is to make it as easy as possible to while away the time as pleasantly as possible – The Europe Syndrome.

Europe’s short workweeks and frequent vacations are one symptom of the syndrome. The idea of work as a means of self-actualization has faded. The view of work as a necessary evil, interfering with the higher good of leisure, dominates. … The precipitous decline of marriage, far greater in Europe than in the United STates, is another symptom. What is the point of a life-time commitment when the state will act as surrogate spouse when it comes to paying the bills? The decline of fertility to far below replacement is another symptom. Children are seen as a burden that the state must help shoulder, and even then they’re a lot of trouble that distract from things that are more fun. The secularization of Europe is yet another symptom. Europeans have broadly come to believe that humans are a collection of activated chemicals that, after a period of time, deactivate. It that’s the case, saying that the purpose of life is to pass the time as pleasantly as possible is a reasonable position. Indeed, taking any other position is ultimately irrational.

The alternative to the European Syndrome is to say that your life can have transcendent meaning if it is spent doing important things – raising a family, supporting yourself, being a good friend and good neighbor, learning what you can do well and then doing it as well as you possibly can. Providing the best framework for doing those things is what the American project is all about. (p.284)

This sort of view may seem alien to many intellectuals, and even obviously wrong. But it isn’t obviously wrong, and it was pretty common in the farming era. Well aside from his saying that activated chemicals should only want to achieve pleasure – that’s just silly.

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  • Michael Vassar

    It’s so odd to me that the Epicurian or Materialist position exists, that is, that there is such an ancient and recurring intuition that materialism implies hedonism.

  • dave

    I’m not sure what your objection is in the last paragraph? Do you disagree with Murray’s assessment?

    • Scott H.

      +1

      Why would intellectuals find the view alien and wrong? And we have more distinct classes and yet more change and mobility overall? What?

  • Michael Vassar

    It’s so odd to me that the Epicurian or Materialist position exists, that is, that there is such an ancient and recurring intuition that materialism implies hedonism.

    I don’t think that there’s an ancient intuition that farmer values imply hedonism though. “Savages” traditionally valued glory more, and farmers valued comfort, for which reason the savages had contempt for the hedonism of the farmers. The most entrenched farmer societies seem to have adopted religions like Buddhism, which are most sympathetic to hedonism, while the most ‘savage’ seem to have adopted religions that opposed hedonism in favor of other-worldly rewards.

    I’m personally very strongly attached to the idea that we should pursue impact, not just hedonism, and also to the idea the we should pursue understanding over hedonism and impact, but empirically the three pursuits, done well, look very similar to me, and those exclusively attracted to any one seem to fail at all three.

    • komponisto

      I don’t think that there’s an ancient intuition that farmer values imply hedonism though. “Savages” traditionally valued glory more, and farmers valued comfort, for which reason the savages had contempt for the hedonism of the farmers. The most entrenched farmer societies seem to have adopted religions like Buddhism, which are most sympathetic to hedonism, while the most ‘savage’ seem to have adopted religions that opposed hedonism in favor of other-worldly rewards.

      This seems backwards. Buddhism, as I understand it, is the least hedonist of all religions, taking asceticism to second-order: not only is pleasure bad, but even wanting pleasure is bad. At least Christianity and Islam promise pleasure in the afterlife; the ambition of Buddhism is alacrity in the face of ultimate self-erasure. (This is the rhetoric of Buddhism anyway; I’m not very familiar with the actual practice, except that it’s the kind of religion that has monasteries, which should tell you something.)

      The most hedonistic societies are those with animist/polytheistic belief systems (with emphasis more on ritual performance than behavior/thought restriction): foragers, and those who can afford to behave like them despite living in civilization, either due to accumulated wealth (as in modern Western society, with New Age spirituality resembling animism) or a slave class (as in ancient Greece).

      (Note how this also predicts that Catholic countries should be more hedonistic than Protestant ones, which is true insofar as the stereotypes are accurate.)

      • Michael Vassar

        This sounds like it calls for another of our long discussions, but the short version is that I think that you badly misunderstand Buddhism (and probably early Epicureanism and Stoicism too). These are explicitly utilitarian religions, but with claims about the empirical facts of human utility functions being subtly but deeply different from what common sense asserts.

      • M

        Buddhism as it’s actually practiced (in most of the places where it’s practiced en masse) is pretty similar to Christianity and Islam: pray to these guys, pay these other guys to pray professionally, and your next life will be wonderful. Actually existing Buddhism is about transcending all desire in the way that actually existing Christianity is about living on a commune and practicing nonviolence; i.e., it isn’t.

  • Konkvistador

    “Indeed, taking any other position is ultimately irrational.”

    Not really.

  • RobS

    So if you are European, Murray thinks you’re less likely to take meaning from:

    raising a family, supporting yourself, being a good friend and good neighbor, learning what you can do well and then doing it as well as you possibly can

    Actually, I think this is obviously wrong! Even if you take the view that pleasure-maximising before you die is the aim of life (which of course all us Europeans do!), then raising a family, being a good friend etc are great ways to derive pleasure.

    Maybe Murray is getting at the idea that Europeans do not seek higher order ‘life satisfaction’ as opposed to short term ‘chemical pleasure’? If so, why on earth wouldn’t a materialist view be able to support both kinds of good?

    Either way, the quoted passage reads like pure provocation to me.

    • Ken

      Actually, I think this is obviously wrong!

      Is it? I think it’s obvious that Europeans are less likely than Americans to believe that pleasure is found in “raising a family, supporting yourself, being a good friend and good neighbor, learning what you can do well and then doing it as well as you possibly can”.

      • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

        What is the relevance of your link (to a Wikipedia article about a heat wave in Europe, in which thousands died) to anything either you or Rob said? And why should we care that you think it’s obvious that (etc.), given that you haven’t chosen to say anything about *why* it’s obvious?

        (For what it’s worth, it’s not at all obvious to me one way or the other.)

  • beorne

    Farmers like playing the status game and they hate cheaters!

  • elbowspeak

    I would be more interested in a response to Frum’s impressive critique of Murray’s book. Murray’s thesis, in that light, are not convincing at all; in fact, it almost seems comical. RH, you’re getting soft!

  • Abelard Lindsey

    I disagree with Murray’s premise. I know plenty of “uneducated” people who work plenty hard when the opportunities present themselves. The basic problem with this country (and else where) is simply the lack of economic opportunity. Have a growth-oriented economy and many of these social problems will prove self-correcting.

  • David

    This is so weird! Though I live in the US, I spend several months each year in Europe, and I have many close friends there. And if you asked me which continent has more people that see “…work as a necessary evil, interfering with the higher good of leisure” I’d definitely say it’s the North America, not Europe. Europe is the place that still actually cares about the meaningfulness of work. People there even EXPECT meaningful work. Sure, there are many among them that work solely for money, but unlike in the US, hardly anyone would openly admit it. It’s Europeans who still occasionally keep a single employer for an entire lifetime, and don’t find this odd. Most actually have a profession, and they proudly identify with it. As professionals, they expect and often receive respectful treatment as the master of their little domain, be it bureaucratic, mechanical, or simply taking coins from people who need to use a urinal. And maybe most quaintly of all, Europeans actually expect a certain degree of self-actualization through their work, and the ones who don’t get it expect at least that their work won’t interfere with their private means of self-actualizing. Altogether, it’s simply wrong to picture Europeans as people who see their work as a mere means to an end, in contrast with Americans, who don’t.

    We can speculate about causes. Some of these are institutional. Typically, European professionals in many fields actually have a rigorous and demanding education, and once they receive it, they expect to work in their profession until retirement, quickly becoming unfireable. This expectation is not supportable by present economic realities, but Europeans still have it and are loathe to give it up. They also expect a lot from their governments, but unlike the US, they don’t see this as entitlements. They see it as a issue of their government’s respect for the citizens. Child care, health care, etc. are bound up with human decency.

    I hardly know any Americans who think this way, and most don’t even think that they SHOULD think this way. They typically see themselves in a struggle with their employers, who are quite right to compensate them just enough to retain them. Fewer Americans feel entitled to their jobs; most see themselves as having to keep earning the right to keep it through good performance. And because they receive little loyalty from their employer, they also have less loyalty back. Most Americans would quit what they’re doing and start something different if it paid more. And there is plenty of hard data that Americans don’t keep jobs nearly as long as Europeans do.

    So I think that it’s the Europeans who have the farmer approach to work that Murray praises. Aren’t Americans expected to be employment foragers – to abandon what they have when they discover greener pastures, instead of being burdened by a European (farmer) nostalgia for “their true place” and “home” (Heimat)? Isn’t this openness to self-reinvention the very thing that makes us great? The downside is that Americans self-actualize with the fruits of their foraging: money. (Europeans do this too, but less; in farmer fashion, they have many competing meaning-giving myths.) So the reward we expect from work is money; that’s what our jobs are for.

    Now recall Murray saying:

    The alternative to the European Syndrome is to say that your life can have transcendent meaning if it is spent doing important things – raising a family, supporting yourself, being a good friend and good neighbor, learning what you can do well and then doing it as well as you possibly can.

    WTF? This could not be more backwards. It’s the Europeans who would typically accepts a less lucrative job in exchange for more “transcendent meaning” – not Americans! And maybe past Americans cared about this more than do present Americans, but we’ve never cared about it more than Europeans do.

  • Les Cargill

    “It’s so odd to me that the Epicurian or Materialist position exists, that is, that there is such an ancient and recurring intuition that materialism implies hedonism. ”

    Materialism seems to result in the intuition that the only way to win is not to play….

  • Hein

    The irony is that most Europeans view Americans as selfish.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com/ Dain

    I’ve heard it said that when Europeans do decide to start families, they don’t have to give up friends nearly to the extent that Americans do. Americans move to the burbs and leave their single friends behind, while Europeans stay urban and take their kids to the leafy city parks, and even crack open a bottle of whine while they’re at it.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com/ Dain

    Oops, “wine.”

    Ha.

  • mjgeddes

    Nowhere else in the world is the bizarre ideology of libertarianism taken the slightest bit seriously outside a tiny minority (<%1) living in the US. I admit I was once sucked in by it, but thanks to the arguments of James Hughes and others, I was talked out of it.

    Among the exceptionally bright, libertarianism is a minority position. For instance the results of the philosophers survey (Chalmers). Even among transhumanist-leaning super-high IQers (and even the bastion of rationality 'Less Wrong') there is no clear win for libertarianism – for instance the top contributor Yvain wrote the non-libertarianism FAQ. It's time to make a Bayesian update against libertarianism and by implication, associated philosophies such as the farmer ethos.

    Farmers are a dying breed. They're had their day. Foragers are back with a vengence. And in Europe, the forager philosopher is clearly in the ascendent. Robin's em vision of the future is a hold-over of famer philosophy. It won't happen. The foragers will win. Far mode will be completely victorious over near mode.

    As I stated in the earlier thread on OB 'Layers of Delusion':

    "More likely, evolution will be overthrow by a centralized singleton, the future will be saturated with superstimuli, far mode activities (arts) will come to dominate, and economic activities or evolutionary psychology won’t have much relevence, because all the near-mode stuff will have been automated, and we will have modified many of our preferences. "

    In short, the Euro-vision/forager ethos extrapolated to its logical extreme.

  • Matt

    “Indeed, taking any other position is ultimately irrational.” This is one view point that I could never wrap my head around. How can anything that is purely temporary be rational at all? Does Robin have any previous posts on permanence and rationality?

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    So a “farmer” is someone who writes asinine, factually incorrect diatribes critiquing the beliefs of others based on nothing but crude stereotypes?

  • Ari

    My take on all this Europe v. USA type of argument is that the hard-line right values are under lot of intellectual pressure. It is like all life forms, it won’t go down without a fight (or flight). Since the dawn of Internet, there’s increasing amount of interaction between Europeans and Americans. There’ll be also a spill of values from here to there, and vice versa. The nature of this process is probably highly irrational but like IPR efficiency shows, axiomatic ethics don’t really go that far. It is tradition. For the same reason, I don’t think deontological ethics will survive that long.

    “Europe’s short workweeks and frequent vacations are one symptom of the syndrome.”
    While I’m all for efficiency and consumer surplus here (unlike say left-wing), I can say personally that I didn’t enjoy the American work times. Time is the most valuable thing we have, and money has diminishing marginal utility in comparison to that. How many people actually die regretting they didn’t work enough versus people who die regretting not enjoying life enough? I take a bit of offense calling it a syndrome.

    “…even then [children] they’re a lot of trouble that distract from things that are more fun. ”
    Err, what? Source please.

    “What is the point of a life-time commitment when the state will act as surrogate spouse when it comes to paying the bills?”
    Are there any more accurate efficiency calculations behind this other than cheap rhetoric? I’m not talking about macroeconomics here. On state level, its rather cheap to insure against extremes of Bell curve. Take health-care. I’m not talking about general welfare here, many forms of which are inefficient. I just think this is like talk of austerity or size of government. I don’t know where the optimal value is but when you follow a lot of right-wing rhetoric, they put it down to zero. I think this has very little to do with reality, but everything to do with rhetoric and the status games that are played.

    “…learning what you can do well and then doing it as well as you possibly can.”
    There’s a thing called opportunity cost, and this sounds like a brag.

    “Providing the best framework for doing those things is what the American project is all about. (p.284)”
    I’m all for efficiency and to some form of preference utilitarianism. But I also know diminishing marginal utility.

    “…transcendent meaning if it is spent doing important things”
    Also sounds like a brag, status signalling and transcendence isn’t about important things. Ehm.

    RH: “Well aside from his saying that activated chemicals should only want to achieve pleasure – that’s just silly.”
    Can you elaborate on this? Was this a metaphysical argument (chemicals don’t derive utility) or are you saying humans, families, tribres etc. units shouldn’t be utility maximizers?

    I think Robin would view this issue rather differently if he were from here. I believe he would greatly benefit of meeting a clone of him born here, or someone with equal intellectual strength coming from here with same enough mindset and knowledge.

    • Gulliver

      @ Ari

      RH: “Well aside from his saying that activated chemicals should only want to achieve pleasure – that’s just silly.”
      Can you elaborate on this? Was this a metaphysical argument (chemicals don’t derive utility) or are you saying humans, families, tribres etc. units shouldn’t be utility maximizers?

      I gather Robin is saying that it’s logically baseless to assert that a material cause (chemistry) for the mind determines that its thoughts are incapable of steering it towards something other than pleasure, or that a materialist worldview obviates other pursuits. It’s silly because many materialists clearly pursue objectives other than just pleasure. That was my reading of that statement, at any rate, and I agree with Robin where it’s concerned (both because I’m a materialist with objectives other than pleasure and because I’m not remotely unique in that regard).

      The idea that values and consequent purpose cannot be chosen and extrapolated by human beings is shared by three kinds of philosophies:

      1) Nihilism wherein meaning doesn’t exist.

      2) Supernaturalism wherein a Higher Power lays down the values and any competing value-sets are invalid for whatever contrived reason the supernaturalist decides.

      2) Moral objectivism wherein the material structure of objective reality somehow – I’ve never heard an objectivist actually explain how reality = morality – empirically conveys an objective morality.

      Contrasting these “stupid humans” outlooks are philosophies wherein people can and should build a system of values and extrapolate a moral framework by which to live. Humanism and existentialism are two of the better known examples of this sentience-affirming deontology.

      Part of Murray’s thesis for Coming Apart seems to hinge on the supposition that individuals will only work hard or raise children if they must. To say I find this spurious would be an understatement. This is the third of Murray’s books I’ve read. It’s much better than the second, What it Means to be a Libertarian which was basically a argument that tried to conflate “libertarian” with “minarchist” by pretending that the founders of the USA were the first and main authority of libertarianism (a neoconservative fantasy). But it’s inferior to the first of his I read The Bell Curve. If the brilliant Scottish historian Niall Ferguson hadn’t given it a glowing review, I would have skipped Coming Apart. I’m glad I read it, but just. As Ferguson notes, Murray highlights some concerning trends we as a society should be addressing. Unfortunately, most of his conclusions as to the causes and cures of and for the disease of class ossification are shoddy at best and a couple are clear prejudice without anything to back them up.

  • asdf

    Farmer values allow beta males to procreate. In the absence of property accumulation beta males have no bargaining chip to use in order to both have sex and guarantee paternity. Women will always prefer an alpha by default unless the beta can bring resources into the transaction that allow the offspring a better chance of surviving even if they have worse beta genes.

    In forager days only 40% of men passed on their genes. In farmer days the vast majority of men do. Farmer values allow those who aren’t born with attractive genes to earn the right to procreate through labor.

    This is one reason why people hate welfare. Lots of people on welfare are able bodied young men who can get women based on their bodies. A computer programmer without good looks needs an income disparity to attract women. Anything that cuts down on income disparity hurts him. As far as he’s concerned the welfare recipient is rich. Rich in genetics and rich in time to go chasing women. But they can’t tax that. That’s why some of your biggest opponents to redistribution are libertarian nerds in the STEM and business fields. People who had to go out and earn the right to a wife and reproduction by doing really boring ass STEM and business work.

    • FredR

      “In forager days only 40% of men passed on their genes. In farmer days the vast majority of men do.”

      Is this true? If so, seems to really cut against the foragers were egalitarians and inequality began with agricultural idea.

  • Ely

    I disagree with Murray’s depiction of the European view as wanting to “while away” time as pleasantly as possible. I see the distinction as one regarding the BKK puzzle. In a more libertarian/conservative American view, the BKK puzzle is an example of “you leave me alone; I leave you alone.” Various norms determine which risks we are socially allowed to try to pool and which ones we aren’t. For example, my neighbors and I don’t have a choice about pooling our crime risk — we both implicitly pool it through the taxation that pays for police. But when it comes to flood risk, we’re free to make our own independent decision. So in the American spirit, work life is basically what you must do in order to hedge against the various kinds of risk that cannot (for social norm reasons) be pooled.

    Europe tends to have a different view that failures to pool are intrinsically market failures — either a failure to educate people about the benefits of pooling and the foolishness of norms that don’t accept a wide range of pooling or a failure to actually coordinate the different parts of society into an efficient pooling strategy. “Whiling away one’s time” is a fairly biased and maliciously negative way to describe the idea of “trying to get the fruits of effecting risk pooling.”

    I’m sure this is not the total picture, but it would seem to account for a lot more than the credit Murray gives. “Whiling away” has the connotation of irresponsible, hedonistic frittering. But reaping the benefits from the hard work of coordinating intelligent risk pooling is not at all lazy, hedonistic frittering.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    “Well aside from his saying that activated chemicals should only want to achieve pleasure – that’s just silly”
    My understanding is that although Murray attends Quaker meetings with his wife, he is himself an agnostic. Does he think we are something other than activated chemicals?

    Michael Vassar, one can argue that Buddhism (and other philosophies you mentioned) advocates achieving happiness through means other than a caricature of hedonism, but then Murray himself seems to be pushing the same thing with “genuine” happiness through social embeddedness & justified pride in one’s role. Although it’s possible he’s just making a Straussian argument to avoid negative social externalities of the underclass.

  • xd

    The problem with the anti-Europe point of view espoused in the article is that it’s insufficently well thought through when it distinguishes between life being a period of time during which you attempt to have as much fun as possible and work being something you have to do but do not want to do.

    In fact work is simply paid effort in the pursuit of some particular goal.

    Being paid to have fun isn’t mutually inconsistent with that if you *enjoy* working.

    On the other hand, taking the position that you are more morally correct because you want to do chores instead of something else is nothing more than intellectual masturbation. It’s exactly like the other farmer position that getting up early to “beat the traffic” and then leaving early is more morally reasonable than leaving *after* the traffic, getting in later and then working later. I reject that position vehemently to the point of mocking it.

    • asdf

      People feel deeply that man was put on here for a purpose beyond nihilistic hedonism, and that he is rewarded for short term setbacks of joy with long term fulfillment. Work is seen as being intrinsically good and a part of a healthy human life.

      If you don’t believe in God though, none of this matters.

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  • Mark

    I just don’t understand why people would think we are simply activated chemicals. There are those here who do believe that and also are offended/puzzled that someone who doesn’t believe that would think that there is no reason for an activated-chemical-believer to work towards more “elevated” goals than simply hedonism. “Well *I* think our consciousness is nothing but a meaningless by-product of a meaningless chemical reaction, but I still like to work hard and I want a family,” they say, “so it’s wrong to assume that a meaningless chemical reaction like a human being can have transcendent goals and aspirations.”

    The logic seems to be:

    Human consciousness is a meaningless chemical reaction.
    I am a human consciousness.
    Therefore I am a meaningless chemical reaction.
    I have deeper interests than hedonism.
    Therefore meaningless chemical reactions can have deeper interests than hedonism.

    I would say your flaw is in thinking that consciousness is a by-product of chemical reactions, and that makes the rest of your argument invalid, but I can’t prove to you that you’re not just a chemical reaction so I can’t disprove that argument.

    But on a common-sense basis it seems unreasonable to me to think that something like human consciousness, with such incredibly rich and deep and various thoughts and emotions and ideas and logic and beauty is simply somehow a chemical reaction. As if you could theoretically mix some complex brew of chemicals taken down off a shelf and end up with a Beethoven or a Shakespeare. That simply makes no sense. It is ridiculous on its face. I think it is much harder to believe that there is some aspect of chemical reactions — generating thought, emotion, and consciousness — that we simply haven’t discovered how to measure in a lab yet than it is to believe that our consciousness, our soul, is something that lives through this life for a purpose and then moves on, or lives many lives and moves on, in an eternal spiraling upward of development and beauty.

    I am a human.

  • Nope

    I’m rubber and you’re glue.

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