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Charles Murray
January/February 2012

(David Smith) 

Charles Murray has acquired some bitter enemies. In 1984 he attracted strident criticism for arguing that the "war on poverty" was increasing the number of poor people. The criticism turned to plain hostility in 1989 when he popularised the term "underclass" and then morphed into sheer hatred in 1994 when The Bell Curve discussed the average IQs of different ethnic groups. And yet Murray is a mild-mannered scholar with a penchant for number-crunching who writes and speaks in the folksy style of America's Midwest.

He first came to international attention with his book, Losing Ground, which argued that massive welfare spending was making matters worse. In 1968 13 per cent of Americans were below the official poverty line. By the time Reagan was elected in 1980 expenditure had increased fourfold, but poverty was still put at 13 per cent. Welfare policies loomed large for low-income Americans, and encouraged behaviour that chipped away at personal independence, by weakening incentives to work hard and raise children within marriage.

In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government followed in 1989. It was a passionate defence of the guiding hopes of the American founders. Among the "unalienable rights" to be secured by American governments was the "pursuit of happiness". But what had the founders understood by "happiness"? Certainly they had not meant self-absorption in personal pleasures, but rather a society in which people lived as "wisely and fully as they could". And the job of government was to enable them to do so.

Enthusiasts for freedom often divide into two groups — libertarians and classical liberals. Libertarians tend to see freedom as the power available to each individual compared with everyone else. Kant called it "wild freedom" and compared it with "civil freedom", which he thought was the only kind that could be enjoyed by everyone living together in the same land. Strangely Murray has always called himself a libertarian, but the paradox is explained in What it Means to Be a Libertarian (1997), where he calls himself a "lower-case libertarian", too fond of the "indispensable role of tradition and the classical virtues" to go along with the followers of Ayn Rand. He was firmly in the tradition of Adam Smith and "conservative hero" Edmund Burke.

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