David Frum is writing a wonderful review of Charles Murray’s new book Coming Apart. Frum notices that there’s a clear circuit missing from Murray’s critique of the “shiftlessness and sexual irresponsibility of the white working class.” I have not read Murray’s book (but might now), but I have a clue why something might be missing.
Let’s back up. I’m reviewing some stuff about political ideology and mass incarceration, so I’m re-reading a lot of Ed Banfield, a professor of Urban Government at Harvard, the chairman of President Nixon’s task force on the Model Cities Program, mentor to James Q. Wilson, and all-around original neoconservative. (We last reviewed his work trying to get a sense of what Banfield would make of the wonk-blogosphere based on some stuff he wrote in the 1970s for AEI.)
Here’s a fantastic statement from Banfield in 1974, commenting on the urban environment and putting the conservative mind on display: “The lower-class individual lives in the slum, which, to a greater or lesser extent, is an expression of his tastes and style of life.”
Before it became a way to be belligerent about English literature syllabi and invading Middle-Eastern countries, neoconservativism was a theory of the urban crisis. And for them, there was a feedback loop between shiftlessness and sexual irresponsibility, crime, and the urban decay of the ghetto. Bansfield:
[T]he indifference (“apathy” if one prefers) of the lower-class person is such that he seldom makes even the simplest repairs to the place that he lives in. He is not troubled by dirt and dilapidation and he does not mind the inadequacy of public facilities such as schools, parks, hospitals, and libraries; indeed where such things exist he may destroy them by carelessness or even by vandalism…[T]he slum is specialized as [a site] for vice and for illicit commodities generally. Dope peddlers, prostitutes, and receivers of stolen goods are all readily available there, within reasy reach of each other and of their customers and victims…In the slum, one can beat one’s children, lie drunk in the guter, or go to jail without attracting any special notice; these are things that most of the neighbors themselves have done and that they consider quite normal.
This decayed urban environment leads to a rise in behavioral “present orientedness”, which leads to crime and shiftlessness, which leads to more decay, which completes the circuit. This dynamic, and how it lead to both incapacitation theory and broken-windows policies, was described in law professor Bernard Harcourt’s excellent Illusion of Order, a book which provides a chart of the feedback loop in the neoconservative imagination:
Why is this relevant for Murray? Well Murray is trying to describe the upper-left corner of that loop – the “lower-class” culture and situation factors – but doesn’t appear to have a decent feedback mechanism. David Frum writes the following:
His book wants to lead readers to the conclusion that the white working class has suffered a moral collapse attributable to vaguely hinted at cultural forces. Yet he never specifies what those cultural forces might be and he presents no evidence at all for a link between those forces and the moral collapse he sees. In an interview with the New York Times, Murray is more specific…The ’60s. Of course. But which reforms are the ones that Murray has in mind? He does not say, and I think I can understand why he does not say: because once you spell out the implied case here, it collapses of its own obvious ludicrousness.
It would, of course, be absurd to think that the white working class is suffering because they live in ghettos which reflect and reinforce their shiftlessness in addition to the idea that our country is too soft on crime and too focused on rehabilitating prisoners. The last time the neoconservative intellectual movement had to explain something like this it was about poverty concentrated among African-Americans and in urban environments, and this was their answer. But the white working class lives everywhere – in cities and suburbs, in dynamic towns and dying ones, in conservative ones and liberals ones – and they are having a rough economic time of it everywhere. And nobody is arguing that our criminal justice system is too lenient.
So instead we get ideas like “the 60s” or “elites” or “culture” which seem to be working only as a “wink-wink nudge-nudge” code among the conservative mind. But it turns out those problems of deindustrialization, deemphasizing full employment, a collapsing welfare state in scope and size and runaway inequality didn’t just stop. They’ve keep on moving, causing destabilizing insecurity right up the economic ladder.
Edit: Make sure to read intellectual historian Andrew Hartman’s helpful comment below.