Family Values

March 8, 2012


Charles Murray, a libertarian, and currently a Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has written a book entitled Coming Apart, in which he laments the decline in traditional values of industry, hard work, discipline, respect for authority, patience, family, and a strong code of ethics and morals among the white population.  He has found that for 30 percent of white families, these values have eroded or disappeared, further locking these already poor and marginalized Americans into social and economic isolation. The Wall Street Journal (1.31.12) summarizes Murray’s thesis:

“Murray argues that the other 70 percent of the white population is regaining these same values that were lost through the social and cultural revolutions of the Sixties; and the gap contributes to the increasing political divide in the country. The more educated white elite, he argues, should abandon their reticence about criticizing others, and ‘preach what they practice’.”

“The destructive family revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s has gradually eased.  In the past 20 years, divorce rates have come down, marital quality (self-reported happiness in marriage) has risen and non-marital childbearing (out-of-wedlock births) is a rare occurrence among the white upper class.”

“In blue-collar America, however, divorce rates have risen since the 1980s, marital quality has fallen and non-marital childbearing is skyrocketing. Less than 5% of white college-educated women have children outside of marriage, compared with approximately 40% of white women with just a high-school diploma.”

Murray has been a frequent observer of social trends in America, and has been particularly interested in the phenomenon of isolation from the norm, where certain social, economic, and/or ethnic groups become increasingly marginalized, causing further divisions in society. Those that are underperforming become isolated and marginalized, and those with high ability, promise, and ambition become separatist and indifferent to the plight of others.  Worse yet, high-performing individuals within marginalized communities flee, leaving behind a population which, without the intellectual nutrients needed to nurture it, becomes increasingly uniform in its limitations, dysfunction, and lack of potential.

As well as being a researcher, Murray, as a political scientist, has been a strong critic of public education, which, he says, offers little to address the problems of these marginalized, dysfunctional, and underperforming groups:

“Murray sees the ‘No Child Left Behind’ law as an example of ‘Educational romanticism [which] asks too much from students at the bottom of the intellectual pile, asks the wrong things from those in the middle, and asks too little from those at the top’.”

Challenging “educational romanticism”, he wrote Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality. His “four simple truths” are:

  1. “Ability varies.”
  2. “Half of the children are below average.”
  3. “Too many people are going to college.”
  4. “America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted.”

The New York Times interviewer gave an example (of what Murray calls “educational romanticism”), when she said “I believe that given the opportunity, most people could do most anything.” Murray responded “You’re out of touch with reality, in that regard.”

A revision of the educational system, which offers more realistic educational opportunities for all, is required.  Those who are not as intellectually promising or ambitious as others should not fail in a system which focuses only on high intellectual achievement and does not reward other, more modest talents.  Those who are intellectually gifted should be offered every possible incentive and support to use their abilities to the maximum.

Over time, Murray has developed a common theme – people and the social groups to which they belong are divided.  They are either high intellectual achievers or they are not; and they either adhere to the majority social and cultural norms associated with social and economic success, or they do not.

Furthermore, groups which are low-performing and have rejected majority norms are further isolated by government programs which encourage dependency and lack of enterprise or have subscribed to values of enterprise, progress, and ambition.

Coming Apart expands upon these themes and suggests that only through a return to “traditional” values can the marginalized white population join the majority.  In his view, racial differences are irrelevant – it is when majority norms are lost, social groups either descend further into poverty or never escape from it.

The idea of “traditional” values has, according to Murray, been given a bad name, especially by the persistent social reformers of the Sixties. To them, “traditional” smacks of limited freedom and a rejection of the cultural advances that they worked so hard to promote.  “Traditional” means a return to a stifling and exploitive religious culture, a return to Fifties individual and social repression. However, as Murray and others have noted, civilizations were built not on an anarchic and egocentric individualism, but on strong and cohesive communities with respect for God and King.  India has always been a structured, disciplined, and ordered society and a great civilization, at least in part, because of that socio-religious organization.  Much closer to home is the view of at least one of the Founding Fathers:

“The economic and political success of the American experiment has depended, in large part, on the health of these founding virtues. Businesses cannot flourish if ordinary workers are not industrious. The scope and cost of government grows, and liberty withers, when the family breaks down. As James Madison wrote: ‘To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea’.”

Subscription to majority norms – norms which have been the emblems of social, economic, and cultural progress for millennia – is crucial for the evolution of communities out of poverty; and that community leaders must publicly renounce socially delinquent behavior. The educational system needs to be reformed to complement this new traditionalism.  It should help students to achieve to the best of their ability; and should encourage the highly talented to achieve to their maximum potential.

In summary, Murray espouses the best of libertarianism – taking off the rose-colored glasses to see the facts for what they are.


Ron Parlato is a writer living in Washington, DC. He has close ties with Columbus, which he visits frequently.  His writings on literature, politics and culture, travel, and cooking can be found on his own blog,

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2 Comments on “Family Values”

  1. Patty Says:

    The comments about education particularly interested me. I worked in a school for some years and have come to a number of conclusions:

    1. College students aspiring to be teachers should serve their first semester working alongside a classroom teacher, both in and out of the classroom. This would weed-out the ones without a passion for teaching children. Currently, student teachers find out way too late that this is not where their heart is – they have several years of time and much money invested, and it takes a lot to dump that plan and go for a career more suited to their talents.

    2. All kids are NOT created equal! Never mind their family life, etc,, some will NEVER achieve what is expected in our current system. We should be turning out functioning, able members of society with more “book” education available for the academically gifted. We should be teaching life skills such as reading as a tool for managing day to day living, financial management, home and auto maintenance, interpersonal relations, etc. Honestly, is the ability to dissect a sentence needed for functional reading and writing? Is it necessary to understand Shakespeare to function in life? Remember that an apple will never become a pear, but that does not mean that the apple is inferior – just different. Kids that are “apples” are what is causing our society so much trouble! Help them to find their talents, then teach them to use those talents in a productive way.

    3. Vocational education is of the utmost importance. The emphasis on an academic college education is about one thing – raking in the money! The thing about being all-inclusive is that it lowers the standard of that college education. My thought is that the people that keep our society “nice” for us should be the most exulted – the garbage collectors, sewage, water, electrical, AC techs., law enforcement, truck drivers, store personnel, menders of roads, fixers of cars, etc. Imagine life without these things being done for us and treat your local workers accordingly!

    There’s plenty more thoughts, but that’s enough for one day :-)


  2. KJ Says:

    I see Murray measures up to his usual low standard. As does Parlato in covering him. Particularly egregious is the attempt to explain that the idea of “traditional” values has been given a bad name because they are accurately perceived as limiting freedom, rejecting cultural advances, and a return to a stifling and exploitive religious culture, a return to Fifties individual and social repression. I must admit that paragraph is a clever bit of linguistic misdirection.


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