Libertarian Charles Murray: The welfare state has denuded our civic culture

BY Charles Murray  April 10, 2014 at 2:35 PM EST
America's social welfare system has denuded the civic culture that immigrants to America helped shape. That's according to libertarian economist Charles Murray, who thinks the guaranteed basic income is the way to restore that culture.

America’s social welfare system has denuded the civic culture that immigrants to America helped shape. That’s according to libertarian economist Charles Murray, who thinks the guaranteed basic income can restore that culture.

Editor’s Note: Switzerland is considering a ballot referendum on an unconditional income of 30,000 Francs for all Swiss citizens. As the leader of the Swiss movement for a basic income, artist Enno Schmidt, told us, a guaranteed basic income would deconstruct the link between work and income. An economy under this system, he said, would be more about working with and helping each other. That may be easy to dismiss as a Swiss, if not European, way of thinking. But even though the guaranteed basic income hasn’t generated the same mainstream buzz in the United States, it has plenty of American proponents on both sides of the political aisle.

Perhaps most outspoken among them is libertarian economist Charles Murray, who argues that a guaranteed income administered by the government would take the government out of people’s lives, and consequently, restore the fabric of American culture — a culture where people are responsible for each other. Murray, a longtime friend of Making Sen$e, spoke to us about his last book, “Coming Apart,” in 2012 and is the architect of our popular “Bubble Quiz.”

The following transcript of Paul Solman’s extended conversation with Murray about the guaranteed income has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. Murray also appears in our Making Sen$e segment about the basic income, which you can watch below.

Simone Pathe, Making Sen$e Editor


Paul Solman: What’s the case for a minimum income?

Charles Murray: From a libertarian’s point of view, we’re going to be spending a lot of money on income transfers, no matter what.

Paul Solman: Why?

Charles Murray: The society is too rich to stand aside and say, “We aren’t going to do anything for people in need.” I understand that; I accept that; I sympathize with it.

What I want is a grand compromise between the left and the right. We on the right say, “We will give you huge government, in terms of the amount of money we spend. You give us small government, in terms of the ability of government to mess around with people’s lives.”

So you have a system whereby every month, a check goes into an electronic bank account for everybody over the age of 21, which they can use as they see fit. They can get together with other people and then combine their resources. But they live their own lives. We put their lives back in their hands.

Paul Solman: So this has similarities with the voucher movement; that is, give the money to people because they will know better how to spend it.

Charles Murray: In that sense, it’s similar to a voucher program, but my real goal with all of this is to revive civil society. Here’s what I mean by that: You have a guy who gets a check every month, alright. He is dissolute; he drinks it up and he’s got 10 days to go before the next check comes in and he’s destitute. He now has to go to friends, relatives, neighbors or the Salvation Army, and say, “I really need to survive.” He will get help.

But under a guaranteed basic income, he can no longer portray himself as a victim who’s helpless to do anything about it. And you’ve got to set up feedback loops where people say, “Okay, we’re not going to let you starve on the streets, but it’s time for you to get your act together. And don’t tell us that you can’t do it because we know you’ve got another check coming in in a couple of days.”

A guaranteed basic income has the potential for making civic organizations, families and neighborhoods much more vital, helpful and responsive than they have been in decades.

Paul Solman: And that’s because it shifts the blame? Because it doesn’t give people an excuse?

Charles Murray: Yeah. It doesn’t give people the excuse of being helpless. Right now, people can say, “What am I going to do? There’s no job out there. There’s this or that.” If you’re getting a check every month, you are not without resources, and that opens up a whole new dialogue between you and the other people around you.

America’s always been very good at providing help to people in need. It hasn’t been perfect, but they’ve been very good at it. Those relationships have been undercut in recent years by a welfare state that has, in my view, denuded the civic culture.

And a basic guaranteed income has the potential for making a big, positive difference in American life.

Paul Solman: How much difference?

Charles Murray: The first rule is that the basic guaranteed income has to replace everything else — it’s not an add-on. So there’s no more food stamps; there’s no more Medicaid; you just go down the whole list. None of that’s left. The government gives money; other human needs are dealt with by other human beings in the neighborhood, in the community, in the organizations. I think that’s great.

How Would It Work?

Paul Solman: So what would this income look like?

Charles Murray: Back in 2004 when I wrote a book called “In Our Hands” advocating this, I made it 10 grand a year. Ten grand a year is not enough to live a really terrific life all by yourself.

But here’s the point, Paul: you put two people together, that’s $20,000. You put three people together, that’s $30,000. You put four together and that’s $40,000.

Paul Solman: So this is per person.

Charles Murray: Per person. $10,000 is going to be enough to have a decent existence if you can cooperate with some of your fellow human beings, and if by cooperate, we mean getting married, that’s one choice. If by cooperate you mean room together, that’s another choice. But that kind of resource can be used to get on with life.

Paul Solman: So 10 years ago, you advocated for $10,000…So today that would be?

Charles Murray: $11,000 or $12,000 today.

Paul Solman: The typical family in America is about 2.6 people, I’d say. That’s about $30,000 a year.

Charles Murray: It’s for people over 21. So if you have two adults, that’s $20,000.
I don’t want to do it for people under 21. I want to keep the government out of the business of giving incentives to have or not have kids, or incentives to marry or not marry. One of the advantages of the basic guaranteed income is the government is just cutting checks. Paul, it’s one of the very few things that the federal government does well. And I want to keep them out of all the other kinds of decisions about how people live their lives.

But What About Work?

Paul Solman: What was the most trenchant objection you heard when you came out with that book 10 years ago?

Charles Murray: The ordinary objection to the guaranteed basic income is first, work disincentives. There are answers to that. You have a very high cutoff point, whereby people have to start losing their stipend. So I made the cutoff point $25,000 in income that you get to make or keep.

It could be higher. This is a matter of the details. It’s absolutely essential that you allow people to get jobs and keep hold of their money for a substantial amount of money. Another important objection is that you’re just going to have people go out and use the money for a get-together and rent a house on a remote beach in California and surf their lives away.

Paul Solman: And smoke dope.

Charles Murray: My reaction to that is, so what? We have a huge problem with people dropping out of the workforce right now. It’s not going to be any worse [with a guaranteed income]. And in fact, it’ll be better because I think we’re going to make it much more visible to people that they can have a middle class life if they combine some work with the basic income.

So there are lots of reasonable objections to a guaranteed basic income. There are lots of ways you can do it wrong, where it’ll make matters much, much worse than they are now. My argument is that you can do it right and avoid all the obvious pitfalls.

What’s Wrong with the Current System?

Paul Solman: What’s an example of doing it wrong?

Charles Murray: Doing it wrong would be to add a guaranteed basic income onto the current system. Then you have all of the defects of the current system, all the ways the government stage manages people’s lives, all the ways in which they have incentives to game the system, and you add on just a whole bundle of cash to that.

Paul Solman: And I know, having read you for years, that part of your objection to the current system is the sprawl of the bureaucracy and costs that don’t actually benefit anybody but the people who have the jobs.

Charles Murray: In a sense, I’ve always taken the view that saving money isn’t a big deal with this. It’s nice if we don’t pay bureaucrats that aren’t doing anything useful. It’s nice if we save some of that money.

But what I’m talking about is going to be expensive. It’s actually now not going to be as expensive as the current system. When I wrote “In Our Hands” in 2004, I calculated the cost of that system would cross with the costs of the existing system in 2011, and I was right. So right now, you could have a guaranteed basic income if you cashed out all the income transfer programs.

Paul Solman: Medicaid, food stamps, Social Security, disability?

Charles Murray: Everything. This is a substitute for all the income transfers, including, by the way, agricultural subsidies, corporate welfare and all those kinds of things.

But Will This Actually Ever Happen in America?

Paul Solman: I am a sometimes betting man. What odds could I make on this particular wager?

Charles Murray: Over the next 10 years, you ought to get really good odds. At some point, you know, this calculation — we’re spending x number of dollars per poor person — that we’ve been hearing for a long time, it’s getting real high. At some point, it’s going to be ridiculous to everybody on the left, as well as everybody on the right. We can get rid of poverty for a lot less than we’re spending now. And at that point, you can lower the odds.

Paul Solman: Do you think this will happen in your and my lifetime? I mean, assuming that we live a lot longer than perhaps we will.

Charles Murray: Look, our lifetime? Maybe it won’t happen. But I’ll tell you this: it’s conceivable to me that if wealth continues to increase as it has increased over the last century, that 200 years from now, people are going to be saying that the way to deal with human needs is to have these gigantic bureaucracies filter money through and give it with all kinds of conditions. I think a much simpler kind of system has to eventually be implemented. Unfortunately, they will have forgotten those of us who thought it was a good idea.

How Would It Change America?

Paul Solman: Isn’t this sort of the Roman Empire bread and circuses approach?

Charles Murray: No. It’s just the opposite. Look, we’re talking about a country – the United States — that was exceptional and seen by all the world as exceptional because of our civic culture.

Starting with Tocqueville and going through the rest of the century, America was neighborly in a way that no other civic culture was, even including Britain, which was the closest cousin. Americans helped each other out in ways that were wonderful, and they created what I like to think of as valued places for people with a wide variety of skills and positions. It was a pretty great system. It’s close to disappeared over the last 50 years. A basic guaranteed income has a chance of revitalizing that, and if I can convince people of that, if others can convince people of that, there’s a possibility of restoring the America that is special. The guaranteed income restores the social glue that made things work in the past.

Paul Solman: And how does it do that?

Charles Murray: In 1850, let’s say, if you had somebody who had a human need, that person had no choice but to go to neighbors, friends, community, philanthropic agencies. That was the only thing he had, and as a result, you had a very rich network of such people responding to other people’s needs, whether it’s feeding the person next door, or whether it’s joining a church, or whatever. The welfare state gave all sorts of ways in which you didn’t have to do that any more; in which we took human needs and said, “This bureaucracy downtown will handle all that stuff.”

And lo and behold, people said, “Oh, okay. If you’re going to handle it then I won’t bother anymore.” I’m saying we’re going to go to a system where that bureaucracy downtown is cutting a check, but the human needs in the community have to be dealt with. Those who are in the best position to do that are not bureaucrats but people who know the person that experiences those human needs. Government now serves a role that it didn’t have enough money to serve before, which is to provide the basic guaranteed income.

Why It’s Not Just for Poor Americans

Paul Solman: Is it, in a sense, a social security system for everyone?

It’s a civic revitalization system for everybody. This is not something that’s only going to be good for these poor folks who need help. It is going to be something that’s good for all of us because one of the problems with this country now is that we’ve gotten very good at leading glossy lives, those of us who have enough money. Our lives aren’t very textured any more, in a lot of cases. We’ve got a really nice house and a two-acre lot out in the subdivision, and we’re pretty disconnected from a whole lot of the stuff of life. Well, I’m not going to say that everybody in the subdivisions is going to get re-engaged in civic life, but some of them are. It’s going to be a whole lot richer civic life than we’ve known for decades.

Where Does Inequality Fit In?

Paul Solman: You wrote the book “In Our Hands” 10 years ago, where you proposed a minimum income.

More recently, you’ve done the book “Coming Apart,” which is about massive inequality just among whites in America. How much of your enthusiasm for this idea has been rekindled by the awareness on your part of the growing inequality in this country?

Charles Murray: Every reason for having a minimum income that I saw in 2004 is more urgent now than it was then. You know, the separation, the isolation, the cultural isolation of the different classes in this country is getting worse day by day. It’s in many ways as bad within the middle classes as it is in the working class and below.

I don’t know if a guaranteed minimum income is going to do much for the civic culture of the 1 percent of the really wealthy, of those who are really isolated. Maybe they won’t benefit much from it. But if you’re talking about everybody else, which is the vast majority of Americans, they’re going to be living in communities that, I think, look a lot more like communities than we’ve seen in a long time.

Why the Basic Income Will Work Best in America

Paul Solman: What about Switzerland, where the guaranteed income is being proposed now?

Charles Murray: The difference between us and elsewhere in the world is that we have a different legacy than everywhere else. Everybody who came here simply had an exceptional civic culture. When America installs a minimum income, it’s going to be doing it in a very different historical context than Switzerland or Sweden or Germany, or any other country might do it. And we’re doing it in a context where it has the potential, I think, for much better consequences than in those other countries.

Paul Solman: Because we’re so pluralistic and diverse?

Charles Murray: No, I’m saying that American civic culture historically was quite different and it didn’t have too much to do with our diversity. It had to do with the exceptional circumstances under which the country was formed — where you had people who had to cross the north Atlantic, which made them risk-takers. And in order to survive once they got here, they had to cooperate with whomever was found next door. They didn’t have the option of doing anything else, and we began to take pride in it over time. A lot of self-segregation was involved in that, whether it was the Scots-Irish in Scots-Irish communities, or Puritans in Puritan communities, but the neighborliness – which is a weak word for the richness of the civic culture — took root in all of these different groups in the United States. And after a while it became an essential part of the American way of life.

Paul Solman: This is what economic historians talk about as central to early American development — the low labor to land ratio, right?

Charles Murray: That’s part of it. But also think about Tocqueville; he points out that the local nature of government in this country sort of forced the classes to interact, and he has this lovely line about how the more opulent members of American society stay close to the lower classes. They talked to them every day. So part of it was this very decentralized system we had, whereby it was the community that took action dealing with human problems.