Charles Murray is the W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. One of America’s leading social scientists, Murray has made major intellectual contributions on a range of subjects including welfare, happiness, IQ, the American regulatory system, crime, and class. He has written twenty books and dozens of scholarly articles. His 1984 book, Losing Ground, helped inspire the movement for welfare reform in America. His 1994 book, The Bell Curve, co-written with the late Harvard psychology professor Richard J. Herrnstein, was an international bestseller. His awards include the American Enterprise Institute’s Irving Kristol Award and the Bradley Prize.
Murray was born in 1943 in Newton, Iowa, a small town in which the main employer was the Maytag Corporation. The sense of community and trust to be found in America’s small towns has been a reference point for much of his work, which often focuses on the disintegration of community in the second half of the twentieth century.
Murray attended Harvard University. Following his graduation in 1965, he joined the Peace Corps and assisted villagers in the Thai countryside. After two years with the Corps, Murray remained in Thailand for several years, working for social research firms.
This work in Thailand informed Murray’s doctoral dissertation in political science at M.I.T. During his time in Thai villages, Murray had come to see that aid programs were not necessarily beneficial. Speedy change unsettled village life and displaced traditions that had evolved over decades or centuries, and he observed that governments often do not understand the priorities of their citizens.
After completing his Ph.D., Murray went to work in Washington, D.C., for the American Institutes for Research (AIR), a nonpartisan social research organization. There Murray worked on evaluations of government programs in the areas of welfare, public education, criminal justice, and the prevention of family breakdown.
Murray left AIR to write about the failures of government welfare programs. Taking a position with the Manhattan Institute, in 1984 he published his first heralded book, Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950–1980. Murray showed that the welfare policies advanced under Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” often worsened rather than improved the condition of the poor. The book was the first of Murray’s books to generate national controversy.
His 1988 book, In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government, dealt with the question of how one goes about living a worthwhile and satisfying life. This subject reappeared in different ways in his later books American Exceptionalism and The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead. In both books, Murray speaks of the importance to an individual of honest and meaningful labor. Implicit in this simple idea is a critique of nearly all government welfare programs, which can rob the individual of the satisfactions of personal effort, striving, and achievement. In Pursuit includes examples of the failure of government initiatives such as job-training programs.
In 1989 Murray published a detailed history of NASA’S Apollo program, written in collaboration with his wife, Catherine Bly Cox. Unlike Tom Wolfe’s book about the Mercury astronauts, The Right Stuff, Murray and Cox’s Apollo focused on the engineers and scientists who created the U.S. lunar landing program.
During the following years, Murray continued to write about poverty issues, particularly what he saw as a growing white underclass in America. He also worked in the U.K., and published articles in London’s Sunday Times warning of the growth of an underclass on that side of the Atlantic.
In 1994, in collaboration with Harvard psychology professor Richard Herrnstein, Murray published a lengthy book called The Bell Curve. The authors used a massive study known as the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth to consider whether a main cause for a range of social patterns might be distribution of IQ rather than family structure, parental income, education, or other factors commonly cited by researchers. In this, they reflected the preponderance of evidence uncovered to that date by psychologists. Nonetheless, the book was widely attacked. A particular accusation leveled against it was that it was racist, and reviews and criticism frequently misstated the book’s arguments and ideas. As Herrnstein had died just prior to the book’s release, Murray became the sole target of these attacks.
In later articles and monographs, Murray presented further evidence to support The Bell Curve’s conclusions, including evidence that siblings raised in the same household by the same parents vary in income and in other patterns of behavior as predicted by IQ tests.
Murray’s books in subsequent years included What It Means to Be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation (1997); a massive work exploring the conditions in which the human intellect flourishes called Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 (2003); an argument in favor of a universal basic income called In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State (2006); and Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality (2008).
In 2012 Murray published Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010. Here Murray examined the growing cultural and social divisions among whites based on class and income, trends he had predicted in The Bell Curve. Coming Apart generated a great deal of comment and controversy, and the circumstances of the 2016 presidential campaign brought it back to public awareness.
The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life began as a series of blog posts Murray wrote to advise young interns and researchers at the American Enterprise Institute. He was urged to develop them into a guide for young people and did so, publishing the book in 2014.
Charles Murray’s most recent book, By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission (2015), argues against the expansion of the self-legislating regulatory agencies of the federal government. Murray is a determined critic of the lobbying, corruption, and corporate rent-seeking that have extended these agencies’ powers. By the People presents a radical plan to return the regulatory agencies to their proper functions and stop their illegitimate encroachments upon individual rights.
Murray is married with four grown children and lives with his wife in a rural town in Maryland.