The Check Is In the Mail

Lawrence M. Mead, First Things, October 2006.


Toward the end of In Our Hands, Murray makes clear that his priority is not really to overcome the dysfunctions behind poverty. Rather, it is to restore the small-government society of the nineteenth century. Then there were no government social programs. The poor were taken care of by churches and other voluntary bodies. Murray, like some other interpreters of that era (Gertrude Himmelfarb, Marvin Olasky, Joel Schwartz), thinks that this system did more to overcome poverty than government does today. He thinks that, under his plan, voluntary effort would once again arise to minister to the poor, because government agencies would no longer do so. A much more individualist and dynamic society would emerge than exists today, where political scientists find that “social capital” is withering. It is an appealing vision, one that harks back to Murray’s childhood in small-town Iowa. Unfortunately, today’s long-term poor, who are mostly black and Hispanic, tend to have more-serious problems—especially family problems—than the largely white poor aided by Victorian charity. Murray, like other theorists of both the Left and the Right, tends to make what I call the competence assumption. He presumes that the individuals he seeks to help behave rationally enough to advance their own self-interest, if not society’s.

First Things