Dubbed “the most dangerous” conservative thinker in America in a New York Times Magazine cover story, Charles Murray has been a highly influential critic of Great Society welfare policies. Murray’s critique of the failure of the Great Society provided an intellectual foundation for the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996.

A consistent theme runs through Murray’s writing. This is that government’s power to resolve social problems is limited, and many of the programs it has implemented in response to the existence of poverty have exacerbated the problem, playing a central role in the creation of the contemporary underclass. Murray believes that most government policies meant to address poverty are not only counterproductive but also inconsistent with the Constitutional principles of the United States and corrosive to the spirit of independence and self-reliance upon which families and communities depend. Murray’s ideas have had widespread influence on discussions of poverty and social programs.

Murray has also written extensively about intelligence testing and the relationship between measurable indicators of formal intelligence and social pathologies such as crime, welfare dependence, unemployment, and illegitimacy. In recent years, Murray has distinguished himself by the originality and penetration of his writings about the growing isolation of the “cognitive elite.” This is the small part of the country’s population endowed with the highest cognitive ability, a group that forms the bulk of those in the highest-paying professions and from which most of the country’s intellectual and political leaders are drawn. Murray is further known for his writings about affirmative action and on such diverse subjects as Thai village life, criminal justice and the legal system, limited government, education, the Apollo lunar program, and American exceptionalism.

Murray is a libertarian, or, as he calls himself, a “Madisonian.” Murray uses the term Madisonian to emphasize that the present federal system is not consistent with the government outlined by the Constitution. Where he was once hopeful that the electoral process would gradually work to diminish the power of regulatory agencies and lobbyists, he now believes that affirmative acts of civil disobedience against the expanding regulatory state are warranted. This is the subject of his 2015 book By the People: Rebuilding America Without Permission. It proposes a form of civil disobedience through which those who believe in small government might act to return the nation to a mode of life with greater personal autonomy.

Murray’s three most influential and widely read books are Losing Ground: American Social Policy 19501980; The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life; and Coming Apart: The State of White America, 19602010.

Losing Ground

Losing Ground dealt with welfare programs and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. It provided statistical evidence that the growth of illegitimacy, crime, and chronic employment among the poor were direct consequences of the programs meant to address these issues. Murray argued that transfer payments and non-cash benefits provided to the poor were discouraging work and acting against family formation. Most notably, Murray showed that, under the welfare policies of some states in the 1970s, the effective income level of single mothers might actually be reduced by working.

A further point of the book, which was buttressed by a wealth of government data, was that American blacks had made less economic progress since the mid-1960s than they had in the preceding fifteen years. Indeed, the book demonstrated that by some important measures blacks were worse off in 1980 than they had been when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed and the War on Poverty began.

As with many of his books, Murray’s arguments in Losing Ground have sometimes been mischaracterized. Murray did not argue that welfare policies were a welcome or desirable choice for poor women. He noted that, because they provided a route to motherhood for those with limited options, they might have discouraged marriage. In this way, Murray argued, the government was creating the emerging underclass that it claimed to be assisting.

Murray’s writings served as one basis for the welfare reform policies enacted by Congress under the leadership of House Speaker Newt Gingrich and signed into law by President Clinton in 1996. These policies coincided with a period during which welfare rolls in many states fell.

The Bell Curve

Most controversial of Murray’s writings is The Bell Curve. Appearing in 1994, the book was based principally on an extended analysis of a large U.S. government study known as the “National Longitudinal Survey of Youth” (NLSY). This analysis of the NLSY was bolstered by reference to dozens of other studies in the fields of econometrics, sociology, and psychometrics.

Co-authored with Harvard psychology professor Richard Herrnstein, The Bell Curve made a lengthy, novel, and radical argument: most sociological research into the causes of behavior misses a vital and necessary data point because it does not consider IQ. In many cases, Herrnstein and Murray suggested, behavior that has been attributed to socioeconomic factors primarily reflects differences in IQ.

Because the book has generated so much criticism and commentary by those who have not actually read it, it is important to emphasize that it did not present a number of arguments commonly attributed to it. Most particularly, the authors made it clear that heredity and culture both play roles in determining IQ, and that their relative proportions were not yet known. Herrnstein and Murray selected a conservative figure of .6 (60%) as a good estimate of the intelligence (as measured on IQ tests) that is inherited. This was a middle ground between the position of researchers who believed that it is .4 (40%) and those who believed it is .8 (80%).

Although the figure of .6 was widely attacked as extreme in the press, it is in fact below the findings of most research on the subject, including studies of identical twins raised separately. After the book’s release, 48 leading American psychologists signed a statement in support of the book’s use of the figure of .6, and the American Psychological Association later issued a report that said that the level of heritability for IQ was in fact probably about .75 (75%).

The Bell Curve argues that most of what appears in statistical analysis as an effect of socioeconomic status (occupation, income, and level of education) actually reflects the IQ of the subject. This is because cognitive ability runs in families, and the educational level a person attains is in large degree a consequence of their IQ. Thus, Herrnstein and Murray’s analysis of their data showed that IQ alone predicted a young adult’s level of education, income, and employment history far better than childhood socioeconomic status.

Because critics of the book claimed that this instead reflected what statisticians refer to as confounding factors, Murray published a short follow-up piece in 1998 entitled Income Inequality and IQ. This compared siblings who were raised in the same household by the same parents for at least seven years. Although these children had the same childhood socioeconomic status, they varied in their IQ by approximately two-thirds of a standard deviation. The amount of the difference in their adult incomes corresponded with the amounts indicated by Herrnstein and Murray’s prior analysis of the effect of IQ in The Bell Curve—so much so that many of the predictive numbers appeared nearly interchangeable. Again, IQ, not socioeconomic status, appeared to be the driving cause of differences in income. This provided confirmatory evidence of one of The Bell Curve’s main contentions.

Herrnstein and Murray did not argue that factors other than IQ were irrelevant. For example, their research showed that the absence of a biological father in the home of an adolescent girl significantly increased the likelihood of her bearing her first child out of wedlock. Even so, the NLSY data showed that the relationship of out-of-wedlock birth with the cognitive ability of the mother was far stronger. Thus, white women in the top five percent in IQ were almost seven times less likely to bear their first child out of wedlock than women in the bottom five percent in IQ—even after socioeconomic factors were taken into account. This is but one of many examples where The Bell Curve argues that social pathologies—such as unemployment, divorce, criminal behavior, and welfare dependency—are associated not merely with low IQ but with the interaction between lower cognitive ability and the choices open to individuals in today’s culture.

Additional findings presented in the book were neither obvious nor intuitive. Their research clearly showed, for instance, that, adjusted for IQ, higher levels of education correspond to higher divorce rates among the young. In other words, the common finding linking low divorce rates with college and graduate school education is misleading. The actual cause of lower divorce rates in high-IQ populations is a higher level of measurable intelligence itself, not school attendance, which actually appears to increase the probability of marital dissolution.

Murray and Herrnstein’s research also showed that high-IQ white youths were significantly less likely to attend and graduate from college and to enter into prestigious professions than were black youths with the same IQ. The authors included a wealth of data demonstrating that affirmative action programs were placing black students into selective colleges and professional programs despite their having IQ scores more than a standard deviation lower than their white peers at the same institutions. Since many of the black recipients of this special treatment were the products of the middle class and not “disadvantaged” as the term has traditionally been understood, Murray and Herrnstein questioned the rationale behind the affirmative action programs.

By far the book’s most controversial contention was that the large differences between average black and white IQ scores is likely to have some genetic basis. The authors stressed that even if this were proved to be the case, it would be an observation only about group averages and would say nothing about individuals within those groups. Though this was a subject of inquiry within only a brief subsection of the work, it provoked more attention than anything else in the book.

A central concern of The Bell Curvethat social division and stratification were increasing in American lifeappears prescient a generation after the book’s publication. Herrnstein and Murray attributed the stratification to increasing demands from employers for applicants with higher cognitive skills. The authors argued that as well-paid jobs require higher levels of IQ, the population segregates along the lines of cognitive ability. A curious aspect of this transformation was that those within the stratum of the “cognitive elite” were rarely aware of the degree to which their interactions were confined to this isolated sphere.

For Limited Government

Murray’s next major book after The Bell Curve  made its arguments without tables and graphs. What it Means to Be a Libertarian: A Personal Approach expresses Murray’s belief in limited government and Madisonian constitutionalism. Adopting a range of ideas previously set forward by legal scholars such as Richard Epstein, Murray argues that the role of government is three-fold: to prevent parties from harming one another, to carry out functions that government alone could be entrusted to execute, and to assist in providing demonstrated “public goods.” Examples include the Army and the police, which fall into the first and second categories, and providing funds for education, which falls into the third.

Murray believes that the federal government should again be limited to the powers that the country’s founders enumerated. He is a believer in subsidiarity, the idea that matters ought to be handled by the smallest and lowest level of authority competent to handle them. Remote bureaucracies are ill-prepared to make vital decisions about the day-to-day lives of citizens. Murray has said that his experiences as a Peace Corps worker in Thailand informed all of his subsequent thought. He learned then to be suspicious of the value of government programs designed by bureaucrats in distant offices, and fearful of their consequences.

Coming Apart

The third of Murray’s most talked-about books resembles Losing Ground and The Bell Curve in that it is based on statistical and demographic research data. This is Coming Apart: The State of White America, 19602010. Published in 2012, the book describes deep cultural differences between groups of whites in the United States. Murray concludes that the country is not dividing along racial lines as much as it is breaking apart along lines of income and class.

Looking at the ZIP codes of more than 14,000 post-1989 graduates of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, Murray found that 44% were living in what he calls “superZIPs”—ZIP codes where the average income is above the 95th percentile of the population. 74% lived in ZIP codes where the average income was in the top 20% of the population. One half of these recent Harvard, Yale, and Princeton graduates lived in the New York, Washington, and Boston metropolitan areas alone. These patterns are very different from what was observed through most of the twentieth century.

Analysis of other schools and universities only confirmed Murray’s conclusion: the United States is increasingly experiencing the self-segregation of its highest-IQ young people in a handful of communities in and around its major cities. Income levels in these communities are high and rising. Members of this group tend to marry among themselves. Their children then inherit their parents’ high IQs and go to schools and universities with others like them.

By contrast, whites who are below the average in IQ are increasingly living side by side with one another in towns marked by lower incomes, and they are evidencing patterns of behavior that were characteristic of the black underclass of thirty years ago: low rates of marriage, increasing rates of illegitimate births, and declining rates of workforce participation. Overall, the second group shows a falling level of income and social capital.

To illustrate, Murray offers a striking comparison of social patterns in an imagined upper-class community he calls Belmont (named for the Boston suburb) and an imagined working-class enclave he calls Fishtown (after the Philadelphia neighborhood). The marked variations to be found in his models of these statistically representative communities reflect the real underlying differences in the present-day United States between predominantly white communities of different income levels.

Coming Apart shows how this de facto cultural segregation is a modern development in the United States. For most of its history, Murray demonstrates, Americans of different classes have by and large shared the same values and beliefs. This is part of what has made Americans an exceptional people. He worries, however, that this is increasingly untrue. He now finds himself a critical observer of an emerging elite within the United States that makes the rules for everyone else while oblivious to the fact that they don’t understand the lives of those outside their own sheltered enclaves.

–Essays by Jonathan Leaf.