Does Charles Murray Make More Sense in China?

We who live in China and have engaged in the least with local intellectuals in the debate about democracy in China should all be familiar with the argument that freedom requires discipline and responsibility.  How, they ask, can we give uneducated peasants the freedom to vote, if they don’t know how to properly use that freedom?  How can the rule of law be meaningful and effective if ordinary people have no fundamental respect for that law and flout it when no one is looking (e.g. stopping at traffic lights) or find ways to get around it (e.g. going through the “backdoor”)?  How can government truly be limited and power checked by competition if different parties or institutions don’t exercise restraint about what they would do to maximize power?  We may not agree that China is not ready for democracy.  But we should know where these Chinese are coming from and have internalized their arguments.  Unlike readers in America, we should know what Charles Murray means in Coming Apart when he says that freedom is enabled by certain “founding virtues,” and that the demise of such virtues threatens freedom.

One characteristic of the conservative mind is the tendency to remind us that order is a necessity in any society.  The CCP, for example, constantly reminds us of this fact when it says that a newly-democratic China would be harmful to most Chinese.  The conservative mind, as exemplified by Murray, challenges us to admit that some baseline of social order is always preferable to disorder, and that if we do in fact want order, the only question is whether that order is to be accompanied by freedom or coercion.  An American conservative like Murray of course prefers freedom.  If that freedom is to coexist with order, however, we must then act in such a way that we actually want to do that which we have to do, i.e. abide by the law, sanction infractions of the law, and maintain social order.  This is what the Chinese mean when they say that ordinary Chinese aren’t ready for freedom because it would result in chaos.  Murray thinks that freedom requires responsibility because order is good, and it’s best to maintain that order ourselves.  Why might this sound odd to us today?  In the 1700s, freedom was understood by the Anglo-American political tradition as being freedom from arbitrary government power, which implied that society would be responsible for the upkeep of order, lest that responsibility be usurped by the government.  This older notion of political liberty is distinct from today’s more libertarian concept of negative liberty, with which we are more intuitively familiar, according to which people are free to the extent that they are free from government interference (e.g. as seen in today’s cult of “markets” and cult of “rights”), and should be allowed to do whatever it is that they want to do (i.e. without harming others).

Murray’s major claim in Coming Apart is that what he calls the “American Project” is now threatened because the working class has not been making good use of personal freedoms greatly expanded in the 1960s, thereby damaging the cultural foundations of limited government in American society.  According to Murray, the American Project is based on the proposition that government can only rule with a light hand and therefore maximize our personal liberties if the people possess the “founding virtues” that Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and the other founders saw as necessary to the American experiment in limited government.  Murray identifies four such founding virtues: marriage, industriousness, honesty, and religion.  Almost every single one of the many graphs in Coming Apart has in common the fact that they chart a decline in such virtues among the working class since the 1960s, while the elite has experienced minimal decline (in some cases dipping in the 1970s or 1980s, but mostly recovering by the 2000s).  Thus, the many symptoms of social breakdown in America today are largely confined to the American working class.  These include rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock birth, the rate of labor force participation, rates of crime and incarceration, and rates of religious attendance (among nearly 100 graphs in the book).  It is for this reason that Murray says that America is “coming apart,” not as sometimes understood ideologically (i.e. liberal vs. conservative) or ethnically (i.e. in line with the “culture wars” of the 1980s and 1990s), but in terms of class.  This threatens the American Project to the extent that the founders (and Murray) are correct that freedom requires these “founding virtues” — which all involve to some degree either personal responsibility (lasting commitment to sexual partners, holding down a job, obeying the law) or social capital (going to church or membership in voluntary organizations that encourage the horizontal ties and competing power centers that strengthen society vis-à-vis the state).  Ironically, while it was the elites who propagated the more relaxed attitudes and expansion of personal freedom in the 1960s, it has been the working classes who have suffered.  In some sense, the elite has therefore “shafted” the working class since the 1960s, selling them a bill of goods about the desirability of unrestricted freedom above all, while leaving them to suffer the consequences (crime, drugs, and social breakdown being almost entirely absent from elite neighborhoods).  To the extent that rich and poor are becoming more unequal and divergent in terms of these social outcomes, the elite has become more isolated from the poor.  This has been in terms of both geography and those “meritocratic” institutions, such as top universities, which make the elite feel they have “earned” their status.  The result, according to Murray, is that the rulers of American society no longer understand the ruled, yet continue to make decisions on their behalf, thus further stoking alienation from the governing process.  As the CCP knows all too well, social cleavages of any kind, whether of ethnicity or especially of class, threaten the stability of any regime.  Murray would add that this is especially true of America, given that equal opportunity has always been part of the American creed, and the founding of the regime itself presupposed virtues that only the rich now possess.

In China, we should take special note of Murray’s beratement of the American elite for not “teaching” the working class about these virtues (which sustain their success and allow them to make good use of their freedom).  Indeed, Murray says that if he were of a conspiratorial mindset, he would conclude that the elites are “keeping the good stuff to themselves.”  Prior to the 1960s, the elite was much more inclined to teach the working class about how to live in a way that today seems “judgemental” of their lives, whether that be exhortations to get married (especially if a pregnant female), or get a job (especially if an able-bodied male).  This was partly because there existed more effective avenues through which people of different classes could cultivate horizontal ties and friendships, whether through church or voluntary organizations like the Rotary Club (now largely working and middle class).  This was also, however, because the American elite was simply more inclined to take on the responsibility of propagating those values and virtues that enabled their success, though explicitly “paternalistic” judgement of the lifestyles of the working class.  This fact of American society from only 50 years ago should be of interest to anyone interested in the question of “what makes Chinese and Westerners so different.”  One of the most authoritatively-documented results of comparative research in political culture is that while Chinese and East Asians typically have Confucian attitudes toward hierarchy and authority, Westerners and Americans in particular tend to have egalitarian attitudes toward hierarchy and authority.  While, to the Confucian mind, hierarchy is an inherent aspect of the social fabric and the recognition of hierarchy (or exhibition thereof) is a normal way that people should interact, to the American mind, people are presumed equal unless hierarchy is endowed with legitimate authority, the best measure of which usually lies with the judgement of the subordinate.  In practice, this means that Chinese are usually much more willing to be taught by those with more authority (or exhibit behaviors consistent with such an attitude), whereas Americans are famously (perhaps obstinately) unwilling to be lectured to by anyone who thinks he or she is more intelligent, knowledgeable, or sophisticated, unless they already have sufficient “proof” to their own minds that a “teacher” is properly qualified to “teach” (such acknowledgement being rare in a typical American high school, as any foreign teacher in America will attest to).  From the perspective of the Confucian commonsense of China or the Chinese, we might then ask why it is that the American working class doesn’t want to “learn” from the elite, and why the elite doesn’t want to “teach.”  The obvious answer is that, despite greater economic inequality, the working class still sees itself as fundamentally equal in status to today’s elites, and that because today’s elites (therefore) also still see themselves as fundamentally equal in status, they don’t feel that they are in a position to “teach” or “judge” the working class.  The less obvious answer, as documented so well by Murray, is that Americans have come to believe in their equality to an even greater degree than before the 1960s.  Both Murray and the Confucian moralist would agree that this odd and atypical country, the United States, has come to be even more exceptional in precisely the way that it has always been considered exceptional — the result of which must count among the most abhorrent nightmares of the Confucian mind, a people unwilling to “bend toward virtue like grass toward the wind.”

We should also take special note of Murray’s focus on changes since the 1960s and what this says about differences between contemporary China and the West.  Anyone who has lived in China will have noticed that most ordinary Chinese see Westerners as more “direct” and “open” in their morals, especially as that relates to sexual openness. Much as Westerners have viewed the East in terms of an “Orientalism” specifying cultural characteristics deemed “essential” to the East, ordinary Chinese tend to view the West in terms of “Occidentalism,” the most vivid aspects of which revolve around sexuality and relationships between men and women (thus sharing certain core concerns with Orientalism).  Thus, ordinary Chinese see Westerners as sexually aggressive, almost animalistic in their mating rituals, Western women (and especially American women) as hyper-sexualized (in contrast to the paradigmatically demure traditional Chinese woman), and Western men and women as relatively unconcerned with marriage, family, and the raising of children.  While these stereotypes are of course highly exaggerated, from Murray’s perspective they do contain a grain of truth, insofar as Americans really are more sexually open than they were before the 1960s, and the American working class really has become less committed to stable marriage and having children with two parents.  Much of what Murray says about getting married and having children is simply common sense in China and most of East Asia, including the rich countries of East Asia.  Regardless of whether Murray (or much of East Asia) is right about these moral consequences of the sexual revolution, Murray should at least be given credit for inducing recognition of the contingency of our morals in the West today.  Indeed, we are the odd ones to have cast doubt on the legitimacy of the traditional family structure — both in historical perspective, (our post-1960s sexual norms being unprecedented in the West) and in comparative perspective (as shown by comparison with contemporary East Asia or any of hundreds of past or present societies).  Our predecessors of a century ago would find our romantic and sexual norms to be just as odd as the ordinary Chinese finds them today.  In this sense, Murray helps us see that contemporary differences between East and West, as reflected either in the Chinese discourse of “Occidentalism” or in our own views of lingering Chinese “backwardness,” may have their root cause not in “timeless” or “immutable” characteristics or cultures or civilizations, nor in some “logic” of economic development, rising living standards, and the adoption of post-modern lifestyles, but in the consequences of a specific historical period in a small number of leading Western countries — the salience and contingency of which become much more obvious in China.

The most interesting and important question that we bring to any book that we read is the question of why we find certain questions interesting and important.  Most American reviewers of Coming Apart bring with them the question of why inequality is increasing in America, and have by and large concluded that Murray does not adequately explain growing inequality.  While Murray’s focus on the culture of the working class can arguably serve as an intermediary explanation, they are right to say that the globalization of markets and the deindustrialization of working class areas are the ultimate explanation for why people can’t find good jobs (their “virtues” no doubt aiding better outcomes, but not directly determining them).  In China, on the other hand, we see Murray in a different light, bringing to his work a different framework of analysis and hence a different set of questions.  In the above, we have focused on the questions of (1) why virtue is necessary to freedom to maintain order in an open society, and (2) why Chinese and Westerners differ in their attitudes toward authority relations and their attitudes toward family and marriage.  These kinds of questions come from our lived experiences in China.  It is these kinds of questions that help us understand our worlds, and help us navigate the interactions we have with ordinary Chinese every single day.  Murray thinks that contemporary America is odd.  It’s not the America he grew up in.  We who have sympathized with, understood, and internalized the concerns of the Chinese should also be able to look at the West with new eyes and see it as odd, taking a Chinese perspective as our framework of analysis, and thus arriving at new questions we wouldn’t ask if we weren’t in China.  It’s not beyond the realm of possibility, and perhaps even likely, that our questions and concerns in China more closely overlap with Murray’s own than do those of his more progressive American reviewers, and that much “structuralist” criticism of Murray simply misses the point, having posed questions he never asked.

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