US Catholic Faith in Real Life

The alleged and illusory moral superiority of Charles Murray's American "elite"

Bryan Cones | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

Scanning the coverage of Charles Murray's new book Coming Apart, in which he criticizes white working class America for its lack of good family values, I've been surprised at how non-controversial Murray's claim that wealthy and educated Americans have better moral values than the working class based on things like marriage rates and church attendance. Murray laments the drop in marriage rates (now below 50 percent) among working class whites, along with the one in eight white working class men ages 30 to 49 who have dropped out of the workforce.

Poor and working class people in general are certainly suffering, and there are some troubling demographic trends--the number of children born to single mothers, for example, who are more likely to suffer poverty and other deficits. The social problems created by these realities need our attention--though I'm not sure that Murray's solution of the educated elites guiding the benighted poor and working class out of their moral turpitude is the solution.

Indeed, the greater moral failure to my mind rests precisely with the so-called elites--especially those who pull the levers of economic and political power--who have abandoned the unwritten social contract of previous generations that promised a fair wage for a day's work--a reality Murray completely discounts. Instead of well-paying (union) manufacturing jobs that promised a wage that could support homeownership and a middle class standard of living (along with a secure retirement), those without post-secondary education are now left to scramble for jobs with such meager wages that a family can't get by without two wage-earners. 

That former social contract guaranteed a "pay-off" for buying into the once-common values of stable marriages, education, and honest work. Today, not so much. Those equipped to deal with an information-based economy prosper--their consumption support by the cheap labor of the poorer world--while anyone without the social capital or natural ability or inherited wealth to buy in gets left behind. Indeed, the jobs leftover from that previous social contract--in the public sector, for example--are increasingly under attack from the very elite Murray suggests the poor emulate.

Further, the economy created by the global elite  is increasingly a shell-game that produces only money (rather than actual wealth), and is one increasingly run by the amoral captains of finance who are directly responsible for destroying what weath--in real estate, for example--the working class had. If there was any morality there, you might have expected some repentance and restitution from the perpetrators--of which there has been none. (If you want at least one man's account of the moral quality of Goldman Sachs, you can read one of its own executive's laments. For all the criticism Greg Smith got, I detect a ring of truth in spite of all the voiciferous denials.) 

Murray's account of elite moral superiority gives the wealthy and even the middle class a pass when it comes to the troubles of the working poor. We've exchanged the values of the common good, solidarity, and full human development--the hallmarks of Catholic social teaching--for the inhumane efficiency, consumption, and individualism of global capitalism. Murray may have identified some troubling symptoms, but his diagnosis is off the mark.