Reality Is Biased Against Conservatism, Charles Murray Edition

Adam Serwer has a good post up about the fiscal/budgetary beliefs that gain you entry to Washington’s Very Serious People club and the conservative notions of moral virtue and social change that underlie those beliefs:

Yesterday I went to Charles Murray‘s AEI lecture on the State of White America…after Murray was finished going over some of his empirical findings he retreated into the basic platitudes of conservative moral theology.

Murray’s basic conclusion was that something went deeply wrong in the mid-1960s, an idea that caused everyone in the room to nod their heads solemnly. And the basic thing that went wrong was that President Lyndon Johnson’s extension of the American welfare state, undermined the essential virtue of the American people by making them soft, weak and lazy where once they were hard, strong and industrious. America’s decline can be traced to this moment.

According to Tim Murphy at Mother Jones, Murray argued that the welfare state has undermined

the four virtues that hold the key to American Exceptionalism—marriage, religiosity, work ethic, and honesty—are in steady decline among the white lower class, with destructive consequences. It’s an age-old problem: the government gives you food stamps, and the next thing you know, your marriage has collapsed, you’ve quite your job, you’ve turned your back to God, and you’re facing 5 to 10 for holding up a Piggly Wiggly.

Murry and others have long harped on the increasing rate out-of-wedlock births. They’re not wrong to point out that, in the United States, out-of-wedlock births are often not good for the child and the parents (or non-parental guardians) who raise them, although not necessarily for the reasons Murray et al cite. Setting aside the question of whether there’s something inherent in out of wedlock births that cause psychological, familial and societal problems, they’re worse in the US because our social safety net is much weaker than those of most other industrialized countries, especially in the European Union. Thus, children born out of wedlock are more likely to be poor and to then be saddled with the complications that attend to poverty, such as illness, poor education, crime, etc.

But if, as Murray and his ilk suggest, there’s a correlation or even causal relationship between the reach of the welfare state and the out-of-wedlock birthrate, one would expect to see that rate vary both between countries based on their social welfare system, and within countries at different points of time based on the expansion or, as in the UK under Thatcher or the formerly Communist countries of Eastern Europe, the retraction of the social welfare system. But guess what? As usual, the moralistic nostrums and of American conservatives don’t hold up to the data!

As you can see, since 1970 out-of-wedlock births have risen just about everywhere. (Japan, which isn’t on this chart & has a rate of about 2%, is the only significant exception.) But a look at the change from 1980 to 1995 and from 1995 to 2008 will provide good data against which to judge the conservatives’ claims. From 1980 to 1995, the UK provides an excellent test case. After over three decades of expanding the welfare state, in 1979 Britons turned their government over to Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher ruled for 11 years, and her Tory successor John Major was still in power in 1995. Thatcher and Major slashed back the welfare state…and during that time the rate of increase of out-of-wedlock births in the UK was roughly the same as in New Zealand, France and the Scandinavian countries.

Now, looking at the period 1995 to 2008, we see that the rate stayed the same or went up just about everywhere (except, interestingly, Canada, which during that time was letting in a higher percentage of immigrants than the US, and probably higher than anywhere else in the world, which I’d love to see the Charles Murray-Samuel Huntington crowd try to explain). During those years the market economies and restrained social safety nets became established in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe. But during that time the countries with the highest increase of out-of-wedlock births include Bulgaria, Slovenia, the Czech and Slovak Republics, Hungary and, to a lesser but still significant level, Poland.

In laying out his thesis for how the beliefs and social and economic practices of the protestant sects were crucial in the development of capitalism, Max Weber made clear that he did not believe the they were necessary for the continuation or vibrancy of capitalism. Maybe the Murray crowd have a point that the expansion of the welfare state is a factor in the decline of the nuclear family. But even if they’re right that it was a historical factor, like Weber’s protestant sects, it doesn’t appear that cutting back the welfare state strengthens marriage or makes it more likely babies are born to married mothers.

Most conservatives don’t attempt to craft much more than a talking point in arguing that their policies have an empirical basis in reality. But even when those like Murray try to create more intellectually “serious” arguments, they tend to be little more than pretty theories devoid of any connection to history, data, or reality.

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