By day, I'm a domestic violence prosecutor. By night, I read romance to restore my faith in love, relationships, and humanity in general.
Upon hearing about this book on NPR, I thought it would be much more a study about the growing class divisions... and it is, but that's not it's central theme. Libertarian Charles Murray begins with the premise that the United States was designed as a limited government democracy in which most of the day-to-day work of society is organized, managed, and overseen at a local level. This local civic involvement has always been fueled by a few core values: integrity, industriousness, marriage, and religiosity. (These values may, at first glance, make a liberal reader like me cringe because they seem to tread awfully close to the "family values" platform of social conservative-cum-fascist politicians, but Murray provides historical examples that clarify that he's not talking about people's private sexual behavior, but the benefits that these social institutions confer upon society.)
Murray's analysis slogs through reams of data (and yes, sometimes it is a slogging read) to show how these core values have remained more or less static among the white upper class over the last fifty years, but have seriously eroded among the growing lower classes. People in crime-riddled poor neighborhoods don't trust each other (integrity). Marriage rates are falling, especially among the working and lower-middle classes, leading to poorer outcomes for children of single parents (marriage). Fewer working and lower-middle class men are working full time, or even working at all, despite a booming economy in the 80s-90s (Murray's data controls for the increased unemployment rate caused by the 2008 recession)(industriousness). And religious observance is on the decline, as anyone who pays attention to shrinking church congregations can readily tell you (religiosity).
Why does this matter? Because in a limited government such as ours, if things don't happen on a local level, they don't happen. -And all of these historical core values are the reason that people get involved in their communities and get stuff done. Maybe most of us don't care that people aren't getting married or going to church anymore, but Murray's data shows us that the downward spiral doesn't stop there. People aren't joining unions or the PTA anymore, either. They're not getting involved in local politics or civic organizations such as the Elks or the Odd Fellows. Volunteerism and philanthropy are way down. Most of them are not even showing up to vote, that most basic responsibility of democratic citizenry. Instead, they're withdrawing from society, from democracy, into the isolation of their own homes, where they watch more hours of television per week than most people devote to paid employment.
Murray doesn't tell us how to fix it. He's not advocating a redistribution of wealth or government policies aimed at encouraging marriage and "traditional" family values. Instead, his role is that of the canary in the coal mine: to provide starkly irrefutable proof that we're all in danger, and it may or may not be too late to do anything about it.
***Originally posted at GR February 2012***