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Coming apart

Ideas@TheCentre – The CIS newsletter (Sydney), 16 March 2012

Ranking high on the ever-growing list of books I want to read is Charles Murray’s latest work, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010.

Although I haven’t read the book, its central message, as discussed in numerous reviews, seems fairly clear: Upper and lower classes are increasingly living in different worlds. Whereas the rich are celebrating their cultured lifestyle in closely guarded enclaves, the poor are finding themselves in increasingly dysfunctional circumstances characterised by an eroding family and community life. The gravest problems of society are concentrated in the (welfare-dependent) underclass.

Even before the publication of Coming Apart, I had stumbled upon an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAS). Authored by psychologists from the universities of California and Toronto, its core message contradicted Murray’s thesis: It is not the lower classes who behave in morally questionable ways but the upper classes.

The psychologists set out to test in seven experiments who behaves in a more ethical and polite fashion – the lower or the upper classes – by observing, for example, who gave way at a busy intersection or cut off pedestrians at a crosswalk. From the make, age and appearance of cars (an admittedly imperfect but plausible measure), they inferred the owners’ class status to find that lower class drivers were much more conciliatory in traffic.

In another experiment, they tested how likely people were to cheat in a game for money where cheating could not be detected easily. Again, they found the lower classes behaving in a more cultured manner. The upper classes were the more unscrupulous liars.

The study concluded that upper class people were more likely to engage in illegal, deceptive and unethical behaviour than members of the lower class. The study’s authors blamed a greater prevalence of greed among the rich for these results.

I am sure some of the tests can be criticised for their design; in any case, a single paper can hardly claim to present conclusive evidence for the rotten moral state of the upper class. However, the results are worth reflecting upon.

If Murray’s thesis about the social decay of the underclass is true, but if it is also true that the upper class has ceased to set a good example for the rest of society, then society overall has a problem.

For a society of free individuals to work, or to at least avoid social conflict, there needs to be some common ethical ground. This is being eroded by the welfare state for the underclass. Meanwhile, at least parts of the upper class have apparently decided they can get further without sticking to traditional rules of behaviour.

Perhaps society is coming apart in more ways than even Murray believes.

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