On Charles Murray: a response to Andrew Dunn

I’ve been catching up on some reading, and one of the books I read today was Andrew Dunn’s 2014 study, Rethinking unemployment and the work ethic.  He has a go at a couple of things I’ve said about Charles Murray.  The first, on page 48, is this:

“Writing about Murray, Spicker notes “Looking at his arguments seriously seems to dignify them as something that is worthy of attention, and a long series of social scientists have refused to engage in the mud-slinging.”

Well, actually, that wasn’t a comment about Murray’s arguments, but the quotation has been altered to make it seem that it was.  In The Idea of Poverty, I gave three examples of people throwing insults at the poor, and Murray was the one in the middle. Here’s a longer excerpt from that passage:

Here are some examples. The first is from Edward Banfield’s book, The unheavenly city:

‘The lower class individual lives in a slum and sees little or no reason to complain. He does not care how dirty and dilapidated his housing is either inside or out, nor does he mind the inadequacy of such public facilities as schools, parks and libraries; indeed, where such things exist he destroys them by acts of vandalism if he can’.

Charles Murray associates the underclass with “drugs, crime, illegitimacy, homelessness, drop-out from the job market, drop-out from school and casual violence” … A recent report from South Africa comments:

‘The government has ordered an urgent countrywide study of 14000 households to determine whether women are having babies to cash in on child-support grants. …. In a report in the Herald on Tuesday, a Port Elizabeth social worker alleged that many young mothers were “generally corrupt” and deliberately fell pregnant “to benefit themselves”.’

It is difficult to know how to deal with this kind of material. Looking at the arguments seriously seems to dignify them as something that is worthy of attention, and a long series of social scientists have refused to engage in the mud-slinging, arguing that since the material has no foundation at all, it is not worth talking about. The problem with this is that the arguments keep coming back; they are not going to go away because we ignore them.

I did, however, have more to say specifically about what’s wrong with Murray’s case.  Here’s what Dunn thinks I said:

“Murray has only ever claimed that welfare payments made people averse to doing the worst category of jobs, yet this is routinely overlooked, as is Losing Ground’s lengthy discussion of non-economic work motivation, For example, Spicker says that “Murray’s argument is, at root, that people will not work if they are paid for doing nothing”, before informing us that people work for various reasons including ‘status’. More bizarrely, and equally unhelpfully in terms of promoting meaningful debate, Spicker later limits himself to commenting that in Murray’s view ‘people who receive benefits are being given a disincentive to work, presumably in the same way as people who receive assistance with funerals are being given a disincentive to stay alive.”

Murray himself recognises the importance of status – “status and money are the most influential rewards that society uses to manage behavior” (p178)  – but dismisses it from his analysis of ‘rational choice’:  “When economic incentives are buttressed by social norms, the effects on behaviour are multiplied.  But the main point is that the social factors are not necessary to explain behavior.”  (p.162)

The last bit Dunn cites comes from what I wrote in How Social Security Works before I got on to Murray. Here’s a bit of what I actually wrote about his arguments.

Charles Murray’s book Losing Ground begins with three premises:
“1. People respond to incentives and disincentives. Sticks and carrots work.
2. People are not inherently hard working or moral. In the absence of countervailing influences, people will avoid work and be amoral.
3. People must be held responsible for their actions. … ”
This is not about ‘incentives’ at all. Murray presents his work as an example of ‘rational choice’, which is about the behaviour of the average individual, but there is nothing in these three assumptions that relates to the way that either a ‘rational’ person would behave, or that real people might. The statement that ‘sticks and carrots work’ is based in behaviourism, the psychology of stimulus and response. If a stimulus is present, the argument runs, then a response should follow. This may or may not be true, but it has very little to do with economic argument. Aggregate decisions depend on aggregate preferences, and Murray is not interested in preferences. Rational decisions depend on the balance between costs and benefits, and Murray is not looking at either the non-economic costs or at the opportunity costs of not working.
The second assumption, that people will avoid work given the chance, is an empirical statement, but one which bears only limited resemblance to real life. People work for all kinds of reasons, including money, but also including status, social contact, individual priorities and personal fulfilment. … The third statement really gives it away. More important than any theory of behaviour is that this view of rewards and punishments reflects a set of moral judgments. The sticks and carrots are there, not because they work, but because some people think that is how donkeys should be treated.

Apologies to those who received an earlier version of this, sent in error while I was working  on a train journey.  The gremlins win again.

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