Cash Grant, Anyone?

Book cover
In Our Handsby Charles Murray

AEI Press. 230p $20


Did the founding fathers have in mind today’s roughly $500 billion-a-year federal social programs when they penned the constitutional pledge to promote the general Welfare? What is the general welfare, anyway, and who should be its caretaker?

These are some of the questions Charles Murray raises as he removes the veil that has hidden the vision behind conservative policymaking ever since a Californian B-movie actor was ushered into the White House 25 years ago. That the result is breathtaking should be no surprise. This American Enterprise Institute political scientist has a history as a rhetorical bomb-thrower.

In his book Losing Ground (1984), he argued that the social programs of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society not only failed to help the poor, but made things worse. Murray’s words became the mantra of Reaganites, of the second wave revolutionaries led by Newton Leroy Gingrich in the congressional election sweep of 1994 and the defining historical view of the drafters of the law that ended public assistance entitlements for the poor in 1996.

Murray was derailed, however, by another effort in 1994, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. Along with his co-author, Richard Herrnstein, now deceased, Murray argued that individuals succeed or fail socioeconomically in direct proportion to their intelligence quotient. In brief, the poor are stupid. Murray and Herrnstein were laughed out of the nation’s intelligentsia for their Chapters 13 and 14, in which they discussed the role I.Q. plays in racial and ethnic inequality. Their view, in sum: the poor are stupid because they’re black or (add your favorite disadvantaged ethnic minority here).

Until March of this year, I thought I had heard the last of Charles Murray. Then came news of the unveiling of his new book, In Our Hands, to his Washington wonk faithful.

Murray’s planhe calls it the Plan, with a quasi-theological capital Pis deceptively simple: abolish all government income transfer programs and replace them with a grant of $10,000 each year for life to every American above the age of 21.

You wondered what the tax cutting was about? It was to bankrupt the government so Republicans could slash everything and leave standing only the military, law enforcement and the courts. That’s the libertarian heaven to which Murray has openly aspired in the pages of The Wall Street Journal.

But surely, you ask, income transfer programs can’t include everything, can they? Yes, and don’t forget the kitchen sink. Murray would abolish Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Then he would eliminate welfare, food stamps, housing subsidies and public housing, homeless shelters, and educational and job training aid. And so on.

To be balanced, Murray would also abolish farm subsidies and a whole host of programs he calls corporate welfare. If you thought Ralph Nader’s phrase belonged only in left-wing agitprop, welcome to the world of former Reagan budget director David Stockman, who used it while trying earnestly in the 1980’s to wean businesses from export subsidies paid for by taxpayers through the Export-Import Bank of the United States.

I would quibble, however, with Murray’s math. He says that social welfare programs cost about $522 billion a year in outlays, which is about right given certain assumptions. Yet when it comes to programs prized by the business bankrollers of the nonprofit research group for which he works, Murray falls considerably shy of a full accounting. By his numbers, corporate welfare totals only $63 billion a year, yet the Corporate Welfare Project argues for at least $150 billion. Murray also would abolish the earned income tax credit, essentially a reverse tax for people with extremely low incomes, but he does not spend much effort at all abolishing the multiple tax credits available to corporations and the very wealthy.

Yet Murray’s plan is not merely a matter of dollars and cents. The author does not claim only that his plan would eliminate involuntary poverty, provide basic health care and provide an adequate retirement for everyoneread the book to find out how. Like Oliver Twist, he claims to want more.

In terms that emit a deceptive whiff of the 1931 papal encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, Murray proposes that the real evil at which he is striking is the bureaucracy downtown, which he says has taken over the functions of family and local community. His once and future peaceable kingdom relies on these voluntary social institutions to handle all social ills: in brief, subsidiarity. Yet Murray ignores the balancing concept of solidarity explained in Centesimus Annus (1991).

For where are the resources to deal with the disabled child, the senile elderly? And what about the myriad people who cannot reasonably be expected to invest an annual $10,000 in the stock-market-savvy way Murray suggests will lift everyone out of poverty, poor health care and penniless retirement?

In Our Hands is nonetheless a fascinating, thoughtful travelogue through the ideological planet inhabited by today’s Republican policymakers and for that reason well worth reading by any citizen who wishes to be fully informed.

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