Murray's "By the People"
Here's my brief review of Charles Murray's latest book, By the People... (For a quick, short, pictoral discussion of the book, check out this AEI post.)
I've reviewed a few of Murray's books. See: my journal article on his recent work of great importance, Coming Apart. See also: my blog post on a.) his seminal book on welfare policy in the 1980s, Losing Ground (considered radical at first, but quickly became conventional wisdom); and b.) his book on how to think much more clearly and completely about public policy, In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government (indispensable if clear thinking on policy is a goal for you).
I've never read his most (in)famous book, The Bell Curve. But I have read enough critiques and defenses to be confident that it's more of his usual good work. See: this blog post for excerpts from a fun and revealing interview with Murray on the occasion of TBC's 20th anniversary.
In By the People, Murray critiques much of our current approach to governance, while arguing for mild forms of civil disobedience by individuals and by groups, strategically trying to dismantle some of the particularly heinous and "ridiculous" aspects of governance.
In his intro, Murray talks about "Progressives" and the "Progressive Era"-- some liberalism, but generally a greater passion for "rule by disinterested experts led by a strong, unifying leader..in favor of using the state to mold social institutions in the interests of the collective". The assumptions of this are dubious. For example, how does one find "experts" who are also "disinterested"? One might imagine one or the other, but rarely both. Beyond that, the implications-- to at least most people-- are troubling. Are we comfortable with the elitism and paternalism? (Certainly not when exercised toward us, albeit "on our behalf"!) And what about the combinations of crony capitalism and ineptness that will inevitably follow when we can't find enough "disinterested elites"? In any case, for Murray's thesis, the important angle is the pursuit of these "Progressive" goals through the judiciary (rather than the ballot box, since it was dominated by the unwashed masses) and the massive market and social distortions that followed.
(As some asides, here's a provocative essay about Gabriel Kolko's work on the Progressive Era's goal to pursue [or its capture in the pursuit of] crony capitalist interests. This blog post provides an overview of a related argument on the connection between Progressive Era pursuits and Jim Crow laws. Also of interest, given the connection between "Progressives" and "eugenics", I'll soon be writing a review of a book on Darwinism, eugenics, economics, etc. But I've already written a long essay on eugenics and Indiana as the first state to institute those laws. And here's a follow-up blog post on an article in Reason by Jesse Walker.)
In Part I, Murray has five chapters on "where we stand"-- and it ain't pretty. Chapter 1 describes our "broken Constitution". Its limits have been superseded and they will not be rolled back.
Chapter 2 details the lawlessness of the governmental regime and its system of laws. Murray defines lawlessness as a condition that must obtain when laws are sufficiently costly, incoherent, subjective, arbitrary, complex-- and allow takings. Progressive reforms put much faith in the legal process to remedy injustice and extend justice. Unfortunately, this theory has not been strong in practice. The predictable problems manifested fully in the late 1960s, as the litigation rate exploded by sevenfold over the next 35 years (61). The new system's impact on "alpha/beta errors" is relatively famous (and a common example in Statistics courses): it became "easier for wronged individuals to obtain redress... [but] easier for plaintiffs to get money from innocent defendants." (60) As for remedies, Murray is again convinced that this facet is beyond reform; this will not be rolled back, given lawyer cronyism.
In Chapter 3, Murray critiques our extra-legal regulatory system. In Chapter 4, Murray discusses our corrupt political system, describing a.) our relatively mild, pre-1970s corruption (80-82); b.) the self-serving reforms that were supposed to make things better (83-85; I studied the ill effects of the campaign finance "reforms of the 1970s in my dissertation); and then, c.) the sort of "fruit" that one harvests from a kleptocracy which is focused on short-term political goals, crony capitalism, and the pursuit of powers. Dems are a mess, but the GOP is just as bad (98-102)-- and sadly, partisan enablers (often blindly) facilitate the system's continuance. In Chapter 5, Murray wraps up the first section of the book with a variety of topics, including Public Choice economics, the problems of "advanced democracy", and "institutional sclerosis".
In Part II, Murray moves to his grounds for civil disobedience in Chapter 6: government's "lost legitimacy" constitutionally in the 1930s; in terms of political practice in the 1960s (122); in contemporary subjective views and evidential outcomes (123); and its change in (or clear failure at) the relevant social compacts (124-127).
In Chapter 7, Murray lays out "ground rules" for ethical and practical forms of civil disobedience. He exempts certain categories: laws that prohibit evil acts; the tax code; and regulations that try to foster the public good (130-131). But he argues that other categories deserve automatic scrutiny: regulations on legitimate land use, practicing a legitimate vocation, taking voluntary risks, and arbitrary/capricious regulations (132-136). In this, one is reminded of deSoto's seminal work, The Other Path, on stifling regulations in Peru-- to the point that one could not live, work or form a business there, legally!
In Chapter 8, Murray describes the hypothetical efforts of a "Madison Fund"-- a group of lawyers who would litigate these matters. This would be at least a cousin of similar and effective work done now by the Institute for Justice. In Chapter 9, Murray makes an interesting proposal to turn industry efforts from lobbying against regulations to insuring against the impact of regulations.
In Chapter 10, Murray notes the potential importance of the "Administrative Procedures Act" which "sets out the scope of judicial review of regulatory actions"-- in particular, section 706 clause 2A: "The reviewing court shall...hold unlawful and set aside agency action, findings, and conclusions found to be...arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law." (159) Murray believes that this clause could be exploited with respect to many regulations-- and spends the rest of Pt. II spelling this out. In a word, if he's correct, one needs to argue cases based on this clause before sympathetic judges-- and ultimately, at least five SCOTUS members.
In Part III, Murray turns to the good news of our contemporary setting, in both the public and private spheres. Here, Murray may be optimistic, but I appreciate his effort at promoting hope. In Chapter 12, Murray notes that we may be near a breakthrough on matters of diversity and tolerance. Contemporary incoherence on this is disturbing, but it may wrap around on itself, given the ridiculousness of where we've gone. The recent "debate" on "same-sex marriage" and the threat of trampling religious rights in order to protect civil rights is another example-- and hopefully, a low-water mark in this regard. Murray notes that we have "a heritage of cultural diversity", including colonial times (192ff). And he argues that it was only dampened, temporarily, by a confluence of events from 1940-1970-- but in particular, the move from rural and cities to suburbs (201-203). If so, then we may be able to rebound nicely in the years to come.
Chapter 13 reports good news in terms of tech advance and greatly-increased competition in goods, services, capital, and labor. Bad outcomes in markets will increasingly be regulated by competition. Bad outcomes in government policy will be mitigated to some extent by political competition. We've seen the market work feverishly to get around the crony capitalism of bad government policy-- e.g., Uber and Lyft vs. local and state governments' taxi and limo cartels. And one sees a number of "feisty" state (and local) governments, working against the inequities and inefficiencies of federal (and state) governments.
Finally, in Chapter 14, Murray draws hope from an analogy to Reagan and the Berlin Wall (247-248). One might also point to the bi-partisan welfare reforms, improving a remarkably broken and ineffective system in the mid 1990s. Murray recommends a "It is ridiculous that..." test-- to judge which policies and interest groups ("factions"; 251-254) to attack and to make the case to people who generally don't pay much attention to politics (256-259).
This is not one of Murray's best books. Then again, his good books are still better than most other books. I can't recommend it over the books of his that I've mentioned above. But if this topic strikes your fancy or you want an easy/quick intro to Murray, this is still a good choice for your reading list. Enjoy!