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Murray’s Humane American Exceptionalism

Last week Charles Murray received the American Enterprise Institute’s highest honor, the Irving Kristol Award, and delivered a lecture, “The Happiness of the People,” a title taken from James Madison’s phrase in The Federalist Paper #62. Murray’s lecture began with his assertion that President Obama and his leading intellectual heroes are the American equivalents of Europe’s social democrats. According to Murray, the European model is fundamentally flawed because it is not suited to the way human beings flourish. The goal of social policy should be to ensure that the institutions of family, community, vocation, and faith are robust and vital; the European model, Murray argues, enfeebles every single one of these institutions.

Beyond that, Europe has become a continent that no longer celebrates greatness. While some worry the European model will be embraced here in America, Murray argues there is reason for strategic optimism, based on discoveries in neuroscience and genetics. According to Murray, these discoveries undermine two premises about human beings that are at the heart of the social democratic agenda: “the equality premise” (in a fair society, different groups of people will naturally have the same distributions of outcomes in life, and when that doesn’t happen, it is because of bad human behavior and an unfair society) and “the New Man premise” (human beings are malleable through the right government policies).

Murray concludes his lecture with a reflection on American exceptionalism, and he argues,

it isn’t something in the water that has made us that way. It comes from the cultural capital generated by the system that the Founders laid down, a system that says people must be free to live life as they see fit and to be responsible for the consequences of their actions; that it is not the government’s job to protect people from themselves; that it is not the government’s job to stage-manage how people interact with each other. Discard the system that created the cultural capital, and the qualities we love about Americans can go away. In some circles, they are going away… The drift toward the European model can be slowed by piecemeal victories on specific items of legislation, but only slowed. It is going to be stopped only when we are all talking again about why America is exceptional, and why it is so important that America remain exceptional. That requires once again seeing the American project for what it is: a different way for people to live together, unique among the nations of the earth, and immeasurably precious.

This lecture is a reminder that Charles Murray is among the most impressive and important public intellectuals of the last several decades. More than any other single person, he changed how we think about welfare, thanks to his 1984 book Losing Ground  (which was, along with Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and Richard John Neuhaus’s The Naked Public Square, one of the three most important conservative books of the 1980s).

The range and quality of Murray’s work, the clarity of his language and the intellectual force of his arguments, are remarkable. I say that as someone whose views aren’t always coincident with  Murray’s (I have more confidence in the capacity of government policy to alter human behavior for the good than he does; I have less confidence that 21st century science will play a dispositive role in undermining the premises of social democrats than he does; and we place different weight on the bearing that “nature” v. “nurture” has on educational achievement and on other matters). What is perhaps most striking about Murray, though, is that he is animated by a humane vision of society and how to advance the human good. He is (to use a term he would balk at) a compassionate conservative. He is also a man of personal integrity and delightful, vivifying company. Several years ago, Charles Murray wrote a book about human excellence; for those of us who have had the pleasure and privilege to read him and get to know him over the years, he is a man who embodies it. The honor he received last week was well earned.



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