By the Ruling Class: Charles Murray’s anti-democratic revolution

Charles Murray has been a Very Big Deal in conservative circles for quite some time now. Before he made waves in 1994 with The Bell Curve, in which he made the case that black people have worse economic outcomes in part because they have worse genes, he helped craft the welfare reform agenda that would permeate American policy throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s.

That Jeb Bush is willing to call the proponent of pseudo-eugenics one of his favorite authors should be enough to establish how respected Murray’s work is within the conservative community. When he writes, they read.

Part of Murray’s reputation has been earned by his refusal to filter the aristocratic libertarian id, taking its ideology to its logical conclusions and refusing to let his arguments get muddied by inconveniences like political viability or basic social norms. When my co-editors and I interviewed Murray via email for The Kenyon Observer in advance of a talk he was set to give at the College two years ago, he was more than up front in saying that he thinks too many Americans (and perhaps too many women) are going to college, and that the “cognitive elite” — a term he relied on heavily in The Bell Curve — have social obligations that go beyond fully exercising their potential; the strong need to lead the weak, whether or not they like it.

However, Murray, seemingly forgetting his role in shaping the welfare reform debate, advised us not to worry because “I don’t think I’ve ever offered a politically viable policy recommendation.”

With Murray’s new book, By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission, he would probably want to revise that statement: He has never offered a democratically viable policy recommendation.

In By the People, Murray outlines all of the bad policies he feels American democracy has produced — government regulation and the social safety net being his primary target — and further bemoans the fact that, despite how awful these policies are, the American people seem to like them. So much so, in fact, that it will be impossible for even a Republican president, Congress and Supreme Court to undo all the damage that the American voters have inflicted upon themselves. As Murray told the Cato Institute in promoting the book, “the Constitution is broken;” traditional democratic means  — even the courts — cannot take us back to the America he envisions.

The only solution, he concludes, is systematic white-collar civil disobedience in which businesses coerce government, and by extension the public, into an economic state of nature. This entails devising a mechanism by which citizens can declare their “de facto freedom” to “ignore a great many complicated laws” that they don’t like — and wield the oligarchic power to give that declaration teeth.

Murray’s premise is simple: “the federal government cannot enforce its mountain of laws and regulations without voluntary public compliance.” In other words, ignorance and subversion of the regulatory system by the corporate class can neuter the government, making it unable to interfere in the marketplace. To make this brand of civil disobedience effective, Murray proposes a “Madison Fund” — calling on the idea that Madison would turn his nose up at much of the 21st Century social welfare state (other Founders would be totally fine with it). This fund would act as a counterweight to the government’s regulatory infrastructure, challenging regulations in court and paying the fines of citizens who violate those regulations in the meantime.

This fund would essentially turn the focus of Monsanto-style bullying via litigation away from the consumer and toward the government, all while transforming government regulation into an “insurable hazard,” as Murray titles one of his chapters. While Murray proposes the Madison Fund as a means of defending the “small businessman” who’s being picked on by the government, the fund is transparently designed to allow large corporations to sue the government into oblivion for daring to tell them that they have to pay overtime, or that there is such a thing as too much rat excrement in our processed foods.

Murray attempts to address this criticism by arguing that, in his ideal conception, the Madison Fund would only go after regulations that are “egregiously stupid,” carefully selecting them such that they would only pursue cases that would avoid public outcry. But given the corporate class’s ability to turn legitimate consumer protections into “egregiously stupid” regulations, Murray can’t be said to be making this argument in good faith. Federal bureaucracy writes and enforces regulations (to the limited extent that it can), but it doesn’t wage large-scale public opinion campaigns on its own behalf, even when it should. To say with a straight face that McDonald’s is going to respond to public opinion rather than shape it when it comes to government regulations is patently absurd.

With the explosion of globalized capital, along with the ongoing privatization of the public sector, organizations of corporations — or even private citizens — have the means necessary to take on governments and win on a regular basis. As Murray writes: “The emergence of many billion-dollar-plus private fortunes over the last three decades has enabled the private sector to take on ambitious national or even international tasks that formerly could be done only by nation-states.” As government weakens and corporate power strengthens, the scales are tipped to the point at which Murray can advocate for business interests waging legal war on the government and it doesn’t sound all that outlandish.

Of course, this legal war is totally illegal. Intentionally filing harassing or otherwise frivolous lawsuits simply for the sake of delaying or unnecessarily increasing the cost of litigation can cause a lawyer to lose their license. But as far as Murray’s concerned, that’s just what the government wants you to think. As he notes, “All systematic civil disobedience should involve acts that are malum prohibitum: illegal because the state says so, not because they are bad in themselves.” As Murray is couching his oligarchic aims in the language of resistance by an oppressed underclass, that makes rejecting the premise of the legal system acceptable.

But in practical terms, Murray isn’t exactly wrong: Litigating against a movement whose weapon of choice is itself litigation can get awfully circular.

It would also play right into their hands: Corporations figured out long ago that the threat of extensive and expensive litigation is enough to avoid being held accountable by consumers. It should come as no surprise that, sooner or later, they would figure out that they were big enough to do the same with the American government. As Murray told Cato, “I want to pull back the curtain, as happened in [The Wizard of Oz], and instead of this powerful goliath you have a little old guy with thinning hair and a microphone.”

Since Charles Murray published Losing Ground in 1984, government has been steadily weakened and large corporations have become increasingly strengthened. That’s produced populist unrest on the streets, but up in the skyscrapers the rich are planning the real revolution: A method of nonviolent resistance that aims to establish an economic order independent from and superseding public scrutiny.

Even Madison, despite his preference for a limited, passive government, understood that society only works if everyone — citizens, leaders and even Murray’s “cognitive elite” abide by the rules we set for ourselves. As Ian Millhiser pointed out in ThinkProgress:

As a congressman, Madison opposed the creation of the First Bank of the United States on constitutional grounds. Yet, as president, Madison signed the law creating a Second Bank. He explained that the nation had accepted the First Bank, and he viewed this acceptance as “a construction put on the Constitution by the nation, which, having made it, had the supreme right to declare its meaning.”

Charles Murray envisions an American in which the wealthy can — and should — violate the social contract, choosing instead to operate in an economic state of nature. Unlike his previous proposals, this one’s completely “politically” viable. Just don’t call it democratic.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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