The White Man, Unburdened

How Charles Murray stopped worrying and learned to love racism


In yet another rebuke to the idea of intellectual progress, many of us have grown up with Charles Murray. Our childhood memories of The Bell Curve controversy inter-splice with scenes from the O.J. Simpson trial, which overlapped with the book almost directly, and the Rodney King beating, which preceded the book by a couple of years. Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias, both of whom have written about Murray recently, were ten and thirteen when the book came out. Probably neither one dreamed of growing up to fight the IQ wars afresh two decades into the next millennium—nor could they have anticipated that Coming Apart, Murray’s recent impressionistic mashup of Bobos in Paradise and The Big Sort, would gain cachet as an early augury of the Donald Trump era. (Unsurprisingly, Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff floated it in 2014 as a potential source for her own “big idea.”)

In today’s flattened-out political landscape, where this or that right-wing provocateur of the moment engages in endless, Sisyphean combat with an allegedly omnipotent liberal cultural elite, Murray has once again applied for intellectual martyrdom. A generation after The Bell Curve’s counter-empirical contention that racial differences in average intelligence were largely impervious to improvement, making “differences in genes” the crucial determinant of life outcomes, he has once again positioned himself as a brave teller of uncomfortable truths.

On the center right, any hostility to Murray is taken as a symbol of all that’s wrong with “politically correct” intellectual inquiry. The tumult during Murray’s appearance at Middlebury College in March of 2017 and the chaos during Milo Yiannopoulos’s ill-fated star turn at the University of California, Berkeley, were milestones of a year when free speech trolls provoked counter-responses on campus and then trumpeted their own victimization. Murray is a patriarch in the right-wing troll family tree.

The Aid of the Country

How did Murray become Murray? He has often said that he “missed the ’60s”—as in the countercultural rebellion of the privileged American middle class—because he was serving as an aid worker in Thailand. He started in 1965, a few months after graduating from Harvard, where he studied Russian history, remaining on the frontier of American imperial expansion in Southeast Asia into the next decade, working first for the Peace Corps and then for the Agency for International Development (USAID). The U.S. war in Vietnam expanded steadily in this time, and nearby Thailand became a base for U.S. operations.

Some rural areas of Thailand experienced conditions of war not dissimilar from Vietnam itself. Martial law prevailed. Villagers faced forced resettlement, or worse. The CIA had mercenaries all over the place. To prevent guerrilla insurgency in the countryside, Washington dedicated $663 million in development assistance to Thailand during the 1950s and 1960s. American military assistance amounted to around $1 billion and covered 60 percent of Thailand’s military budget. Murray’s time was spent in, or close to, the most volatile areas, near the Laos border, where most of this money was spent—some on building schools and some on dropping napalm.

In the spring of 1969, Murray became an employee of American Institutes for Research (AIR), one of many contract social-science research firms employed by the Pentagon to develop counterinsurgency strategies in Southeast Asia. As a researcher, Murray brushed shoulders with the CIA mercenaries leading the counterinsurgency charge.

In Dubious Battle

Thailand was the site of one of the longest-running and most expensive U.S. counterinsurgency efforts of the Cold War. Its outcome was different from the parallel effort in Vietnam, in part because U.S. soldiers never did the fighting. Instead, counterinsurgency was primarily a Thai responsibility, with the help of development workers and researchers like Murray.

There’s an old saying about counterinsurgency: to win, you need ten soldiers for every guerrilla. In Thailand, one of Murray’s contemporaries quipped, the ratio became ten social scientists for every guerrilla. A survey researcher, Murray conducted interviews with poor villagers in the middle of a warzone, asking them what they thought about the government.

AIR was supposed to figure out whether the money Washington was spending on development assistance was preventing villagers from becoming guerrillas. And if this stated mission was failing, how should the American government spend its money? AIR described its goal as devising a “development-cum-counterinsurgency program” that would create “adequate outlets” for villagers’ “talents and aspirations.” AIR figured that the absence of such outlets would lead villagers to be “susceptible to the kinds of inducements the CT”—i.e., the Communist Terrorist—“can offer.” The project’s focus on talents and aspirations stuck with Murray. It was in Thailand that Murray formulated his ideas on small government, community, and the good life.

Today, Murray continues to cite his time in Thailand as a critical stage in his intellectual development, though he doesn’t often refer to his first monograph, the dense and technical A Behavioral Study of Rural Modernization: Social and Economic Change in Thai Villages, published in 1977. The book, based on the research he conducted after his development work, concludes that government assistance “degraded” the life of the “community”—it hindered, rather than fostered, the manifestation of talents and realization of aspirations.

Murray’s Thai epiphany made him a certain kind of backward-looking conservative, an ardent believer in the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson and Alexis de Tocqueville, holding that face-to-face voluntary associations and the honest labor of freeholding yeomen were the institutional bulwarks of democratic life. But like most epiphanies, Murray’s was an admixture of delusion and illusion.

Gemeinschaft at Gunpoint

Despite the reputation he cultivates as a teller of uncomfortable truths based on rigorous empirical social-scientific research, Murray misrepresents what the United States was trying to achieve in Thailand, and what his role there was. In Murray’s monograph, the word “insurgency” appeared twice and “war” never. He made no reference to opium, perhaps the commodity most worth fighting over in northeast Thailand. He did not mention martial law. And he certainly did not analyze how ethnic persecution shaped village life. Murray’s later writings have effaced these particulars even further.

Most important, Murray diminishes the U.S. war in Vietnam as the decisive context that shaped much of Thailand’s political and economic fortunes. The nearby American war transformed Thailand’s urban economy, while heightening worries both within the Thai regime and in the diplomatic community at large that Thailand might become another falling domino. Rural community development was designed to thwart Communist organizing and subversion. Additionally, from the 1950s through the 1970s, there were challenges to the Thai national government’s legitimacy—which meant, in turn, a protracted initiative to suppress any dissent that struck Thai leaders as carrying a remote echo of left-wing subversion. Meanwhile, a host of factions within the government were themselves skirmishing, with coups and counter-coups.

It was in Thailand that Murray formulated his ideas on small government, community, and the good life.

CIA involvement was one way for Washington to play favorites. Reading Murray’s Thai writings, you’d never know that his employer, AIR, was linked to security agencies or that the actual counterpart Thai development agency was a paramilitary force created by the CIA, the Border Patrol Police, which played a key role in a massacre of students and the installation of dictatorial right-wing rule in October 1976.

Obscuring this context has important consequences for Murray’s analysis of the failures of U.S. nation-building in Thailand, which would go on to serve as the conceptual seedbed for his critique of the American welfare state. The research he conducted in the late 1960s assessed villagers’ attitudes toward the government and the assistance it provided. He found that many villagers claimed to have little positive interaction, or any at all, with representatives from the national government. They preferred to deal with local officials. Local officials, Murray argued, were more sensitive to their needs than outside administrators.

The Faceless Enemy

But Murray fails to mention that the most unpopular of these outside administrators were members of Thailand’s corrupt and brutal paramilitary police, tasked by the CIA with gathering intelligence in addition to undertaking development tasks from animal husbandry to road and school construction. Sensitive zones became the responsibility of a CIA front company embedded within USAID, Development Consultants, Inc. The villages that did not receive this sort of attention were probably better off—but not for the reasons Murray suggests. Even USAID itself recognized that Thai police “ranked as high as any official on negligent behavior and highest of all officials on abusive behavior.” Murray was happy to emphasize how infrequently villagers reported positive encounters with government officials. But he never mentions that this antipathy was mainly specific to the most visible Thai government officials: members of the Border Patrol Police, which boasted thirteen “Development Platoons” of thirty-six paramilitary officers each and fourteen “School Teacher Platoons” of fifty-four paramilitary officers each.

During the 1960s, all U.S. development aid had broadly anticommunist goals, with similar methods applied in different regions. But in Thailand, aid administrators subsumed everything into the counterinsurgency apparatus. USAID’s mission director in Thailand reflected in 1973 that his agency’s work fell into two categories: “development, with security aspects” or “security, with development aspects.” He remarked that “no hard line between them” could be drawn, but more money consistently went to the latter. USAID helped villagers bring embroidered handicrafts to urban markets and also gave Thailand a total of 78,207 shotguns, rifles, and pistols from 1957 to 1972. U.S. security officials perceived Thailand to be at grave risk of succumbing to Communist subversion. Murray would never have been asked to carry out his research without this set of imperial fears very much in the foreground—but it was rarely referred to in his own analysis of the political dynamics at play in Thailand.

Murray assumed that the United States intended to disrupt communities, break their social bonds, and create a new cultural ethos.

Murray likewise supplies a deliberately foreshortened account of the methods employed by USAID workers during his tour in Thailand. He argued that social uplift was possible only if the recipient community exhibited some inherent qualities that no centralized state or foreign development agency could foist on its client populations. Development did not simply add to the social fabric within host countries; it subtracted too. “The things being lost in that village were at least as important as the things being added,” he lamented. “The losses involved deterioration in the bedrock functions performed by any community, in Missouri or Brooklyn as in Northeast Thailand—settling neighbors’ disputes, helping people in need, solving common problems.”

A visit to one village, he reported, “taught me how easily a well-meaning outside agency can destroy the fragile organism that is a functioning community.” Development workers, whether from the United States or Thailand, imposed their own beliefs and demands on villagers. Like many critics of international economic development, Murray assumed that the United States intended to disrupt communities, break their social bonds, and implant a new cultural ethos. Why not send a young kid with a degree in Russian history across the globe to make sure of it?

Sewage In, Sewage Out

But Murray’s claims of culturally obtuse and disruptive aid agendas are difficult to square with how he narrates his experiences in Thailand. His job was to introduce appurtenances of development like sewage systems. “Assigned to an office in a northern town,” he wrote, “I was sitting at my desk killing time. So was everyone else in the office.” He continued, “we were supposedly doing something that was important in the grand scheme of rural development. My Thai co-workers were nice fellows, and I was at least smart enough to recognize that they knew more about sanitation and Thai villages than I did.” In other words, Murray was mostly idle—and, in any case, he didn’t know that much about Thailand. But he still collected a paycheck. “Sitting there daydreaming, I had a vision of thousands and thousands of such program offices all over the world, with people just sitting there.” This experience, he would claim, was a microcosm of everything wrong with the welfare state.

But there were good reasons for outside development workers like him not to do the work themselves. First, it was the law. Murray arrived in Thailand just as Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty had begun back home. Its governing legislation famously required that the population receiving any benefits engage in “maximum feasible participation” in the design and execution of the program. A year later, very similar language about focusing on democratic participation would also be lodged in the laws governing U.S. foreign aid.

Beyond legal concerns, however, there was a key practical obstacle to Murray and other aid workers like him taking a more active role in the field: there simply would never be enough USAID employees to do all the needed work. The participation of aid-recipient community members was essential if any development benchmarks were to be reached.

But there was also a political justification for using local labor, for relying on “self-help.” If villagers expressed “felt needs,” such as for new sewage or irrigation systems, and then played a role not only in building them but also in reaping the rewards, they were likely to become invested in the governments that had enabled this process. Community participation in “nation building” was supposed to foster loyalty to the national government, and to the United States, that no Communist subversive could dislodge. And if that approach didn’t work, USAID provided guns to the Border Patrol Police, who would stave off leftist subversion with harsher measures. Coerced labor and community development converged through the participation mandate—and that, rather than the inherent morale-sapping corruptions of the welfare state, is why Murray sat in an air-conditioned office twiddling his thumbs and ruminating on Jefferson.

Participatory development, by heeding felt needs and existing demands, tried to constrain potentially explosive pushes for self-determination while creating the basic underlying conditions for capitalist market relations. Rather than overturning existing social structures, participatory development was intended to manage protest against them. The thinking was that too much pressure from American officials might actually weaken the Thai national government and expose it to charges of abrogating its own sovereignty, thereby creating an opening for the Communist critique. Murray ignores this policy design. He also ignores how Washington’s fear and desperation nevertheless turned Thailand into another front of the U.S. war in Vietnam.

The War at Home

By the 1980s and 1990s, when Murray was earning the attention of domestic policymakers, he continually referred to Thailand. It had become a neat foil, a screen upon which he projected fantasies about small government, entrepreneurialism, and culturally derived social cohesion—an Arcadia of yeomanry with Asian characteristics. Thailand remained idyllic, full of virtuous people threatened by malign social policy that encouraged the wrong behavior. In his 1988 book, In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government, he compared it to Los Angeles or the South Bronx. His point was that poor but hard-working people in Thai villages experienced freedom and the “enabling conditions” for exit from poverty.

By contrast, in poor black and brown U.S. neighborhoods, people typically experienced better material conditions than Thai villagers did, without the “enabling conditions” for exit. Generous and easily accessible welfare benefits were to blame. The poor in the United States received, Murray claimed, “a free apartment, free food, free medical care, and a cash grant.” But they lacked “the other nutrients of happiness.” Murray purported to discover in Thailand that such external intervention can only suppress or derail individuals’ entrepreneurial instincts, not nourish them. There, reasonable levels of acquisitiveness, or what he called “delimited aspirations,” could be met by a strong work ethic.

He also pointed out that nobody complained about this type of argument regarding Thailand. In contrast, transplanted from development economics to domestic social policy, “I have a great deal of difficulty trying to make analogous points in the United States when I suggest, for example, that unmarried teenage girls cannot expect to have children and also become prosperous—that they . . . cannot have it both ways.” Still, to minimize the context of war while it was still a recent memory was tendentious. And by the mid-1980s, development economics no longer had the prestige it carried in the 1960s. It didn’t explain everything. But racial psychology might.

Rules of the Game

In 1986, Murray was a rising star. For almost a decade after finishing his doctorate, he had continued to work for AIR, occasionally returning to Thailand, but mostly working on new topics. The book that made his name, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980, came out in 1984, written under the patronage of first the Heritage Foundation and then the Manhattan Institute. The New York Times described it as a “budget-cutter’s bible,” intended as an insult. But for Murray and other apostles of the nascent Reaganite cult of austerity, this was the highest praise.

In the name of “satisfaction, dignity, and happiness,” Murray recommended ending all social aid to single mothers, transitioning public education to a voucher system, repealing all anti-discrimination and affirmative-action legislation, and stigmatizing those on welfare. This program was but a logical extension of the failure of development assistance to foster talents and aspirations Murray professed to witness in Thailand.

Murray is often lumped in with those arguing that the scourges of poverty and inequality did not admit to mere material remedies—that a culture of dependency or culture of poverty ultimately lay behind the savage inequalities of wealth and racial privilege in America. But Murray did not make this argument. Losing Ground was much more grounded in behavioral psychology and the idea that all people sought to maximize their pleasure at the least possible cost than in any jeremiad about cultural drift and mastery. His keywords were not personal responsibility or morality or any of the other pet formulations of the culture warriors pathologizing the poor but “rules of the game,” “environments,” “inducement,” “short term rationality,” and above all “incentive structure” and “status rewards.”

Developmental economies didn’t explain everything. But racial psychology might.

As in his monograph on Thailand, which held that “villagers generally behave rationally,” Murray argued that the poor were not making decisions based on innate, inherited, or culturally derived qualities. Rather, they were universal subjects pursuing pleasurable activities until the pain of sanctions deterred them. A typical argument went: people liked having sex, regardless of how poor they may be. If the state rewarded them for having sex and children, then they would have more.

At this point in his career, Murray focused less on human differences and more on human similarities. Because everyone was the same—possessing the same rational mindset and responding to the same operant stimuli—exceptions could not be made for the poor and minorities. Such preferential treatment would scramble the incentives and lead to perverse outcomes. Thus, for example, affirmative action would make racism worse by promoting less-skilled candidates. And aid for single mothers would make more single mothers.

Color Schemes

For those who now criticize Murray’s arguments about race, the treatment of black-white differences in Losing Ground is striking. Murray went out of his way to argue against race as a causal variable, arguing that “a black-white difference murkily reflects a difference between poor and not-poor, not a racially grounded difference.” He was not racially innocent, however. He commented, for example, that the most “flagrantly unrepentant” of single mothers seeking assistance “seemed to be mostly black.”

Black people were afflicted, he speculated. A sense of victimhood prevented them from taking responsibility for their own actions—a common refrain in the conservative backlash to the demands and qualified victories of the civil rights movements. At the time, Murray gave no credence to arguments about heritability of intelligence. As he pointed out later (saying “if you want to see how far I moved”), he even approvingly cited Stephen Jay Gould’s critique of the racist underpinnings of intelligence testing, The Mismeasure of Man.

Murray’s second major epiphany changed all of this. From that point on, average group differences in intelligence would offer a simpler explanation for why the War on Poverty was being lost. When did Murray’s turn to race and intelligence begin? In a 2006 interview with the blog Gene Expression, he placed it eight years before the publication of his most well-known book, saying that “the turnaround that led to [The Bell Curve] occurred in 1986, when Linda Gottfredson and Robert Gordon asked me to be on an American Psychological Association panel discussing their two papers.”

Racial social scientists and white nationalists concurred: innate intelligence explained racialized inequality in the United States.

Gordon was a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University who had been arguing for a decade that the racial gap in intelligence explained the black-white gap in crime. He drew eugenic conclusions from the correlation. “If we could persuade people with lower IQs not to have as many children as they are having,” he said in an interview, “there would be obvious benefits. As far as black people are concerned, I don’t know. If they care about the future of their race, they might be willing to go to some trouble to accomplish that.” Gottfredson, Gordon’s wife, who left Hopkins for the University of Delaware the same year, made a similar argument about innate racial traits to explain black-white differences in job performance.

The white supremacist magazine Instauration reported on the APA panel, praising Gordon as an “an unabashed believer in racial differences in intelligence” and claiming that the “new, almost revolutionary element of IQ” may “eventually bury two sacred social science doctrines about the cause of the soaring Negro crime rate” and job performance. The racial social scientists and the white nationalists were united on this point: it was not the intractability of socio-economic status but innate intelligence that explained racialized inequality in the United States.

O Pioneers!

The 1986 panel was the kick-off for Gordon and Gottfredson’s new Project for the Study of Intelligence and Society. The Pioneer Fund, a promoter of white supremacist causes since the 1930s, provided backing. According to the fund’s own history, the objective of Gordon and Gottfredson’s project was to investigate “the contribution of racial differences in intelligence to crime and to employment” and to put this research in the hands of “professionals in the social sciences.”

Murray, the co-author of the book that would eventually fulfill this mandate, joined the panel. Flanking him was Raymond Cattell, an octogenarian and major figure in intelligence and personality research who had begun promoting a philosophy of “Beyondism” since the 1970s, which advised racial separatism, prescribed programs of both negative and positive eugenics, and praised the evolutionary value of colonial conquest.

Also participating was Richard J. Herrnstein, the psychologist who had replaced B. F. Skinner at Harvard and was known by his critics as “pigeonman” for his operant conditioning research on the birds in the basement of Memorial Hall. Herrnstein’s early 1970s publications on IQ had caused an uproar on campus for their claim that the heritability of intelligence would lead to cognitive stratification in an increasingly post-industrial U.S. society over time. “As technology advances,” he wrote, “the tendency to be unemployed may run in the genes of a family about as certainly as bad teeth do now.”

About Face

Murray was then in his early forties, newly famous for a policy book that seemed to provide all the data needed to roll back the War on Poverty. He fell in love with the methodology of the intelligence researchers and their unwavering focus on black-white differences. His encounter with this crew of psychologists and sociologists transformed him. Uniting the Pioneer Fund crowd was the scientifically unpopular belief that the black-white gap in intelligence was not only real but also unlikely to disappear over time, regardless of the various programs of intervention ginned up by well-intentioned social reformers. As Murray wrote in a letter co-authored with Herrnstein in 1991, “he became increasingly aware of how many of his assumptions in Losing Ground had to be rethought.”

In 1997, Murray issued a mea culpa for having claimed in Losing Ground that black-white test scores might converge “in a single generation” under a voucherized public-education system. His study of the work of the racialists inspired a far less optimistic conclusion. Policy fixes, no matter how radical, would never be enough. It was no longer a question of tweaking the incentives. Equality was elusive because it was impossible. Groups were unequal in their endowments and would remain so indefinitely.

Once inequality in endowments was established, then policy became clear: we should simply stop trying to achieve equality of outcome. Group differences were a permanent constraint on policy. Abandoning what Gottfredson called “the egalitarian fiction” and Murray called the “egalitarian premise”—which they both saw as the most corrosive product of the 1960s—would require “facing up to inequality,” as the conclusion to The Bell Curve originally put it, when the book’s working title was still Cognitive Classes.

Murray’s correspondence with Herrnstein while they wrote The Bell Curve suggests the zeal of the convert. He joked at one point of being “corrupted by people like you,” referring to Herrnstein, whose overwhelming focus on IQ seemed to offer a simple answer to what had been complicated questions about what to do about the black-majority “underclass.” The Pioneer Fund team was excited about the publicity Murray and Herrnstein were drawing for their various joint publications in advance of The Bell Curve’s appearance. (Herrnstein actually suggested they could turn to the Pioneer Fund for extra cash “in a pinch” but they were already enjoying a rich array of subventions from numerous other conservative sources.) In 1994, Gottfredson wrote to Herrnstein about organizing “a more systematic or coordinated push to get more people involved in the race and intelligence problem, one that facilitates and takes advantage of the momentum of your forthcoming book. It’s a great window of opportunity.” Instauration was similarly enthused, praising Murray and Herrnstein for striking at the “racial ultra-egalitarianism . . . at the very heart of liberal-minority politics in America.”

Belying Murray’s repeated claims that The Bell Curve was “not about race,” the book saved its strongest language for affirmative action, described as a ruinously undemocratic measure that was “leaking a poison into the American soul.” For the soul to recover, this toxic contaminant had to be expelled. In 1997, Murray speculated with pride that the renewed discussion of affirmative action in the mid-1990s had been due to the stealth influence of his book.

Apartheid Revived

Murray has tirelessly preached the gospel of ineradicable race-based gaps in intelligence long after his collaborator’s death in 1994. In two of his solo-authored articles in intelligence research, from 2006 and 2007, the self-trained psychologist claimed to prove that the black-white gap in intelligence had stopped narrowing decades ago—a failure that, among other things, meant the Supreme Court’s body of rulings upholding affirmative action, premised on the eventual convergence of black and white achievement, would have to be overturned.

Murray extended the intelligence argument to immigration, proposing an end to both “chain migration” and automatic citizenship for those born in the United States. “Massive immigration of legal low-skill workers is problematic for many reasons, and some of them have to do with human capital,” he wrote in 2006. “Yes, mean IQ does vary by ethnic group, and IQ tends to be below average in low-job-skill populations.”

Murray understood that his turn to IQ and the frank acknowledgment of innate intellectual capability placed him in something of a political no-fly zone. As he wrote in 2000, “Try to imagine a GOP presidential candidate saying in front of the cameras, ‘One reason that we still have poverty in the United States is that a lot of poor people are born lazy.’ You cannot imagine it because that kind of thing cannot be said.” Needless to say, in 2018, it is all too easy to imagine. Though he opposes Trump, Murray shares the president’s tendency to mistake provocation for revelation.

In the absence of any firm policy consensus forming behind his diagnosis, what is Murray’s proposed solution to the rampaging destruction of foreordained white-ethnic intelligence advantages and gemeinschaft at the hands of an amoral welfare state? Like Paul Ryan and many other allegedly serious policy intellectuals on the right, he proposes to cut back welfare funding on an enormous scale, and return all control of aid to the less fortunate to local communities in the faith that people take care of their own. It seems hopelessly naive and bound to fail.

But what if success is not the goal? As with the libertarian fantasies of “seasteading,” which are used primarily as a bludgeon and a threat to lower the corporate tax rate at home, Murray’s vision of an Arcadian Thailand—or a small-town decentralized America where each takes care of its own, of the sort nostalgically limned in Coming Apart—is a polemical device. By conjuring an unrealistic mirage on the horizon, this sleight of hand makes the cruelty of the present appear as the unfortunate—but inevitable—outcome of the failure to follow his blueprint.

He summed up the sense of this position in a 2005 editorial he wrote for London’s Sunday Times with the memorable title, “The Advantages of Social Apartheid.” The United States had effectively solved the problem of crime, he advised his British readers, by taking criminals “off the streets.” “If you are willing to pay the price . . . you can reduce crime dramatically.”

“It is not a happy solution,” he wrote, but “if we are unwilling to prevent an underclass by giving responsibility for behaviour back to individuals, their families, and communities, custodial democracy is the only option left.”

Shock Therapy

Murray experimented with this line of rational-choice thinking about crime in the 1970s, during the hiatus between his two epiphanies. After completing his book on Thailand, he became involved with research on juvenile delinquency for AIR. Whereas he had been arguing against strong government intervention overseas, once he looked into juvenile delinquency, he discovered the necessity of the “short, sharp shock of intensive programming.” This wised-up approach included penal confinement of juveniles, or forcibly removing them from their home neighborhoods.

A less-well-known corollary of the carceral state’s efflorescence was the popular benediction of the 1990s as the Decade of the Brain.

Rather than waiting for delinquency to escalate into crime, which many believed inevitable, Murray marshaled statistics to show that intervening early and ruthlessly might be the only way to prevent juvenile delinquents from becoming hardened criminals. Criminologists in the 1970s fretted that “nothing works” in the fight against crime. Murray disagreed. Eventually others did too.

The solution discovered was mass incarceration, which continued long after crime rates declined precipitously. The U.S. prison population more than doubled in the 1980s, and then nearly doubled again in the 1990s. That decade matched the “end of welfare as we know it” with penal confinement, replacing the baby carrot with the big stick as the preferred tool of social order.

A less-well-known corollary of the carceral state’s late-twentieth century efflorescence was the popular benediction of the 1990s as the Decade of the Brain. New resources became available for the ever more prestigious field of neuroscience. The Human Genome Project—itself launched in 1990—was accelerating. In other words, Murray had impeccably timed his shift into the rhetoric of genetics (even as he failed to offer any evidence from the field of genetic science itself), anchoring theories of the racial intelligence gap in the seemingly unanswerable biology of the body and the brain.

At the end of The Bell Curve, Murray and Herrnstein signaled the coming possibility of a “high-tech and more lavish version of the Indian reservation for some substantial minority of the nation’s population, while the rest of America tries to go about its business.” This is effectively what he describes in his shoulder-shrugging outline of “social apartheid”—no regret, just cruel necessity. His mirage of small-town America comes with consequences for substantive equality beyond the undermined welfare state: the citizens marooned on the left-hand tail of the bell curve will remain locked up so the rest of us can pursue happiness. This is what “facing up to inequality” looks like in his reality—and it’s also why Charles Murray’s epiphanies are the country’s nightmares.

Quinn Slobodian is the author of Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism.

Stuart Schrader is the author of Policing Revolution: Cold War Counterinsurgency at Home and Abroad, forthcoming from University of California Press.

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