Earlier this month, on the occasion of his 75th birthday, Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute delivered a lecture to mark his retirement as a full-time AEI scholar. It was a lecture befitting one of the most consequential social scientists of the past 40 years — a lecture filled with nuggets of both policy wisdom and personal wisdom.
A short blog item cannot possibly do justice to the scope and nuance of Murray’s remarks, which deserve to be read in their entirety. But over the next few days, I’ll highlight just a handful of his key messages.
One of those messages concerned the relationship between economics and culture.
Murray explained that, the more he researched and learned about poverty, upward mobility, and social programs during the 1980s, the more he realized that family breakdown was “the root problem we needed to solve.” Yet he also came to realize that major cultural shifts — such as the explosion of nonmarital childbearing that began in the 1960s — cannot be reversed by economic incentives alone.
“Once certain problems start,” Murray said, “they take on a life of their own. The changes in economic incentives may have contributed to the beginning of the problem, but once — well, like take out-of-wedlock births as an example. Once the out-of-wedlock births started to increase, even if it was because of economic incentives, the social stigma eroded and soon went away. And without the stigma changing, the economic incentives wouldn’t revive the old norms.”
I explored this same issue — the role that economic incentives can or cannot play in rebuilding the marriage culture among poor and working-class Americans — in an October 2017 piece for Acculturated.
I’ll have more on Murray’s retirement lecture tomorrow.