Charles Murray on Elite Ignorance of Ordinary Americans

In his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Charles Murray argues that a new elite class has emerged that is much more ignorant about the lives of ordinary Americans than were the elites of earlier generations:

As the new upper class increasingly consists of people who were born into upper-middle-class families and have never lived outside the upper-middle-class bubble, the danger increases that the people who have so much influence on the course of the nation have little direct experience with the lives of ordinary Americans, and make their judgments about what’s good for other people based on their own highly atypical lives…

Many of the members of the new upper class are balkanized. Furthermore, their ignorance about other Americans is more problematic than the ignorance of other Americans about them. It is not a problem if truck drivers cannot empathize with the priorities of Yale professors. It is a problem if Yale professors, or producers of network news programs, or CEOs of great corporations, or presidential advisers cannot empathize with the priorities of truck drivers. It is inevitable that people have large areas of ignorance about how others live, but that makes it all the more important that the members of the new upper class be aware of the breadth and depth of their ignorance.

If Murray is right, this kind of elite ignorance is the flip side of the general public’s political ignorance. Public ignorance is dangerous because it reduces the quality of voting decisions; elite ignorance because it reduces the quality of the decisions made by elites once they get into positions of power.

To illustrate his point, Murray includes in the book a 25 question quiz that is intended to test readers’ knowledge and exposure to mainstream non-upper middle class culture (he assumes that most of the readers are members of the upper middle class elite). I managed a middling 37 on his 0-99 point scale.

As Murray recognizes, one can easily quibble about the details of many of the questions. For example, I not only have “attended” a Rotary Club meeting, but actually gave a speech at one when I was 17. Maybe I should get extra credit for the latter. I would also have achieved a higher score if there were more sports-related questions. Other readers will have different complaints. Even so, there is no reasonable version of this test on which I would have come out looking like a Man of the People. More generally, Murray is surely right that there is a culture gap between the new upper middle class and the rest of the public, and that the former is often ignorant about the lives of the latter.

At the same time, I am skeptical that the gap is much greater than it was fifty years ago. Murray claims that the elite of the early 1960s was much more in touch with mainstream culture than today’s upper middle class (which he defines, roughly, as people in various professional occupations who are in the top 5% of the income distribution). He only offers a modest amount of evidence to support that claim, and on some points his evidence cuts the other way. For example, one of the differences between the upper middle class and the mainstream that Murray cites is that the former are much more likely to engage in foreign travel. But that gap was even greater in 1960, when foreign travel was much more an elite preserve than it is today, in the age of relatively cheap jet flights.

More importantly, I am far from certain that the kind of knowledge Murray describes is actually important in improving the quality of public policy. Yes, elites who make policy that affects the lives of truck drivers should have some knowledge of “their priorities.” But it’s not clear to me that knowledge of TV shows, foods, preferred sports, etc., of truck drivers is all that useful to understanding those priorities. Even the experience of living with a low income or working at a job where your body hurts at the end of the day (both stressed by Murray as especially important) may be overrated. You don’t have to do either to realize that poverty imposes substantial constraints on your life, or that physical pain is extremely unpleasant. I actually did qualify for the points you get from having had a job where the body hurts at the end of the day. But I doubt that my attitude towards manual labor would be much different if I hadn’t. Overall, I’m not convinced that a political elite composed of people who scored a 99 on Murray’s test would do much better by the truck drivers than one composed of people who scored 19 or 29. At the very least, Murray offers little if any proof of it in the book.

To be sure, there is an important sense in which elite ignorance reduces the quality of public policy. In a complex society where people have a wide variety of preferences, not even the most knowledgeable elite experts can really have enough information to impose efficient paternalistic regulations that preempt individual choice. But this problem would persist even if all our elites had a deep and extensive knowledge of non-elite culture. The solution is not so much an elite that is better-informed about the culture of the masses, but an elite whose power over those masses is more limited and decentralized.

That said, I’m certainly open to the possibility that diminishing some types of elite ignorance would improve our society. But I’m skeptical that what we need to have a better elite is the kind of knowledge Murray emphasizes.