Dangerous Conservatism

Charles Murray '65 and the Heritability of Intelligence

So who's the most dangerous conservative in America? Bob Dole? Newt Gingrich? Perhaps Rush Limbaugh or Pat Buchanan? Well, according to last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, it's a man named Charles Murray.

While other conservatives might possess more "power" or "direct influence," Jason DeParle argues with the full force of our country's most powerful and influential newspaper that Charles Murray "will never be the country's most famous conservative, but he may be the most dangerous." The extensive feature article explains that "no other conservative has his ability to make a radical thought seem so reasonable."

His credentials are certainly impressive. A professional social scientist, with a degree in Russian history from Harvard (class of 1965) and a Ph.D in political science from MIT, Murray is a Bradley Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the prestigious think-tank in Washington, D.C. And his new book, "The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life" was written with Richard J. Herrnstein, who held the Edgar Pierce Chair in Psychology at Harvard until his death last month.

While the book is not scheduled to be published until October 19th, Murray's ideas have already been embraced by certain conservative politicians and at the same time universally condemned by liberal academics. The Boston Globe even began denouncing the book over the summer--referring to Murray's "high ignorance quotient."

So what's the fuss all about? The attention, and Murray's supposed dangerous aura, are derived from his long-held thesis that socioeconomic success in modern America is largely determined by intelligence and that intelligence is largely determined by genetics. This argument was the basis for his book "Losing Ground," which aroused much criticism when it was published in 1984.


In a nation with deep commitments to equality, the idea that some individuals are inherently more intelligent than others understandably engenders discomfort. And, to make matters worse, Murray explores the dimension of race in his analysis of the heritability of intelligence.

Writing in this past Monday's Wall Street Journal that "IQ is substantially heritable," it is clear that Murray has maintained his conviction and, with his new book, he now offers more statistical evidence for his claims. Murray even offers conservative prescriptions which focus on abolishing most social programs, including welfare, affirmative action, food stamps and subsidized housing.

As the New York Times reveals, Murray begins his new book with a paradox. The success of America's ideal of equality, which has been promoted through equal opportunity, has effectively served to create a country of classes divided by intelligence. Meritocracy ensures inequality, as individuals become separated socioeconomically based on their ability to perform in the free market of the academy and the workplace.

Murray ends his Wall Street Journal editorial (which is an excerpt from his forthcoming book) with a distressing conclusion: "Unchecked, these trends will lead the U.S. toward something resembling a caste society, with the underclass mired ever more firmly at the bottom and the cognitive elite ever more firmly anchored at the top."

He continues: "Among the other casualties of this process would be American civil society as we have known it. Like other apocalyptic visions, this one is pessimistic, perhaps too much so. On the other hand, there is much to be pessimistic about." Murray is certainly playing with powerful ideas. But, one must ask, how seriously should these proclamations be taken?

While Murray's research ostensibly seems legitimate, one cannot ignore the fallacies regarding intelligence that have been promoted for centuries. America (like most of the Western world) has witnessed apparently objective and well-meaning scientists searching for scientific data to confirm society's worst prejudices--especially regarding racial inferiority.

Harvard professor Stephen Jay Gould painstakingly critiques this sordid history in his oft-praised book "The Mismeasure of Man." As Gould notes, American scientist H. H. Goddard wrote in 1919 that superior intelligence ensures social dominance: "Democracy is a method for arriving at a truly benevolent aristocracy." While America has changed significantly through the century, Murray's argument is eerily reminiscent of earlier dubious claims.

It does seem healthy that a book such as Murray's can be published despite the prevailing American compulsion to avoid taboo topics. And Murray should be commended for his call to restore the traditional ideal of the scholar as someone who ought to "find the truth and disclose it." An inevitable result is that certain truths might prove disturbing to conventional wisdom.

Unfortunately, as Murray attempts to explode the liberal myths of innate human equality (and the blind faith in social constructs), he lapses into promoting more traditional myths of racial superiority. He dismisses the effects of environment as negligible. He ignores the effect of phenomena such as "regression to the mean." And he systematically reifies intelligence by employing I.Q. tests, as if such a statistical invention were a reliable measure of mental aptitude. His attempt to demonstrate the heritability of intelligence essentially proves self-fulfilling.

Even worse, he seems to assume automatically that prescriptions laden with conservative values are the only solution to the problems he discovers. In addition, as Murray dubs his own work "social science pornography," it's not clear to what extent shock value is the driving force in his research--and subsequent conclusions.

Charles Murray may indeed be the most dangerous conservative in America, but perhaps not in the sense that he hopes. While liberals respond by resurrecting arguments to confirm their long-established prejudices, thinking conservatives might just begin to reevaluate their approach to equal opportunity and their urge to dismantle government. The flaws in Murray's work just might serve to highlight the flaws in our own most earnest convictions.

Brad Edward White's column will appear next Wednesday.