Coming Apart in the UK

City of London

Two years ago, Charles Murray published a book entitled Coming Apart about the main socioeconomic changes that have swept America over the last half century and the impact they have had on the happiness of its citizens. Not surprisingly, the major economic changes Murray identified were the vastly increased levels of personal affluence of Americans accompanied by exponentially increasing consumer choice.

He highlighted four major social changes:

• declining marriage and marital stability, especially among lower income whites;

• much greater female participation in the labor market accompanied by declining male participation in it particularly at the lower-paid end of the job market;

• growing disparities of income between a largely married middle class and the largely unmarried least well-off; and

• declining religiosity and religious observance, plus a concomitant decline in communal activity proportionate to the decline in religiosity (again, more prevalent among the lower income groups)

Murray argued these four social trends mattered profoundly because of a strong positive correlation among marriage, vocation (as reflected by industriousness), and religiosity, on the one hand, and happiness on the other, suggesting the former three factors strongly contributed to the latter. While a similar positive correlation obtains between affluence and happiness, longitudinal studies have shown it is not a particularly strong one above the level of abject poverty which practically all Americans now are.

The trends Murray identified, therefore, seem to reveal an America that is increasingly starting to come apart along the seams of class. A largely married and still (at least residually) religiously engaged middle class is drawing ever farther apart in affluence, lifestyle, and personal happiness from a largely unmarried and wholly religiously disengaged lower class, bereft of the consolations and social capital that family ties and religious engagement typically bring.

Rod Liddle is a highly prolific and widely read British journalist who has just published a similar study about the major socioeconomic changes in his country in the last half century and their impact on the happiness of Britons. In Selfish, Whining Monkeys he reaches conclusions that are strikingly similar to Murray’s.

Compare the following extracts from their respective books. Here is what Murray has to say about socioeconomic change in America this past half century:

Something that would come as a surprise to a child of the twenty-first century transported back to 1963 [is] the lack of all sorts of variety, and a simplicity that now seems almost quaint… The typical American city of 1963 had appallingly little choice in things to eat…

Marriage was nearly universal and divorce was rare across all races… mothers normally stayed at home to raise their children…

Poverty had been dropping so rapidly for many years that Americans thought things were going well…

Only 1 per cent of respondents [of a Gallup poll taken in October 1963) said that they did not have a religious preference, and half said that they had attended a worship service in the last seven days. These answers showed almost no variation across classes.

Of Britain during the same period, Liddle writes:

There are many, many more food outlets on our high streets than was the case when I was a kid [growing up in the 1960s] … People didn’t eat out, except for social occasions.

[B]y and large, divorcees were regarded with grave suspicion… [O]nly a minority [of women] worked until that great shift in the middle of the 1970s… If you were a girl, you were going to be a housewife. No argument and that was still the case in the late 1970s.

Like the majority of kids growing up in the middle 1960s, I went to Sunday school every week…. Until about 1972 my family went to church every Sunday, almost without fail… While church attendance in Britain began to dwindle after the Second World War… even by the mid-1960s more than 50 per cent of parents sent their kids to Sunday school.      

Apropos of the impact of these social trends on happiness, again put alongside what Murray writes with Americans in mind, Liddle’s observations of Britain:

Each of four domains – family, vocation, faith, and community – has a direct and strong relationship to self-reported happiness… Conversely, people who have a failed family life, are dissatisfied with their jobs, are disengaged from their communities, and have no spiritual life tend not to be happy because of those failures… Decay in [these four domains] … is problematic for human flourishing.   

Now, Liddle:

The latest happiness index… is not good news for people in Britain… We come well down the list, compared to other developed democracies. We are right down at the bottom, the surliest and most fractious and dissatisfied… The one comparative study which has been done… suggested that we were hugely less happy now than we were back in the 1950s. According [to the opinion poll Gfk NOP] some 36 percent of us are “very happy” today, whereas in 1957 more than half of us – 52 percent – described themselves as happy.      

It is fairly clear to me that we are no happier for having [renounced past certainties and institutions like marriage and religion]… [W]e are much less content now than we were in an age that contained more privation, but also more certainty… The thought that along the way we got rid of those controls that made our lives more pleasant, more coherent, better for children, more peaceable and communitarian, did not seem to occur. We thought we liked this new way we were… But I think that we have deluded ourselves… Undoubtedly, there are things we do better now: we are more tolerant of diversity… This, I think, is a good thing. But the moral and political social upheaval which accompanied this sacking of the old order has left us fraught and clamorous, unhappy, isolated and averse.

A striking similarity regarding the social changes that have taken place in their respective countries over the past half century is that neither author is remotely nostalgic for an earlier but happier era. Here’s Murray:

[i]f a time machine could transport me back to 1960, I would have to be dragged into it kicking and screaming. In many aspects of day-to-day life, America today is incomparably superior to the America of 1960… Go back to 1960? I wouldn’t dream of it.

Now Liddle:

It would be easy to be nostalgic about my childhood… But when I look back… the primary emotion I feel… is one of immense guilt: that I do not do things as well as my parents… Again, this isn’t nostalgia… It is hard to argue against longer life expectancy, greater affluence, safer workplaces, the freedom to escape a hopeless marriage, the rights of women to be treated equally, and so on. But a certain moral code has been lost along the way, which has contributed lately to our country becoming close to bankrupt, a nation of broken families clamouring about their entitlements, siring ill-educated and undisciplined kids unfamiliar with the concept of right and wrong, where there is a diminishing sense of community and belonging.

At this point, the resemblance in view between our two authors breaks down. Murray is a self-confessed libertarian who regards America’s current ailment as providing “a compelling case for a return to the founders’ conception of limited government.” This is because he concurs with the Founding Fathers that, as Thomas Jefferson put it in his first inaugural address:

[A] wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, [and] shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement… is the sum of good government.

Murray concludes that:

When the government intervenes to help… it not only diminishes our responsibility for the desired outcome, it enfeebles the institutions through which people lead satisfying lives… Through… 1963, the American project [that is, the idea of basing America’s national life on the ideal of limited government of its founding fathers] demonstrated that a society can provide great personal freedom while generating strong and vital networks that helped its citizens cope… [Aside from] the revolutions in status of African Americans and women… every realm of American life… has been downhill ever since. The[se] trend-lines constitute the gravamen of that charge. Family, vocation, community, and faith have all been enfeebled.

For him, government beyond the minimum possible is always part of the problem, never of the solution. Liddle, by contrast, a Trotskyite in his youth and since then a stalwart member of and a one-time speechwriter and researcher for the Labor Party, is far less averse than Murray to governmental activity. For Liddle—who no longer is the out and out starry-eyed socialist he admits to having once been—the Thatcher and Reagan governments of the 1980s, which did so much to try and roll back the frontiers of the state, have contributed profoundly to the problems currently besetting them. As he puts it:

[The] jabbering long-haired bores of 1960s, with their Marcusian and Gramscian idiocies… [are] not even half of the story. At least as many of the most repellent aspects of my generation… are the consequence… of that singularly grim and vindictive Conservative government of the 1980s. And when these two philosophies come together… the result is especially toxic; a determination to do away with everything –society, authority – but ourselves… Much as with the Frankfurt School, it would be egregious to lay [all] the blame for the vaulting greed and acquisitiveness of the 1980s (and beyond) solely at the door of the Chicago School…. But the orgy of deregulation of financial services and the stock exchange, the privatisations, performed solely for ideological reasons (the utilities, British Rail); the disdain shown towards… government intervention… regardless of the misery this caused; the relentless consumer-drawn acquisitiveness; the transformation of a house from a home to a means of collateral; and above all the elevation of money onto a pedestal it did not deserve to occupy – well, that stuff can be traced back to Milt and his friends in Chicago.

Liddle’s anti-libertarianism, if I might put it this way, is unlikely to endear him to readers of this website. Yet, for all the many ways in which libertarians might justly take exception to certain of Liddle’s views, and be drawn to Charles Murray’s diagnosis, the former’s book makes several very important points about what currently prevents political elites in America and Britain from addressing contemporary social maladies.

First, because several good things may have come of women’s liberation and the greater ease of divorce, the faux liberals who Liddle rightly claims run both countries are unwilling to admit that these reforms have had any adverse unintended consequences. They won’t hear a bad word against either, and therefore, remain unwilling to face up to the real problems that have resulted from them.

Second, and above all, it has been the already least well-off in both societies who, as a rule, have been most harmed by the undesirable unintended consequences of these various measures introduced in the name of greater freedom and equality. To quote Liddle again:

If you are affluent enough, you can split up the family home and make sure the kids have the sort of material lifestyle they enjoyed when the family was together… at least they are provided for financially. There is no such provision for those further down the social scale: the children are almost always immediately subjected to financial privation… The mother is immediately worse off… Like so much [other] socially liberal legislation… divorce reform benefited only the well-off, by and large. The working class bought into it, and ended up broke. In truth, it was legislation designed to enable the affluent to f*** around with impunity (no fault, remember!), and hang the rest.

Another case in point concerns the policy of relaxing hitherto stringent immigration controls. The relaxation has afforded employers, in businesses and in the home, with an unending supply of cheap labor but has damaged the employment prospects and living conditions of the least well off strata of the indigenous populaces of these societies. Again, as Liddle puts it, in terms that could apply as much to Washington, New York and Los Angeles as to Westminster:

What the London liberal elite dresses up as social concern and progressivism is actually partially-clothed economic self-interest. It likes immigration because it means employees are cheaper, and so are the staples of the metro middle-class elite: nannies, foreign restaurants, electricians, decorators, plumbers and taxi cabs. But then the elite doesn’t have to live cheek by jowl with the lowest-paid immigrant, because of course the immigrants cannot afford to live in… affluent parts… This exploited workforce lives, instead, among the indigenous working-class whose jobs it has gratefully taken… Immigration is important… [as] the perfect example of an issue over which the numerically miniscule metropolitan elite has imposed its will upon the rest of the country.  

Significantly, Liddle’s discussion of immigration runs against both contemporary free-market orthodoxy and the policies of his Labor Party. When both sides of the political divide are found wanting on an issue, in the face of opposition from a large section of the populace, surely such a critique bears consideration.

His book is often side-splittingly funny, as this final quotation from it on the downside of being given too much consumer choice offers a glimpse:

It has become axiomatic that choice is a good thing… because for the last thirty years the free market has… been the only ideology… I don’t buy it. You can have choice and it can be a good thing. And then you can be deluged with choice, harried by choice, stressed by choice, driven to despair by choice, have your life eaten by choice…. In a sense, the free market, and this perpetual demand for choice, is another expression of our modern individual narcissism, and our insularity: we alone know best. Alone. And so, empowered, we stand before the counter in the coffee franchise… and ask for a coffee, but that is not good enough –Regular? Medium? Large? Skinny? Macchiato? Extra shot? Vanilla? Latte? Cappuccino? – until we turn into that Edvard Munch painting… and with our hands over our ears we just howl: Enough, enough, enough – I want my children to go to the nearest school, I want a flat price for a rail ticket, a decent local hospital and one energy company to provide me with energy. And I just want coffee, that’s all. The same coffee someone else wants – him, over there, I’ll have whatever he had … I just want f***ing coffee, Svetlana, to be honest – I’m through with choice.

Has one finally succumbed to Big Brother to admit to sympathizing with the lament and to recognizing an element of profound truth contained in this conceit of Liddle’s? If your answer is “Not necessarily,” then Selfish, Whining Monkeys is for you. You will emerge from it not a little wiser and in a jovial mood.

Reader Discussion

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on September 23, 2014 at 23:20:10 pm

If you are affluent enough, you can split up the family home and make sure the kids have the sort of material lifestyle they enjoyed when the family was together… at least they are provided for financially. There is no such provision for those further down the social scale: the children are almost always immediately subjected to financial privation… The mother is immediately worse off… Like so much [other] socially liberal legislation… divorce reform benefited only the well-off, by and large. The working class bought into it, and ended up broke. In truth, it was legislation designed to enable the affluent to f*** around with impunity (no fault, remember!), and hang the rest.

I call this the Reno Hypothesis, based on the recurring comments of RR Reno, executive editor of First Things. It’s a vaguely Burkean argument: Social conventions are not arbitrary; they are the result of a Darwinian process of trial and error (and perhaps divine intervention). We ignore this at our peril.

Consider three dynamics.

First, libertarianism prizes freedom, including freedom from social conventions and the need to conform. A libertarian culture makes such freedom more accessible to all. This will enable some to live their dreams. And it will enable some people to become divorced, bankrupt drug addicts. And sometimes these will be the same people.

Second, while we live with ever greater wealth disparities, we live with ever less tolerance of hierarchy. We value equality – including equality of norms across class. Rich and poor wear the same uniform (e.g., bluejeans), listen to the same music (e.g., pop music of varying flavors), eat the same food (e.g. pizza and burgers), route for the same sports teams. So if the rich can afford high consumption and divorce, the poor will demand it, too.
But the rich are different than you and me. If you can’t afford to lose, rationally you should play a conservative strategy. But lives aren’t lived rationally; they are lived according to social cues. When society increasingly celebrates risk-takers, we must expect more people who have exceptional lives – both for the good and the bad. Does it really make sense to have social norms that increase the number of people making home runs – but also increase the number of strikeouts?

Third, happiness research suggests that people are loss-averse: that is, we value winning less than we hate losing. We’re status-conscious. Thus, designing social norms to permit an ever-broader range of outcomes may well make society worse off in aggregate.

I think there is much to this argument – but it can be overstated.

First, as each author observes, life in 1960 was far from nirvana. True, there was less divorce. There was appalling levels of domestic violence, especially homicide, and family abandonment, but not so much divorce. Was this really a better choice?

Second, I think much of the maladies of the poor in the developed world are related to globalization. The truly poor live in rural China and India – and much of them have seen dramatic improvements in their living circumstances. But this has come at the expense of the working class in the developed world. The working class would have been screwed even if they all had 1950s norms.

Thrid, a society of risk-takers can make the great majority of people better off – provided society has mechanisms to share the wealth. The US has always had mechanisms of these sorts. And if we want people to continue to take risks, we’ll need ever more of these mechanisms.

In short, libertarianism is a superior good -- well-designed for consumption by the wealthy, not the poor. As society gets richer, society can get more libertarian -- provided we have sufficient mechanisms in place for sharing the wealth.

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