Book Review : A Happy Flight Over the Problem of U.S. Poverty

In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government by Charles Murray (Simon & chuster: $17.45)

A specter is haunting the politics of America--it is the specter of the poor, the hungry and the homeless, and especially the armed and organized children of the underclass who make war on themselves and the rest of the poor in the form of gangs. Any serious political thinker or policy-maker must address the problem of poverty in America. Yet the plight of the poor is treated as a curiously abstract and disembodied problem by Charles Murray in his new book, “In Pursuit,” an ambitious manifesto of conservative policy-making. “Poor but happy” is the only promise that Murray holds out those who dwell on the streets and in the tenements of America.

Murray is a conservative political philosopher who has thought deeply (if, I’m afraid, rather coldly and humorlessly) about what makes people happy. “Understanding the nature of human enjoyment,” he suggests modestly, “might be useful when we begin to think about designing good social policy.” As a conservative, Murray comes to the unsurprising conclusion that there is not much government can or should do to make us happy, and so it is mostly a mistake to try.

“No one has to teach people how to pursue happiness,” Murray concludes. “To enable people to pursue happiness, good social policy consists of leaving the important things in life for people to do for themselves, and protecting them from coercion by others as they go about their lives.”


Curiously Sober, Abstract

Murray devotes much of his book to a curiously sober and abstract inquiry into the concept of happiness. Rather startlingly, I thought, Murray chooses the pioneering work of the humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow on the “hierarchy of human needs” as a benchmark of happiness. From Maslow--and other, more predictable sources such as Aristotle and John Locke and John Stuart Mill--Murray hammers out a working definition of happiness (“Lasting and justified satisfaction with one’s life as a whole”) and asks whether the policies of government can encourage the pursuit of it.

Murray argues that government need concern itself only with providing the “threshold conditions” for happiness, that is, making sure that everyone has food and shelter, physical safety, and self-esteem--but only just enough of these things to enable the individual to pursue happiness on his or her own. “It may seem a minimalist approach to policy--just to ‘enable’ people to do something . . . to worry just about reaching ‘threshold’ ” Murray admits. “But minimalism is intrinsic, not arbitrary. . . . It is essential to understand first of all that when the topic is the pursuit of happiness, ‘enable’ is as far as the government can go.”

Along the way, Murray makes his case with what he readily characterizes as “a queer mix of hard data, soft data, thought experiments, and speculations.” His book is larded with charts, graphs, and tables that show us, among other things, the “Mean Avowed Happiness Score” correlated with “GNP Per Capita, 1978,” and a comparison of violent crimes in the combat zone of Harlem’s 25th precinct and the rest of the United States. And he pokes at the reader’s conscience with little moral dilemmas--would you prefer that your children be raised by a poor family with good values, or a rich family with no values? Who deserves more attention from the police--a crooked computer programmer who steals millions but physically injures no one, or a 17-year-old hoodlum who takes a few dollars at knifepoint?


Clarity of Thought

But, like so many elegant intellectual constructs of conservative philosophy, Murray’s abundantly footnoted and closely argued book begins to fall apart when applied to the real world. For example, Murray plays out an elaborate case study of teacher’s salaries to convince us that paying more money to teachers will actually make matters worse in the public schools. Instead, he suggests that parents ought to come together in “little platoons"--the phrase is Edmund Burke’s--to set up their own schools.

Even Murray, an intellectually honest man, admits that the scenario is “limited” because he has not explained how it’s supposed to work among the inner-city poor--but, in the end, he begs the question: “I want to avoid getting bogged down in arguments over procedural details.”

Murray, a fellow at a conservative “think-tank,” writes with perfect clarity of thought and language, and it is the genius of his prose that he attacks the conventional wisdom of Democratic and Republican governments since Roosevelt without a hint of passion or prejudice. His plain-spoken “assertions,” as he puts it, appear to be modest and reasonable, even if the implications are radical. By shunning the “procedural details,” however, Murray condemns himself and his book to the sterile confines of the think tank. But, then, we should pray that these ideas do not reach the Oval Office.