Tomorrow, political scientist Charles Murray will speak on campus as part of the Cardinal Conversations series. He will discuss “Inequality and Populism” with Stanford’s own Francis Fukuyama in a conversation moderated by Niall Ferguson.
Leftists at Stanford have sought to delegitimize Murray’s intellectual credentials, accusing him of racism. Several student groups have called for the event’s cancellation, contending that “Charles Murray’s oppressive, racist and meritless pseudo-science is an affront to all people of color, low-income individuals and female-identifying members of our community.”
Ironically, though, Murray’s decision to lump people of different ethnic backgrounds in groups and treat them as a collective is perhaps quintessentially leftist thinking. If leftists want a compelling case against Murray’s “science,” they need look no further than the grand tradition of American conservatism.
In accusing Murray of racism, leftists point to The Bell Curve, a book in which Murray discusses how differences in intelligence are the most reliable predictor of one’s educational and economic success. Murray concludes that such differences in intelligence make social welfare programs ineffective and unnecessary. In chapters 13 and 14, Murray adds an unwelcome racial component to his argument, showcasing evidence that the IQs of blacks and hispanics are on average lower than those of whites and Asians.
As a conservative who strongly supports the drastic shrinking and eventual elimination of social welfare programs, I still find Murray’s employment of supposed racial discrepancies in intelligence in support of this cause to be antithetical to conservative principles.
At the start of chapter 13, “Ethnic Differences in Cognitive Ability,” Murray cautions readers against taking his findings to “unjustified extremes.” However, Murray then presents alleged evidence suggesting that blacks are on average significantly less intelligent than whites. On page 276, Murray states that blacks have been found to have lower IQs than whites “on every known test of cognitive ability that meets basic psychometric standards of reliability and validity.” Murray, on page 277, claims that most studies find black and white differences in scores on intelligence tests to be “clustered between .5 and 1.5 standard deviations.” On page 289, pointing to data on African blacks, Murray concludes that “the hypothesis about the special circumstances of American blacks depressing their test scores is not substantiated by the African data.” In 2002, Murray claimed that it is unclear whether or not the gap between blacks and whites was due to culture or genetics. However, Murray also said that the difference has “proved to be a very intractable difference that has not responded to a lot of attempts to narrow it.”
The problem lies with Murray’s decision to discuss intelligence in the context of race in the first place. One of the most foundational conservative principles is the primacy of the individual over that of the collective. Saying that intelligence gaps between races “should not be ignored” is most certainly in violation of this crucial conservative idea.
Leftists should note that this kind of collectivist thinking is inherent to the progressive ideology: the idea that people can be lumped into groups based on race and other forms of “identity,” and broad conclusions about racial groups can be drawn while ignoring the uniqueness of the individual. In an ironic turn of events, this mindset is exactly what brought Charles Murray to prominence, and is the driving force behind his status as a public intellectual.
While Murray does, to his credit, argue that differences in intelligence should not be used to draw conclusions about individuals, on page 272 of The Bell Curve, he writes “there are differences between the races, and they are the rule, not the exception.” To the true conservative, this statement should be a frightening declaration. The defining principle of American conservatism is encapsulated in the following sentence: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Penned by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, and inspired by centuries of enlightenment thought, this statement affirms that conservatism at its core is about equality. Not economic equality, and not equality of outcome or even opportunity, but rather, the equality of worth and value of all people. Conservatism is, in fact, colorblind. All individuals are “endowed” with “unalienable” rights, not by man, but rather, these rights are inherently natural rights. Every individual is entitled to these liberties because they exist within the framework of an absolute and transcendent morality. Hence, the job of the conservative is to safeguard these rights for all.
To be sure, Murray never claims that one group is more or less deserving of rights than another. However, if Murray believes in the fundamental equal worth of all people, then why discuss intelligence in the context of race at all? Why give intellectual ammunition to those who seek to degrade the inherent value of their neighbors and balkanize American society along racial lines?
Ultimately, Murray’s arguments about differences in cognitive ability across demographics are used to justify the eventual elimination of social welfare programs. Murray is correct that welfare programs should be drastically cut down and eventually eliminated. The only moral imperative of a government is to protect the individual liberties of each individual in society. Thus, while the government is morally obligated to prevent citizens from violating the rights of their neighbors, as well as ensuring that the safety (the basic right to life) of all citizens is protected from foreign threats, redistributing wealth is not the government’s moral obligation. In fact, directly taxing the income of one person to redistribute it to another is a violation of individual property rights.
Murray is wrong, however, to use alleged discrepancies in cognitive ability, even when not in a racial context, to make an argument that can be made in different, more morally sound, terms. Conservatism is not about telling people that they are too stupid to succeed, and using that as a rationale for withholding assistance. Conservatism is about pushing individuals to strive for excellence, compelling them to work themselves to their greatest potential. How can we genuinely encourage personal responsibility if we accept the dubious premise that one’s potential is limited by their score on an “IQ test?”
From Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass to J.D. Vance and Ben Carson, American history is replete with examples of individuals from all backgrounds lifting themselves out of abject poverty and achieving the greatest level of success. Many argue that these great American success stories are rare; however, we must never lose sight of the uniquely American idea that every individual has the potential to become something great.
I strongly disagree with Charles Murray, and therefore I will certainly be attending tomorrow’s event. I view my time at Stanford as a chance learn from perspectives with which I disagree, even when they run contrary to basic values I hold dear. I am glad that Charles Murray has been invited to Stanford, and I look forward to listening to his take on inequality and populism. However, after reading Charles Murray’s perspective on supposed differences in cognitive ability among ethnic and racial groups, one thing is crystal clear: Charles Murray is no conservative.