WASHINGTON — For more than a decade, conservative social theorist Charles Murray has made a living pushing the boundaries of politically acceptable debate about the welfare state. But nothing the contrarian thinker has written in the past drew the level of vitriol now engulfing "The Bell Curve," his new best-selling book linking IQ to race and poverty.
Murray has spent the better part of the past two weeks fending off accusations that he and his late co-author, Richard J. Herrnstein, are reactionary racists. Yet only days ago, as he zipped along a Virginia highway toward his next talk show, Murray insisted that his book actually boosts the liberal cause.
"Here's the great untold story of 'The Bell Curve,' " Murray said. "Dick Herrnstein and I have uncovered more data to help the left than any other social scientists, data which may be used to argue for massive redistribution of income."
That Murray now applies this Alice-in-Wonderland spin to his thesis--which argues that most low-IQ people are doomed to a life of poverty and possibly crime--is a measure of how the national debate over helping the poor promises to become curiouser and curiouser in the coming months.
Most of the hand-wringing punditry surrounding "The Bell Curve" has focused on the so-called Chapter 13 problem--an analysis by Murray and Herrnstein, who was a psychology professor at Harvard University, that genetics as well as environmental factors account for the 15-point gap between whites and blacks on IQ tests.
But the main thesis of this 845-page book--that IQ is largely destiny--is equally incendiary in a nation founded on egalitarianism, and it could further polarize Washington's already strained political dialogue over how to better the plight of the nation's poor.
"In the short run, it will make the debate more ugly," said Robert Rector, who has helped fashion Republican welfare legislation from his post as senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Conservatives, likely to be emboldened after Election Day with strong GOP gains in Congress, can use the book's findings to make the case that government attempts to train the underclass to perform in the new global economy are doomed to failure. And if liberals want fodder for the argument that broad-based welfare reform designed to curb out-of-wedlock births smacks of eugenics, they can flip to page 548. There, Herrnstein and Murray claim that current U.S. welfare policies encourage the "wrong women" to have babies.
With 93 charts and graphs, and a 110-page appendix designed as a statistics primer, Murray and Herrnstein pummel the quintessentially American notion that all men and women are created equal, that any citizen can buy a piece of the dream through hard work and a healthy dose of street smarts. "The ideology of equality has done some good," they write, "but most of its effects are bad."
IQ tests, the authors contend, are the best predictors of a person's success in life. America's poor, its criminals, its school dropouts and unwed mothers typically have low cognitive abilities, Murray and Herrnstein write. They fret that the nation's intellectual health is dropping because low-IQ people are having more babies than the "cognitive elite," and because today's immigrants have lower IQs than past waves of newcomers.
Furthermore, in an increasingly technology-driven society, they write, low-intelligence citizens "are becoming not just increasingly expendable in economic terms; they will . . . become a net drag."
The refusal of U.S. policy-makers to come to grips with these truths, say Murray and Herrnstein, accounts for the spotty success of job training or educational programs such as Head Start. "Taken together," they write, "the story of attempts to raise intelligence is one of high hopes, flamboyant claims, and disappointing results."
Murray and Herrnstein set forth what could be described as the ultimate root-cause argument for troubles of the nation's underclass: Poor people can't make it because they're stupid. And those who work in poverty programs worry that the book will feed a do-nothing attitude on the part of a public already cynical about government intervention.
"The risk is that we lose sight of the potential of people to change," said Judith M. Gueron, president of New York's Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., which designs and tests education and job-training programs for the disadvantaged. "People move in and out of poverty. They move in and out of employment. We're in the midst of a very mean-spirited debate about welfare and poverty, and this argument risks fueling that."