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There’s something about (Charles) Murray

Charles Murray. (Photo courtesy of the American Enterprise Institute.)

Libertarian luminary Charles Murray is back in the public eye with a new book, By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission (Crown Forum, 2015). One part screed against immoderate government regulation and one part call for civil disobedience by small-government activists, the book puts a fresh spin on some customary Murray ideas. Given the author’s track record as an agent provocateur in public debate, it should come as no surprise that the book is grabbing attention. It’s worth stepping back, though, to ask why Murray enjoys marquee status in media and policy circles. What accounts for his star power?

At first glance, Murray’s status might seem all the more puzzling given his relative marginality in academic circles. Murray has on occasion expressed a certain disdain for the academic social sciences—and while I don’t want to overstate the point, scholarly responses to his work can leave the impression that the feeling is mutual. Murray’s first book, Losing Ground (1984), came under fire from social scientists for its measurement problems and selective use of data. Much more pointed academic rebukes, though, came a decade later in response to The Bell Curve (1994), a book Murray co-authored with Harvard psychologist Richard Herrnstein. Natural and social scientists alike picked apart The Bell Curve’s argument that differences in intelligence, including among ethnic groups, explain socioeconomic differences in the United States.

At one level, the dim view many social scientists take of Murray’s work might seem like an impediment to his public influence. But I would submit that it works distinctly to his advantage. Murray has spent the better part of his career at two conservative think tanks—the Manhattan Institute and the American Enterprise Institute—and by his own account, the fit has been of the fish-in-water sort. In my book on the history of American think tanks, Think Tanks in America, I began with a vignette on Murray, who seemed to embody many of the peculiar characteristics of the think tank universe. Tracing the arc of his career, it was clear that each step on his path to the think tank—from his early stint with the Peace Corps to his later role as a government program evaluator—had conferred a piece of the overall skill set associated with the Washington “policy expert.” A policy expert is a hybrid figure whose authority rests on a varied package of abilities: media savvy, a penchant for self-promotion, fundraising skill, political knowhow, and familiarity with the language and rhythm of policy debate, polished off with a patina of scholarly credibility.

By identifying Murray as an exemplary figure in this world, I aimed to address a basic ambiguity surrounding think tanks, which defy easy definition. But the example wasn’t meant to “clear up” the ambiguity per se. On the contrary, it was meant to show that blurriness and ambiguity are built into the think tank’s form and strategy. Think tanks obey multiple standards of legitimacy, sometimes trading on their academic credibility, sometimes on their connections to policymaking, and sometimes on their relationships to the media. The most successful think tanks display the kind of skills described by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, artfully tacking back and forth between these forms of recognition, playing them off each other to their individual advantages.

The same is true of Murray, who exercises influence by blending the styles associated with the academic, political, entrepreneurial, and media worlds. Each of these spheres has its own “rules” and standards of judgment, and Murray juggles them skillfully. A media darling, he’s a charismatic figure who handles interviews well and writes books with bold, headline-generating claims. That works well for a think tank: The more media exposure he attracts, the more his organization can plausibly tell prospective donors it has influenced public debate.

Virtually all of Murray’s work revolves around two conservative themes, which, not coincidentally, works handily for think tanks raising money from conservative donors. The first theme is that differences in human achievement, including those linked to positions of wealth, power, and prestige, result from differences in individual talents and abilities, not from structural advantages—a theme expounded in The Bell Curve, Human Accomplishment, and Real Education. Second, government efforts to level the playing field for those on the bottom subvert the natural order and end up hurting even their supposed beneficiaries. This is the Murray of Losing Ground, In Our Hands, Coming Apart, and By the People.

Within this framework, Murray’s work upholds other conservative tenets, like the classical liberal belief that markets are the only legitimate source of order and prosperity in modern society, or the idea that a moralistic brand of “personal responsibility” is the solution to social ills. Conservative politicians can count on Murray to articulate and legitimize free market ideas, cloaked in the authority of an independent thinker with academic certification.

For Murray and other “policy experts,” media visibility, fundraising power, and political recognition all amplify and strengthen one another. But maintaining the veneer of intellectual detachment requires a delicate relationship with the academic social sciences. This is why being an “outsider” in this arena suits him well. Murray connects his work loosely to academic debates, earning a smattering of social scientific recognition and elevating himself above mere ideological bluster. But that connection must remain superficial. Were Murray to submit to the usual checks on social scientific rigor—especially peer review—or get bogged down in the fine-grained details of academic debate, he would undermine his standing with donors, politicians and journalists. More broadly, he would undermine his position in the peculiar game that determines who counts as a relevant expert in American public debate, which is more responsive to the preferences of donors, politicians and media gatekeepers than to the rules of scientific judgment.

While it’s true that there are influential figures in American policy debate with more social scientific clout than Murray — one thinks of Paul Krugman or William Julius Wilson — most have become influential by leaving behind academic concerns and becoming decidedly more Murray-like in their approach. Murray is significant, then, not only for his direct influence on public policy debates, but as an emblem of the growing species of “policy experts” who have come to dominate these debates.

Thomas Medvetz is an associate professor of sociology at University of California, San Diego, and the author of Think Tanks in America (University of Chicago Press).