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Charles Murray on how facts don’t change minds (and some related thoughts of the sort he would probably approve of)

I have been reading Charles Murray’s book, Coming Apart.

I recommend this book, but I doubt that I myself will be reading every word of it, and certainly not every number. This is because I am already convinced by Murray’s basic thesis, which is that that America is becoming increasing divided along class lines. The temptations of government welfare, just as you would expect, have enticed the poor into self-destructive habits far more than the rich, because the rich, being rich, are insulated by their riches from these temptations. The rich have also resisted the temptation to smash up their families and raise their children out of wedlock, even as they mock those who still proclaim such notions in public. When it comes to family values, says Murray, the rich ought to be more ready to preach what they practice. All this strikes me as very true.

I was particularly struck by this, which is how Part III (“Why It Matters”) begins (p. 238 of my Penguin paperback edition):

The economist Maynard Keynes, accused of changing his mind about monetary policy, famously replied, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” The honest answer to Keynes’s question is “Often, nothing.” Data can bear on policy issues, but many of our opinions about policy are grounded in premises about the nature of human life and human society that are beyond the reach of data. Try to think of any new data that would change your position on abortion, the death penalty, legalization of marijuana, same-sex marriage, or the inheritance tax. If you cannot, you are not necessarily being unreasonable.

So it has been with the evidence I have presented. A social democrat may see in parts 1 and 2 a compelling case for the redistribution of wealth. A social conservative may see a compelling case for government polices that support marriage, religion, and traditional values. I am a libertarian, and I see a compelling case for returning to the founders’ conception of limited government.

In other words, as Perry de Havilland never tires of saying: metacontext, metacontext, metacontext.

Keynes himself changed his mind a lot less than he said he did, I think.

Like Charles Murray, I am a libertarian. But like Murray, and unlike many libertarians, I also believe that old school married parenthood is the best setting in which to raise children, even if, like all other libertarians, I absolutely do not believe that old school married parenthood should be legally compulsory or that any alternatives to it should be legally forbidden. I am not myself married, but a lot of my best friends are libertarians who are married and who are now raising children. They are my friends not just because I like them, but because I admire what they are doing. I love to attend weddings, and have become good at photographing them. Partly this is because I just have, and because I especially like to photograph the many other amateur photographers also present. But I also love weddings because I strongly believe in what is promised at and accomplished by such ceremonies. So, I like Charles Murray’s general ideological attitude to life.

But, I also strongly agree with Murray about how hard it can be to change such ideological attitudes. In particular, merely spraying facts around the political landscape does not necessarily change it very much. Rather does it merely, as Murray says, confirm in the minds of all who hear these facts that they have been right all along about what needs to be done about them.

But this does not mean that minds cannot be changed. Facts, if they are overwhelming enough, can make a difference, especially to people who are young enough still to be making up their minds. But when communicating with such people it is essential not to confine yourself only to facts, however overwhelming they may seem to you. You should also engage at the ideological level. You should state the metacontextual conclusions that you want people to arrive at.

If this does nothing else, it at least enables people to realise that they are in this or that metacontextual team, and to help to make that team a little bit stronger.

It is one thing merely to be a libertarian. You will make a lot more difference to the world if you also realise that a libertarian is what you are. Being a libertarian means have a much more restricted idea of what governments should compel and forbid than tends to prevail nowadays. But it does not mean refraining from having and expressing opinions about how to live wisely.

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33 comments to Charles Murray on how facts don’t change minds (and some related thoughts of the sort he would probably approve of)

  • Cristina

    “But it does not mean refraining from having and expressing opinions about how to live wisely.”
    Of course not. It’s my experience that the more libertarian the person, the more committed he is to change my mind about almost everything. 🙂

  • John Galt III

    well done essay my friend.

  • RRS

    Being a libertarian means have a much more restricted idea of what governments should compel and forbid than tends to prevail nowadays.

    It also entails having a rather clearer idea of what governments actually are – as a starting point for all other considerations.

    I believe it was Vico who noted that the two marks of the commencement of a civilization are burial of the dead and marriage.

    Murray’s basic thesis, which is that that America is becoming increasing divided along class lines.

    Perhaps Murray could be better understood as noting “cultural” stratifications, rather than “class” distinctions or differentiations.

    Sufficient commonalities of motivations generate “cultures” rather than “classes.” Belmont is composed of cultures that differ from those of Fishtown. The cultures in each do “produce” (result in) differing economic classes; but, more importantly, the cultures (more than the economics) do “separate” the individuals – and their understandings of one another.

  • AngryTory

    Facts are about the past. Philosophy is about the future.

    The founding FATHERS believed in rights for CITIZENS, guns for CITIZENS, votes for CITIZENS, and CITIZENSHIP as something earned by the few not gifted to the many. Get that right and all else follows.

  • Chip

    So it’s problematic that America is divided along class lines and that the poor engage in increasingly damaging behaviour, but preventing more of these poor people and their behaviours from entering America is wrong.

    That the imported poor will eventually vite the statists a permanent majority and destroy economic freedom, is a price you pay for ideological purity.

    Ideological purity is the colourful sunset after a long day of logical trade offs and before a night of self destruction.

  • AngryTory

    preventing more of these poor people and their behaviours from entering America is wrong

    preventing all “poor” and non-citizens (who includes liberals and socialists and communists) from entering, voting, citizenship, or having any influence whatsoever in America is just Constitutional common sense.

  • Julie near Chicago

    A divided society — no, not divided, fragmented — is the aim of the Marxists.

    One thing that I have watched with dismay is the fomenting of age war by, of all people, conservative and libertarian pundits. As far as I know it was our own side who, in our zeal to stop the welfarism and call out New Deal and LBJ entitlement projects such as Social Security and Medicare, called attention to the simple fact that these can only be sustained by borrowing, and that the pay-back will fall on subsequent generations.

    This is perfectly true, but the result is that many of the kids and younger people are beginning to feel misused and cheated by their elders, their parents, their progenitors.

    People don’t realize that the “kids” (referring to everybody under the age of, say, 50) have benefitted themselves from Social Security, at least if you believe that in the big picture SS is a benefit to anyone. Because their parents tended to spend whatever extra they (thought that they) had on bennies for the kids.

    And people hang on the Baby-Boomer Generation. Well, frankly that lets me out — by two years, but I’ll take what I can get. But in the first place, that’s not the generation that allowed FDR to ram through Social Security. And that generation wasn’t old enough to vote until at least the 1964 election, and again Medicare was hugely unpopular and unwanted by most Americans, including — I imagine — such baby-boomers as voted for LBJ.

    It’s true that that generation was the one hit hardest by the antics of the New Left, so that it absorbed lots of bad and even evil ideas therefrom, but the whole idea of “elders = selfish bastards” and “baby-boomers got us into this mess” is (it’s a joint idea, so I use the singular) inaccurate and divisive and one would hope that people on our side would see that.

  • Julie near Chicago

    I want to clarify: Yes, SS & Medicare DO wrongly put the burden of debt on the younger people. And they should know that. But while half the reason why they should know is obvious, the other half is so that they themselves will be motivated to take apart the system so as to spare their own progeny of the same burden.

    But it is not necessary to keep bashing the Elders for the situation, let alone the single generation, as opposed to detailing the facts BUT including the honest information that said elders were mostly against it in the first place. “Something awful happened, and you are having to pay the price. Some of the people in group X were guilty of helping to make it happen, but many or even most were not. You must judge each individual person whom you know of, not the group as a whole, the Collective.”

    Surely that should be the libertarian message.

  • Patrick Crozier

    This post rather reminds me of The Tyranny of the Facts by some bloke called Brian Micklethwait.

    A huge influence on my thinking and one of the reasons why I tend to concentrate on the moral i.e “violence is wrong” argument.

  • Brian Micklethwait (London)

    Patrick: thanks. It makes a change for someone other than me to be linking back to my old LA writings.

    1990, eh? So, my basic way of thinking hasn’t changed much in a quarter of a century.

    You could also read that piece as a warning that the Fact Hurricane that was the fall of the USSR, then in the process of happening, would only influence subsequent thinking … somewhat.

  • Tedd

    Julie:

    It’s important to remember that there are two baby booms: the cultural baby boom (born 1945 to 1952, or so) and the demographic baby boom (born 1953 to 1964, or so). The demographic baby boom is much bigger, to the point where those born in 1958 are still the largest single group, by age, rivaled only by their children. So, politically speaking, in the U.S., the demographic baby boom is what has mattered since the early 70s, only now being equaled by their own children.

    That means they can be absolved of responsibility for creating the regulatory state and the welfare state. But they (we, I should really be saying) are definitely responsible for maintaining and expanding it.

  • Spending retirement funds on the kids: guilty as charged. Without the fact of (admittedly modest) Social Security income in our dotage, The Mrs. and I would have saved more for ourselves and spent less on our children. The difference between us and other parents is that we have always TOLD our kids exactly what we were doing, so that they knew that when their parents retire, they will in some measure be responsible for our well-being, just as we were for theirs. Whether that responsibility might be in actual financial support, or third-party (through Social Security) was irrelevant. And they’ve accepted that — which means that if the SocSec system collapses, we’ll still have some kind of safety net.

  • Tedd

    …our opinions about policy are grounded in premises about the nature of human life and human society that are beyond the reach of data.

    I agree, although I wouldn’t say “beyond the reach of data” but rather “beyond the reach of any data we have at present.” For example, while I think I’ve always supported the right of people to engage in consensual sex with another person regardless of gender, many years ago I also believed that it was mostly a matter of choice. I’ve since come to believe it’s quite heavily biologically influenced, based almost exclusively on developments in science since that time. I would be very surprised if changing science hasn’t been an important factor in the growing acceptance of homosexual relationships, generally.

    But there are things that are beyond the reach of data for the foreseeable future, if not even in principle. Free will and consciousness, for example. Even if we’re able to build artificial beings with every apparent indication of free will and consciousness themselves we’ll still not know whether they actually possess those things. (Though we should be able to have interesting conversations with them about it.) Political values are connected to beliefs about things like that and, to that extent, are not easily influenced by any facts we’re likely to have access to.

    That’s why it’s mostly fruitless to talk about “issues” without first establishing some common understanding about those core principles and values. That’s also why Twitter (and most social media) are so damaging to political discourse. It’s virtually impossible to ever even get to the proper starting point for the conversation.

  • RRS

    On this site Brian also referred us to the work of Emmanuel Todd.

    Implicit in that work is consideration of the factors that influence (or determine) the initial formation of individual motivations in differing social orders.

    It can be worthwhile to compare even just that part of Todd’s work (which is cited on Brian’s own website) with Murray’s Coming Apart (which is a study, not a thesis).

    For those discussing (or just opining on) the impacts of the influx
    of people from differing social orders, some consideration should be given to the extreme differences in the conditions which affect the initial formations of motivations in those other societies.

    Domestically, we can observe factors of “mobility” (displacements), concentrated urbanization and “sorting,” that have reshaped the conditions in which initial individual motivations are formed.

    Looking at the culture formations, we can observe changes in the ways commonalities of motivations are established, or impeded, amongst groupings. In fact, domestically, concentrations seem to have shifted to establishment of differentiations rather than quests for commonalities. The effects on social cohesion are obvious.

    The changes, in the U S and in most Open Societies, have come form both domestic and external impacts.

  • Brian, in the unlikely event you have not already read it, you would enjoy reading Thomas Sowell’s “A Conflict of Visions” – and I predict you would read (or have read) every word.

    One effective way to change people’s minds can be simply to make them aware that there are two ways to see things.

  • Tedd’s comment above incidentally raises another aspect of when and whether ‘facts’ should change minds. Tedd says he used to believe homosexuality was mostly a matter of choice but “I’ve since come to believe it’s quite heavily biologically influenced, based almost exclusively on developments in science since that time.” and sees “changing science” as “an important factor in the growing acceptance of homosexual relationships” (by others – he already did).

    I _know_ global warming science is full of fraud and incompetence; I have the physical, statistical and computing research skills and experience to verify that for myself, and I took the time over several months in 2007 to do just that. My attitude to much other PC science is more like Natalie’s attitude to global warming science back then. Although also a qualified physicist, she did not go into the research in the same detail, but she posted about how much political pressure she saw was being exerted on scientists to get with the global warming message, and said that while she did not then know whether any of the science was faked, the evidence that scientists were under political pressure justified much caution. Similarly, I recall the recent story about a researcher getting into plenty of PC trouble for offering a paper demonstrating that choice played a role in being homosexual, other examples of people being denied degrees or qualifications if they were not wholly on message, etc. And these are two areas of PC-science cases amongst many.

    “The gentleman is entitled to his own opinions but not to his own facts” is an old parliamentary jibe. PC-ers feel they _are_ entitled to their facts. Wherever PC intimidation of researchers appears, it is mere common sense to be very cautious of trusting “settled science”.

    (When a fresh science result agrees with us, we should start by being cautious too, of course, but we have one great advantage; we have no ability to silence critics, so no temptation to try – and happily our principles discourage us from trying.)

  • Paul Marks

    Sometimes the facts do not even change the mind of Charles Murray himself.

    For example after decades of showing that the government handing out money to the poor causes the growth of an Underclass (i.e. makes the problem of poverty worse rather than better – not exactly a new discovery as Aristotle and Cicero said much the same, but hey..) I am told that Charles Murray is supporting…..

    The government handing money to the poor.

    Supposedly the left would agree to a “grand bargain” where, in return for the government handing out money to the poor, the left would agree to not ordering people about any more.

    That seems about as sensible as making a deal with the German elite in either World War or the Communists in the Vietnam War.

    One should not make deals with people who can not be trusted.

    There is a lot of factual evidence for this.

    However, people who can not see the obvious truth of the principle (the principle “one should not make deals with people who can not be trusted” or other basic principles – of which there are many) is unlikely to be swayed by any amount of empirical evidence.

    There is also the question of Charles Murray’s own research – which shows that the government just handing out money to people is a bad thing.

    I give up at this point.

    Especially as Fox News are in an orgy of Marco Rubio pushing – someone who seems to have no ideas for reducing government spending.

    A return to Bush.

    Ouch.

  • Paul Marks

    As for the Counter Culture of the 1960s – of course it has had evil effects, it was meant to have evil effects (Herbert Marcuse and the other creators of it were not nice people – they were Marxists who wanted to destroy civilisation).

    However, as Charles Murray himself pointed out (or used to point out) it was the Great Society government-handing-out-money-to-people that did the real damage over time (although some Marxists were pushing these schemes also – such as Francis Fox Piven – because they hoped, yes hoped, for the terrible things that are coming to pass).

    As for the rich – well they do not tend to depend on government benefits such as Food Stamps, this is sort of given away by the words “the rich”.

    As for cultures that resist the cultural and economic (government benefit) attacks.

    Well Orthodox Jews and Southern Baptists spring to mind.

    But the most obvious one is the Mormons.

    Utah (with the exception of leftist Salt Lake City) is a very different society from non LDS America – and Mormons are different in other parts of America also (including poor Mormons).

    For example they have children (no demographic collapse), they save money (as oppose to just spend and borrow) and they tend to get married and stay married.

    In short the LDS are still living in the 1950s.

    No wonder that the left (all the way from the Marxists to the “liberal” Economist magazine) hate them.

    Although, and this is where Charles Murray’s point is valid, such leftists (for example academics and Economist magazine writers) tend to save (not spend everything they get) and they tend to get married and stay married. And they have children and look after the children – educating them and so on.

    In short they, personally, live like 1950s people – even while they sneer at and condemn such cultural principles.

    “Do not do as I do – do as I say”.

    Accept in reverse.

    Economist magazine writers (and other such) practice virtue and preach vice – vice under the name of “liberalism”.

  • Paul Marks

    As Hunter Lewis pointed out in “Where Keynes Went Wrong” – even Keynesian economics is best understood as a form of MORAL (not just intellectual) degeneracy. The revolt of the “intellectuals” against the “Victorian” virtues of hard work and thrift.

    Even though these “intellectuals” often personally practised the virtues they desperately tried to undermine (indeed exterminate) in wider society.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Tedd: That’s an interesting point, about “two baby booms.” Of course, fewer of those in the second have as yet died; those in the first being on the whole older.

    But I don’t think that you personally are responsible for “maintaining and expanding” the regulatory state. Did you support any of the principles which underlie it? If you supported various politicians who did support some or all of them, did you have a clear choice between those and politicians who were in favor of strictly-limited government and allowing people to do as they would with their own lives and property, at the cost of having to bear the consequences of their own mistakes and even ill fortunes? Only if such choices were actually on the menu but you voted against these people, are you “responsible” for the present mess. And the same is true of many others (of every generation, not just yours, mine, our parents’ and grandparents’, and succeeding ones).

    Kim, exactly.

    The fact is, that we who are approaching Old Age are also the recipients of the same burdens (in principle; SS, not Medicare) passed down to us as our children and, more to the point, grandchildren are. And our parents and grandparents had to be lied to to make them go along with the New Deal SS program, insofar as they did go along — and just as with Medicare, even with the lie SS was far from generally accepted as a Good Thing.

    There’s another thing. The present Younger Generation(s) have the same choices the older ones have or had, namely, to they extent that they have a real choice on the menu, yet vote for collectivists or collectivism, they too are responsible for their own circumstances — let alone those of their children. This should be pointed out to them, in a manner that is firm, non-combative, and forceful. (Good luck with that.)

    But my point is that we need to be honest with everyone about the facts, but that this can and should be done without demonizing older generations and thereby furthering class warfare along another fault-line. (It seems there is always some intergenerational clash.)

    We are all enmeshed in the results of the past … some of which were very bad indeed. (And some of which, by the way, were quite good. Do we see anyone giving credit to the Oldsters among us — as a class — for our good results? The attempt was made, I notice, in honor of the Greatest Generation, so-called, but it seems to have rather died down.)

    We oughtn’t to be encouraging still more fracturing of our society along the shifting fault-lines of age. This only provides the Enemy with yet another weapon, which is the stronger in its hands because we who oppose them are giving it to them, adding our own voice to theirs in shrieking about the evils committed by certain classes, which classes must therefore be marginalized, demonized, and in the extreme, destroyed (Dr. Z. Emanuel for instance).

  • Julie near Chicago

    I also need to note the argument I often hear, including from libertarians and Objectivist fellow-travellers. Indeed Miss R. herself made the argument.

    Namely, that part of our income was taken from us by our government with the promise that it would be returned to us when we reached “retirement age.” Therefore the government rightly owes us our SS checks, and there’s nothing immoral or hypocritical in accepting SS.

    This would be fine if the money were the rightful property of the government (not surrendered to it by the unwilling under threat of force), but of course it isn’t. It comes from those still working and paying classes.

    Therefore the situation is in important respects analogous to that of the man who, having his pocket picked in the street, moseys on over to Central Park and there mugs a perfect stranger and takes his wallet, as payback.

    Analagous “in important respects.” Exercise left for the reader. Your conclusions may differ from mine, with which, being basically and black-and-white kind of person, I am not entirely easy. Still, the sitch is what it is, can only play with the deck we have, etc. “In any compromise between A and B, only A can win.” But if you feel cheated of A, you might equally well say, “In any compromise between B and A, only B can win.”

    If you see what I mean.

  • Julie near Chicago

    I should have been clearer. “This would be fine if our SS payments were made with money which was the rightful property of the government, but of course they aren’t.”

  • AngryTory

    firm, non-combative, and forceful. (Good luck with that.)

    you can never convince a leftist. You can only visit the Constitution upon them via the 2nd amendment

    we need to be honest with everyone about the facts, but that this can and should be done without demonizing older generations

    OK sure. Easily done:

    1. Fact: there is no money, It’s all gone. We’re trillions in the hole.

    2. Therefore: all “general welfare” including Medicare, Medicaid, TANF, SNAP, FannieMae, FreddieMac, mortgage “tax relief”, BATF, BLM, FBI, DoE, DoEd, EPA, GSA, NIH, and absolutely Social Security will stop immediately for everyone.

    3. No exceptions, no excuses.

  • It’s probably needless to repeat on this blog a link that has appeared on instapundit (and not very needful to persuade this blog’s readers that PC science often isn’t scientific) but even as I commented on that point above, this highly relevant link about PC suppression of rival research appeared on instapundit.

    http://http://proteinwisdom.com/?p=58176

    On another matter, Julie near Chicago remarks that welfare “would be fine if our SS payments were made with money which was the rightful property of the government, but of course they aren’t.” Paul notes that “One should not make deals with people who can not be trusted. There is a lot of factual evidence for this.” Long ago, monarchs often had money that was their own; there was a royal domain. During the run up to the English Civil war, some MPs complained that “the King should live of his own” (plus some customary taxes), not revive old laws to extract extra money from his subjects. (By the King, they meant the whole government, not just King Charles I personally.) However, Adam Smith notes that “It is the height of impertinence” for governments to rebuke subjects for profligacy because the governments are invariably the more wasteful. This is not _always_ from intentional untrustworthiness; even princes like Charles I, who tried hard to “live of his own” (plus a bit extra from any old laws he could find) rather than call a parliament, usually find in time that they must call a parliament, like Charles, or break the law like many others, or do both. Governments tend to be wasteful; give them any specific sum of money and soon enough they are going over budget. Burke did manage to reform the civil list of his day effectively; that is one of the very few counter-examples I know (in “A Letter to a Noble Lord’, Burke describes just how hard he had to fight off absurdities from all sides of the political spectrum to achieve it).

    A more modern example is those third-world countries where intergovernmental aid pays a high proportion of the budget. These governments have much money that, if not their own, is at least not the money of their subjects. I’m sure readers of this blog don’t need to be told the evil effects of that. So I agree 100% that government today has no money “of its own” worth mentioning. I note that the hypothetical alternative the words imply (I appreciate Julie was not in fact suggesting anything of the kind as a desired way forward) has its problems.

  • RRS

    P M:

    Perhaps I have read Charles Murray wrongly, But,
    I read him to say “cut out the middlemen in the poverty schemes, give THAT money directly to those whom the scheme is SUPPOSED to benefit.”

    Example: A $4bn program to benefit 1 mil people doesn’t provide $4K in net benefits to each; something more like $2.47K if it is “real good,” which would be $2.47 bn, plus distribution costs in a direct payments deal.

    I don’t read Murray to say the mechanism of governments is THE way to provide benefits (of any kind); but, YMMV.

  • AngryTory

    I read him to say “cut out the middlemen in the poverty schemes, give THAT money directly to those whom the scheme is SUPPOSED to benefit.”

    in other words: communism.

  • RRS

    @angryT:

    Not at all.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Niall, thanks for your comment. And I’m sure you’re quite correct. But just to clarify:

    In the first place, I didn’t say and certainly didn’t mean that welfare in general “would be fine” if the money weren’t swiped from the taxpayers in the first place. We’re all pretty much agreed, I think, that teaching people to expect the unearned as merely their just due isn’t good for them, the recipients, let alone anybody else.

    Rather, I was speaking specifically of SS, which some people don’t even consider welfare. And let’s remember this: Mr & Mrs Doe were forced to give a portion of their earnings to the government, on the understanding that it would at the very least be saved for them and returned to them in their old age. It’s not their fault that the government chose to spend that money for other stuff instead of saving it (and, one would have hoped, investing it) as promised. (Some of the Does, of course, are at fault for supporting the people who did in fact squander their money; but as noted, (1) those people may have overall still been the best on offer, and (2) far from all the Does were complicit in any such thing.)

    Now, it turns out that if either of the Does happens to die before retirement, the other Doe will be allowed to decide whether to accept the SS held in his or her name, or in the deceased spouse’s, but not both. Gov gets to keep part of the Does’ joint contributions all for its own self. This is a freebie for the Gov, and (some of) the current workforce does benefit from it.

    Also, it turns out that the SS payments the retiree (or surviving spouse thereof) receives is in fact means-tested. Not entirely, but if your income-tax return for a given year shows a higher net taxable, your SS payments the next year will go down. Regardless of the reason why….

    [In my case, I took money out of my IRA to set up a Roth. BIG income tax hit on that! And, my SS payments for the next couple of years went down. (Chain reaction: Take a chunk out of IRA, pushes your net taxable up, pushes your tax bill up and maybe your marginal tax rate as well; have to take out another chunk to pay the additional tax, but that chunk is also taxable, etc. etc. Which makes it crystal clear that you certainly DO pay taxes on your taxes.)]

    …On the other hand if your taxable income goes down, your SS check will go up — a bit, anyway.

    HOWEVER. Let us also remember that those SS payments are themselves taxable income.

    So the SS recipient is, to a large extent, being ripped off. This shouldn’t be news to anyone. But enter the question of the younger person’s complaint, which is what I was focussing on in the first place.

    That ripped-off money is going for a lot of things, including for instance Fed grants for education, for school lunches, for student loans (pushing tuition costs up of course), for grants supporting research in countless areas of research and, yes, development, for paying armies of lawyers and of government employees and staff in general, and look at the percentage of people who work for the gov — I won’t quote figures because I don’t trust my memory, but it’s a large segment of the workforce. And then there’s the National Endowment for the Arts, at least partially tax-supported, and of course one must certainly see that SEIU members are treated right.

    All those people, supported by tax money. Some of which is money that the Does paid — on threat of punishment if they didn’t — into this alleged “Social Security fund.”

    All those people, who are paying their own FICA (“payroll,” Social Security) tax today in whose name other people rail against either SS or SS recipients or both, are being supported in part by the FICA payments that their elders made. Yes, they’re wrongly put-upon; but not to nearly the extent one would think from just a superficial glance.

    Of COURSE people don’t want their SS and Medicare shut down in one swell foop. Many of them depend on those for their financial support, not because they wanted it that way but because they were forced to have it that way! And the younger ones are being cheated, and no mistake, and that is wrong; but the younger ones are also partially responsible for the whole mess in that many of them aren’t motivated to try to take the system apart, and many more of them don’t see how the heck they could do so anyway. Do you see any of the young ones refusing to go to college because they would be doing so on the backs of older generations? Yes, they’ll be in debt an enormous amount themselves when it’s time to pay back those loans, but in the meantime their elders are financing their educations (along with all the rest of the country’s taxpayers).

    And fomenting age wars, however unintended it may be, only makes the situation worse.

    . . .

    This whole analysis, or tirade if you prefer, is based on my understanding that FICA taxes do indeed end up in the general fund, spendable for whatever, whether directly or indirectly. Some people claim the Social Security Trust Fund is either empty or nonexistent; at the other end, some say no no no, it’s nice and full no worries, move along now. I’m pretty sure the latter group don’t tell the truth of it, but if my general understanding is incorrect, please correct me. (Heh…I know you lot…you will whether I like it or not! 🙂 )

    However that may be, the basic point remains.

  • Good comment, Julie; that makes your focus clear. IIUC you’re presenting the details of a particular example of the point Charles Murray is making (as RRS summarises it above), that if payments are required at all, they should go direct to the recipients, not via the state.

    I’ve spent time in Switzerland, where having medical insurance is legally compulsory but the private sector runs the whole thing, and the rest of my life in the UK, where taxes fund and the NHS runs (almost) all medical care. I don’t want compulsion here any more than elsewhere, but of those two systems it was _very_ obvious that the Swiss outperformed the British.

    Similarly, In a wholly free society, Government would not compel people to save specific sums for their retirement or unemployment. If however it does make that requirement, having those sums be handled by the private sector under contract, not paid to government for promises, would be the lesser evil.

    (I should mention that the Swiss system regulates minimally – perhaps not that minimally by the strict standards of this blog, but very minimally indeed if compared with ObamaCare. 🙂 )

  • I’m not sure it’s possible to say yet who is going to suffer from social security / state pensions being big Ponzi schemes. Almost everyone gets a fantastic deal and always has done. Assuming you live to the median age, and you’re not right at the top of the income scale for contributions, you get out far more than you put in.

    Or rather, you will do until the thing defaults. But when it will default and how, and on whom, are unknowns. How the default is to be shared between the middle aged, the young, the unborn and the taxpayer we simply can’t say yet. Doom is nigh, sure, but not nigh enough to identify the patsys.

    (My prediction for the default is that no government of any stripe will ever have the cojones to do a financially realistic reform, and so the default will simply be an inflationary blow off. Which will hit all then current and future pensioners, even the oldest and poorest. But before or during the blow off there will be plenty of time for lunatic panic measures, wealth taxes and confiscations to buy another couple of months for whichever government is without a chair when the music stops.)

  • Julie near Chicago

    Everything is so enmeshed that it’s hard to say with finality who overall “benefits” from the various shove-the-money-around-and-be-sure-to-dip-into-the-pile-every-time-it-goes-by schemes. As to your final, parenthesized paragraph, Lee, I wish I didn’t think you’re probably right.

    Parenthetically, I have to point out that “you get out far more than you put in” looks good on the face of it, but we do have to bear a few things in mind.

    One: Inflation. If you put in $50 in 1950, and get $100 back today, how much ahead are you over what you’d have if you’d invested the money at interest merely equal to the inflation rate?

    Two: Lost earnings on that confiscated money, over and above the inflation rate. Mostly, this might be investment in what are now traditional ways — stocks, mutual funds; or you might have set up a profit-making small business on the side, or bought real estate.

    Three: As I mentioned above, you are taxed on your SS retirement payments. You do not net the face value of your SS checks.

    . . .

    Niall, thank you for a most pleasant discussion. :>) I’m not sure how my analysis stacks up with Murray’s thesis, or even demonstrates RRS’s point about getting rid of the middleman (with which I do agree insofar as it’s possible; but in any scheme where an outfit uses any paid employee to move money — or anything else — from A to B, the employee will have to be paid (by definition!), and that money will have to come from the outfit’s assets: Gross income if the outfit is an business; taxes if a government. The point being that the middleman can’t entirely be eliminated).

    But my purpose in joining the discussion at all, and my fundamental point all along, has been to urge people not to encourage the idea that oldsters are victimizing the young: Not to set the young and the old against each other: Not to help the Left in its project to rip society apart along various “class” lines (which is in itself to see people as members of various collectives at war with each other).

    . . .

    Good discussion, lots of good, thought-provoking comments.

  • AngryTory

    RRS – giving money to the poor is the very definition of communism. They don’t have money, they don’t deserve it, and giving them money only encourages them.

    Julie – So the SS recipient is, to a large extent, being ripped off… That ripped-off money is going for a lot of thing. Nope, that’s rubbish. there isn’t any money. It’s all gone. It was all spend on welfare and the Piss Christ and the EPA and the BLM and investigating Patriots!

    Of COURSE people don’t want their SS and Medicare shut down in one swell foop.

    tough. if you depend on the government then you deserve to starve in the gutter — and when the Constitution is restored (SS and all other welfare is unconstitutional) and more important when the simple mathematics of welfare show that there isn’t any money and we can’t pay another cent. Guess what happened in Russia and Eastern Europe when communism went away? Gee there welfare and SS all just stopped. Pensions too. That’s what will happen in the US. Can’t kept borrowing trillions just so you can afford to pay your Internet bills – or to eat, for that matter.

    But when it will default and how, and on whom, are unknowns.

    But we know what will happen. We can look at Eastern Europe when communism went away. We can look at Argentina and Brasil when communism went away. That’s how it happens. One day you wake up, you have freedom, and there are no more checks from the government