Ezra presents a very useful summary of critiques of Charles Murray in light of his latest repellent op-ed. To add to this, I’ve put excerpts from the New Republic symposium on The Bell Curve online here and here.
Murray claims that his belief that the government can’t do anything to redress poverty and racial inequality is not due to his indifference to these problems, but reflects sincere libertarian beliefs. The Iraq War is a useful way of testing one’s commitment to this principle: surely, if welfare programs are a bad idea, then razing a government and hoping that an entirely new state and society can be constructed in its place is a really bad idea. Murray, needless to say, was all for the Iraq War, not only contemporaneously but in retrospect.
Another example of Murray in practice is his assertion–which he takes to be a slam-dunk case against government intervention–that the 55 MPH speed limit had “no visible difference” on highway fatalities. As Louis Menand noted in his review of Murray’s What It Means To Be A Libertarian:
Having asserted that the 55-mph speed limit made “no visible difference at all,” Murray doesn’t trouble us with the actual numbers. They are as follows. In 1970, 54,600 Americans died in traffic accidents; in 1973, the number was 55,500. In 1974, after the passage of the 55-mph speed limit, traffic deaths fell to 46,400. In 1975, they fell again, to 45,900. In 1976, there were 47,000. Measured as deaths per 100 million vehicle miles, which is the form Murray prefers: in 1970 there were 4.7 deaths per 100 million miles traveled; in 1973 there were 4.1; in 1974, following the passage of the 55-mph law, there were 3.5; in 1975, 3.4; and in 1976, 3.3. These decreases correlate with a decrease in the average speed of cars on interstate highways, which fell from 65 mph, with fifty percent of cars exceeding 65, in 1973, to 57.6 mph, with only 9 percent of cars exceeding 65, in 1974.
It is hard to see how Murray can claim, short of pointing to another cause, that the 55-mph speed limit made “no visible difference” in the number or the rate of traffic deaths. What is notable about the decline in the fatality rate, in fact, is how decisive it was. For the effect of reducing the speed limit to 55 cannot be meaningfully measured against all motor vehicle travel, which is how Murray measures it. The effect is obviously limited to travel on roads where the speed limit was previously higher than 55.
These were, for the most part, interstate highways, which are built, maintained, and regulated by federal and state governments and which are statistically the safest roads in the nation. The least safe, as it happens, are locally built and maintained rural roads. The fatality rate on interstate highways in 1994 was .74 per 100 million vehicle miles—higher (.99) on rural sections, where speed limits have generally been raised, than on urban sections (.58). On noninterstate rural roads, it was 2.66. Murray naturally does not get around to pointing out that by 1994, following aggressive government efforts to require the use of seat belts and air bags, the total number of traffic deaths had dropped to 40,676, or just 1.72 per 100 million miles traveled.
Murray’s whole discussion of this matter starts, of course, from a false premise, which is that Congress voted to reduce the top speed limit in 1974 in an effort to decrease the rate of traffic fatalities. It did not. The purpose of the law was not highway safety; it was energy conservation, a response to the threat of an oil embargo by OPEC. And in this respect the law was also effective (though a steep rise in the price of gasoline no doubt helped). The average number of gallons consumed annually per vehicle fell from 851 in 1973 to 788 in 1974 and 790 in 1975. The 55-mph speed limit was an extremely modest political measure. It added a few minutes to long drives on interstate highways; in return, it helped to save a little oil and, as an unanticipated bonus (and contrary to Murray’s explicit claim), thousands of lives. It was slightly nerve-wracking back in 1974 driving at 55 miles an hour on roads where one was accustomed to doing 75 or 80, but there was also a weird sense of solidarity about the experience, as though people, by driving in what at the time seemed like a farcical slow motion, were pulling together, doing the right thing to meet a national crisis. It was possible to resent the loss of time, but I don’t think very many people experienced it as a loss of freedom.
Indeed. And as Menand notes, Murray makes similar silly claims about Jim Crow (“The notion that the movement toward desegregation between 1954, the year of Brown v. Board of Education, and 1964 was the result of a voluntary and natural trend in human relations below the Mason-Dixon line, unaffected by federal court orders, Supreme Court decisions, and the deployment of federal troops, is of a piece with the notion that a decrease in the number of highway fatalities from 55,500 to 46,400 does not, despite mathematical appearances, represent a saving of thousands of lives.”). The man is simply not a serious thinker or scholar.