Murray’s New Welfare State (2006 Apr)

by Barry A. Liebling

Charles Murray, the prolific and influential social scientist, wrote a column in March 2006 for The Wall Street Journal where he summarized his book In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State. The same week he was interviewed at

While the details of “The Plan” are described in his book, the premises underlying his thinking can be detected from Murray’s column and interview. The essence of Murray’s proposal is that the current welfare state with all of its programs should be replaced by one program. “‘The Plan’… makes a $10,000 annual grant to all American citizens.” Those making at least $25,000 per year would be taxed on their grant.

Three points are particularly revealing in Murray’s exposition of “The Plan.”

First, Murray – who says “I … still … consider myself a libertarian” – claims sympathy for the position that wealth should not be redistributed by force. He states “that the best solution of all is to leave all of this money in the hands of the people who started with it.” But, according to Murray, “for all time to come, governments are going to take in vast sums of money and redistribute it.” So Murray surrenders his best judgement to welfare advocates and recommends a compromise. He is endorsing a welfare program where the distinctive feature is that recipients get cash directly without the intervention of bureaucrats.

It is noteworthy that nowhere in the column or in the interview does Murray talk about individual rights to life, liberty, and property. He is astute enough to know that the mechanics of the welfare state are at odds with individual rights – where the state’s programs are funded by confiscating wealth.

Second, Murray’s plan replaces the current welfare state that purports to be temporary and conditional with a new welfare state that is eternal. Traditionally, welfare programs are designed to be for emergencies – for people who find themselves in difficult circumstances. In theory, but of course not in practice, welfare programs are supposed to diminish as welfare recipients are helped. Unemployment payments should decrease as more people become employed. Rent subsidies should shrink as the recipients become more affluent.

“The Plan” is designed to endure and to expand. There is no mechanism built into it that would signal it is time to stop. Conventional welfare programs are deemed failures when they do not accomplish what they are intended to do. But the objective of “The Plan” is simply to put $10,000 into adults’ bank accounts. What would indicate that it is not working? It cannot be that the recipients would spend the money foolishly because Murray wants them to spend the money as they see fit – without bureaucratic intervention.

Like conventional welfare programs “The Plan” will inevitably grow. Murray states that “The Plan” would over time be less expensive than the current welfare system. If Murray is right the savings will be noticed and recipients in collaboration with ambitious politicians will demand higher payments. If the government can easily afford $10,000 why not $11,000?

Third, Murray regards wealth as a resource of society and not privately owned. He observes that America is “awash in money” and “so wealthy that enabling everyone to have a decent standard of living is easy.” It is easy if you are not troubled by taking the money by force from the rightful owners. Murray expresses no discomfort with the prospect of confiscating wealth from productive individuals to finance his scheme. Of course he would point out that the current welfare state seizes money by taxation. But Murray’s new twist is that funding is not problematic since Americans have so much that can be taken.

Murray explains that for him the main problem of the current welfare state is not that it does not accomplish its goals but that “it drains too much life from life.” He believes that if the government gives everyone a $10,000 grant “personal accountability” will be encouraged. But it is easy to argue the exact opposite. People who are given unconditional entitlement money will be less motivated to act responsibly. Once “The Plan” starts everyone will realize that grant money does not have the same significance as money that is earned by productive action.

And consider how the most productive members of society will react to “The Plan.” To be sure, those who are enamored with socialism will be cheered that they – and especially their neighbors – are being forced to fund the new welfare state. However, people who advocate individual responsibility will be resentful that their property is being unjustly appropriated.

Murray has considerable polemical skill, and his book will get a lot of attention. Readers should carefully scrutinize his premises when they evaluate “The Plan.”

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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