Sunday, March 26, 2006

The battle of ideas

The Economist says that Public intellectuals are thriving in the United States, and cites Murray's new book to prove it.

There are few, if any, bolder policy intellectuals than Charles Murray, who is publishing his sixth book, “In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State”, this weekend. Mr Murray has never held either high office or an academic position. Yet he has done more to provoke serious debate on subjects ranging from welfare to IQ than any of the million or so members of American academe, and more to produce changes in America's welfare state than any of the army of professional politicians.

“In Our Hands” marks a return to the subject that first made him famous, welfare reform. In “Losing Ground” (1984) Mr Murray argued that the welfare state had institutionalised rather than alleviated poverty. In his new book he presents a bold proposal to fix welfare. Every year the American government redistributes more than a trillion dollars to pay for retirement, health care and poverty-alleviation, he argues. Yet millions of Americans are still left high and dry. The reason is simple: government screws things up. Why not forget about converting taxes into a muddle of services and subsidies, he asks, and hand out cash grants to all American adults? “Make the grant large enough so that the poor won't be poor, everyone will have enough for a comfortable retirement, and everyone will be able to afford health care. We're rich enough to do it.”

“In Our Hands” raises as many questions as it answers. What happens to people who squander their money either through innate dullness—Mr Murray believes that IQ is partly inherited—or through poor character? And what happens to the children of improvident parents? But it would be foolish to underestimate Mr Murray's ability not just to stir debate but to steer policy: 12 years after “Losing Ground” was dismissed as the work of a wild-eyed fanatic, Congress had passed the welfare reform act.

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