Charles Murray and the D.C. Ideas Industry

What the prominence of a conservative provocateur says about the role of ideas in American government.

By Nathan Pippenger

On the occasion of Charles Murray’s new book (which sounds like a real doozy), Tom Medvetz offers some sharp observations about the conservative provocateur’s surprisingly stable position in public discourse. Despite publishing prolifically and holding a Ph.D. in political science, Murray’s position is one of “relative marginality” among academics, who made mincemeat of his most famous and controversial book, The Bell Curve. You might think a cool reaction from experts would diminish Murray’s clout—but that expectation, as Medvetz explains, would betray a misunderstanding of the workings of D.C. Murray is neither a traditional academic nor an everyday pundit. Rather, he’s what Medvetz calls a “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. […] [Murray] 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.

This is a more sociologically precise version of the “nexus” I described in my recent post about Arthur Brooks. Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute, where Murray is the W.H. Brady Scholar in Culture and Freedom. Both hold doctoral degrees in a social science; both have intellectual cachet among conservatives; both benefit from the multifaceted career description Medvetz outlines above. This crucial point explains why academic dismissals of Murray’s work—which are as damning as they are ubiquitous—have had little effect in knocking him from his perch. His prominence is only partly based in his scholarly credentials to begin with. He needs to be scholarly enough to be a credible citation for sympathetic conservatives. The rest of his appeal derives from a combination of media savvy, self-promotion skills, an understanding of the ins-and-outs of D.C. policy circles, and compatibility with conservative ideology. Medvetz makes this point in the particularly striking observation that for Murray’s position to survive, he must retain only a “superficial” connection to the world of academic social science: “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.” In other words, Murray can only lose by making his work more scholarly: It would invite closer scrutiny while simultaneously elevating the scrutinizers to his own level. Their higher academic status is not, in the contemporary conservative policy world, particularly relevant to policy influence. Why would Murray want to change that?

There are lessons here for would-be policy reformers. Recent academic research has described how the policy-making process is “captured” by the persistence of myths—policy ideas that have never worked, but that are tried again and again. Related work has tracked the decline of independent, unbiased sources of information, like the Congressional Research Service (CRS). As this Scholars Strategy Network policy brief explains, lawmakers are doing more—and more complicated—work than they have done in the past, but the independent expert staff employed by Congress has actually been cut. The result is that policy expertise has migrated to the offices of party leaders (among other places), and “ideas outside of party orthodoxies garner less institutional support and gain less traction.” These reports conclude with calls to revitalize agencies like the CRS and the Government Accountability Office. That’s certainly a worthy policy goal, but the prominence of people like Charles Murray suggests that expertise is only a small part of what some politicians are actually seeking—and that they would regard too much expertise as a hindrance, not a help. (It’s no coincidence that the CRS was subjected to cuts by ascendant Republicans following the 1994 midterms, and that it continues to face attacks from them today.) Independent experts should be given more resources. But they should also be given more credence and attention, and as long as places like AEI provide ideologically convenient alternatives, that’s unlikely to happen.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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