A Charles Murray Thought Experiment

Charles Murray: To his credit, he hasn't burned a cross in years.

I want to revisit something Charles Murray wrote in response to the firestorm that followed David Frum’s firing from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). “AEI has a culture, the scholars are fiercely proud of that culture, and at its heart is total intellectual freedom,” Murray argued. “As for the reality of that intellectual freedom, I think it’s fair to say I know what I’m talking about. I’ve pushed it to the limit. Arthur Brooks is just as adamant about preserving that culture as Chris DeMuth was, and Chris’s devotion to it was seamless.”

In his various shoddy books and essays, Murray likes to do thought experiments.

Let’s conduct one such experiment right here.

Suppose Murray spent a month reading the writings of economists like Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, James Mirrlees, and Robert Solow. All of these writers a 1) social democrats of one form or another, and 2) much more highly regarded in the social sciences than Murray himself (all of them are Nobel prize winners and widely cited in the scholarly literature).


Suppose upon reading their work Murray had a conversion experience and decided, “You know what, libertarianism is a crock, an incoherent philosophy that only functions to preserve the unmerited economic advantage of the rich at the expense of humanity as a whole. America needs to become a European-style social democracy complete with a single-payer health care system and a much steeper level of progressive taxation.”

Now, suppose Murray started writing essays and books along the lines of his new philosophy. Would he still have a job at AEI or would he soon follow in the footsteps of David Frum?

Or let’s say Murray remains a libertarian. But he starts reading the rich, interesting literature of anti-war libertarianism, going back to the great sages of classical liberalism (Adam Smith, Richard Cobden) and forward to writers and political thinkers like Robert Taft, Felix Morley, Frank Chodorov, Murray Rothbard as well as the interesting foreign policy thinkers around the Cato Institute. And upon reading these writers Murray decided, “you know what, the American Empire is incompatible with liberty. We need to adopt a much more modest foreign policy and stop becoming entangled with the affairs of other nations. The military-industrial complex needs to be dismantled.”

Again, if Murray started writing along this line, which is perfectly compatible with a rich and intellectually consistent body of libertarian thought, would he still be employed by the American Enterprise Institute?

Or suppose Murray still remained a conservative but started to have doubts about America’s unquestioning support of Israel even on the issue of settlements. He starts reading the older literature of conservatives who were critical of America’s unwavering alliance with Israel (writers like James Burnham, Nejla Izzeddin, Alfred M. Lilienthal, and Freda Utley) as well as more recent works by Scott McConnell and the writers associated with The American Conservative. And he also pays close attention to the recent statements by General Petraeus on how the unresolved status of the Palestinians is hurting efforts to shore up America’s position in the Middle East.

Again, our hypothetical Murray has a conversion experience and decides, “you know what, it’s not in America’s best interest to be so closely aligned with Israel. This alliance is only generating anti-American in the Islamic world. We need to put pressure on the Israelis to create a two state solution.” And then Murray became a strong and vocal advocate for a conservative-realist foreign policy in the Middle East.

Again,  in the world of our thought experiment, would Murray still have a job at AEI?

So is it really honest to say that AEI has a “culture” of “total intellectual freedom”?


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