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Mr. Big

Charles Murray’s nuttiest idea yet.

About once a decade, Charles Murray has a big idea, and they keep getting bigger and bigger. In 1984, he exploded onto the scene with Losing Ground, a wildly overwrought—but not totally misguided—attack upon the welfare state. Ten years later, he came out with The Bell Curve, a quasi-eugenicist tract designed not only to prove that whites are inherently smarter than blacks, but also to create an IQ-centric interpretation of modern society.

Now he is unveiling his latest and biggest idea yet. Laid out in his new book, In Our Hands, he calls it—in an unacknowledged theft from cackling Bond villains everywhere—“the Plan” (capitals his). The resemblance to 007’s fiendish nemeses doesn’t stop at etymology’s edge, though. The Plan is gleefully grandiose. It proposes the replacement of almost every social program in the United States—Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Earned Income Tax Credit, you name it—with a $10,000 annual cash grant to every American.

Murray’s big ideas are typically ushered onto the public stage with great fanfare, and this one is no exception: a discussion forum at the American Enterprise Institute, a gigantic op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, respectful reviews in the conservative press. Even those who don’t want to endorse the whole of Murray’s schemes seem impressed with their world-domination scale. “There are few, if any, bolder policy intellectuals than Charles Murray,” enthuses The Economist. Andrew Ferguson, adopting a similar tone of qualified endorsement, writes, “Above all, he deserves credit for thinking his way past our increasingly tiresome debate about ‘big government’—even at the risk of being thought harebrained.”

Well, OK, somebody needs to say it: Murray is harebrained. His particular brand of nuttery manifests itself in an obsession with bigness. Other conservatives can propose cutting this or privatizing that. Murray insists on something far more massive and extravagant. (Goldfinger wasn’t content just robbing a bank: He wanted to contaminate Fort Knox with a nuclear bomb.) In the Plan, Murray’s insistence on bigness has reached its final, loopy culmination.

The extravagant claim behind Murray’s $10,000-per-American plan—actually, it only covers those over 21 and out of prison, and it ratchets the check gradually back to $5,000 for higher earners—is that it would sweep away the federal bureaucracy. “Only a government,” Murray writes, “can spend so much money so ineffectually.” The problem is that the federal bureaucracy doesn’t actually cost much money. Our country’s entitlement programs are models of bureaucratic efficiency. Social Security spends less than 1 percent of its budget on administration; for Medicare, it’s 2 percent. Compare that with private health insurers, who blow about 14 percent on administration.

So exploding the programs and writing checks to everybody would save barely any money at all (though that hasn’t stopped President Bush). Indeed, if you imposed the Plan immediately, it would cost a staggering $355 billion more than the government currently spends. Some efficiency.

Murray replies that the costs of entitlement programs will rise, while costs of the Plan won’t (save for those imposed by population growth). Therefore, after 2011, the Plan will be cheaper. But this is a trick. What’s driving entitlement costs is health care costs, and what’s driving health care costs is the pharmaceutical industry and technological advancement.

Murray’s answer is that the Plan will stop health care inflation, ushering in a consumer’s utopia of choice, competition, and rationalized end-of-life care. “When health care is subjected to the same choices that people make about everything else in their lives—‘Is it worth it to me?’—the health-care industry will respond in the same way as other industries constrained by market forces, with better products at lower cost,” he writes. But the United States already has the most free-market health system in the developed world, and it’s by far the most expensive—and getting more expensive all the time. Murray assumes not only that the Plan will slow this process, which is implausible enough, but he also assumes it will bring health care inflation to a stop. If the Plan failed to achieve this miraculous result, then the citizens of Murray’s hypothetical libertarian paradise would be stuck with a fixed sum with which to buy life-sustaining health care that grows progressively more unaffordable every year.

Having quickly rewritten all of U.S. social policy in a scant 79 double-spaced pages, Murray moves on to even more outrageous claims. The last section of his book, “The Larger Purpose,” unveils his true messianic intentions. There is, he writes, a “momentous effect of the Plan: the revitalization of the institutions through which people lead satisfying lives.” Thus follows an extended discourse on how the United States can avoid the perils of becoming like Western Europe—where many countries, surveys show, register higher levels of happiness than this country, but not the sort of happiness of which Murray approves.Murray then embarks upon a meditation on the nature of happiness. One such section is titled, modestly, “The Nature of Man as Social Being.” The following Murray sentence, from his Journal op-ed, captures much of the flavor: “[I]f you agree with me that to live a human life can have transcendental meaning, then we need to think about how human existence acquires weight and consequence.”

Apparently, the timeless quest for meaning comes back to abolishing government programs. “The welfare state is pernicious ultimately because it drains too much of the life from life,” he argues. The ordinary conservative pundit maintains that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—which together account for over 75 percent of what the Plan would abolish—are unaffordable. Murray argues that they have created an existential spiritual crisis. Our lives would have more meaning if we spent more time haggling with health insurance bean-counters rather than having Medicare bureaucrats do it for us. Because Murray is not an ordinary conservative think-tank hack. He is oh-so weightier, oh-so-much more meaningful.