Legacy Nation

The issue of our time is not income inequality but income mobility, of which there is in the U.S. less and less. Are conservatives paying attention?

By From the March 2012 issue

If income mobility is desirable, just what is the best mobility ratio, on the Pew scale? Did Denmark get it right, with its figure of 15 percent? Or would a score of 0, denoting perfect mobility, be better still? Just what kind of mobility to expect was a subject that greatly interested the Founders. They were self-consciously creating a new nation, and with it a new society, and what they wanted was something different from what they saw as an aristocratic England.

There had been sharp social distinctions in the Ancien Régime of colonial America, and the Founders worried that these might persist. They knew nothing of statistics but nevertheless understood the idea of reversion to the mean, the tendency of exceptional parents to beget ordinary children, and as they opposed aristocracies took comfort in this. In a letter to John Adams, Jefferson described this process as the "natural degeneration" of mankind. The Chinese expressed the same idea with the saying "shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations." Our modern version features a entrepreneurial grandfather with dirt under his fingernails, a father with a Harvard MBA, and a son on Ritalin.

Did the Founders think, then, that America would be a country of perfect mobility? That was the subject of a famous debate between Jefferson and Adams, after both had left politics and patched up their quarrels. Both opposed what they called an "artificial aristocracy" of wealth and privilege and applauded the "natural aristocracy" in which the self-worth of eminent men and women is recognized by all. In each generation such people emerge, and a just state should recognize their worth and employ their services. Jefferson thought that some of their virtues might be passed on to their children, but thought that "the equal rights of men will rise up against" a permanent aristocracy of this kind.

Adams would have expected a higher score on the Pew scale, for he thought that a famous name would confer on its bearers an eminence which, if decayed, might nevertheless last through generations. That wasn't good enough for his great-grandson, Henry Adams, who a hundred years later bemoaned the decline of his family. Even in our own day, however, a name such as Kennedy or Clinton confers a wholly undeserved advantage in life.

Beyond the celebrity attached to a name are the genetic advantages that come from the wise choice of parents. This was the great theme of Charles Murray's The Bell Curve, which the debate about the book's racism obscured. Murray prized the idea of America as the land of opportunity and worried that the transformation of America from a manufacturing to an information economy would confer lasting benefits for smart gene pools. The winners in the new economy are the more intelligent people amongst us, and if 40 to 80 percent of what makes us smart is inherited, as Murray suggested, then a class of the more intelligent might persist over generations, leaving the generations of Little Brains in the dust. That message is reinforced by the Pew Economic Mobility Study, in which measures of parental intelligence are strongly correlated with the economic outcomes of their children.

We haven't yet reached the point where people are penalized for their intelligence, and we'll never reach the point where we shun John Adams' celebrity families. That is to say that we should not expect or desire perfect intergenerational mobility, with a Pew score of 0, in any society. Those with more intelligent parents are more likely to be more intelligent themselves, and wealthier too.


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About the Author

F.H. Buckley is a Foundation Professor at George Mason School of Law and the author of The Way Back: Restoring the Promise of America in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (forthcoming April 2016, Encounter Books).