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

Jefferson thought that Americans wouldn't tolerate the lack of income mobility I have described. Why was he wrong? Here I offer an explanation. Suppose that (1) people are concerned about how their children will fare; (2) people have relative preferences (they care about how they and their children rank compared to others); and (3) a class of people, small in size but large in influence, composed of opinion leaders and the very rich, has a disproportionate ability to shape our policies. Put all that in the hopper and don't be surprised if what comes out is aristocracy.

Milton Friedman advanced a model in which people care only about themselves and not about their children. That was just a model, and it was inconsistent with the solid evidence that people do care about how their children fare. That's why high estate taxes are wasteful. If people care about their kids, they produce more than they can spend on themselves during their lifetime in order to bequeath what is left to their children. Take away the right to pass on income on death, and people will react by producing a lot less. Caring about succeeding generations is not a vice. It's a virtue, and conservatives in particular will recognize this.

We all care about our absolute wealth, about how many things we can buy. However, we also care about our relative wealth, about how wealthy we are when compared with other people. If so, we would be willing to accept a loss of absolute wealth in return for a gain in relative wealth. We'd be willing to suffer a small drop in income if everyone else took a much bigger hit. For the wealthy, then, income mobility is a bad and not a good. They are on top, and want things to stay that way, for themselves and their children, even if the country is the poorer for it.

Americans resist the idea that they can be divided into classes, but most would admit that some people exercise a disproportionate influence over our politics. These include opinion leaders in the media, members of the bar, the professoriate, the celebrities who turn up to testify in Congress, the very rich. They tend to hold progressive views, and this has been thought puzzling. It's not. If they care about the relative status of their children, one would expect them to support policies that reduce overall societal wealth but serve to preserve their children's position in society. They can't have titles of nobility, but they can deny opportunities to the up-and-coming. Let's look at how they might do this.

Public education has been vitally important in moving families up the economic ladder, and the American aristocrat would therefore favor policies that tend to destroy public schools. He would oppose state aid to parochial schools and the charter school movement that would give lower and middle class children a leg up. His own children will attend good private schools that are beyond the means of the middle class. They'll also enroll in the kinds of programs that help them get into the better universities, to which they'll apply as legacy students.

In the past, immigration propelled people up the income ladder, with the children of intelligent, hard-working immigrants going to college and moving into white-collar jobs. Aristocrats will want less promising immigrants, however, those they can hire as gardeners or maids. Above all, an aristocratic immigration policy will deny entrance to economic migrants who might compete with aristocrats for jobs.

Burdensome tax and regulatory policies will be of relative advantage to the rich and the professionals, who can employ specialists to work through the maze of rules that impose traps for unwary members of the middle class. The more complicated the rules, the easier it is for those who are plugged in, those who know the right people, to game the system.

Such policies are defended on grounds of social justice, not aristocracy of course. The aristocrat favors economic regulation, teacher unions, the separation of church and state, family unification immigration policies, a green environment. He hates parochial schools, flat taxes, and global warming "deniers." For institutions that do promote economic mobility, such as the military, he harbors deep suspicions. He allies himself with an underclass that has lost interest in mobility, and against a middle class that seeks mobility. And now, without shame, he tells us he does all this in the name of mobility.

The wealthy progressives who support the policies I have described as aristocratic are not traitors to their class. They know exactly what is good for their class. And members of the middle class who oppose such policies don't suffer from the false consciousness ascribed to them by progressives such as Thomas Frank. Both sides well understand that what divides them is the question of income mobility.

This is a new phenomenon. In the past, the fault lines I describe were largely absent. But no longer. The history of modern American politics is the history of class struggles.


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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).