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A friend in Britain clipped and sent on to us a couple of related “American” pieces from The Economist — "An hereditary meritocracy” and the editorial “America’s new aristocracy." It is easy to satisfy his curiosity about our assessment of them. They are excellent and even more spot on than most of the excellent journal’s coverage of the American scene.

The theme of “America's new aristocracy” is one that surely has troubled any sentient American who has at all meditated upon the degradation of the democratic dogma. It is quite plausible that in the next presidential election of this country of 315 million, teeming with intelligence and talent, the contenders will be the wife of a former president and the son of a former president and the brother of another. But this pathetic evidence of our national imagination gap must await another occasion. "An hereditary meritocracy” addresses inequality in terms I have rarely seen clarified in this country.

Our empirical experience of human inequality is so overwhelming that we seek some tool of transcendental redress.  The old theology, which held that every human being was created in the image and likeness of God, bestowed upon human beings a radical equality that, in theory, trumped the actual social hierarchy. But that was in theory. The old favorite hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful” includes a stanza frequently omitted from modern hymnals:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

The theory probably always sounded more plausible to castle- than to gate-dwellers, as is suggested by the distich popular among John Ball’s revolutionaries in the 14th century: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” By the 18th century, American and French revolutionaries chucked the theory entirely. They did not, of course, chuck equality itself — “All men are created equal”, liberté, egalité, and all that — but equality’s basis (human law and politics) was now only semi-transcendent.

Such is the context of the current discussions of economic equality. So great are the disparities in income and wealth accumulation among American citizens that the question now arises as to whether, in terms of practical effect, the newer political theory of equality is any better than the older theological one.

I will not use the term middle class in this essay because I no longer have much idea what it means, but I can, nonetheless, put the matter in personal and anecdotal terms. If my only income were gained from working at a minimum-wage job, eight hours a day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year, I would earn just not quite enough to pay my property taxes on a house valued a little below the Zillow median for the town in which I live — that is, if I didn’t spend a penny of my earnings on anything else.

Surely there are some issues here beyond the exorbitance of my local taxes or the attractions of moving back to Arkansas. One is the “level playing field.” Conservatives like to say that our aim should be to maintain equality of opportunity rather than jigger about in the quixotic pursuit of equality of outcomes. We should aim for a “level playing field.” I have always found the idea a curious one since, if a football field is full of snags and furrows, it is full of snags and furrows for both teams. However, I can use it, at least in a variant form — that of a finely planed and finished chessboard.

I prefer the chessboard to the football field. It seems that, in the future, jobs with sufficient compensation to allow one to pay one’s taxes are more likely to require a supple intelligence than supple abs. Nothing could be more level, regular, standard, uniform or — if you like — “equal opportunity” than a chessboard. When two players face off against each other across it, they do so in equality. There is no lobbyist on K Street who can arrange a special “economic incentive” or “targeted tax break” that will advantage white with three preliminary moves or black with a couple of extra rooks. Does this fact make any two players equal in terms of the outcome of their match?

To ask the question is to expose its absurdity. The Economist’s cleverly entitled essay on “An hereditary meritocracy” has the following summary heading: “The children of the [American] rich and powerful are increasingly well suited to earning wealth and power themselves. That’s a problem.”

With the aid of a few nifty charts and graphs of the kind at which it excels, The Economist lays out some of the tautologies of social capital linking economic success with quality of education, especially early education, and the effectiveness and stability of family structures. We may want to laugh out loud at the spectacle of the Upper West Side MBA couple sweating their toddler’s application to the “right” playgroup, but when it comes to chess 20 years hence, that kid is likely to have the edge on her contemporary raised by an unmarried high-school dropout and a television set.

John V. Fleming

Author John V. Fleming taught at Princeton University for 40 years before retiring in 2006.

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