Carol Platt Liebau: Class in America

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Class in America

Anyone who believes that America is a classless society (i.e., that there are no social classes) needs to have his head examined. As in every civilization the world has ever known, there is a system of social stratification by which we all sort ourselves out and identify ourselves, implicitly if not overtly. (For the most perceptive discussion of American social class I've ever read, check out Class by Paul Fussell, a witty and accessible -- if slightly left-wing -- book).

One of the left's great disappointments has been its failure to instill in Americans a sense of class grievance. That's because we have always tried to maintain an open society that will allow the talented and the brilliant, whatever their origins, to rise to the top.

Now, however, The New York Times is doing its part to try to generate class resentment. The Times dumps on the American Dream here by attempting to insist that Americans have limited social mobility and limited prospects because of income inequalities.

To me, it's not clear what the shocker is. Are we supposed to be surprised that the children of wealthy, privileged parents have more advantages than those born to impoverished single mothers? Is it really "news" that those advantages translate into better chances for "success" as our society defines it?

There's also the de rigeur (for The Times) allusion to the superiority of Europe and Canada. Here's one example:

"Because income inequality is greater here, there is a wider disparity between what rich and poor parents can invest in their children. Perhaps as a result, a child's economic background is a better predictor of school performance in the United States than in Denmark, the Netherlands or France . . .."

It's all a matter of how you frame it (and the conclusions you strech to draw -- "Perhaps as a result"?). Here's how I'd interpret the disparity between us and the other countries: Many of the societies The Times alludes to admiringly are, in fact, "levelling" (or quasi-socialist). That can mean either that they try harder than America does to obtain "equality of result," or that individual ability, initiative and ambition simply aren't as prized as they are in the U.S.

Levelling societies often ensure that those at the very bottom do OK -- but with it comes mediocrity at all levels . . . a little like a public school that disallows academic tracking and puts children of widely divergent abilities in class together. It's great for those at the bottom, but those at the top are stifled.

The article does concede that American society is run on merit (and then is shocked, shocked that children from intact or wealthier homes are more likely to develop the skills deemed meritorious). Americans themselves believe we live in a society where mobility is possible.

But what the article seems to lack is context -- an explication of how far we've come in a relatively short time. Yes, as it notes, almost all of the Forbes 400 are self-made billion/millionaires, compared to only half not so long ago. But note also that race, gender, religion and yes, even sexual preference are not the stumbling blocks that they might have been just 50 years ago.

The point is that no society can guarantee perfect equality of opportunity without bringing everyone to the level of the least advantaged to begin with. And no society can legislate attitudes. The key issue for national governments -- and what America has always done best -- is to make sure that systemic barriers against climbing the ladder (a greedy government, as in Scandinavia or France, or a system of hereditary peerage, as in Britain) are minimized.

We've got the American Dream. Have you ever heard of the British/French/Canadian/Norwegian Dream? 'Nuf said.


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