Liberals and class

Posted: Jun 07, 2005 12:00 AM

The new trinity among liberal intellectuals is race, class and gender. Defining any of these terms is not easy, but it is also not difficult for liberals, because they seldom bother to define them at all.

 The oldest, and perhaps still the most compelling, of these concerns is class. In the vision of the left, we are born, live, and die in a particular class -- unless, of course, we give power to the left to change all that.
The latest statistics seized upon to support this class-ridden view of America and other Western societies show that most people in a given part of the income distribution are the children of other people born into that same part of the income distribution.

 Among men born in families in the bottom 25 percent of income earners only 32 percent end up in the top half of the income distribution. And among men born to families in the top 25 percent in income earners, only 34 percent end up down in the bottom half.

 How startling is that?

 More to the point, does this show that people are trapped in poverty or can coast through life on their parents' wealth? Does it show that "society" denies "access" to the poor?

 Could it just possibly show that the kind of values and behavior which lead a family to succeed or fail are also likely to be passed on to their children and lead them to succeed or fail as well? If so, how much can government policy -- liberal or conservative -- change that in any fundamental way?

 One recent story attempting to show that upward mobility is a "myth" in America today nevertheless noted in passing that many recent immigrants and their children have had "extraordinary upward mobility."

 If this is a class-ridden society denying "access" to upward mobility to those at the bottom, why is it that immigrants can come here at the bottom and then rise to the top?

 One obvious reason is that many poor immigrants come here with very different ambitions and values from that of poor Americans born into our welfare state and imbued with notions growing out of attitudes of dependency and resentments of other people's success.

 The fundamental reason that many people do not rise is not that class barriers prevent it but that they do not develop the skills, values and attitudes which cause people to rise.

 The liberal welfare state means they don't have to and liberal multiculturalism says they don't need to change their values because one culture is just as good as another. In other words, liberalism is not part of the solution, but part of the problem.

 Racism is supposed to put insuperable barriers in the path of non-whites anyway, so why knock yourself out trying?  This is another deadly message, especially for the young.

 But if immigrants from Korea or India, Vietnamese refugees, and others can come here and move right on up the ladder, despite not being white, why are black and white Americans at the bottom more likely to stay at the bottom?

 The same counterproductive and self-destructive attitudes toward education, work and ordinary civility found in many of America's ghettos can also be found in lower-class British communities. Anyone who doubts it should read British doctor Theodore Dalrymple's book "Life at the Bottom," about the white lower class communities in which he has worked.

 These chaotic and violence-prone communities in Britain do not have the excuse of racism or a legacy of slavery. What they do have in common with similar communities in the United States is a similar reliance on the welfare state and a similar set of intellectuals making excuses for their behavior and denouncing anyone who wants them to change their ways.

 The latest round of statistics emboldens more intellectuals to blame "society" for the failure of many people at the bottom to rise to the top. Realistically, if nearly a third of people born to families in the bottom quarter of income earners rise into the top half, that is not a bad record.

 If more were doing so in the past, that does not necessarily mean that "society" is holding them down more today. It may easily mean that the welfare state and liberal ideology both make it less necessary today for them to change their own behavior.