Liberals and class: Part II

Posted: Jun 09, 2005 12:00 AM

Someone once defined a social problem as a situation in which the real world differs from the theories of intellectuals. To the intelligentsia, it follows, as the night follows the day, that it is the real world that is wrong and which needs to change.

 Having imagined a world in which each individual has the same probability of success as anyone else, intellectuals have been shocked and outraged that the real world is nowhere close to that ideal. Vast amounts of time and resources have been devoted to trying to figure out what is stopping this ideal from being realized -- as if there was ever any reason to expect it to be.

 Despite all the words and numbers thrown around when discussing this situation, the terms used are so sloppy that it is hard even to know what the issues are, much less how to resolve them.

 Back in mid-May, both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal had front-page stories about class differences and class mobility. The Times' article was the first in a long series that is still going on a month later. Both papers reached similar conclusions, based on a similar sloppy use of the word "mobility."

 The Times referred to "the chance of moving up from one class to another" and the Wall Street Journal referred to "the odds that a child born in poverty will climb to wealth." But the odds or probabilities against something happening are no measure of whether opportunity exists.

 Anyone who saw me play basketball and saw Michael Jordan play basketball when we were youngsters would have given odds of a zillion to one that he was more likely to make the NBA than I was. Does that mean I was denied opportunity or access, that there were barriers put up against me, that the playing field was not level?

 Or did it mean that Michael Jordan -- and virtually everyone else -- played basketball a lot better than I did?

 A huge literature on social mobility often pays little or no attention to the fact that different individuals and groups have different skills, desires, attitudes and numerous other factors, including luck. If mobility is defined as being free to move, then we can all have the same mobility, even if some end up moving faster than others and some of the others do not move at all.

 A car capable of going 100 miles an hour can sit in a garage all year long without moving. But that does not mean that it has no mobility.

 When each individual and each group trails the long shadow of their cultural history, they are unlikely even to want to do the same things, much less be willing to put out the same efforts and make the same sacrifices to achieve the same goals. Many are like the car that is sitting still in the garage, even though it is capable of going 100 mph.

 So long as each generation raises its own children, people from different backgrounds are going to be raised with different values and habits. Even in a world with zero barriers to upward mobility, they would move at different speeds and in different directions.

 If there is less upward movement today than in the past, that is by no means proof that external barriers are responsible. The welfare state and multiculturalism both reduce the incentives of the poor to adopt new ways of life that would help them rise up the economic ladder. The last thing the poor need is another dose of such counterproductive liberal medicine.

 Many comparisons of "classes" are in fact comparisons of people in different income brackets -- but most Americans move up from the lowest 20 percent to the highest 20 percent over time.

 Yet those who are obsessed with classes treat people in different brackets as if they were classes permanently stuck in those brackets.

 The New York Times series even makes a big deal about disparities in income and lifestyle between the rich and the super-rich. But it is hard to get worked up over the fact that some poor devil has to make do flying his old propeller-driven plane, while someone further up the income scale flies around a mile or two higher in his twin-engine luxury jet.

 Only if you have overdosed on disparities are you likely to wax indignant over things like that.