Megan McArdle elucidates a point I've attempted to make about meritocracy: qualities that lead to success in a meritocracy can be transmitted across generations as surely as aristocracy can be.

You can argue about why this is--are the upper middle class transmitting real skills, or pull? But does it matter? As an editor at The Economist once noted to me, it's actually rather more worrying if what they're giving their children is a strong education and an absolutely ferocious work ethic. An aristocracy that simply bequeaths money and social position to its children will eventually fall. And aristocracy that bequeaths the actual skills required to earn more money than everyone else is self perpetuating.

And self-legitimating. The old aristocracy was, I think, at least dimly aware that it wasn't quite fair for them to have what they had by mere virtue of being born to the right parents. But in the new aristocracy, it is rarely enough to just get born to the right parents; you also have to work very hard. (Higher earning men are now more likely to work more than 50 hours a week than are men in lower earnings quintiles.) Whatever the systemic injustices, it's also quite clear to everyone . . . even parasitic leeches of investment bankers . . . that their salaries only come as the result of frantic effort.

The ability of one's parents to confer such enduring advantages is obviously unfair. And while I don't want to say that a society cannot last that way--obviously, many have, for hundreds of years--I don't think it's healthy for society. It is hard to get civic engagement, or respect for the law, when the bottom 40% or so feels that the game is rigged.

I'm not sure that the situation is "rigged" in the same way as in an aristocracy, but it is clear that parents and family can confer significant advantages or disadvantages even in a meritocracy. It's not obvious to me how this could be avoided... those in power now will naturally wield that power in a way that gives their children the best possible opportunities.

How would upper-middle-class parents feel about children who had only a 17% chance of achieving a household income above $90,000? They would be horrified. And then they would busily start using the full scope of their talents--their financial resources, their educational skills, and their social capital--to "fix it".

These instincts would operate in a meritocracy, an aristocracy, or a Marxist utopia.

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