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Born Rich

It’s not just about money.

A boat takes part in a Trump boat parade on the Susquehanna River on September 12, 2020. (Photo by Paul Weaver/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

One of the most distasteful aspects of our politics is the extent to which it is so obviously driven by envy, which is what 99 percent of that “privilege” talk ends up being about. But I suppose I am the wrong person to complain about that, because I was born rich. 

I don’t mean rich in the usual money sense, of course, as those of you who have been reading me for a while will know. I know a woman who learned to drive on a Rolls Royce Corniche—and that is a whole other thing than, say, being a 60-year-old Wall Street type who merely owns a Rolls in his high-earning years. I have some pretty rich friends, a few of them rich enough that if they moved from one locality to another it could have serious effects on the tax bases of both jurisdictions, even though their habits are in many cases more modest than you’d expect. My family wasn’t like that—my parents were, in fact, so financially and personally incompetent that my own living arrangements satisfied the technical definition of homelessness at one point in my early life. Our poverty and the dysfunction that goes along with it had long-lasting effects on my life, some of which are the sort of thing you never really leave behind. That’s part of what we talk about when we talk about class.  

But let’s talk about the people with money a little bit more—it’s more fun. 

One of the things very rich people often worry about is the possibility of wrecking their children’s lives with vast unearned wealth and everything that goes along with it—or that can go along with it. Every good father and every good mother is ready to do anything for a son or a daughter—in extremis, parents give their lives for their children, without regret or hesitation. If you have a child, you know you’d do anything within your power to help that child along in life. Now, take that same inclination and imagine you have the better part of a billion dollars, or several billion dollars, or even a few tens of millions, and think about how that changes the situation. You can wreck a young man by giving him too much, sapping his own native ambition and making him feel as though he will always be an appendage to his father and his father’s fortune rather than a man in his own right; you can also wreck a young man by denying him the benefit of resources that you have in abundance, causing him to feel excluded or neglected or controlled by domineering parents whose concern for the development of their son’s character might, from a different angle, look a lot like selfishness.

I know, I know: Your hearts bleed for the family dilemmas of the nation’s Rolls Royce drivers and private-jet owners. (Eighty years ago, I would have written Rolls Royce owners rather than drivers; there was a time when the owner sat in the back, and in some older cars the AC controls and such are in the back of the cabin. But rich guys mainly drive themselves these days.) We may not worry about the plight of rich families very much, but we are a very, very rich society, and our national dilemma is, in many ways, a lot like those of wealthy families. If you’ve ever lived in a college town, you can see with your own eyes how the allocation of vast financial resources on a noncompetitive basis tends to attenuate the work ethic and stymie the personal growth of young students and middle-aged university staff alike. The people who worry about the effects of welfare benefits on the inclination of able-bodied people to work are not just Ebenezer Scrooge types and cartoon Republicans kicking bums and shouting, “Get a job!” (My usual caveat bears repeating here: “Get a job!” is, very often, just terrific advice, essential and necessary and genuinely humane advice, advice that contributes to real human flourishing.) Nudging others toward individual economic autonomy can be a cover for callousness, but it isn’t always that, or even usually that. 

A few Americans bristle at vast wealth in general, but many, many more Americans are uncomfortable with vast inherited wealth, which activates our democratic and egalitarian nerves in unpleasant ways. A lottery, at least, would be random, rather than intergenerational–it isn’t the notional injustice of the distribution so much as the enduring pattern that irks so many. Some people get a big boost from inherited wealth—not only billionaire-level worth but more modest wealth, the kind where your parents can give you a 50-percent down payment on your first house or provide you with all sorts of supplemental K-12 educational support to help you get into a good college, which you will attend without working or taking out loans. That kind of thing seems unfair, at least to many people. 

And it seems especially unfair to two classes of people: Those who have money and feel guilty about it, and those who don’t have any money to feel guilty about. 

Join me for a tangent. 

Imagine a primitive society in which social position is determined by height. The taller you are, the higher up you are in society—the literal determines the figurative—and the tallest guy (yes, guy, because, who are we kidding here?) is the chief, the headman, the boss. That would be arbitrary and weird within any given generation, but it would also have profound intergenerational effects: Tall parents will tend to have tall children, and the children of tall families would, in our imaginary scenario, tend to marry into other tall families, marital habits that would tend to produce a hereditary aristocracy of the tall and towering. That could cause tensions in a small, homogeneous tribal society—now, imagine trying to do the same thing with a large, complex, multiracial society, in which a lot of smart and ambitious people with the surnames Nguyen or Liebowitz live forever under the unearned domination of the Svenssons and De Groots and Mayoms, Swedish and Dutch and Dinka overlords as far and as high as the eye can see. 

Right now, you should be thinking of a name: Charles Murray. 

Murray and his writing partner, Richard Herrnstein, published an extraordinarily controversial book in 1994, titled The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. Almost all of the controversy and discussion surrounding the book had to do with the authors’ consideration of race: If intelligence is strongly influenced by hereditary factors (and it is) then, as with height or a thousand other partly or entirely hereditary characteristics, we would expect to see statistical differences among groups. Yao Ming, at 7-foot-6, may be bringing up the average, but the typical Chinese man is about 5 feet, 8 inches tall, which is, unsurprisingly, the same height as the typical Chinese-American man. The average Dutch man, by comparison, is just over 6 feet tall. The Dutch are tall people—the average Dutch woman is a little taller than the average Saudi man or the average Chinese man, and a good deal taller than the average Guatemalan man. There is a good deal of discrimination against the short (ask a short guy how easy it is to get a date with a woman who is a head taller than him; the taller man has won about two-thirds of U.S. presidential elections over the last century or so), but few people invest any great sense of moral importance in height. If Murray and Herrnstein had written a chapter about differences in the average height among U.S. demographic groups, The Bell Curve wouldn’t have been a very controversial book at all. 

Funny thing, though: Our intellectual and political life is dominated by a relatively narrow class of what we might call intellectually tall people, high-IQ people with diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. And while a great many of them believe that inherited wealth is profoundly unfair, very few of them have any similar thoughts to share about the social role of inherited intelligence.

One of the hardest things to drill into the noggins of the American ruling class (and let’s not pretend that there isn’t one, even if it isn’t exactly what you might expect) is that there is no more merit in being born with certain economically valuable intellectual talents than there is in being born tall, or with curly hair—or white, for that matter. Inherited wealth is an enormous factor in the lives of a relatively small number of Americans and a more modest one in the lives of a larger number, but inherited brainpower is the unearned asset that matters most. We live in a very competitive, very connected world, one with very, very efficient labor markets. Inherited wealth doesn’t last forever—we’ll have Waltons working at Starbucks and driving for Uber soon enough, just give it time. We have pretty effective tools (including standardized testing) that are very useful for reaching far, wide, and deep into the population to identify intellectual high-fliers and to direct them into educational and career paths that will give them the chance to make the most out of their lives. There probably is no better place in the world to be born poor and smart—but there is no more merit in being born smart than there is blame in being born poor. 

The American “meritocracy” is based to a considerable extent on the generally unspoken proposition that intelligence is merit, and that smart people deserve their success in a special way. Our country is run by smart people, and the smart people in charge very much want to believe that they are where they are because of merit, because of the exemplary lives they have led, not because of some unearned hereditary trait that is the intellectual equivalent of a trust fund. The Bell Curve was an attempt to explore the paradox of the hereditary “meritocracy” in a serious way, and it was shouted down by—this was not coincidental—the class of people whose self-conception as a meritorious elite was most directly threatened by the authors’ hypothesis. 

Of course, simply being born with an above-average intellectual endowment isn’t a guarantee of success in life—neither is inheriting $10 million. (Think of all those destitute and miserable lottery winners out there, their fortunes gone in a few years or even months.) You have to work, get educated, develop skills, all that stuff. But there are people who can work hard and make a fortune in investment banking or technology or media or whatever, and—this is the hard part—people who can’t do that, no matter how hard they work. I used to practice the guitar for hours and hours every day—and I never got much past mediocre. I know people who have labored like stevedores for years to produce books that will never be read and never make a dime—not because the author is an underappreciated genius but because the book isn’t any good. There are lots of things lots of people can’t do—with apologies to the good people of Oklahoma: Labor omnia non vincit

Understanding the privileges that go along with inherited intellectual ability as being in a moral sense very much like the privileges that go along with inherited wealth (or an inherited social-racial position or whatever privilege you like) opens up a radical and disruptive perspective on American public life—and draws attention to social situations that, even if understood to be unfair because of the role of hereditary advantage, are not open to resolution through redistributive taxes or affirmative action or anything like that. We aren’t going to mandate that half of the brain surgeons or theoretical physicists have below-average IQs. Even the godforsaken journalists and television pundits, bless their pointy little heads, tend to be above the median. Yeah, yeah, statistically unlikely things do happen—Sean Hannity exists, and there probably is some Good Will Hunting-type genius lurking in the maintenance department of some university somewhere. But the correlations are real and pronounced. I don’t look down on the guy who works at the superintendent at my county waste-disposal site, but I don’t think he was three good breaks away from being the CEO of Microsoft, either. 

And why not complicate it further? Set aside obvious things such as height and good looks. If you add to intelligence other traits that we think of as “character” that almost certainly are partly or largely inherited—things like the inclination to defer gratification or exercise a relatively high degree of sexual self-control—you end up effectively undermining the moral assumptions behind a great deal of public life in the modern meritocracy. 


Class is a time machine. 

I recently spent some time in a small Appalachian town, albeit a relatively affluent and educated one. (College towns are special places.) One of the things you notice when you travel outside of the coastal urban centers and the inland enclaves that replicate their habits and values (Hello, Austin!) is that class is something that leaves its mark not only on individuals but on communities, too. This shows up sometimes in profound ways, such as the fact that members of relatively affluent white families in Appalachia and the Rust Belt are more likely to die of opioid overdoses than are their counterparts in Greenwich or Palo Alto, and there’s more cigarette smoking and obesity and that sort of thing; but you also see it in funny little things, matters of habit and style. 

If, for example, you see a white person under 60 who goes to the grocery store and pays by writing out a check while standing at the register, that individual person may not be poor or from a rural background, but you can be pretty sure that you are not far from a relatively low-income rural area—assuming you are not somehow back in 1979.  There are products on the shelves here that I don’t remember seeing since the 1990s. (Clearly Canadian is still a thing? Who knew? Clearly Canadian mixed with bottom-shelf bourbon was a thing at the Pearl Street Coop in Austin in 1991, I can report.) This isn’t just a wealth thing—these areas may be poor on average, but there are plenty of people driving around in pickups that cost as much as Range Rovers, towing around ATVs that cost as much as Rolexes. Class isn’t wealth

And I’m not using class here in the implicitly pejorative sense—as in the sneer that someone has “no class.” I’m using it to mean characteristic patterns of life that are generally associated with relative degrees of social power. You’re kidding yourself if you think the $1-million-a-year car-dealership owner in Kentucky has the same kind of social status as the $1-million-a-year lawyer in Westchester County, even if car dealers have a good deal of political clout. 

Being a conservative, I believe that a healthy society necessarily contains a great deal of organic, authentic diversity. Being a realist, I also believe that this diversity comes with hierarchy. As Russell Kirk observed: 

Conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety. They feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems. For the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must survive orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality. The only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law; all other attempts at levelling must lead, at best, to social stagnation. Society requires honest and able leadership; and if natural and institutional differences are destroyed, presently some tyrant or host of squalid oligarchs will create new forms of inequality.

Good and true stuff—but, as with the imaginary height-ocracy above, the scene is more comfortably viewed from the top. 

There are all sorts of funny class collisions in American life. I’m writing this from a Starbucks, which once was the epitome of yuppie pretentiousness and now is basically McDonald’s for the professional class. Some of the people here are obviously well-to-do, as you can tell from the cars parked outside. At the table behind me are two men, probably retired after reasonably remunerative careers, with the diction and grammar of reasonably educated men, engaged in a truly, truly batty discussion of Q-adjacent flat-Earther conspiracy stuff, one of them smugly confident that the model of the solar system we were all taught in school is an obvious fraud. (I’ve spent some time with the flat-Earthers, and they are hilarious.) Naturally, the climax of this conversation is the two men’s mutual reassurance that Donald Trump is going to reveal all of this just as soon as he is back in the White House. 

People sometimes scratch their heads when the Trump partisans denounce the “elites.” The Trump true-believers tend to be relatively affluent (though the wealthiest Americans have been trending Democratic for years; Barack Obama, for example, won the majority of votes from households with incomes higher than $200,000 a year), and they also tend to be white and male—in a country run by rich white guys, rich white guys denouncing the “elite” doesn’t make any sense. But, of course, the real commanding heights of American business and culture are less white, less male, and way richer than the guys we are talking about here. And the rich white guys you meet there—and there are plenty of them—are a different breed of rich white guy.  That’s that highly efficient labor market at work. What “elite” really connotes in populist rhetoric is: the people who didn’t deserve it. 

I’d invite my progressive friends who are always going on and on about their “empathy” to try to put themselves in the boots of their political and cultural enemies for a minute here, and imagine your Q-type Trump-loving conspiracy-kook Fox News viewers looking at the people who run Silicon Valley and Harvard and the New York Times the way a smart graduate student from a poor family looks at the local trust-fund kids while he’s finishing up his MBA or his MFA in creative writing or whatever. Stan the Trump guy doesn’t think he is stupid—he probably isn’t especially stupid (maybe not real smart, either, you never know), but he also may not have the kind of intellectual ability, verbal acuity, organizational temperament, etc., that you’ll find in the president of the local university or an executive at Facebook. He looks at people in the corporate world, government, media, etc., and sees people who had parents who had achievements, education, incomes, and patterns of life similar to those their children eventually would acquire; at the very top, he sees a lot of people who all went to the same schools and who had overlapping careers or institutional affiliations. (How much of our world is run by McKinsey alumni and graduates of Harvard Business School? It’s a good chunk!) Maybe he appreciates that these people worked hard and did their homework—but maybe he worked hard and did his homework, too. It isn’t too difficult to imagine—from ol’ Stan’s point of view—that the nation looks like it is being run not only by the wrong people (meaning people who don’t share his values) but by people who didn’t earn their position at the top, who were, as Ann Richards once put it, born on third base thinking they’d hit a triple.  And, to the extent that these things are enormously influenced by hereditary intellectual and personality traits, Stan isn’t entirely wrong. 

But where there is a pronounced undercurrent of nearly psychotic resentment in some of these people—”these people” being our neighbors and our fellow citizens, let us remember—it may be because some of them know that you could have given them every opportunity and advantage afforded to, say, Barack Obama, and they’d have ended up more or less where they are, rather than in the White House or the boardroom. 

The socioeconomic sorting in the United States (a subject of much serious academic inquiry) is energetic, ruthless, sometimes vicious, and very nearly comprehensive. That’s part of what I mean by “class is a time machine.” The most affluent, educated, and economically productive parts of the country (which are, conservatives should remember, largely Democratic) can feel not only like a whole ’nother country but a whole ’nother time, too. The most talented and successful—the great majority of them—end up concentrated in a handful of ZIP codes; they spend the first part of their adult lives going to the same schools and the rest of them going to the same conferences, watching the same television shows, reading the same books. The people in (e.g.) Mingo County, West Virginia (county seat: Williamson), effectively live in a different country, one that can feel, in some ways, left behind. And some of the people who live in these places feel as though they are governed by people who are, for all intents and purposes, foreigners. The people in Mingo County also are 97 percent white and 99.8 percent native-born—with a poverty rate above 30 percent. Try telling them that white guys are running things. 

Conspiracy theories are for people who believe—who need to believe—that there is something profoundly wrong with the world. The hardest thing for people on the outs to contemplate is the possibility that the world may very well be running more or less as it is supposed to, and that neither the people at the top nor the people at the bottom are necessarily in the wrong place, even if neither group exactly deserves to be where it is. (“Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”) One of the great ironies of our particular moment in history is that the same forces that are driving previously unheard-of material prosperity—the integration of global markets and supply chains, technology, frictionless communication and finance, etc.—are also revealing in particularly harsh ways that what we’ve been taught to think of as “fair” has almost no connection to how the world actually is, that hard work and clean living will get you only so far, that our so-called meritocracy is, looked at clinically, a semi-hereditary aristocracy in which the coin of the realm is intelligence, a commodity far more precious than gold. Gold, after all, can be acquired, given away, and redistributed—unlike the intellectual abilities that matter most in the 21st century economy.

How’s that for a hard political sell? “You still have to work hard and take responsibility for yourself, but the people you hate are probably still going to run things and earn 40 times what you do, because life is unfair and the talents that are worth the most in our world are not evenly distributed.” 

It isn’t hard to see where rage-addled populism comes from. The danger is that it doesn’t really have any place to go. 

Economics for English Majors

If only there were some explanation! 

Washington Post headline: “If inflation is easing, why are gas and groceries still so expensive?”

Washington Post headline, immediately above that other headline: “Progress on inflation stalled in July, as prices nudged up.”

If inflation were easing, high prices would be a mystery. But inflation is not easing, at least as of the most recent report.

Like modern dance, trying to explain away the Biden administration’s economic troubles forces one to adopt ridiculous postures.

New York Times: “Inflation Picks Up, but Details Under the Surface Are Encouraging.”

The news is: Inflation got worse last month. That’s the story. 

Maybe put the news in the newspapers? In the headlines, too! 

Words About Words

You’ll notice that I wrote “Charles Murray and his writing partner.” Partner is a very funny word. Because of the partial abandonment of marriage as a social norm and the concurrent mainstreaming of homosexuality, the word partner has taken on a distinctly sexual/domestic connotation. For a while, I’d notice this most in publications such as Architectural Digest, in which articles would talk about Designer So-and-So and “the space he shares with his partner, Theodore” and it wouldn’t be immediately clear if that meant a business partner or a romantic partner or both. Now, when you watch old cowboy movies in which some itinerant ranch-hand or outlaw talks about his partner, it sounds a little funny, a little Brokeback Mountain. 

A word that came up last week and generated demands for comment: African. At issue was this clumsy sentence from the Wall Street Journal:

Woung-Chapman, whose ancestry includes Chinese, German, Indian and African, says she liked how intensely curious Chapman was about her background.

Not only are those adjectives missing a noun, one of them is not like the others: Chinese, German, and Indian are nationalities, whereas African refers to a continent rather than a country. Elon Musk is, properly understood, a very successful African-American entrepreneur. (Some of you will remember the befuddled newscaster referring to Nelson Mandela as a great “African-American” leader after word came down that black was out and African-American was in.) African often gets short shrift in that way. I’ll repeat a story:

In college, I met a young woman, a friend of a friend, who had recently graduated from the University of Texas with an education degree. She reported that she was surprised by how much she was learning while preparing lesson plans for her new job. 

“Really?” some unbearable guy asked. “What are you learning, teaching the second grade?” 

“Well, did you know that Africa isn’t a country?” she replied. “It’s a whole continent with lots of countries in it.” 

After we close down all the journalism schools, the colleges of education should be next. 

In Other Wordiness … 

Short shrift, you say? I do. 

Sometimes wrongly written (or, more often, said) short shift, the phrase is another gift from William Shakespeare, in this case from Richard III: 

HASTINGS

Woe, woe for England! Not a whit for me,
For I, too fond, might have prevented this.
Stanley did dream the boar did ⟨raze his helm,⟩
And I did scorn it and disdain to fly.
Three times today my foot-cloth horse did stumble,
And started when he looked upon the Tower,
As loath to bear me to the slaughterhouse.
O, now I need the priest that spake to me!
I now repent I told the pursuivant,
As too triumphing, how mine enemies
Today at Pomfret bloodily were butchered,
And I myself secure in grace and favor.
O Margaret, Margaret, now thy heavy curse
Is lighted on poor Hastings’ wretched head.

RATCLIFFE 
Come, come, dispatch. The Duke would be at
dinner.
Make a short shrift. He longs to see your head.

Shrift here means a confession—the religious kind you might make in order to achieve reconciliation before being put to death. (Because there are fates worse than death.) What Ratcliffe is saying there is, “Hurry up and make your confession, so that we can put you to death.” Short shrift, then, means a situation in which very little time passes between judgment and execution—a hasty resolution, and possibly an unjust one.

This isn’t the only time death and reconciliation comes up for Shakespeare. When Hamlet is getting ready to whack Claudius, he finds him at prayer, and decides not to kill him in such a state, thereby dispatching his soul to paradise. 

Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
He took my father grossly, full of bread;
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;
And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?

From this shrift we get shriven, meaning forgiven by means of confession and penance, and shrive or shrieve, the act of imparting divine absolution, as in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

It is the Hermit good!
He singeth loud his godly hymns
That he makes in the wood.
He’ll shrieve my soul, he’ll wash away The Albatross’s blood.

Elsewhere

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In Closing

My opening section is, in part, about something that makes my libertarian heart a little uneasy: the evidence that we have a good deal less agency, less autonomy, and a good deal less of what they call “free will” in the undergraduate philosophy classes than I might have supposed earlier in life. But it isn’t all darkness and despair, either. Understanding that people have real limits could—and should—make us a little kinder, a little more accepting of human shortcomings, a little less eager to distinguish between the “deserving” beneficiaries who have a claim on our help and attention and those “undeserving” miscreants who may not deserve their unhappy positions any more than we deserve our happy ones. This isn’t an either/or thing, of course: There are limits, but there are choices to be made within our limitations, better and worse ways to work with such endowments as we have. For the Christian, the magnificence of God isn’t found in His willingness to call to Himself those who deserve it but in His eagerness to extend His grace to those of us—which is all of us—who don’t deserve it. In a world and a time remarkably short on magnificence in spite of our vast wealth, to give happily and easily and beyond what is merely deserved is something worth doing. It points us in the right direction, which is the direction home. 

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.