Friday, June 10, 2005

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 most people in a given part of the income distribution are children of other people born into that same income distribution sector.

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 of income earners, only 34 percent end up in the bottom half. How startling is that?

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

Could it just possibly show the kind of values and behavior that lead a family to succeed or fail are likely to be passed on to its 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 trying to show upward mobility is a “myth” in America nevertheless noted in passing 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, how can immigrants come here at the bottom and rise to the top?

One obvious reason is many poor immigrants come here with very different ambitions and values from poor Americans born into our welfare state and imbued with notions and attitudes of dependency and resentment of the success of others.

The fundamental reason many do not rise is not class barriers but failure to develop the skills, values and attitudes that 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 as good as another. Liberalism is not part of the solution but part of the problem. Racism is supposed to put insuperable barriers in the path of nonwhites 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 up the ladder, despite not being white, why are black and white Americans at the bottom more likely to stay there?

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 have in common with similar communities in the United States is reliance on the welfare state and 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. 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 “society” is holding them down more today. It may easily mean the welfare state and liberal ideology both now make it less necessary for them to change their own behavior.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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