Saturday, June 11, 2005

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 night the day, the real world is wrong and 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 time and resources have been devoted to trying to figure out what prevents the ideal from being realized — as if there was any reason to expect it to be.

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

In mid-May, both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal ran Page One stories about class differences and mobility. The Times’ article was the first in a long series continuing a month later. The papers reached similar conclusions, based on similar sloppy uses of “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 do not measure 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 he was more likely to make the NBA than I. Was I denied opportunity or access, were barriers put up against me, was the playing field not level? Or did Michael Jordan — and virtually everyone else — play 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 many other factors, including luck. If mobility means freedom to move, then we can all have the same mobility, even if some end up moving faster than others and others move not at all. A car capable of going 100 miles an hour can sit in a garage all year without moving. But that does not mean it has no mobility.

When each individual and each group trails the long shadow of its cultural history, it is unlikely even to want to do the same things, much less be willing to make the same effort and sacrifice to achieve the same goals. Many are like the car still in the garage,though it is capable of going 100 mph.

So long as each generation raises its own children, people from different backgrounds will 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 by no means proves external barriers are responsible.

The welfare state and multiculturalism both reduce the incentives of poor people to adopt new ways of life that would help them rise economically 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 from the lowest to the highest 20 percent over time.

Yet those obsessed with classes treat people in different brackets as if 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 because some poor devil has to fly 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 about such things.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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