On May 23, 1857, the venerable British statesman Lord Macaulay penned a brilliant but little-remarked letter to the Honorable H.S. Randall of New York. In it, the eminent poet, historian and politician predicted that America’s excessively democratic political system would eventually result in the nation’s demise.
The aristocratic Macaulay foresaw the day when America’s impoverished millions would forcibly seize the property of the wealthy few through taxation, to the lasting detriment of all. “It is quite plain,” Macaulay sniffed, “that your government will never be able to restrain a distressed and discontented majority. For with you the majority is the government, and has the rich, who are a minority, absolutely at its mercy.”
Sixteen years later, in a July 1873 speech to the Literary Society of Hudson College, then-U.S. Representative and future president James A. Garfield responded eloquently to Macaulay’s charge. Garfield, a self-made man of humble origins, conceded that in a nation where “the hundredth may be rich and powerful enough to hold the ninety-nine in subjection…where such permanent classes exist…the conflict of which Macaulay speaks is inevitable.” Why? “Not that men are inclined to fight the class above them — but they fight against any artificial barrier which makes it impossible for them to enter that higher class, and become a part of it.”
But thankfully, declared Garfield, there exist no such artificial barriers in America. “In this country, there are no classes…no impassible barriers of caste. We can truly say that through our political society there run no fixed horizontal strata through which none can pass upward.” Besides, noted Garfield, Macaulay had neglected to take into account “the great counterbalancing force of universal education,” which gave every American the tools with which to transcend his humble beginnings and strive ever upward to a better, more prosperous future. In America, concluded Garfield, the poor felt that they might someday become rich, and this hope prevented the inception of destructive class warfare.
But class mobility in America has declined sharply since Garfield’s day. Extensive empirical evidence from the Economic Mobility Project suggests that American workers are now less upwardly mobile than their counterparts in France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Norway, Finland, Denmark and even Macaulay’s famously classist Britain.
Economist Markus Jantti has found that 42 percent of American men raised in the bottom fifth of the income distribution remain there as adults; the comparable figure for Denmark is 25 percent, and for Britain it’s 30 percent. Jantti further found that only eight percent of American men born to parents in the bottom quintile rise to the top quintile, compared to 12 percent of the British and 14 percent of Danes. Economist Miles Corak has estimated that while 16 percent of Canadians born in the bottom tenth remain there, 22 percent of Americans do. In other words, one is now more likely to live the American Dream in Britain or Canada than in America.
As America’s famously fluid class structure ossifies into the “fixed horizontal strata” Garfield so feared, American attitudes toward capitalism have changed for the worse. Research by international opinions firm GlobeScan has found that only 59 percent of Americans now agree with the statement that “the free market economy is the best economic system for the future,” down from 80 percent in 2002. Meanwhile, Gallup has found that 36 percent of Americans, including a majority of Democrats, now hold positive views of the previously taboo term “socialism.”
Nothing would be worse for America than for Americans to lose faith in capitalism. It is an indisputable fact that free markets are and have been the greatest engine for sustained economic growth and prosperity in the history of the world. Economic freedom launched the West to world dominance in the 19th century. China has lifted hundreds of millions from poverty since the pragmatic Deng Xiaoping unleashed the dynamic power of capitalism in his country.
John Steinbeck famously wrote that “socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” But unless the rising tide begins to lift the dinghies of the poor along with the luxury yachts of the rich, capitalism as we know it will die. Unless this nation takes concrete action to preserve Garfield’s vision of a truly classless society in which anyone, regardless of birth, can rise to wealth and prominence through hard work, Macauley will be proven right, and the majority will seek solace in a suffocating socialism.
It is therefore in everyone’s best interest — including the very rich — that every child receive a quality public education, adequate health care and a fair start in life, regardless of race, parental income or geographic location. Class mobility, as Garfield knew, is capitalism’s last best hope for survival.
Mobility or socialism? Let Miles know which you prefer at milesu1 “at” stanford “dot” edu.