This essay appears in the Summer 2020 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, click here.


By failing to recognize how natural a thing aristocracy is, modern political theory is impoverished. In particular, right-wing theorists have failed to understand how the idea of America, the belief that we live in a country where everyone may rise, has been betrayed by all the barriers to mobility we’ve erected—that we’ve become an immobile society where rich parents raise rich kids and poor parents raise poor kids. The right-winger has conceded the issue to liberals, and is doubly stupid because he’s failed to grasp that the barriers to mobility were erected by the left. It was his issue, and he gave it away.

While our right-winger ignores the issue, the ordinary American voter gets it. Nearly two in three Americans tell Pew researchers that they think their kids will be worse off financially than they were. That’s new, and it’s transformed American politics. It gave us Obama’s 2012 victory against a Republican who complained that 47 percent of us were schnorrers. And it explains how Donald Trump won the Republican nomination in 2016. The right-winger who complains of Trump’s want of gentlemanly behavior, without seeking to understand his rise, advertises how little he understands American politics.

A new progressive conservatism is needed, and a good place to begin would be to recognize that aristocracy is society’s default position—that it is mobility that’s unnatural, a brief interlude in a long history in which parents pass on their wealth and status to their children. It takes an effort to create a mobile society, and in doing so one swims against the tide. And that is the challenge for the new conservative.

Rival Explanations of Aristocracy

Three explanations can be given for aristocracy. From the left, inheritance laws that permit wealth to be passed on from one generation to the next are blamed. From the right, writers such as Charles Murray attribute the rise of aristocracy to the move to an information economy in which premium wages are paid to high-IQ workers. Intelligence is largely heritable, Murray tells us, and smart parents will therefore breed smart, rich kids. For reasons I’ll explain, neither of these explanations can account for the rise of American immobility, and in their place I’ll offer my own explanation.

Marx lacked a theory of aristocracy, since he believed (with Joseph Schumpeter) that the capitalist era that had just begun would churn the economy—that new wealth would always arise to replace old wealth. What he predicted was a “constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation.” He did, however, want sharply progressive income taxes and a 100 percent inheritance tax, which would severely (though not entirely) limit the ability of capitalist families to pass on their wealth, and for those on the left this justified the graduated 75 percent inheritance taxes introduced by the British Labour government after the Second World War.

In 2014, the left’s fear of aristocracy was revived by Thomas Piketty in his Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Capitalism tends inexorably toward immobility, he argued, because of capital’s tendency to grow more quickly than the economy as a whole. To those who have, more is given; and great fortunes accumulate over time. It was an elegant, if very simple, theory, but any theory stands or falls on the evidence, and in Piketty’s case it’s simply not there. As Daron Acemoğlu and James Robinson noted, Piketty did not engage in hypothesis testing, statistical analysis of causation, or even correlation. When they did so, what they found was just the opposite of what Piketty’s theory would have predicted. And one can see why. The theory only works if the capitalist plows his earnings back into investments. It won’t work if they’re dissipated in expensive lifestyles and messy divorces. “I spent over 90 percent of my money on gambling, women, and drink,” said footballer George Best. “The rest I wasted.” Without the evidence to back him up, Piketty simply offers us a theory. And there are a lot of theories around. They’re better when they’re backed by evidence.

From the right, the new field of genoeconomics suggests that individual and national income are related to genetic factors. Observable traits (phenotypes) such as height and hair color are inherited, and recent studies have shown that psychological as well as physical traits might also be inherited. For example, between 40 and 50 percent of a person’s happiness level is said to be inherited, and there appears to be a genetic explanation for violent crime and substance abuse. What is true of happiness and criminality also appears to be true for the very different traits associated with economic success, and this is evidenced by studies that track family incomes. Brothers are much more likely to make similar incomes than randomly chosen males of the same race and age, even more so if they are identical twins. If Lady Gaga was born that way, why not the rich?

In The Bell Curve, Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray proposed a genoeconomic explanation of aristocracy, arguing that IQ has a major impact on income levels. Smart parents would raise smart kids, who’d have a significant leg up in today’s skills-based economy. The book had a huge impact, and people who thought themselves smarter than the average bear ate it up. But more recent studies have disputed the importance of IQ levels, arguing that other things, such as optimism, the sense one isn’t stuck in a rut, that one is responsible for one’s life, are more important. Then there are the virtues of good character: dedication, industry, reliability, impulse control, and an ability to delay gratification.

These traits might be heritable as well, but all such explanations suffer from two objections. First, because of the well-known phenomenon of regression to the mean, we’d expect genetic advantages to dissipate over several generations. The children of tall parents will be taller than other children, but on average they’ll be shorter than their parents, and the same is true of the children of intelligent parents. That’s not a recipe for aristocracy. Second, such explanations can’t account for the fact that most other First World societies are as technologically advanced and skills-based as we are yet are much more mobile. The American Dream of high mobility lives on in the country we most resemble, Canada, where they’re not exactly living in the Stone Age.

How We Became Aristocratic

It’s not hard to understand why other countries are more mobile than the United States. The public school system was meant to bring students into the middle class, but now it’s stalled. Our grade school students are captives of a mediocre K–12 system and perform far worse than similar students in Canada and other First World countries. As for our universities, they’re too often factories of hatred where little learning takes place. And as for our demented immigration laws, they wonderfully admit maids and gardeners for America’s aristocrats, but they import immobility with legal entrants whose children and grandchildren will earn less than native-born Americans. Add to this our departures from the rule of law and a regulatory state on steroids, and it’s easy to see why we’ve become more aristocratic than other countries.

The barriers to mobility are not unjust inheritance laws, nor are they heritable genes. Instead, the obstacles arise from a set of legal rules that place stumbling blocks in the path of the Ragged Dicks who seek to rise. Such barriers are not to be found in other First World countries, more egalitarian and mobile than we are, and that has made all the difference. A New Class has established itself at the pinnacle of American society, a class composed of elites on both the left and the right, that constrain our policy options and dictate the scope of permissible reforms. With their rules, our aristocrats—the New Class of lawyers, academics, media people, and trust fund babies—have succeeded in passing on their advantages to their children and overcoming the law of regression to the mean.

For a hereditary aristocracy to arise, only two things are needed, common to all of us: a bequest motive and relative preferences. The bequest motive is simply the desire to see our children do well. We are hardwired to seek to pass on our genes, and this means that, like in Deuteronomy, we distinguish between strangers and brothers. We’ll be willing to incur enormous sacrifices for children and near relatives, but for strangers to whom we are not related we have only a constrained sympathy. What that will leave us with is a world of family ties, thick with nepotism, where sons succeed fathers in politics, business, Hollywood, art, and music.

The second needed thing, for an aristocracy, is relative preferences. We have absolute preferences when we want something, and relative preferences when we also want more of it than the other fellow. And as we wish well for our children, given the bequest motive, we would want them to fare better than other people’s children, given relative preferences. We would be willing to accept a poorer world, so long as our children end up on top. We might even prefer a world that leaves our children worse off, so long as everyone else fares worse still.

The Bequest Motive

Aristocracy can best be understood through evolutionary biologist W. D. Hamilton’s law of genetic fitness. Darwinian natural selection shouldn’t be seen at the level of individuals, argued Hamilton, but rather from the perspective of our genes. On this arresting hypothesis (which Richard Dawkins subsequently labeled the selfish gene), the gene is the decision-making principal, and the individual is merely the agent that from time to time the gene (and its copies) inhabits. The gene gives the command; the individual follows it. And the command is: Be fruitful and multiply.

Genes can be transmitted in more than one way. Most obviously, the individual might pass on his genes to his children. In addition, however, we also share genes with our relatives, as geneticist Sewall Wright noted in 1922. Wright gave a mathematical formula for the probability that two individuals shared a common gene, which he called the “coefficient of relatedness” or r. Between father and daughter, for example, r is 0.5; and between father and grandchild it is 0.25.

From this, Hamilton arrived at a theory of “inclusive fitness,” which he defined to include the contribution to fitness provided by relatives other than immediate children. A person might thus be expected to act altruistically to nephews and cousins, when this would enhance the survival of his genes (and their copies). To operationalize this, Hamil­ton next applied the coefficient of relatedness r to the economist’s cost-benefit ratio: the cost to the donor and the benefit to the recipient in terms of evolutionary fitness. If altruism is an act that confers a fitness benefit B on the recipient (increasing his probability of reproductive success) and imposes a fitness cost C on the donor (­reducing his probability of reproductive success), the decision-making gene can be seen to give the following order to its body:

Be altruistic if rB > C.

This is Hamilton’s Rule, though it is better known today by the label John Maynard Smith gave it: kin selection. By way of example, J. B. S. Haldane had earlier intuited the idea behind kin selection in an aphorism that he would lay down his life for two brothers or eight first cousins. For one brother, r = 0.5, and for two of them r = 1.0. For one cousin, r = 0.125, and for eight of them r = 1.0. When the donor sacrifices himself for either two brothers or eight cousins, it’s an even trade.

When it’s all tied up like this, the selfish gene is indifferent as between the body it inhabits and those of his kin. But could it ever be more than an even trade? Yes, and this explains the intensity of a parent’s feelings for his child, and the desire for an aristocracy. To take one well-known family, the coefficient of relatedness between George VI and Princess Elizabeth, considered separately, was 0.5. But then she had four children, and they had two each, and each of them has two more. For the king, the daughter represented not merely an r of 0.5, but a sum of 2.5 over only three generations, and at that point a father is impelled to sacrifice for his child. That is why the social contract takes this form: we take from our parents and, without repaying them, give to our children. There is always an asymmetry in the relationship, one biased toward future generations, and when all else fails, this alone gives one the courage to say with confidence non omnis moriar.

Relative Preferences

To pass on our genes, we’d want to be rich, and as we’d be concerned about the ability of our children to pass on their genes, we’d want them to be rich too. Hence the bequest motive. For a full explanation of aristocracy, however, one more thing is needed: Why might the aristocrat be willing to impoverish future societies so long as his children end up on top? Why might he prefer to live in seventeenth-century France rather than in Ragged Dick’s much wealthier America?

The answer is relative preferences. We don’t just care about how wealthy we are in absolute terms. We also care about how wealthy we are relative to other people. With absolute preferences, I’ll be made happier if my employer gives me a $100 raise. With relative preferences, the raise might leave me feeling worse off if everyone else at work got a $10,000 raise.

With the royal family, we saw how the coefficient of relatedness might be greater than 1. With spite, it can also be less than 1. The spiteful donor x will bear a personal fitness cost C in order to impose a fitness cost –B upon y, with the ultimate goal of conferring a fitness benefit B upon third party z with whom y is in competition. (Assume that y’s fitness loss –B equals z’s fitness gain B.) Donor x is unrelated to y (rY = 0) but is related to z (rZ > 0). In that case, Hamilton’s Rule explains how x might be willing to bear a fitness cost C to inflict a fitness cost –B on y.

Be spiteful if (ry–rz)( –B) > C

Note that the coefficient of relatedness ry–rz is a negative number. The cost –B is also negative, so that multiplying it by the coefficient of relatedness ry–rz gives us a positive number. Donor x will then be spiteful so long as (ry–rz)(–B) exceeds his fitness cost C.

The spiteful person is an altruist. He does care about other people, just not in a good way. We might condemn him for wishing ill for others, but with greater self-awareness we’d recognize the little kernel of spite in all of us.

To see how spite might shape our political choices, consider the table below, where top-quintile people are given a choice between moving to World I and World II. If they wished well for everyone, they’d prefer World I, where everyone is made better off and income inequalities are reduced. World II is a poorer society all around, but a spiteful altruist might nevertheless prefer it if he could ensure that he and his children will be in the top quintile. In World II his children will be less wealthy in absolute dollars, but they’ll be better off in relative terms than they would be in World I.

Table: Choosing Future Worlds



World I

World II





Second Quintile








World I is a society of income mobility where everyone is permitted to advance, while World II is a spiteful, beggar-thy-neighbor, aristocratic society where national wealth is sacrificed to preserve the relative wealth of an aristocratic class. It is seventeenth-century France, where the pretentious aspirations of the bourgeois gentilhomme were ridiculed and where a centralized and dirigiste administration stifled the economy. That made the country poorer than it might have been, but it served to protect aristocrats from competition from below. And that is where we are today.

For a Republican Revival

Suppose we embraced a politics of mobility. What would that look like? For the most part, it’s not rocket science. Simply undo the mobility-destroying laws that like a python have wrapped themselves around our economy and fed upon it. Of course, that’s going to be harder in the U.S. than in other First World countries, which mostly have parliamentary forms of government. In our presidential system, with its separation of powers, we lack the reversibility of parliamentary government, where it’s easier to undo bad laws. Here there’s a one-way ratchet in which bad laws are enacted and then are turned into the laws of the Medes and the Persians. That goes a fair way toward explaining our problems with mobility.

But let’s suppose we could get over that. Apart from a negative agenda of undoing the impediments the left has erected—the bad schools, the absurd immigration laws—would we have a positive agenda? Lincoln had one, and he was the father of the American Dream. At the core of his vision for America was the idea that one’s lot in life should not be fixed, that everyone should be permitted to ascend from the lowest stations, as he himself had done in rising from the grinding and desperate poverty of a hardscrabble farm. Through his own efforts, he had bettered himself, read voraciously, and become a lawyer; and from his personal rise he took an understanding of society that led in time to the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment’s abolition of slavery, as expressed in his July 4, 1861, “Address to Congress.” This was how, he told Congress, the fight to preserve the Union should be seen.

This is essentially a people’s contest. On the side of the Union it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men; to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life. 

In today’s circumstances, what would a Lincoln propose if he were to return us to a mobile society? America has one of the most generous welfare systems in the world. If that’s less than obvious, that’s because it’s hidden in seventy-two different federal programs, as well as a host of state and local programs. Many of these duplicate each other, and we’d be better off with a more streamlined safety net. One thing we’d not expect to see, however, is a massive cut in the federal welfare budget, and, generosity apart, that is because well-designed welfare programs can promote economic mobility. A mobile society is a risk-taking society, where people gamble on high-risk, high-outcome opportunities. They’re more likely to do so when the safety net protects them against crushing downside risks. That’s why, whatever might emerge from ongoing fights over healthcare reform, we’d want to see people held harmless against the enormous medical expenses that can arise from catastrophic medical illnesses. Many right-wingers will oppose this, however, unless by chance they’ve found that they would have been bankrupted but for Medicare.

America’s investment in public education paid off handsomely, until recently. That’s not to say that the remedy calls for a federal takeover of schools, along the lines of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program. A better solution would be to return the Department of Education’s $63 billion budget in block grants to the states, to let them compete among each other in what Justice Benjamin Cardozo called the laboratory of democracy: “It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”

What has happened to our universities, meanwhile, is a scandal. Many of them have abandoned their mission of educating their students and instead indoctrinate them in political correctness. It’s been a world-class generational swindle. When they were students, our professors insisted on free-speech rights for themselves. Now that they’re professors, they take free-speech rights away from their students, through speech codes and “safe spaces” that make the entire academy an unsafe space. Worse still, they’ve run up the tab with tuition increases that greatly exceed the rate of inflation.

An older generation remembers tuition in the range of $2,000 to $3,000 a year. If you worked in the summer, you could carry that. Now it’s $50,000 or $60,000 for most private colleges. And it’s not as if you could save even a fraction of that over the summer. The jobs just aren’t there. The numbers on student debt are astounding: $1.2 trillion, owed by 43 million people, bigger than auto loans and credit card debt.

How did we ever get into this mess? Well, here’s one reason. We’ve offered students easy access to government-backed student loans, and for universities that turned out to be an invitation to jack up tuition. In effect, the federal government made a no-strings loan guarantee to the universities, and they took it to the bank. We ended up with administrative bloat and ridiculous course offerings at the Oberlins of the world that unfit students for jobs.

That’s not what other countries did. They recognized that student loans permitted poor kids to attend college, and that was a good thing. But having done this, they then told the colleges that they’d have to cap their tuition if they wanted their students to benefit from student loans. Otherwise, it’s an open invitation for abuse.

Conditioning student loan programs on capping tuition (and progressively lowering it) would be a good start. But it’s not enough. What do you do about the student who’s already rung up major student debt? Thirty years ago, a huge student loan might amount to $10,000. Now it can easily be $300,000. Imagine trying to dig your way out of that in a battered economy! You can’t. You can’t even begin to do so. What kind of incentive would you even have to do so if whatever you’d earn would go to your creditors?

That’s debt slavery. It’s a form of permanent servitude. And I have no doubt but that a Lincoln would seek a remedy for it. We need to rescue today’s debt serfs and give them a fresh start on life, and the way to do so is through a bankruptcy discharge for student debt. There is an existing right to discharge student debt in bankruptcy if you can prove undue hardship. But this is very hard to do, and few people avail themselves of it. I therefore propose a general right to discharge all student debt above $30,000 (or $60,000 for post-graduate professional degrees).

In the past, student debt could be discharged in bankruptcy along with other debts. That changed in 1976 for three reasons: students were thought to be rich kids, the debt load was a lot lower, and there were good jobs for graduates. None of that is true anymore. Students are increasingly from low-income families. The debt load is ten times higher. And the jobs aren’t there. We’ve betrayed Lincoln’s promise of America, and we’ve betrayed the millennials and Generation Z.

The right-winger’s first mistake was to assume that we’re more mobile than we are. His second mistake was to think that, if we’ve grown an aristocracy, the way back is paved by libertarian principles. As to that, he might not be far off the mark, but what this misses is that in a world of ineradicable departures from libertarianism, a second-best remedy for immobility requires a further relaxation of free market principles. We’re not going to give up on the welfare state, on public education, on government-backed loans for college students—and a politics of mobility must accept this and work within these constraints.

Nor will the new progressive conservatism seek an accommodation with the left in the manner proposed by men without chests on the right who tell us that our glory days have passed and that we must make our peace with all that is rotten in our society. Instead, the new conservative will scorn those who wave the white flag, who ask to be admired by the liberals. Instead, he will throw in the liberal’s face his hypocrisy, his responsibility for the aristocratic society he has produced. The new conservative is rude, he is unforgiving. To the well-bred milquetoasts on the right he says, We are not so nice as you!

F. H. Buckley is a Foundation Professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University, and the author, most recently, of American Secession: The Looming Threat of a National Breakup.