An article that appeared in the opinion section of the New York Times by Gregory Clark has generated a great deal of discussion. One of my close friends asked for my comments on it.
Clark reports on the study of surnames in many countries over centuries. Surnames were used to examine changes in social status. There are so many errors and omissions and failures to understand history and sociology that it is a waste my time to criticise his work. The comments at the end of the article did a superb job of pointing out the many errors.
Social mobility is a core issue in sociology. For one reason. Most societies began as tribal and remain tribal to this day.
Tribal societies are static. Hereditary positions survive for many generations. This presents a problem because 3-4% of every generation has meritocratic attributes that make that person more valuable to the society than all other members. Therefore it is necessary for every society to have a mechanism for the meritocratic members to rise and pass through the hereditary structures. The alternatives are regicide, revolution or civil war.
In the past three centuries two important mechanisms have arisen globally to change this pattern. The first was the creation of colonies around the world. These colonies were created by the rapidly growing commercial societies in Europe: Spain, England, Holland and France.
The colonies created an effective mechanism for the meritocratic members to leave their home country and establish their impressive credentials (think Churchill, and Gandhi) and return home to a suitably higher status position.
The second great mechanism for accommodating surplus meritocratic populations born into the wrong hierarchical levels was the creation of the American colonies and later the American states. This vast opening of land in a politically open society allowed the meritocratic populations of the world to migrate in large numbers.
As a consequence the United States became the home of the world’s meritocratic population. It also has become the global giant in every commercial and cultural venue.
One book is proof of this American reality. That is the telephone books of the Bell laboratories from the 1950s and 60s. The names in this telephone book, at the center of the technological world, are the names of the entire planet Chinese, Indian, Persian, Jewish etc.
The new world, the American colonies, after its founding in the 18th Century, rapidly created an hereditary elite structure. The structure was highly mobile, as any sociologists can tell you (except for the imported African population). It took only two generations for a meritocratic child to migrate with his family into the top hereditary class. Schools were one mechanism but it has mostly been success in commerce.
Also meritocratic people moved into new geographic areas and immediately filled the niches at the top of the hierarchy.
All of this came to an end in the United States (and only in the United States) in 1960. One book makes this clear. The Social Registers all over the U.S. were published for the last time in 1960.
We can now look at a list of the 100 richest Americans and not find a single name on that list that comes from the earlier American hereditary elite. In fact every single name corresponds to a business that succeeded after 1960.
This disappearance of the American hereditary elite occurred for two reasons. First was creation of public universities all over the country. Second was the commissioning of all college graduates into the officer class in World War II. These meritocratic officers became the top strata of American business by the end of the 1950s. Commerce was growing until WWII and exploded after that point.
Clark is correct about one thing. There is a regression to the mean from higher elite status within a few generations. It does not take more than four generations in the United States. I have worked with two of the oldest wealthiest American families and not one of the hereditary children in the fourth generation has any status whatsoever. A few of the direct descendent women married meritocratic men and have higher social status because of that.
None of this raises an issue about genes or culture. Clark is an economist and cannot be expected to know sociology. Social institutions are the sole mechanism that is used to maintain elite social status. These institutions include membership clubs, social rituals, and physical attributes such as frequency of eye blinking that allow members of the elite status to recognize each other in a large population.
Lastly, to fully understand the reality of hereditary social status one needs to look at Japan.
For several thousand years Japan has retained a strong and stable social hierarchy. This is achieved with two mechanisms. One, the Imperial family is symbolic and leaves the political realm to the world of meritocratic power battles. Japan is now on the 125th emperor.
Two, high status families adopt the meritocratic offspring of the rest of society. The meritocratic offspring assumes the family name of the elite family and becomes a member of the new family. This assures that meritocracy moves to the top of the social hierarchy without any disruption.
To summarize. All societies, except for the current U.S. have hereditary social elites. They all have a mechanism for the 3-4% of meritocratic births each generation to rise and a mechanism for everyone else to revert to the mean over many generations. The last three centuries have introduced geographic dislocations into the mechanisms because of the growth of commerce. We will continue to see these kinds of disruptions.