I am rich. My parents are rich. We are members of the upper class. My memories may be wrong, but I recall that I realized this before they did, and that it took me a little time to convince my parents that we were rich and not middle-class.
Their reluctance to face this fact was understandable. We are not made of money. My father is a teacher and my mother is a nurse. We live a modest lifestyle in a small house. We routinely shop at thrift stores and discount stores. We drive unpretentious economy cars. We do not purchase any luxury goods, with the possible exceptions of health food and craft items from local artists.
When I was young, we were certainly not rich. But over the years, something happened. Habits of industry, frugality, and thrift began to pay their rewards. My parents paid off the mortgage and all of their debts, and accumulated enough savings to be secure against anything short of a catastrophic medical crisis. They started buying their cars by writing checks instead of signing up for payment plans.
I have picked up these good habits. I have not inherited any substantial amount of money, but I have worked and saved, and learned how to live a good life without spending money. The interesting paradox of money is that once you get in the habit of not spending it, once you train your mind to be thrifty, you quickly end up with so much money that you do not have to worry about it at all. But the habits remain, and the savings accumulates. I bought my first car by swiping my debit card, and I have never paid any interest in my life. I earn more in interest on my assets each month than I spend on food.
In the past, being a member of the aristocracy was based on the financial wealth of your ancestors. Nowadays, inheritance of physical wealth means less than it used to. It is easier than ever before to build a fortune, or to dissipate one. By historical standards, ownership of physical wealth is now very fleeting and tenuous.
But we are beginning to see the emergence of a new kind of aristocracy, one defined by the new constraint of our age. Physical resources are not the constraint on the good life that they once were. You can be poor and happy, or rich and miserable. The ability to live a flourishing life now depends almost entirely on your attitudes, beliefs, character, wisdom, and morality. In the past, these kinds of standards were much more uniform, with minimal standards enforced by both physical necessity and social norms.
But today, in a land of vast wealth and social permissiveness, new divisions are emerging in society. Education and culture no longer unify our character traits, and the laws of natural selection have been superseded by our system of social welfare. In the absence of these unifying constraints, character traits like self-control and long-term planning are determined mainly by parents and peer groups, and your parents usually determine your peers.
It is a well-known fact that there exists a 'permanent underclass' of people born into poverty and bad social conditions, who them go on to have more children in the same conditions. But I have seen very few people comment or speculate on a 'permanent overclass' of people who are born into emotionally and financially secure households, and go on to create the same kinds of families. Their children will be in the upper class not because they inherited physical assets, but because they inherited the beneficial character traits of their parents. Call them the 'Aristocracy of Morality'.
The Aristocracy of Morality will continue to dominate the world, or at least live a good life, and its existence will become more and more obvious over time. This is because they posess something that, unlike money, cannot be transferred. As the behavioral standards of the rest of society decay, they will remain, growing ever more rare but wielding ever more wealth and power in consequence of the rarity of their character. Many members will drop out of the Aristocracy, and a few will manage to join it, but membership will be based mainly on the accident of birth.
This article illustrates what I am talking about, and it was the inspiration for this post. I will quote the relevant facts:
"The illegitimacy ratio for the white underclass is probably now in the region of 70 percent. I think that the proportion for the white working class may be above 40 percent. The white middle class is approaching 20 percent—a scarily high figure when you think about all the ways that the middle class has been the spine of the nation.
The white overclass? They're still living in the 1950s—their ratio is probably about 4 or 5 percent tops."
Their definition of class depends entirely on education and money*, because that is what is easiest to measure. The study shows a very strong correlation between money and behavior standards. Correlation is not causation, of course, and we cannot be sure if the money leads to good families, or if good families lead to wealth. My life experience seems to suggest the latter. Numerous studies show that being born into a wealthy family improves life outcomes, and they conclude that wealth leads to good families. I argue that that good character leads to good character directly, and that wealth is just a symptom. The recurring failure of wealth transfer programs to improve social conditions supports this claim.
It is theoretically possible to greatly expand the membership of the Aristocracy of Morality, so that most of society could gain the benefits of membership. A few changes to our education system, cultural messages, and legal institutions could work wonders. But I do not see this ever happening. For various reasons, our society has lost the ability and/or willingness to attack self-destructive behavior patterns.
This is understandable. It is not fair to punish people for failing to follow rules they never learned and never had a chance to learn. I would never support such harshness; I am not nearly as cruel as Nature. It is also true that people sometimes fail for reasons that have nothing to do with their actions or character. But there must be some way to maintain a social safety net without allowing moral standards to fall so far that only a small Overclass retains the character traits that generate wealth, success, and the ability to live a good, flourishing life.
However, I do not think that this trick will ever be accomplished. It is a sad fact of history that societies will always purchase as much decadence as they can possibly afford. And our society can afford a lot.
*Technically, the linked study would not classify my family as 'Overclass' because my parents have no postsecondary education. But we do fit the household income requirement, and we certainly have the morality and worldview that the study identifies as 'Overclass'.