Check Your ‘Privilege Theory’

It’s folly to think that government can redistribute and equalize social advantages.

The rate of dog ownership is rising ominously. How can a profusion of puppies be worrisome? A report from the Raymond James financial-services firm concerning trends in the housing market explains: Increasing numbers of women “are adopting dogs for security and/or companionship,” partly because of “the great education divide.”

Since 1979, the report says, the number of women going to college has accelerated relative to male enrollments. By 2012, there were 2.8 million more women than men in college, and by 2020 this “enrollment gap” is projected to grow to 4.4 million as women account for 74 percent of enrollment growth.

In 2000, the adult populations of college-educated men and women were approximately equal. By 2013, there were 4.9 million more women 25 or older with college degrees than men in that age group. This means a shortage of suitable male partners for a growing cohort of young women, who are postponing family formation. The report says millions of female-led households are being established by women who, being focused on their careers, are delaying motherhood, partly because of a shortage of suitable partners. More about suitability anon.

“Increased ‘competition’ for college-educated males” might mean that college-educated bachelors will feel less incentive to become domesticated, further depressing family formation. And for the growing class of undereducated young men, there are increasingly bleak “employment, income, and dating prospects.” What is good news for dog breeders is bad news for the culture.

Two years ago, Susan Patton, a Princeton graduate and mother of two sons who attended Princeton, detonated multiple explosions in the culture wars when, in a letter to the Daily Princetonian, she told “the young women of Princeton” what “you really need to know that nobody is telling you.” Which is that their future happiness will be “inextricably linked” to the men they marry, so they should “find a husband on campus” because “you will never again have this concentration of men who are worthy of you.” She explains:

Men regularly marry women who are younger, less intelligent, less educated. It’s amazing how forgiving men can be about a woman’s lack of erudition, if she is exceptionally pretty. Smart women can’t (shouldn’t) marry men who aren’t at least their intellectual equal. As Princeton women, we have almost priced ourselves out of the market. Simply put, there is a very limited population of men who are as smart or smarter than we are . . . It will frustrate you to be with a man who just isn’t as smart as you.

Patton’s brassy indifference to delicacy served the serious purpose of riveting attention on what social scientists call “assortative mating.” Plainly put, America has always aspired to be a meritocracy in which careers are open to talents, and status is earned rather than inherited. But the more merit matters to upward mobility, the more inequality becomes entrenched in a stratified society.

Those favored by genetics, and by family acculturation the acquired social capital (the habits and dispositions necessary for taking advantage of opportunities), tend to go to school and then to work together. And they marry one another, concentrating advantages in their children.

Hence today’s interest in what is called “privilege theory,” which takes a dark view of the old couplet, “All men are by nature equal, but differ greatly in the sequel.” The theory leaps from the obvious to the dubious. Obviously some people are born with, and into, advantages, congenital and social. What is dubious is the conclusion that government has the capacity and duty to calibrate, redistribute, and equalize advantages.

Joy Pullmann, writing at the Federalist, a conservative website of which she is managing editor, notes something else obvious: This agenda is incompatible with freedom. Furthermore, although some individuals have advantages they did not earn, “very often someone else did earn them” — by, for example, nurturing children in a stable family. It is hardly an injustice — an invidious privilege — for nurturing parents to be able to confer on their children the advantages of conscientiousness. The ability to do so, says Pullmann, is a powerful motivation for noble behavior that, by enlarging society’s stock of parental “hard work, self-control and sacrifice,” produces “positive spillover effects for everyone else.”

Enhancing equality of opportunity is increasingly urgent and increasingly difficult in an increasingly complex, information-intensive society. The delicate task is to do so without damaging freedom and the incentives for using freedom for individual striving, which is the privilege — actually, the natural right — that matters most.

— George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. © 2015 The Washington Post

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