Damaging Admissions

Students walk on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Conn., November 12, 2015. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
Elites’ outrage at the bizarre bribery scandal that just hit top colleges across the country is deeply revealing.

The American ruling class has been scandalized by the revelation of a bribery ring that fixed admissions into elite colleges on behalf of wealthy and well-connected celebrities. Listen, and you can hear: “Oh, of course we care about the poor people in . . . Venezuela, or wherever — but this is a big deal!”

You can tell what the ruling class really values, and it isn’t money.

Up to a point, anyway. My own observations suggest that the progressives who are most interested in aggressive redistribution of income are those whose lives would be improved by it (the smaller group) and those whose lives would not be much affected by it, who are comfortable living well within their considerable means. It is not like Warren Buffett is going to have to start rationing the cuvée if his taxes go up a few points.

The high and mighty do care a great deal about admissions to elite universities (like the ones they attended, or wish they had) and similar opportunities: You won’t find many of the people who support a 70 percent top income-tax rate endorsing a program to award 70 percent of the spots in the New York Times fellowship program (formerly an “internship,” but those have gone out of fashion) to, say, at-risk students from journalistically underrepresented rural areas. Senator Sanders et al. think that it is immoral for a wealthy man to be able to decide what happens to 60 percent (plus $11.18 million) of his estate — but Harvard gets to treat 100 percent of its admissions spots like untouchable private property?

Maybe we should set aside 70 percent of the housing units in Glen Park for homeless people.


Some things are not subject to redistribution.

Progressives argue that we should redistribute wealth, especially family bequests, because it is unfair that some people have so much more than others — especially when they didn’t work for it. As one gentleman of leisure once put it: “Hey, my great-grandfather worked hard for that money.”

But why stop with money?

You can get your panties over your head about Charles Murray all you want, but the evidence is pretty solid that a great part of intelligence is inherited. And, even if it weren’t, IQ points are not distributed in accordance with any model of social justice. Some people are a lot smarter than others, and this gives them an enormous leg up in life — arguably a more important advantage than having parents with a few million dollars in their bank accounts, as pleasant as that prospect is.

That life is not fair used to be a truism. Now, it is an unspeakable truth supported by reams of data. Tall men make more money and live longer. So do good-looking people. Accents in the United States do not matter as much as they do in the United Kingdom, but a high-status one confers certain advantages — and a low-status one can be a real handicap. There are genetic factors related to personality traits that have enormous impact on our lives, our success, and our happiness. None of these is distributed fairly.

There are lots of people reposing on yachts who did not do anything to deserve their wealth. There are lots of people at the top of the list for a spot at Harvard who did not do anything to deserve their intelligence. They were just born that way. Sure, lots of them may have taken their educations seriously and cultivated their gifted minds — and lots of born-rich millionaires manage their money very responsibly and philanthropically.

There is a natural tendency to see our own blessings as virtues even as we see the blessings of others as unearned swag. The whole of American progressivism derives from the unexamined belief that high-IQ and highly credentialed experts deserve to rule for the same reason medieval kings did: They won’t credit the grand design to God, but it is understood to be the natural order of things.

The American ruling class will have its attention commanded by Ivy League admissions scandals for the same reason the endless fights over racial preferences at elite institutions get a lot more ink than does the high-school dropout rate in Milwaukee. It is natural for individuals to care about that which is close to them and familiar, and it is natural for the classes they compose to act the same way.

The old cartoon conservative turned up his nose at the “undeserving” poor, his only advice to them, “Get a job!” (“Get a job” remains excellent advice.) That those at the commanding heights of culture and journalism should be so mortally and morally offended — so top-of-the-front-page outraged — about an undeserving poseur getting his grubby hands on a privilege reserved for his betters is very instructive indeed.

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