The Corner

Are There Ruling Classes?

Charles Murray’s new book has been generating a lot of commentary. Some of the best has come from Britain: not very surprising, since the book’s subject is class, which the Brits have been obsessing about since the days of Wat Tyler.

Economic historian Greg Clark, author of the fascinating 2008 book A Farewell to Alms, takes the long view, as of course a historian should. He has a new paper out with the title: “Are there Ruling Classes? Surnames and Social Mobility in England, 1800-2011.” Science blogger Steve Hsu has a link and an abstract here.

I particularly liked these sentences from the abstract, on the surprisingly slow convergence of social classes across historic time: “The 1800 underclass has already attained mediocrity [i.e. via upward mobility]. And the 1800 upper class will eventually dissolve into the mass of society, though perhaps not for another 300 years, or longer.”

Charles Murray’s book raises the prospect that with the post-WWII dawn of a near-frictionless meritocracy, the convergence may stall or go into reverse, Clark’s 300 years stretching out to infinity. (Notice that nasty recent uptick of the “rich” line in the graph Steve reproduces. It seems to start with the born-in-1910 descendants of the 1800 rich; but with 25 years between data points, it’s hard to know what this means.)

The slogan of Wat Tyler and his revolting peasants was:

When Adam delved and Eve span

Who was then the gentleman?

An update for our time might go:

When Ivy grad shuns common man

Who will be American?

[I took a poke at the issue four years ago in my “Talking to the Plumber” piece.]


The Latest