when social advantage persists for millennia


  • In Florence, many of the wealthiest taxpaying families in 1421 are still the wealthiest families today. The very top earner in 2011 is descended from a guild member who was in the 97th percentile in 1421. In between came Medici rule, Napoleon, the Hapsburg Empire, the resorgimento, industrialization, democracy, socialism, fascism, and two world wars. Still, the names honored on the endowed chapels of the early renaissance are the names of the families who pay the most income tax in Florence today.
  • In England between 1170 and 2011, relative social status has been more consistently inherited than height has been. The same surnames that are listed as major landowners in the 1086 Domesday Book are still upper-class today. This despite the impact of the English Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, Labour governments, emigration, immigration, and the EU.
  • In Sweden, they stopped creating nobles in the 17th century. Then came the industrial revolution, emigration, democracy, and socialism, yet families whose names indicate noble heritage are still richer than other Swedes.
  • In France, the aristocrats of the Roman era were pagan, Latin-speaking owners of villas and slaves. By the early medieval era, the country’s leaders were Christian bishops who saw themselves as Franks. Yet the Frankish bishops were the lineal descendants of the Romano-Gallic villa owners. The Fall of the Roman Empire, barbarian invasions, and Christianity did little to shake their relative advantage.
  • In China, 13 surnames are over-represented among the highest scorers on the Confucian state exams in 221 BCE. The same surnames predominate among “the high officials in the Nationalist government from 1912 to the triumph of the communists in 1949; professors at the ten most prestigious universities in the country in 2012; chairs of the boards of companies listed in 2006 as having assets of $1.5 million and above; and members of the (still communist) central government administration in 2010.” Between 1912 and today, Mao is thought to have executed 800,000 landlords; and at least 10 million Chinese were killed or driven into exile on the grounds of being bourgeois. Yet now descendants of the old Chinese bourgeoisie sit on the boards of multi-billion-dollar Chinese companies.

A society can be more or less equal. For instance, the practical significance of being in the top or bottom ten percent is much less in Sweden than it is in the US, because virtually all Swedes have safe neighborhoods, income security, healthcare, and education.

A society can be more or less prosperous. Everyone is better off today than they were in the early France of King Clovis. Growth can lift all boats.

And a society can be more or less economically mobile. None of these examples reflect zero mobility. More typical is a correlation of about 0.9 for generation after generation, which leads to a fair amount of change over, say, 2,200 years in China.

But the important point to remember about mobility is that for anyone who moves up, someone else must move down (in relative terms). Unlike prosperity, mobility is zero-sum. And the people who are at the top really, really don’t want their children to move down. They typically have so much financial, cultural, and social capital that even the greatest cataclysms and the most radically egalitarian reforms in human history have left a lot of them sitting on top again, once things settle down.

I’m for mobility. To abandon that ideal is to accept a kind of caste system. But it’s important not to depend on mobility alone, given the remarkable stability of social advantage in all these countries. If your agenda is mobility, you must face the reality that you’re asking the same number of families to accept downward movement as will benefit from upward movement.

Equality and prosperity look relatively promising, by comparison. Christopher Winship argues that “the best way to approach serving the interests of the least well off [may be] to avoid policies that decisively pit the interests of the less advantaged families against those of the more advantaged families.” He cites evidence that Scandinavian countries have achieved the highest levels of shared prosperity and economic equality in the world today not by directly pursuing equality of opportunity (which would mean lowering the odds that the children of the rich will be rich) but by negotiating policies that are attractive to business as well as labor. These compromises have created durable and accountable states that have been able to deliver high-quality services for all. Such states also provide conditions for somewhat more inter-generational mobility than we see in the USA, just because the bottom of the income distribution faces less profound obstacles.

Source: Christopher Winship, “From Principles to Practice and the Problem of Unintended Consequences,” in Meira Levinson and Jacob Fay, eds., Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries (Cambridge: Harvard Education Press, 2016), pp. 177-8. See also to what extent can colleges promote upward mobility?; and why some forms of advantage are more stubborn than others.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.