WHEN the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination line up on stage for their first debate in August, there may be three contenders whose fathers also ran for president. Whoever wins may face the wife of a former president next year. It is odd that a country founded on the principle of hostility to inherited status should be so tolerant of dynasties. Because America never had kings or lords, it sometimes seems less inclined to worry about signs that its elite is calcifying.
Thomas Jefferson drew a distinction between a natural aristocracy of the virtuous and talented, which was a blessing to a nation, and an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, which would slowly strangle it. Jefferson himself was a hybrid of these two types—a brilliant lawyer who inherited 11,000 acres and 135 slaves from his father-in-law—but the distinction proved durable. When the robber barons accumulated fortunes that made European princes envious, the combination of their own philanthropy, their children’s extravagance and federal trust-busting meant that Americans never discovered what it would be like to live in a country where the elite could reliably reproduce themselves.
Now they are beginning to find out, (see article), because today’s rich increasingly pass on to their children an asset that cannot be frittered away in a few nights at a casino. It is far more useful than wealth, and invulnerable to inheritance tax. It is brains.
America is one of only three advanced countries where the government spends more on schools in rich areas than in poor ones. Its university fees have risen 17 times as fast as median incomes since 1980, partly to pay for pointless bureaucracy and flashy buildings. And many universities offer “legacy” preferences, favouring the children of alumni in admissions.
Many schools are in the grip of one of the most anti-meritocratic forces in America: the teachers’ unions, which resist any hint that good teaching should be rewarded or bad teachers fired. To fix this, and the scandal of inequitable funding, the system should become both more and less local. Per-pupil funding should be set at the state level and tilted to favour the poor. Dollars should follow pupils, through a big expansion of voucher schemes or charter schools. In this way, good schools that attract more pupils will grow; bad ones will close or be taken over. Unions and their Democratic Party allies will howl, but experiments in cities such as battered New Orleans have shown that school choice works.
Familiar themes in Madison, where one size fits all reigns, while spending double the national average per student.