|Toward an Hereditary Upper Class|
hese days, the United States hasn't much of an hereditary aristocracy. Oh, we made a brave start- chronicled by Edith Wharton and Henry James- but where are those families now? Most have dissipated, thanks to divorce, profligate children, ruinous taxes, the Great Depression, etc. Is there any chance for a revival in the new century?
As I see it, seven conditions are required to create an enduring upper class in America. The current absence, or rarity, of these seven conditions goes far to explaining why there isn't such a class at present:
(1) A Family Talent. To justify aristocracy, a class must devote itself to the principle of aristos, the best. The upper class, family by family, must create things of value to our civilization and share them generously and tirelessly with the rest of us. This is the sine qua non of these seven conditions. Without it, it's not worth it: the rich would merely be ordinary people with a lot of money-- might as well give up and allow the ill-used wealth to be taxed away.
With it, though-- when the aristos principle is applied in concert with wealth and breeding and education-- good things can happen. Being free from the tiresome daily business of earning a living can enable one to focus on creative work of all sorts. Of course the upper class is not the prime cause, nor even a major factor, in manifesting a civilization; but they can at least be well aware of what civilization is, and keen to do their bit.
It's too much to expect that a family manifest the best in everything, though of course they should have a sharp eye for it. Instead, each family should undertake to be the best at some one thing: style, music, parties, interior design, politics, winemaking, or- most desirable of all- writing.
(2) Elimination of the Death Tax. Wealth is neither necessary nor sufficient for an enduring aristocracy, but oh my, it does help. The great problem is that the wealth created by one generation is taxed twice: when it is earned, and when it is passed to the next generation. The second of these taxes is especially pernicious, not only because of the size of the bite- Federal and State taxes will take 50% to 60% of everything beyond the first million of an estate- but because government wants its money right now. When most of the wealth of a family is concentrated in one or two major assets- a business, a ranch, a great house- those assets may need to be sold at a low price to raise the cash for the taxes. The best reason for eliminating inheritance taxes is to keep the "family place" (see below) in the family's hands.
(3) Reconceiving Marriage. At least 40% of American marriages end in divorce. This is catastrophic to hopes to build an hereditary upper class, both because the estate is cut to pieces in the dissolution, and because children lose a sense of "family". We need to reconceive marriage as taking two distinct forms: as a love-bond between two people, or as a foundation for children and a family. The latter, "family-foundation" form should consist of a sacred vow to a partnership of childrearing, and to the integrity of the estate that those children will inherit. If the couple find that they do indeed love and cherish one another until death parts them, so much the better- but that should not be part of the family-foundation vow. Better a hundred mistresses or lovers than one divorce...
As the elimination of the Death Tax could be the Republican contribution to the great work of creating an American aristocracy, reconceiving marriage could be the Democrats' contribution: the former have proven fierce opponents of taxes, and the latter are open to rethinking what "marriage" means.
(4) A Sense of Place. Americans move too much. As Wallace Stegner put it, too many of us are "Boomers", shifting from one place to the next in search of that gold strike, that Big Rock Candy Mountain. Those who hope to create an inherited estate need to be "Stickers", whose first generation finds and buys its "family place", which later generations improve, love with all their hearts, and hang onto for dear life. This family place need not be grand- it can be a clapboard house in Appalachia, or a funky old ranch in Colorado, or a ramshackle lakeside retreat in Vermont- but it must be a thing of value which the years treat kindly.
(5) Schools for Gilded Youth. The obvious purpose of schooling is to help the children master the skills of the elite: wise use of wealth, management of staffs, elegant use of language, knowledge of history, appreciation of the arts, and so forth. All well and good- but the real purpose is to enable the forming of lifelong friendships that sustain class solidarity. For all of this, fine schools are needed. Most such schools are private, but there is ample opportunity for worthwhile public schools in areas where the upper class concentrates.
(6) Health. Physical health is vital; many family members should live into their eighties and beyond, to sustain a living bond across generations. Mental, emotional, and moral health are just as essential. The 20th Century left a legacy of powerful methods to restore those sorts of health- family counseling, Twelve Step, Outward Bound, Prozac. These should be applied as needed, with the will to be realistic about failure to recover health: a family shouldn't hesitate to disinherit its fools, liars, gamblers, drunkards, and nutcases.
(7) A Paterfamilias. The history of Western nations since 1789 shows that lethal external challenges to inherited wealth arise about three times every two centuries. The main job of the paterfamilias (or materfamilias) is to beware of such challenges, and ensure that the family's asset base is maintained and expanded. Each generation, the family fortunes must be entrusted to someone who is smart about maintaining ownership of wealth, and diversifying across many forms (businesses, bonds, equities, cash, collectibles, real estate) and across borders.
The greatest internal challenges to inherited wealth arise from too much division among heirs, and from the folly of those heirs. These challenges are met by a willingness to disinherit foolish or profligate children, and a commitment to primogeniture if there are too many competent children for too little wealth.
Naturally there is the danger that the paterfamilias might be an egotistical madman- a Howard Hughes or a Herbert Haft. Each family needs to create its own sort of checks and balances to deal with this danger.
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This list of seven consists of six items about preserving an upper class, plus one about justifying its existence. When I speculate about the hopes for an upper class in the new century, I realize that the absence of the one may obviate any success with the other six. It is an old story in this country, and I believe it will be repeated this time: tomorrow's rich will once again be too vulgar, too selfish, too culturally numb, to create an aristocracy worthy of the name. They will be Millionaires Next Door1: uninteresting people who happen to have lots of money.
Perhaps, though, the competitive streak of the American rich will be aroused. Perhaps they will read the history of other peoples at the peak of their economic power- the Italians in the Renaissance, the Dutch in the 17th Century, the English in the late 19th Century- and marvel at the cultural flourishing of the rich in those eras. Perhaps they will think, "Hey- we're Americans! We can do better!" And perhaps they will make a try, family by family, at outdoing the Medicis, the de Ruyters, and the Balfours at the great game of creating a civilization.
1 T. Stanley and W. Danko, in The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America's Wealthy (1996), describe at great length how very frugal, ordinary, and "middle class" are the lives of today's rich. Tellingly, they speak of this lifestyle as if it were a good thing...(printer friendly version)