Of Course Rich Kids Are Naturally More Able

Over at RealClearMarkets, Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution has a really terrific piece about "opportunity hoarding" -- the phenomenon in which the rich rig the market to their kids' advantage, through everything from outright subsidies to "legacy" college admissions to setting up top-notch internships. I don't think any reasonable person can deny that having wealthy parents is an advantage in modern America in ways it should not be, and that ideally it would be much more common for rich kids to be "downwardly mobile."

Reeves loses me in the very last paragraph, though:

Markets work best when there is open and fair competition. The market for talent is no different. Right now, it looks like the market is not working efficiently: unless, of course, we think that rich kids are naturally more able. But if we think that, let's stop talking about the American dream.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but no one with even a basic knowledge of the relevant sociological and genetic research could actually believe this. Success in America depends, in part, on certain personal qualities -- whether you start out poor or rich, high intelligence, a good work ethic, and an ability to schmooze will increase your odds of making money, for example. Many of these qualities are partly genetic and thus will tend, statistically, to run in families. So often you'll see parents use these qualities to get rich and then pass them on to their kids -- along with plenty of other advantages, of course.

We can debate how important genes are relative to those other advantages and what the ramifications are for policy. As Reeves notes, it's instructive that other countries have much more downward mobility than we do, and as Eric Turkheimer's twin studies have shown, for poor kids poverty can swamp the effects of genetic variation in IQ. But it's silly to act surprised at the notion that parents who are good at making money might naturally have kids who are good at making money.

This doesn't mean we have to give up on the American dream, either. Almost nothing is 100 percent genetic, and even when it comes to genetic qualities children are not just an average of their parents: Random processes unfold as two parents' DNA is remixed into a child's DNA, and for many traits children tend to become closer to the average relative to their parents. There are plenty of smart poor kids, and there's good evidence that we're not doing all we should to help them become rich.

Yes, let's keep rich parents from rigging the game, and yes, let's help the poor better themselves. But let's also come to grips with the fact that in any plausible human society -- even one in which all children are taken from their parents at birth -- there will be a positive correlation between the success of a child and the success of his parents.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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