Monday, May 16, 2011

The state's oldest rival

As I wend my rather leisurely way through Francis Fukuyama's The Origins of Political Order, the author's wide-angle view of the social imperatives and pressures that shape governments adds a useful lens to some contemporary struggles.

One very broad thesis, which may in fact be a near-consensus view among Fukuyama's sources, is that the history of the state is in large part the history of the sovereign power's struggle to neutralize powerful subjects' (or citizens') biological imperative to pass their advantages on to their children  -- that is, to neutralize the force of kinship ties, which are the means of building rival power centers. Hence Chinese emperors  periodically decimated the aristocracy and installed merit-based bureaucracy, while the aristocracy in turn would in periods of dynastic weakness find ways to game the system and win back inheritable offices and privileges; the Mamluk and Ottoman empires kidnapped or drafted promising youths from outlying areas and trained them as an elite slave class that either could not marry or could not pass on wealth or position to their offspring; the French and Spanish kings, desperate for cash to fight endless wars, colluded with an entrenched and tax-exempt aristocracy to extract wealth from everyone else .A handful of fortunate lands developed strong central governments willing to be held accountable  in exchange for diverse elites' consent to be taxed. In all cases, however, the gravitational pull is toward elites' irrepressible will to to pass their elite status to their children.

In this light, current battles in the U.S. over the estate tax, marked by bitter denunciations of the "death tax,"  seem especially visceral.  Also touching a deep nerve are struggles to equalize educational opportunity. Witness this complaint and response by Megan McArdle and E.D. Kain:

McArdle: I find it maddening how many upper middle class parents energetically "support public education" against the depredations of vouchers and other reforms, while moving their own children into better school districts or better programs.  Especially parents in Manhattan and a few areas of Brooklyn who proudly note that their experience shows how great public education is, while failing to note that their schools work because these comparatively affluent parents with a great deal of social and political capital fight like hell to divert as many resources as possible--including the best teachers--into a handful of schools in affluent areas.  New York's famed magnet schools are a big part of this dramatic inequality, and yet the middle class parents who sent their kids there somehow thought their kids had more in common with the kids at Samuel J. Tilden than at Dalton. 
Kain: Ironically, Megan is angry at parents who want to protect their own interests, and who work to divert as much funding for their schools as possible, and then assumes that simply giving people more choice in their children's education will magically fix this. I’m not against school choice, per se, but I do think it’s mildly amusing that someone would think that increased choice will benefit the poor over the well-connected. In reality, many charter schools cater to the well-to-do over the poor, and are structured in such a way as to harvest the best students while leaving under-achievers behind in the public system. (Hat tip: Dish.)
Never mind the merits of the argument -- both recognize that elite parents will put up multiple layers of resistance to any attempts to erode their children's educational advantages.

Early hints suggest that in late chapters, Fukuyama will question whether the U.S. is losing its capacity to moderate the advantages of elites -- to tax them adequately, to prevent them from rigging regulatory regimes so that leaders in various industries can extract rents more than create wealth; to preserve social mobility for the less advantaged and generate opportunity that's broadly based enough to sustain competitive growth in national wealth.  We'll see....

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