Inherited Opportunity

If any one idea can justly be called the American idea, it is that a child’s circumstances at birth should not determine the station in life that that child will occupy as an adult. Americans swept away the instruments of English hereditary inequality—entails and titles of nobility—even before we had a constitution. At the Constitutional Convention, men born to wealth, like Edmund Randolph and Pierce Butler, were no more respected than the cobbler’s son Roger Sherman or the tallow chandler’s son Benjamin Franklin. In the decades that followed, American egalitarianism was furthered by the Homestead Act, the Civil War amendments, the Civil Rights Act of 1871, the graduated income tax, the GI Bill, and other landmarks of our history.

But three related problems now cast doubt on the future of this American idea.

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The American Idea
Scholars, novelists, politicians, artists, and others look ahead to the future of the American idea.

The first is that while education is increasingly essential to social and economic advancement, public schools outside expensive neighborhoods are still inadequate. This problem perhaps cannot be solved just by throwing money at it—but it also cannot be solved without throwing money at it, since we need to hire more and better teachers at higher salaries. This must be federal money. States offer to reduce taxes as they compete with one another to attract business, and relying on local taxpayers will only perpetuate the failure of schools in poor neighborhoods.

Second, Congress has cut taxes for the rich and is under pressure to do away with the federal estate tax. Not only do such policies directly exacerbate a heritable inequality; they force cuts in spending needed for public goods, including education.

Third, all this is happening when the earnings gap between workers and executives or investors has been allowed to become obscene.

Until we change course, we are betraying the best American idea.

Presented by

Steven Weinberg, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, won the 1979 Nobel Prize in physics.

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