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Yes, We Have an Aristocracy in America—and It’s Thriving

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Early in the 19th century, not long after a bunch of British colonies became the United States of America, an aging John Adams and his friend and rival Thomas Jefferson exchanged dozens of letters in which they debated the state of aristocracy in the new republic. The Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Joseph Ellis recounted this exchange in his 2018 book, American Dialogue, which Mother Jones excerpted. Ellis writes:

Adams’ chief heresy was his direct refutation of Jefferson’s most famous words, that “all men are created equal.” Perhaps in some lofty humanistic sense this was true, Adams wrote, but “Inequalities of Mind and Body are so established by God Almighty in the constitution of Human Nature that no Art or policy can ever plain them down to a level.” Aristocracies, he therefore insisted, were an inevitable and permanent fixture in all human societies—including the young republic he and Jefferson had helped into being.

Jefferson wrote back to suggest his friend’s argument was true of Europe, where feudal privileges, inherited titles, and limited economic opportunities created conditions that sustained class distinctions. In America, though, the absence of laws such as primogeniture and entail, and the existence of an unspoiled continent, meant “everyone may have land to labor for himself as he chooses,” and thus enduring elites were unlikely here. Given such favorable conditions, Jefferson argued, it was reasonable to expect that “rank, and birth, and tinsel-aristocracy will finally shrink into insignificance,” resulting in a roughly egalitarian, middle-class society.

Adams was unconvinced. “No Romance could be more amusing,” he replied, than the belief that the United States would prove an exception to the dominant pattern of economic inequality throughout history. “As long as Property exists,” he observed, “it will accumulate in Individuals and Families…the Snow ball will grow as it rolls.”

During a subsequent interview for my new book about America’s superrich, I asked Gabriel Zucman, an economist and expert on economic inequality at the University of California, Berkeley, which founder’s outlook he thought was more prescient. He replied that our situation in America today is arguably worse than the one Adams feared: not a hereditary aristocracy but an economic one “that can present itself as more legitimate than the old-world aristocracy, where you were rich and powerful for totally arbitrary reasons.” [Read more.]

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