'Daddy, what does it mean to be middle-class?'

"Hmmm, that's a pretty good question.  Most folks tend to get the answer wrong — especially those doing the news.  They usually say it is entirely determined by how much money you make — but it really has much more to do with how you plan to go through life."


"Yep.  You see, before there was a defined middle class, folks were mostly fatalistic about their destinies.  Royals and aristocrats inherited their social status.  It was God's will.  Peasants expected to endlessly toil in order to just barely survive.  Over time, some of the peasants acquired their own land, harvested more crops than they needed for themselves, and began to acquire cash money and other forms of property.

"Eventually, a middle-class ethic began to be recognized: have a strategic approach to life.  Become educated, so your work is more valuable.  Carefully choose whom you marry and where you live.  In other words, abandon fatalism and exercise free will."

"I'm starting to get it...but why are there still people outside the middle class?"

"No matter how you raise the standard of living, some folks will always be at the bottom.  Poorly educated people, especially, often have a hard time making enough money to live a middle-class life.  Their parents didn't encourage them enough to have and execute a plan.  This doesn't mean they can't become middle class; they just have to work at it.  But there are other folks, many of whom have really good educations, who choose to live outside the middle class.  They can be artists and other kinds of intellectuals.  We used to call them Bohemians."

"Huh?  Why?"

"Way back in 1840, Honoré de Balzac wrote a story called "A Prince of Bohemia."  It's about a member of a royal family of a country that had been absorbed into the Hapsburg Empire.  Thus, he lived in exile in a garret in Paris..."

"What's a garret?"

"Oh, it's sort of a converted attic.  He made his living by giving fencing lessons to the 'idiot' children of the bourgeoisie, which is sort of the French word for middle class.  Throughout the story, he seethed with loathing for his customers and their ilk.  He was so much better than them.  They were so stupid and materialistic.  And you see, material wealth is typically important to the middle class, and it is also a source of criticism. 

"After Balzac, another European intellectual emerged to savagely attack the middle class: Karl Marx.  Class struggle was his mantra.  Even though both his grandfathers were rabbis, he was particularly hostile to the Jews.  Jews are most obviously middle-class.  They're typically shopkeepers and professionals, not itinerant laborers and vagrants.  And Marx wanted the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' to be the vehicle for advancement, not individual effort and wise decision-making."

"Was there ever an aristocracy here in America?"

"Not since the Revolution.  The U.S. is truly a classless society.  People can inherit property, but not a pre-ordained social position.  Our Constitution specifically forbids us from accepting titles of nobility, and hardly anyone has ever complained about that.  Marx intensely followed our Civil War and properly concluded that the abolition of slavery was a tremendous victory for the ordinary working man.  Without slaves, all workers had to be paid with money.  People of all races in the former slave states benefited from that.

"America also has a profound characteristic of social mobility.  People have the freedom to change their 'walk in life.'  Unlike in traditional Europe, we have a much easier time opening new doors of opportunity.  However, no kind of birthright can protect us from failure.  The late, great economist Walter E. Williams often pointed out that the 'one-percenters,' the wealthiest among us, are typically replaced over time as new wealth lands in new hands and old fortunes are squandered.

"Bottom line: America is a middle-class paradise.  Social mobility, personal freedom, and the pre-eminence of property rights have been made essential.  But what is also particularly important is personal responsibility, without which too many people will make bad decisions, and the above-mentioned essential ingredients are likely to be endangered."

"Thanks, Daddy."

Image: Kim Davies via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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