Liberty and justice for all?

Opinion by Neil Chaudhary
Oct. 23, 2014, 11:34 p.m.

Stanford is an institution that transforms bright, optimistic young people into the future leaders of tomorrow. But, the very mechanisms by which an elite institution like Stanford places students in positions of power and wealth are the same mechanisms by which social injustice is propagated across generations. Indeed, Stanford is an example of an institution that cements systemic privilege and disadvantage, precluding the existence of a just world.

When envisioning a world that is “just,” a quintessential question arises: Should the circumstances a child is born into affect the chances of success for that child? Social theorists like John Rawls and advocates of equal opportunity believe that the lottery of birth – being born into a particular race, class or with certain genetic predispositions – should not affect the opportunities afforded to individuals. Under this definition, a just world is one where personal effort and exertion is the only variable determining outcome.

In reality, however, systems of heritable advantage and disadvantage exist and, often, are a result of historical conditions and the effects of colonization. A Pew study has discovered that while recently the wage gap between African Americans and White citizens has been bridged significantly, the wealth gap remains very large. Scholars often attribute this gap in wealth assets, such as property and endowments, to the generational effects of slavery and institutionalized racism (e.g., crop lien system, Jim Crow laws, housing segregation) in America. For African Americans, the system of inherited disadvantage was created from a history of subjugation and discrimination, something that the individual born today has no control over.

The history of discrimination in America is representative of how social and environmental circumstances preclude equal access to opportunity. For example, studies surrounding the “vicious cycle” of poverty indicate that, in general in America, economic mobility has stagnated such that one is more likely than anytime within the past few decades to stay within the social class she was born into. In fact, research by the National Health Institute even demonstrates that chronic exposure to poverty and financial hardship can significantly reduce attention span, memory and mental strategizing in children. These shocking observations demonstrate how the inheritance of poverty and its associated stresses not only predict future success but also can change the very physiology and neurodevelopment of individuals exposed to it.

In fact, the very existence of inheritance as an institution precludes a “just” world as described above. The very concept of inheriting wealth from one’s parents already confers advantage or disadvantage depending on the financial status of one’s parents. If a true meritocracy is desirable, then one’s financial outcomes should only be based on his or her choices and the effort he or she puts into pursuing dreams. There is no room for wealth inheritance because the decisions made by a previous generation will heavily affect the next generation’s opportunities to succeed. And, while in reality, certain parents may spend more on tutoring, accessories and sustenance for their kids even without inheritance, at least the elimination of inheritance minimizes how a parent’s decisions and corresponding financial status affect a child’s outcome.

Stanford, especially, is guilty of perpetuating a system of inherited advantage. Described by the New Yorker as the “Get Rich U,” Stanford, whether intentionally or not, places its students in positions of power and wealth. A Stanford study of the class of 2012 reveals how most graduates end up in prestigious tech or business corporations, like Google and McKinsey. In fact, the average salary of a Stanford graduate midway through career is $126,000, which is the 2nd highest in the nation. Stanford sets up its students to be in a place where twenty years down the line, its students can bestow the benefits of wealth, power and influence upon their children and, thus, initiate a cycle of inherited advantage.

Many Stanford students might counter, claiming that Stanford admits a significant number of first generation, low-income students and provides them a chance to uplift their family and their communities. While such a policy mitigates the effects of inherited disadvantage, selectively choosing a few individuals to succeed from a disadvantaged community does not provide a systemic solution. A Princeton study indicates a strong trend in the past few decades of residential discrimination based on educational attainment. Individuals with college degrees self-segregate into more affluent neighborhoods away from those with high school diplomas. Likewise, providing the benefit of quality education to a few low-income scholars can create a brain drain where educated students leave their home communities in order to provide a higher standard of living for their family.

Alternatively, a redistribution of wealth through a 100% inheritance tax would drastically shift financial resources from affluent to underserved communities, equalizing access to opportunity. For example, new government cash inflows could improve the quality of education in underserved communities (e.g., better public schools, libraries) such that diversity admissions programs for low-income students will be less necessary at universities like Stanford.

While I realize that outlawing inheritance is an idealistic proposition, it is meant to provoke individuals to critically think about the root of inequality and how we, as Stanford students, will be perpetuating injustice by the very act of passing down our wealth to our children. If we agree that financial outcomes should only be a function of what we control – that is, the effort and choices we make – then we have to eradicate systems of inherited advantage and disadvantage. Doing so requires those with privilege to renounce it and support the greater good by ending inheritance.

Contact Neil Chaudhary at neilaman ‘at’

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