What Is the Middle Class?

The great “progressive” hope, Elizabeth Warren, just got into a little bit of trouble when she was asked to define what it means to be “middle class” and fumbled around incoherently. She ended up citing as her only example someone who “takes off a year to go to graduate school.”

Leftists always gets a little bit flummoxed by this sort of question, because they pose as populists who are fighting for the common man, but they themselves are a bunch of coffee-house intellectuals with post-graduate degrees. So you see how Warren makes an appeal to the great, broad middle class—which ends up, in her mind, just being synonymous with her own narrow little corner of it.

But the question itself is one that is worth asking. What is the middle class—and why does it matter?

Everyone is in favor of the “middle class” and everyone wants to be part of it, but precisely for those reasons, nobody wants to define it clearly. They want it to stay vague and to mean whatever they want it to mean. In this great middle class nation, declaring yourself the champion of the middle class is to declare yourself a champion of the people themselves, so why let strict definitions get in your way?

And in an age defined by entitlements, there is another reason not to be too clear about what the “middle class” is, because a genuine definition would shine a light on the absurdity of the entitlement state. Which is an excellent reason for us to insist on precisely such a definition.

The middle class is not just defined by numbers, by a “middling” amount of income. It is defined by a certain culture and by a certain role in society.

Historically, the term “middle class” was defined, not by income, but by status. Under the old feudal system of the late Middle Ages, there were three “estates of the realm,” basically three social classes: the nobility, the clergy, and the peasants. Putting the clergy to one side—because they had their own social structure defined by the Church—in secular society you basically had two classes: nobility and peasants, lords and serfs. The “middle class” is what rose up in between. Members of the middle class were above the peasants but below the nobility.

They were prosperous commoners: shopkeepers, craftsmen, merchants, bankers, and some free-holding farmers. While the feudal lord’s wealth came from his claim on territory, his ability to extract rent and taxes, or to exercise certain kinds of legal monopolies, the wealth of the middle class was derived from commerce, industry, and production.

What defined the middle class was its independence. To be a peasant was to be both subservient to the nobility and dependent on its largesse. To be middle class was to be outside of this relationship, to earn a living that was not dependent on the favor of the nobility. You can see why the middle class could be so much trouble politically.

That’s the early history of the middle class, but by the mid-19th century, shortly after the term entered common use, its meaning was hopelessly distorted by the Marxists, who tried to cast the “bourgeoisie” as a new aristocratic class, a new set of robber barons squeezing unearned wealth from a new class of industrial peasants, the “proletariat.” In effect, the Marxists—those hidebound conservatives—couldn’t grasp anything outside the old feudal system of lords and serfs, so they just projected the old system onto the new industrial society that was growing up around them.

But if we try to update the “middle class” from its obsolete historical meaning within an aristocratic system, as well as rescuing it from the absurdities of Marxism, what does it actually mean?

Let’s start with a description from a left-leaning activist site arguing for legislation on behalf of “the middle class.”

Over the past 50 years, a middle-class standard of living in the United States has come to mean having a secure job, a safe and stable home, access to health care, retirement security, time off for vacation, illness, and the birth or adoption of a child, opportunities to save for the future and the ability to provide a good education, including a college education, for one’s children.

This is correct as to the specifics, but it provides no unifying principle. What do all of these things have in common?

The common thread is the ability to provide for oneself, not just to pay one’s day-to-day bills, but also to plan and save for the contingencies of life, from illness to unemployment to old age. In other words: the ability to save and invest. This means, not just retirement savings, but the ordinary form of savings that allows you to get through an illness or take time off from work. It includes insurance (which is a form of savings) and the ability to invest in what is nowadays called “human capital,” i.e., education that gives you or your children economically productive skills.

So to be middle class is to be productive enough to be able to provide for all of your needs and also to set aside savings sufficient for the various contingencies of life. Within an aristocratic context, to be “middle class” meant to be independent of the old feudal system. In a modern context, being “middle-class” means to be self-supporting and self-sufficient, which is a different form of independence.

The defining characteristic of poverty, by contrast, is the chronic insufficiency of one’s means—and most of all, the inability to progress and improve one’s condition by setting aside savings. To be poor is not necessarily to be starving or out on the streets. It is to be unable to save. It is to be just getting by, year to year, month to month, or day to day. That’s the dividing line between the poor and the middle class.

On the other side, the defining characteristic of being rich is not merely the ability to afford luxuries. Go hang out in the parking lot at Whole Foods and watch all of the folks hauling arugula to their Volvos. They are undoubtedly indulging in luxuries, yet they would insist to you that they are “middle class.” In the 21st century, as the inheritors of centuries of economic progress, we regard as ordinary parts of life what would have been defined as luxuries in earlier eras. So the purchasing of luxury items is not a sufficient definition of wealth.

Culturally, the defining characteristic of wealth is to be able to live without working, to have a sufficient quantity of savings to provide for yourself comfortably if you had to stop working tomorrow. To be middle class is to be self-sufficient; to be rich is to be self-sufficient without working.

A few disclaimers: the middle class is defined by the ability to be self-sufficient and to save and invest. But of course, there are plenty of people with a middle-class level of income who still live month to month and don’t save—not because they are incapable of doing so, but because they live beyond their means. Ironically, they live as if they are poor because they are trying to live as if they are upper-middle-class. But the error is theirs and not a necessity of their economic condition. By the same token, there are an awful lot of the “working rich”—highly productive professionals and entrepreneurs who continue to work, often very hard, not because they need to but because they are ambitious for achievement and because they want to expand their wealth.

If we take this definition of the middle-class—economic self-sufficiency—we can see that it is not a function of job description. It’s not about blue collar versus white collar. There are plenty of “blue-collar” workers—skilled tradesmen, for example—who are solidly in the middle class. We can also see why the middle class refers more to a culture than to an income bracket, and why everybody thinks they’re part of it.

The wealthy like to think of themselves as part of the middle class because they share the values of work, saving, striving, and upward mobility. That is, after all, how a great many of them got to be rich in the first place. At the same time, many who are living in poverty also think of themselves as middle class, because it reflects their aspiration for upward mobility, their hope that they will someday be able to rise to a higher income level, increase their savings, and become economically self-sufficient. They have been justified in this aspiration because historically, in America, many of them have succeeded. At least, that was the way it used to be before the economy settled into the stagnant Obama rate of growth.

Most of all, this definition explains why everybody wants to appeal to the middle class without defining what it is, because a proper definition of the middle class reveals the absurdity of the modern entitlement state. If the middle class is defined by its self-sufficiency, what the hell are we doing devising hundreds of billions of dollars in government subsidies for the middle class? That is the absurdity of our current system. We tax the middle class to the tune of trillions of dollars—in order to hand their own money back to them in the form of retirement subsidies, education subsidies, unemployment subsidies, and now health-care subsidies.

From one perspective, this is absurd. From another it makes perfect sense. If the middle class is self-sufficient, what do they need politicians for? What does an ambitious politician have to offer them except that boring old-fashioned stuff about law and order, the shriveled little “night watchman state” of the bad old days? But the entitlement state gives the politician an opportunity to woo the voters by selling their own money back to them—and to make himself look like a hero by so generously providing for their needs. Which is to say that the function of the entitlement state is to take a self-sufficient class of people and convert them into dependents on the state.

To say the entitlement state is unaffordable doesn’t quite cover it. It is an attempt to corrupt a vast group of independent, self-supporting individuals and harness them as special interest groups for ambitious politicians.

We can grasp this if we understand what the middle class is. But you can see why Senator Warren and her colleagues wouldn’t want to examine that question too closely.

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