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Toronto has no social classes/Only the Masseys and the masses. – B.K. Sandwell

Of all the Fine Old Ontario Families (FOOFS, as we used to call them), the Masseys were among the very finest. The Massey dynasty in Canada dates back to the early 1800s, and included not just successful industrialists but major patrons of the arts and many people who were accomplished artists in their own right. The family contributed our first Canadian-born governor-general (Vincent) and his famous actor brother (Raymond). Hart House, Massey Hall and Massey College all bear the family name. In a world where the rule of thumb is rags to rags in three generations, their success seems remarkably enduring.

But the Masseys' long run is not actually so unusual. A deeply challenging new book by economic historian Gregory Clark (The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility) argues that such endurance is not the exception but the norm. It goes on to argue that most people's outcomes can be predicted at conception. To an alarming degree, your destiny is determined by your ancestors.

You do not want to hear this. I do not want to hear this. Nobody wants to hear this. Prof. Clark's findings challenge everything we believe about fairness, equality and social mobility. After all, inequality doesn't matter so much if social mobility is high. If you can be born in a log house and wind up in the White House, then the world is in some sense fair. We like to think that even though outcomes are unequal, most people have a more or less equal shot. We like to think that even though the advantages conferred by wealth and privilege are real, they don't last long. But they do.

Prof. Clark's research idea was to track social status through surnames, which can be followed over a long period of time through the historical records. Studying surnames is a good way to gauge the changing status of a group, rather than of individuals, and gives us a more accurate picture of true mobility. "Conventional estimates imply that social mobility is rapid and pervasive," he writes. But he found that social advantage typically endures for 300 years – 10 to 15 generations. His book is full of startling examples. For instance, you're twice as likely to be listed in the American Medical Association's Directory of Physicians if you had a family member graduate from an Ivy League college between 1650 and 1850.

Why is social status so persistent? Prof. Clark's answer is that successful families are very good at transmitting what he calls "social competence" – a mix of measurable characteristics that include education, occupation, wealth and longevity. You can argue whether the underlying factors that confer social competence are cultural or genetic, but it doesn't really matter. "Social status is inherited as strongly as any biological trait," he argues.

Social mobility is thought to vary widely among societies. But Prof. Clark found it to be surprisingly constant across a diverse selection of societies. Despite profound differences in social conditions, societal types and government policies, what matters most is family.

Take Sweden, which is widely thought to have the highest social mobility in the world because of its strong social institutions and commitment to wealth redistribution. But Prof. Clark found that over the long term, social mobility in Sweden is no different from anywhere else. Another startling example is China, where Mao Zedong purged large numbers of the upper class by executing them – an extreme social intervention if there ever was one. Yet many of the people at the top today are descendants of the people who were at the top long before Mao came along.

This book has nothing in it for liberals to like, because it concludes that even the most interventionist social policies can't change things. Conservatives won't be happy either, because it demolishes the Horatio Alger myth that anyone who works hard and plays by the rules can rise from the bottom to the top of the heap. A lot of people would say it's just a counsel of despair, because it says that nothing we do can make a difference. Yet it also poses tough moral questions about what kind of society we want to build – and what our obligations are to the people at the bottom.

"You really do need to protect people, because they don't choose their lineage," Prof. Clark told Prospect magazine. He says he used to be a libertarian, but not any more. "When you can see that events 100 years before a person was born are predictive of what their outcomes are going to be, you see that people are caught in this web of connections, that they arrive with certain possibilities. Any good society has to take that into account in deciding how to allocate rewards." He also thinks it's not a good idea to create social structures that magnify the rewards of a high social position.

In that light, the Swedish model is looking pretty good. Maybe our aim should be to design a society we wouldn't mind living in if we were the ones stuck at the bottom.

If it's any consolation, Prof. Clark points out that nothing lasts forever. Even if you're an over-rewarded investment banker, your kids will start reverting to the mean, no matter what private school you send them to. In fact, the single most important thing you can do to assure their success in life is to choose their ancestors well – the other half, that is. That means choosing the right mate (along with their extended family).

"Once you have selected your mate, your work is largely done," he writes. "You can safely neglect your offspring, confident that the innate talents you secured for them will shine through regardless."

After all, it worked for the Masseys.