In the UK, the coalition government is taking an axe to spending but it hasn’t abandoned a commitment to fairness. At least that’s what Nick Clegg and Iain Duncan Smith argue in a recent opinion piece for The Telegraph:
Our welfare reforms are intended to help people get on, and to get ahead. And as a government, we have committed ourselves to promoting social mobility as the main goal of our social policy. For us, a fair society is an open society, one in which opportunities are not determined by background but by drive and ability.
According to Clegg’s new social mobility strategy: "What ought to count is how hard you work and the skills and talents you possess, not the school you went to or the jobs your parents did."
Of course the socially mobile society presupposes inequality. It’s not an egalitarian vision. The struggle for advancement is a zero sum game. What’s at stake are relative positions in a social hierarchy. So rather than attempting to improve the wellbeing of those at the bottom or raise the overall level of prosperity, supporters of the socially mobile society want to make sure that everyone rises or falls to the level they deserve.
While the rhetoric of equality of opportunity probably plays well in focus groups, some bloggers are unconvinced. At The Great Unrest Anne Archist complains that social mobility entrenches class divisions:
… the first lesson we can take from our analysis of social mobility as a concept is that it’s incompatible with an equal, classless society. Social mobility presupposes a class divide or a spectrum of inequality; equality and classlessness makes ‘mobility’ impossible because mobility means (the capability for) movement from one point to another, and an equal, classless society is one in which everyone occupies the same social position – everyone is at the same point because there is only one point.
No doubt supporters of social mobility would argue that separate classes only exist when people are unable to escape the class they’re born into — that the socially mobile society is unequal but classless.
At Stumbling and Mumbling Chris Dillow writes:
I suspect that equal opportunity is both unattainable and undesirable, and that efforts to increase social mobility are only likely to succeed at the margin. They should be seen more as an attempt to legitimate inequality than to genuinely transform the relative chances of the worst off.
Dillow also argues that a highly unequal society is unlikely to have high social mobility: "the closer the gap between high and low incomes, the easier it is to leap that gap", he writes. He also notes that the coalition government’s strategy says nothing about encouraging downwards mobility. Much inequality is due to inheritance, but the government is not proposing to increase inheritance taxes.
In an earlier post Dillow argued that equality of opportunity pays no attention to the wellbeing of those at the bottom of society. It ignores absolute outcomes in a way that doesn’t make much sense:
Imagine we introduced a compulsory lottery, where there was a £1m prize and ten "prizes" of the death penalty. We’ve created equality of opportunity. But few would tolerate such a lottery, as it’s unacceptable to impose such risks onto people.
This thought experiment shows that we care outcome outcomes, not just opportunity.
A supporter of social mobility might argue that their vision isn’t of a society where positions are assigned by chance, but one where people earn their relative position based on ability and effort. But even so, Dillow’s objection might still work. What if society becomes more mobile in this way but the position of those in the bottom 25 per cent becomes much worse than it is now — is that fair? What if the top 1 per cent claim 90 per cent of the income?
Focusing on opportunities is simply code for abandoning the goal of keeping inequality to a minimum. Wealth and income disparaties [sic] don’t matter to Gillard, just a better prospect for the next generation. Not fairness today, but fairness tomorrow (and then only for the academically bright). Labor’s political ambition has been diminished.
Economist John Quiggin isn’t impressed either:
It is a speech that could have been given, with absolute sincerity, by John Howard on behalf of the Liberal party, and marks, in both large and small ways, Gillard’s acceptance and celebration of the values and beliefs of the Liberal party as espoused by its leaders from Menzies onwards.
Writing at The Age of Uncertainty, Steerforth tells a story about colleague who was studying at Sussex University. She was attending a lecture on postwar urban poverty where the lecturer was showing a series of grim black and white slides illustrating the problems of urban deprivation:
My colleague was relaxing in her chair, absorbed by the images being beamed by the projector.
Suddenly, to her horror, a picture appeared on the wall of her mother dragging a mattress down a street. The lecturer calmly deconstructed the image, explaining its context and meaning, unaware that the woman’s daughter was sitting a few feet away from him.
What a shining example of social mobility.
Update: At the Great Unrest Anne Archist has a second post on social mobility.