Desirable depending on definition: a defence of social mobility

A response to ‘Social mobility: simply ‘fairness-washing’ or a real solution?’ by Joseph Markus

By Babak Moussavi

Nick Clegg’s effort to promote the concept and reality of social mobility has not gone down particularly well. He has found himself attacked from both sides of the political spectrum for pushing this idea. Does this reflect a problem with the concept, or with Mr Clegg?

What prospects do these schoolboys have?

On the one hand, and as is to be expected, he is derided by those who have a vested interest to protect the status quo. This includes a certain headmaster who last week described Mr Clegg’s interventions as “old-style communist creation of a closed market, to try and deal with the problem after the event”. The unfortunate (mis-)use of the ‘c’ word, possibly belies this headmaster’s political leanings. Mr Clegg is not attempting to “close” the market; his suggestion was that universities take into account an applicant’s background when offering places. If anything, this would provide this ‘market’ with more information, improving the possibility of optimal decision-making: after all, taking more information into account is not the same as ‘closing a market’ – something this headmaster has seemingly failed to appreciate.

On the left, however, Mr Clegg has also been taking a battering (nothing new there). Zoe Williams wrote an article on Wednesday dismissing social mobility as a concept. By her understanding, it is just a tool for “fast-stream[ing] clever kids out of deprivation leaving the rest facing shabby prospects”. She continues by claiming that “[e]ven if the waters of the social fountain were in perpetual motion… you’d still have to accept, even embrace, the idea of some people living and dying in the sludge.”

I fear Ms Williams has set up a straw-man argument, for I doubt this is how social mobility should be understood, nor how Mr Clegg meant it. It is not merely about allowing the smart kids from the bottom to rise to the top, but about allowing people to determine their success and place in society, according to their own merits and efforts. In this sense, it is conceptually similar to equality of opportunity. One or two people breaking out of their prescribed circumstances to move to a different position is not social mobility; it is only if everyone can, that society can be called ‘mobile’.

To be sure, we currently do not live in a socially mobile society. It is therefore not meritocratic, either. The key determinants of where we can reach are not within our control: they are dependent on where we were born, to which parents, and to where we were sent to school. A glance at the statistics confirms this. Moreover, general opposition to inheritance tax in the UK, means that wealth can be passed through the generations, ensuring that society’s stratification remains embedded. I saw an advert this week for a private bank, with the tagline: “Protecting wealth through the generations”. It could have read: “ensuring social immobility and a lack of meritocracy, for years to come”.

Social mobility would allow easier movement of individuals and groups through society, rather than condemn them to the circumscribed roles that their circumstances dictate. Because of this, it is more universally appealing than the (unfortunately) tarnished term ‘equality’. It is probably also more politically palatable, and – if my claim above is accepted – achieves the same as equal opportunity.

While poverty persists, can social mobility exist?

Social mobility relates to facts, not values, and thus does not say anything about one job being ‘better’ than another, just that both should be attainable. Of course, not everyone can do the ‘top jobs’, but the probabilities should not be so skewed by the factors in one’s background that are beyond that person’s control. In this sense, the obstacles to social mobility are the usual societal gremlins such as prejudice, vested interests, disadvantage, or child poverty. They are noticeably all underpinned by inequality.

This is the nub of the issue: inequality and social mobility go hand-in-hand. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett reveal this in their book, The Spirit Level, which contains a wealth of evidence to support this link. Societies with greater equality of income have greater social mobility (and do better on many other indicators, too). It is not clear where the optimal level of equality is, but it is clear that Britain’s inequality is too high. The solution therefore, would seem to be to focus on shrinking the gap between the top and the bottom: through more progressive taxation and a higher inheritance tax, perhaps (not to mention a genuine effort to clamp-down on avoidance).

This, of course, is not what the government is doing. Instead, it is cutting taxes for the rich, and cutting welfare for the poor. As the Beecroft ‘plan’ (if something that contains so little evidence and so much ideology deserves such a name) shows, equality seems to be the least of its concerns.

This, indeed, is the real reason why Mr Clegg deserves criticism: he is right that social mobility is a goal worth striving for, but fails to see that it cannot exist at the same time as great inequality. For advocating social mobility while pursuing this government’s regressive agenda, Mr Clegg has been accused of “doublethink”. Social immobility will be ensured, for years to come.

  1. Charles said:

    There are several things that social immobility can be. 1. some sort of class/caste/nepotism/political favours system in which able person (able to do a job) is not allowed to do it because he is from the wrong group; instead it is done by a less competent person from the right group. There is inequality here, but reducing this type of immobility may not reduce inequality, and may increase it as the difference in wealth/productivity between competent people doing good jobs and incompetent people doing bad jobs should be greater than the difference between incompetent people doing good jobs and competent people doing bad jobs. This type of immobility is the most problematic for overall productivity of a society.
    2. Even controlling for innate differences, children from better families are more successful because their parents invest in them in various ways (time, education, quality of environment, inheritance, etc.). If this is immobility, then yes reducing it should increase long run equality, which I understand you like, but directing rich/intellectual/caring parents to buy larger cars/talk to their plants/volunteer at zoos instead instead of investing in their children is an unnatural idea which does not have the benefits that removing the first type of immobility does.

    • Sorry for the late reply Charles…

      Since we can’t equalise innate differences (nor would we want to) we can try to mitigate the role that luck plays in determining your fate when the innate differences are not so large. In the first case that you raise, the differences are innate but unrelated to merit (skin colour for example should not be an important variable, as I hope most people would now agree). But if you are born in a poor council estate, you will have less chance of achieving your potential than if you are born to ‘successful’ parents – in part, as you point out, because of the time and effort that the parents can and do invest in their children. It is therefore up to society as a whole to make sure that such poor children receive the investment that might give them the opportunity to determine their fate, rather than be determined by their poor circumstances. It’s not about persuading parents to not invest in their children – it’s about making sure there is an investment in all children. Of course, the differences would still exist, but by mitigating the effects of circumstance, we can hope for a ‘fairer’ society in the long run.

      • Charles said:

        So we can have more investment in poorer children, by providing resources and making sure they spend these on the right things. This is done now: education is provided free and cannot be sold by poor people. (The second part motivated as making their long term strategies better than those they would freely choose, which may be too myopic?)

        For the rich, you need to tax them to provide for this spending on the poor.
        Two notable options:
        You can tax them at a flat rate, whenever they earn or spend any money.
        Or you can tax money spent on their own children at a higher rate than money spent on parents’ own consumption. This is what an inheritance tax does, taxing money earned and then spent after death by children at a higher rate than money earned and spent by parents. This is what I meant by encouraging parents to spend on own consumption than on children. (Motivated as trying to make their long-term strategies worse, in order to reduce inequality?)

        If what you want to do is invest in poor children, without positively wanting to harm rich children (i.e. minimizing the harm caused by taxes to fund the poor ones), then you won’t want to support things like inheritance tax and obstacles to private schools.

  2. May I point you to this interesting analysis by Tim Harford?

    I might not agree with everything, but I think he has a point about providing people with incentives they would not find in an “immobile” society. And it is true that a change in university admissions, while it won’t fix all the “before-the-fact” issues, might have some (hopefully positive) consequences even earlier on.

    And as often in these debates, it comes back to what definition of social justice you choose.

    • Thanks for the link – quite a funny approach to the debate. I agree with the point you highlight – I like what he says about how a ‘tweak’ might make the market work better.

      That is of course true. One day we’ll have to flesh that one out…

  3. @Charles,

    I’m not sure I agree with you that a bit more tax from the rich children’s families would ‘harm’ them. Nor whether inheritance tax would necessarily lead to parents spending money on their own consumption rather than on their children’s education – for presumably, they would invest in their education while they are still alive.

    Also, it seems clear that the public goods provided for the poor are not enough to enhance their lot, relative to the rich. Even though education is offered – and is compulsory – this does not reach the standard, nor is it enough, for social mobility to exist meaningfully.

    • Charles said:

      Yes inheritance tax just deals with direct investment of money, not investment in education or anything else. Compared to a flat tax, it encourages parents to spend on own consumption rather than have the money spent in future generations. Or it would if it couldn’t be avoided.

      Something like the lack of a voucher system, whereby the state’s spending on schooling only applies if you go to a public school, specifically targets and discourages investment in education not by the richest parents but by the moderately well off and above – they go to state schools and are unable to spend a little more to have a private education; they must spend much more to do that.

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