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The loneliness of the long distance climber


This post by Patricia Kaszynska FRSA is the latest in a conversation we have been having about social mobility. It seems particularly relevant on a day when a new Social Attitudes Survey underlines the increasingly individualistic nature of public opinion. To even up the debate I am, at some point over the next few days planning to mount a defence of social mobility.

In my previous entry I suggested that the meritocratic world can be individualistic, brutish and surprisingly static. Like the monarchies of old, meritocratic societies can ossify, but the advent of democracy means the new hierarchy must legitimise itself. It does so, in part, using the double myth of social mobility; that it exists and that were it to exist it would make society healthier.

As part of the ‘Economic Mobility Project’, the Pew Research Centre asked people what was more important, reducing inequality or ensuring that everyone has a fair chance at improving their economic standing. More than 60 % "strongly" felt opportunity was more important, while just 16% felt strongly about reducing inequality. In the same survey, 17% said it was a "major problem" that people born to rich parents tend to remain at the top as adults while, in contrast, more than half said it was a major problem that 42 % of those starting at the bottom will remain there. Even battered by the recent wave of unemployment and bruised by the stagnation of wages and polarisation of wealth, Americans still don’t want a levelling of income differences.

There is an element of deception here. As Joseph Stiglitz demonstrates in his recent book, those who are born poor in the US will stay poor and yet, nearly 7 in 10 Americans believe the ladder of opportunity exists. This self-deception is made possible by a misapprehension of social reality. As Dan Ariely’s and Michael Norton’s latest research shows, Americans badly underestimate the levels of inequality to which they are subject:  the average respondent to their survey believes the 40% at the bottom have around 9% of nation’s wealth and the top 20%, 59%. The reality is quite different: the bottom 40% of the population combined has only 0.3% of wealth while the top 20% possesses 84%.

Robert Reich has been outspoken about how the suppression of average wages since the 1970s has been ‘offset’ - first by expanding women’s access to labour; second, by extending average working hours; and third, by resorting to debt. The borrowing hedged against rising house values made it possible to perpetrate the illusion that commodity purchasing power was growing from generation to generation. With the worsening of the economic situation, a further device had to be deployed: the ‘make-believe’ of social mobility supported by the endorsement of the ‘lottery effect’. Just as people buy lottery tickets because their chance of winning is more than zero, many take the exceptional cases of self-made ‘rags to riches’ billionaires as evidence of upwards social mobility. These expectations are further fuelled by individual inducement policies, such as scholarships to prestigious schools. The effect of these policy measures has been to move a small number of individuals up the social ladder and leave their communities behind.

We are led to underestimate the magnitude of the distance we have to travel from bottom to the top of the social hierarchy and to overestimate our chances of moving upwards. But this is not the whole story: we play along not just because we are misinformed and manipulated: In a sense it is rational for us to do so. The ideas and ideals of meritocracy and social mobility assign prominence to the notion of individual agency. There is a powerful strand in Western thought defending rational egoism, or the view that individuals are best left alone to pursue their self-interests and reap the rewards for their actions. From Locke’s defence of natural rights to Hayek’s critique of state intervention and Nozick’s entitlement theory, there is a strong resentment of redistribution based on the principle of the inviolability of individual autonomy. While there is a sense that this line of thought has become ideologically appropriated to legitimise the principles of free markets and the trickle-down effect, the allure of the view comes from the fact that, deep inside, we fall for the Romantic conception of Prometheus ‘unbound’ – we want to think of ourselves as sovereign individuals.

We are attracted to individualism in part because it has been a force for social progress. It has played a significant role in the history of Western societies in unsettling the old hierarchies and in removing the associated forms of oppression. Moreover, unlike the regimes based on what seemed like utterly undeserved privilege of birth, the new order has an instinctive appeal to our sense of procedural fairness. Sadly, as I argued in the previous post, it does not follow that the new hierarchies are automatically better. We embrace them more willingly because we genuinely want to believe that they are built upon respect for individual dignity and deserved rewards.

The crux of the problem is that we all would find it very difficult to put the notion of the collective before what we think of as our ‘God-given’, natural right to self-assertion; we all have a hunch that thinking of ourselves as subservient to some higher collective good would strip us of the individual dignity for which we have fought so hard for over the last three or four centuries.


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