Blog: What we (nearly) all agree is wrong again

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Sorry to repeat myself but….

Social mobility is perhaps the most widely and strongly supported idea in contemporary political discourse. The idea that a good society is one in which we are all have similar life chances at birth and are thereafter rewarded for talent, hard work and luck, is seen by most politicians and commentators as simple common sense. There is just one small problem with this consensus – social mobility as an ideal is incoherent, undesirable and cruel.  

On this week’s Thinking Allowed one of Laurie Taylor’s guests was Dr Vik Loveday a lecturer at Goldsmith’s college talking about her research on working class participation in higher education. Along with findings showing working class people are often discriminated against, and talked down to, in universities, Loveday found her working class subjects rejected the language of social mobility with its implication that being middle class is better than being working class. 

The concept isn’t even liked by those who appear to be its role models! And there was me thinking there was no room for more nails in that particular coffin.

Here are the others: First, social mobility (starting gate equality) is often cited an acceptable alternative to the more left wing idea of egalitarianism (end point equality), yet it is clear that the best way to create a meritocracy is to pursue greater egalitarianism. Mobility is greater in societies that are less unequal partly because the rungs in the ladder of stratification are closer together and partly because middle class people are less frightened of the consequences of downward mobility (generally the barrier to mobility is less about the poor’s ability to go up and more about the resistance of the well off to going down). 

Egalitarians are meritocrats who mean it. 

That it is the unwillingness of the privileged to drop (think of the exponential rise in middle class spending on private tuition for their children) rather than the working class’ inability to rise which blocks social mobility links to another problem. Greater social mobility in an unequal society would make society aggregately less happy: research on what behavioural economists call ‘loss aversion’ shows that the pleasure people get from gaining something (going up) is much weaker than the pain they get from going down (loss aversion). 

Greater social mobility in a highly unequal society also worsens the plight of the poor who don’t ascend. By providing routes for talented poor people to move away from disadvantaged neighbourhoods social mobility exacerbates the disadvantage of those left behind.

But the biggest objection is that voiced nearly sixty years ago by Michael Young in his satirical dystopian essay ‘The Rise of the Meritocracy’.  A decade ago Young penned a new introduction to the essay in which he wrote -  

If the rich and powerful were encouraged by the general culture to believe that they fully deserved all they had, how arrogant they could become, and if they were convinced it was all for the common good, how ruthless in pursuing their own advantage. Power corrupts, and therefore one of the secrets of a good society is that power should always be open to criticism. A good society should provide sinew for revolt as well as for power.

But authority cannot be humbled unless ordinary people, however much they have been rejected by the educational system, have the confidence to assert themselves against the mighty. If they think themselves inferior, if they think they deserve on merit to have less worldly goods and less worldly power than a select minority, they can be damaged in their own self-esteem, and generally demoralized.

Even if it could be demonstrated that ordinary people had less native ability than those selected for high position, that would not mean that they deserved to get less. Being a member of the “lucky sperm club” confers no moral right or advantage. What one is born with, or without, is not of one’s own doing.

A meritocracy is not only a society in which many people experience inequality but also one in which the rich feel their success is justified and a sense of inferiority is added to the poor’s experience of material disadvantage. An unequal but mobile society is one which denies the dignity of all people and ignores the necessity of multiple paid and unpaid roles in society, but instead reinforces and celebrates differences between people according to a particular idea of talent or value.

But it gets worse. Young was criticising an actual meritocracy, one in which starting gate equality has been achieved. But, as today’s champions of social mobility recognise, we are a long way from that position now (and not getting any closer).

In fact the position today is the worst of all worlds. Our is a society in which life chances differ substantially depending on social class background and in which there is very high inequality but it is also one in which the ideology of meritocracy justifies the advantages of the rich and legitimises disdain for the poor. 

The goal of social mobility can only be saved (and it does have substantial virtues in efficiency and procedural justice) if it is combined with a commitment to reducing inequality and with policies – like a universal citizen income – premised on providing dignity and basic freedom to all law abiding citizens regardless of their talents or presumed virtues. 

Unfortunately, instead of seeing that social mobility demands greater universalism its champions see it as alternative. Count the ways this is wrong.

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  • Hi Matthew,

    Interesting to spot both you and Michael Young's son Toby concluding that a guaranteed Basic Income is a potential way towards a more egalitarian society (or at least a way to somewhat alleviate the downsides of a full meritocracy) - but based on VERY different arguments...!

    His long essay - 'The Fall of the Meritocracy' - is here:

    Though Toby Young seems less convinced that Basic Income can actually do the job and thinks offering *for free* - but only to parents with a low income/below-average IQ - a limited form of embryo selection to increase intelligence of their offspring will do the job far better.

    The way genetic science is progressing in China, this may be a real-world issue we have to grapple with sooner than we think. Though, of course, it's hard for liberals to discuss any of this as the 'blank slate' viewpoint rejects a priori the idea that intelligence is inherited from parents to any extent at all and plays an important role in life outcomes.

    This is ironic, as it means the key topic of the book Meritocracy - that selection by intelligence will lead to the formation of a new hereditary class - can't really be properly discussed by liberals these days, as we're all taught to reject any notion of heredity. (Though obviously liberals like Steven Pinker, Simon Baron-Cohen, Jonathan Haidt, Peter Singer would reject the usual 'blank slate' view, but they're a tiny minority).

    When Prof Robert Plomin was in talking with Michael Gove and co he apparently told them a more meritocratic education system wouldn't lead to less variation is GCSE results, as many believe, but to variations more closely linked to genetic differences.

    Interesting to hear from Toby that his dad's book Meritocracy played a key role in influencing his friend Tony Crosland's decision to "destroy every f****** grammar school" in the UK ;-)

    Matthew Mezey

    PS BTW, here's my article on the (gradual) spread of interest - on Left and Right - in Frederic Laloux's 'Reinventing Organisations' model of self-managed, non-hierarchical workplaces:

    Here's a new event report about a recent meeting of a new network of 50 RSA Fellows and friends about 'Reinventing Organisations' and supporting 'Next Stage' organisations:

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