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Social mobility will be in the news again this week, with the Lib Dems' commission reporting today and Liam Byrne unveiling the Government white paper tomorrow . But is social mobility necessarily a good thing? This is what I wrote a few weeks ago in the context of the general rise of social pessimism.

Social mobility will be in the news again this week, with the Lib Dems' commission reporting today and Liam Byrne unveiling the Government white paper tomorrow . But is social mobility necessarily a good thing? This is what I wrote a few weeks ago in the context of the general rise of social pessimism.

‘Is it in the nature of some of the things that seem to be getting better – for example, growing affluence or tolerance – that they contribute to making (some of us) feeling worse? Should we give greater weight in social policy to the subjective than the objective? Interestingly this has been the general shift in how the Government measures public service performance, moving from outcome based indicators to user satisfaction.

‘One example is social mobility. Everyone says they are in favour of having more of it. This is fine when we are talking about absolute social mobility – increasing the numbers getting into the middle class, as happened in the fifties and sixties. But the only way to increase relative social mobility (or to increase absolute social mobility when the middle class has stopped expanding) is to make it easier for people to come down as well as go up.

‘But it is far from clear that a society in which it is easier for middle class people to be downwardly socially mobile would be a more content society. Behavioural economics teaches us that the pleasure of upward social mobility (getting something we didn’t have before) is less than the pain of downward social mobility (losing something we have now). So the net social contentment impact of increasing relative social mobility (disregarding other knock-on effects) is negative. In other words the one thing all leading politician say they want more of is something that will make us less happy as a society!'

Given this it is perhaps not surprising that Liam Byrne called the idea that social mobility must be about people going down as up 'a classic liberal error'. Gordon Brown intends to emphasise the scope for the managerial and professional classes to grow thus boosting absolutely social mobility. But even if we focus on absolute mobility there is still a distributional aspect.

If our objective is to increase the number of people in higher occupational groups, presumably we want to do this by elevating those (and the offspring of those) currently in the lowest levels; this is certainly the implication of the Government’s messaging. If this is the case the objective is to redistribute opportunity among the middle and lower strata so that the poor have as good a chance as rising up as those just below the higher levels.

But if this is the case - and there are perfectly good grounds of equity and releasing talent for thinking so - then the effect on aggregate social contentment will again be negative. Those just outside the top strata are much more focussed on, and expectant of, shifting up a notch, and will thus be more disappointed when they don’t, than would be those at the bottom who will tend to compare themselves with the people just above them.

I support attempts to improve social mobility, and was pleased to see the most recent data confirming that things have improved over the last few years. But the latest international data indicates that the single best policy is simply to reduce inequality. By lowering the distance people have to travel to move up or down, and making downward mobility less disastrous for personal finances and status, relatively equal societies lower the economic and social barriers to mobility.

But while ‘increasing social mobility’ is a buzz phrase ‘redistributing wealth’ is not. So we can expect all our politicians to conspire it the story that mobility can rise in an unequal society without anyone having to suffer.

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