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Patricia Kaszynska FRSA has been in contact to suggest a dialogue about social mobility. As I like Patricia's work and get quite animated about the uses and abuses of the idea of social mobility, it was an offer I couldn't refuse. So this is the first of what we hope will be a series of posts on this site (from me and from Patricia), enhanced, we hope, with the usual thoughtful contributions from readers. We have an ambition to publish something more substantial but that depends on how this thread goes.

My starting point was going to be the Olympics and my dread of the various ways the Party leaders will seek to capitalise on the success of the Games to make various clunking, self-serving points in their conference speeches. As I have argued before, there are many problems with drawing obvious lessons from the human drama of sport and applying them to the much more complex and messy business of social policy.

The temptation is to hold up the likes of Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis (and there may be even more compelling examples in the Paralympics) as symbols of the meritocratic ideal of a society in which talented, hard working people rise above their circumstances and become a great success. There are several reasons to question such a portrayal:

Our Olympians had substantial state support to help them succeed, well in advance of what other people could expect, including people with great talent and enormous commitment but who are just not quite the best

As a whole, private school pupils were substantially over-represented in the Olympic team reflecting the hugely enhanced sporting offer available in the fee-paying sector

More fundamentally, sporting merit is of a very particular kind. There is a broad consensus that the public's fascination with people running, cycling or riding round in circles justifies the rewards in terms of funding and status going to the highest achievers, but it tells us little or nothing about the wider problems of relating rewards to merit (for example, the merits of being a banker versus the merit of being a care worker).

Even more fundamentally, isn't modern commercial sport an extreme example (albeit one which we accept) of the harshness of meritocracy? For every winner there have to be lots of losers and the tiny differences between first and fourth place are reflected in huge differences in rewards. Mo Farah may have run five seconds faster than a person who finished out of the medals, but should a rational or humane society consequently treat Mo as an all round superman and his defeated opponents as failures? And what about the person who could have beaten Mo but never got the breaks? Let's remember that thirty years ago gold medal winners would enjoy the pride and plaudits, but expect after the Olympics to resume their day job as an ordinary citizen.

We may accept inequality of outcome (which inevitably spawns inequality of opportunity) as a necessary price to pay for freedom and economic progress, but the principle of meritocracy insists that we should also see inequality as just and therefore a reflection not of the ordering of society, but of our own individual desserts.

Anyway, that was what I was going to write, but then along came Nick Clegg's Guardian interview calling for rich people to make a bigger contribution to getting us through economic hard times. This prompts two points:

First, Liberal Democrats are justified in making a distinction between policy on income (over which they reluctantly supported the cut in the top rate of income tax) and policy on wealth. Not only have inequalities in wealth increased in recent decades even faster than those income, but wealth is much more problematic than income in terms of the meritocratic ideals the Lib Dems espouse, primarily because of the way it carries privilege through the generations.

Second, it is interesting that Clegg tends to keep separate his argument for social mobility (laid out in detail here) and his case for taxing wealth. Usually politicians are all too fond of using three justifications for a policy when one will do, but in resisting the temptation to link fiscal expediency to social justice, Clegg is observing here a strongly held view across mainstream politics that the sunny uplands of extolling meritocracy should be kept free from the turbulent storms which result (as we are seeing today) from any suggestion of redistribution.

The problem is that it is precisely this habit of separating the issue of fairness of opportunity from the issue of fairness of distribution that leads to social mobility being such a problematic concept: something which I am sure Patricia will pick up in the next post in this series.


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