On Privilege And Downward Social Mobility

06/04/2017 11:27
PeopleImages via Getty Images

There are two forms of social mobility: upward and downward. The former creates winners, the latter losers. Politicians sing about the former from rooftops, but only mention the latter in encrypted emails. The former attracts votes, the latter syphons them. The problem politicians face is that, in relative terms, upward social mobility is dependent on downward social mobility. For the gifted poor to rise, the less gifted rich must fall. This is a point that, for obvious reasons, politicians seldom address.

It was thus commendable that the Education Secretary, Justine Greening, recently spoke at length about social mobility, ostensibly alluding to both forms. She claimed: 'children from high-income backgrounds who show signs of low academic ability at age five are 35% more likely to become high earners than their poorer peers who show early signs of high ability.' By comparing outcomes of rich and poor, Greening advocated a fairer playing field, one that necessarily depends on both upward and downward social mobility.

In relative terms, upward and downward social mobility are interdependent. One cannot exist without the other. Without thriving and sustainable economic growth, which is an impossibility, the relative success of the gifted poor is dependent on the relative failure of the less gifted rich. At present, however, the interdependence is failing. The rich have managed to protect their children from downward social mobility through various economic instruments.

The protections are widespread and start from birth. Parents afford their kids certain privileges growing up, such as a room with a view, private education, mentors and tutors. They afford their children greater privileges following academia, such as nepotism and the ability to accept long-term unpaid internships. They afford them even greater privileges in adulthood, such as access to housing or the capital to create their own business. Such kids usually turn out socially and economically successful, but their success is not dependent on graft or merit. The story would have been different had the kids grown up poor.

These kids are the Tim Nice but Dims of the world, well-meaning but hardly deserving of excessive wealth in a system that supposedly rewards merit. They are the Ivanka Trumps, afforded coveted positions at the behest of familial connections. These are extreme examples, to be sure, but they serve to consolidate the point. In the interest of fairness, folks without the ability to excel should suffer economic loss. It is an unpopular point - no one hopes that others lead less successful lives - but a vital one.

Any government interested in fairness and committed to awarding talent and graft has to promote downward trends for the less talented. They can do so with simplistic solutions that will achieve minor but tangible results towards downward mobility, such as banishing unpaid internships, ensuring employers offer preference to the state educated, preventing job hoarding, and implementing harsher inheritance taxes. There are more radical and less palatable measures available, such as the complete prohibition of private education, the introduction of stringent anti-nepotism laws, and even punishments that prevent parents from helping children with schoolwork. The methods to achieve downward social mobility are varied, and mostly unpalatable to the public, but they are nonetheless essential.

Greening bravely referenced social mobility, but offered no solid references to measures that will actually tackle the issue. As Education Secretary, she now has the unenviable task of creating losers. She is certainly right to suggest it will be a 'hard, long slog'. The solutions are not obvious, and the ones that exist are not particularly popular, but social mobility is widely beneficial. Allowing the gifted to rise and the less gifted to fall is not only meritocratic: it also guarantees greater economic growth through fairer investment in human capital, which benefits us all through absolute rather than relative social mobility.

The key is small movements in the right direction, not Draconian measures that impugn on personal liberties. Greening should seek to encourage businesses and schools to take active measures, rather than forcing their hand. It is generally in these organisations' interest too, after all. What seems clear, regardless of the policies adopted, is that it is important that society guarantees downward trends alongside the upward. It might seem harsh, but we need failure stories alongside those of success. Indeed, success stories depend, at present at least, on a degree of failure. We need riches to rags stories alongside rags to riches.