Wednesday 6 April 2011

Mobility and opportunity

The Cabinet Office has just published Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers: A Strategy for Social Mobility. It is available here:

There are a lot of good practical ideas in this document. But what is the aim, and what are the implications of having that aim?

One possible aim would be to create a meritocracy, albeit in economic life in general, and not as the political system that the suffix -cracy would suggest. But the document suggests that it is not the outcome, but the fairness of the game, that matters to the Government. That is, the aim seems to be equality of opportunity. In that case, the inequalities that are inequalities of natural endowment, rather than of opportunity, and that should influence the outcome even in a fair game, need to be identified. Genetically determined intelligence? Genetically determined physical abilities or robustness of general health? The opportunities for political incorrectness are legion.

I do not think that the term "social mobility" should have been used. We must remind ourselves of the difference between two things. One is everybody's circumstances improving, which is perfectly possible. The other is everybody moving up in society relative to others. Unfortunately, the term "social mobility" suggests the latter. It sounds great, but elementary mathematics shows that it is impossible. If "social mobility" is to be a sensible objective, it cannot mean getting people to move up the order, because the steps up by some and the steps down by others will, in aggregate (sum of (people x size of move) ), cancel each other out.

It must therefore mean ensuring that movement up and down is not impeded by factors that should not impede it. But if that is what is meant, the term "equality of opportunity" should have been used. The use of that term would have several advantages. It would accommodate both the possibility of everybody's improving their circumstances at the same time, and the possibility of individuals moving up on merit. It would avoid suggesting that we must in fact have more movement up and down the order (more movement might or might not be the result of introducing equality of opportunity). It would encourage us to draw on the very considerable philosophical literature on equality of opportunity. And it would not tempt us to hope for the mathematically impossible.