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.


  1. How do you measure moving up in society ?
    Are there any objective criteria for evaluating one´s social position ?
    This is a sincere question, not a rhetorical one.

    Would Prince Harry move down in society if he decided to live like a clochard in Paris ?

  2. We clearly do not have any ordering relation in the mathematical sense. But we do have a general sense of level of education, a general sense of status of job, and so on. So we can identify clear cases in which it would make sense to say that someone had moved up, or down, in society, even though there are many cases in which we cannot say anything either way.

    None of this can sustain any judgement of worth. The most important people in a modern city are the water and sewage workers, closely followed by the rubbish collectors. They are the people who keep us free from widespread disease.

    As for a prince becoming a clochard, that would depend on whether he could easily revert to his princely life. If he could, then he would only be playing, like Marie Antoinette at the Hameau. But if he committed to the life of a clochard, and could not leave it any more easily than any other clochard, that would be a real change.

  3. A Scandinavian once explained to me that there is some kind of unwritten law in their country which says that nobody is either worse or better than anyone else.
    This is what I have always felt myself.
    And this is what Jesus was preaching too.
    So the best solution would be to allow everybody to squeeze at the top of the social ladder.
    This would be paradise for all.
    And those who do not like crowded places could simply descend or move to the woods and live like hermits.

    Superior men (hörere Menschen) according to Nietzsche were often people who were not at all at the top of the social ladder. They were often die Missratenen.

  4. höhere Menschen, oder höhere Seelen

    Ich habe mich leider vertippt.

    Höhere Menschen können auch Frauen sein, Lou Andreas-Salomé war eine von dieser Sorte, neben Napoleon und ein paar anderen.

  5. Most successful people are often ruthless and without scruples. They are not bothered by remorse or bad conscience because they lack mirror neurons.
    They are brilliant and fascinating, unimpeded by empathy.
    They are called psychopaths or sociopaths.

    It may be difficult to measure merit and to grant privileges according to merit.

  6. Some economically successful people are ruthless. I am not sure that it is true of most of them. And of course, there are lots of sorts of success apart from economic success.

    Of course we cannot realistically measure merit and then grant privileges. But I do not think that is what is being suggested. The idea is to ensure that if you have talents, then you get the opportunity to get a good job in which you can use them. You do not find that someone who is less talented, but who has advantages such as social connections, gets the job instead. So rather than work out who should get what, we oil the machine of society so that it can, efficiently but unintentionally, work out who gets which jobs.

  7. Der begabteste Kandidat soll die Stelle bekommen, sagen Sie.
    Es sind aber Fälle denkbar, in denen es sich mit guten Gründen vertreten lässt, dass ein weniger begabter Bewerber den Zuschlag bekommt.
    Ein Vater kann zum Beispiel einen suizidgefährdeten und nur mittelmäßig begabten Sohn haben und einen Geschäftsfreund bitten, ihn in seinem Unternehmen einzustellen.
    Ein besser geeigneter Bewerber ist hingegen vielleicht in der Lage, ohne größere Schwierigkeiten etwas anderes zu finden.