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Social mobility won’t bring social justice The assumption that everyone is born with equal abilities makes it harder to help the less advantaged

Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty

Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty

September 30, 2019   4 mins

Left-wing policy initiatives aimed at helping the disadvantaged generally begin from a central premise: that people are born more or less as blank slates, more or less the same, and only differential treatment since birth explains all the difference in individual outcomes.

This approach manages to coexist with the overwhelming evidence that cognitive ability — human intelligence — has a significant heritable component. We are not blank slates, at least not when it comes to our ability to think, yet while the evidence is overwhelming — see here, here and here — the Left, in particular, is hostile to the idea, or even discussing it.

The reason, at least on the surface, is well-intentioned. Progressives can say, with some justice, that categorising people by intelligence is an ethical nightmare. The use of epistocracy – government by the clever – to justify everything from the oppression of women to slavery goes all the way back to Aristotle. It is no coincidence that “intelligence testing” and eugenics emerged at the same moment. Indeed, the history and validity of measuring and testing “intelligence” is itself fraught with controversy.

But in seeking to push back against narratives that could be used to encourage bigotry, the Left has blinded itself to the biggest contemporary inequality story of all: the emergence of a new cognitive elite.

Consider ‘John’. Our hypothetical John is a poster boy for social mobility: born amid the industrial decline of a post-industrial community, to working-class parents, he did well at school and won a scholarship to a top university. John did not go back home, but instead moved to a flourishing global city for a career in financial services. He married another high flyer, and they live a middle-class life in a leafy suburb.

John could be British or American, Canadian or Australian. He has counterparts — Jean, Hans, Gianni — in many other countries. His story is a textbook case of meritocracy in action, rewarding the determination, hard work and natural ability of someone from a working-class background with a successful career in a field far removed from that of his parents.

His story is also a parable of what in human genetics is called “assortative mating“: the tendency of people to pair up with partners of a similar social status. A 2017 paper that studied assortative mating in humans found, among other factors, a strong correlation between the educational attainment levels of life partners. If we take educational attainment as a rough proxy for cognitive ability, we can infer from this paper that assortative mating will result in couples of a similar intelligence.

It is difficult to argue against meritocracy. Who could object to people being rewarded for their ability and hard work regardless of background? What happens, though, when you generalise that pattern over several generations, and add in the fact that cognitive ability is highly hereditary?

The children of John and his wife are unlikely to grow up poor or leave school with no qualifications. Those children will be more likely than not to pair up with similar partners. And every time someone like John leaves home for the opportunities of the big city, taking his genes with him, the chances of someone with the most sought-after cognitive abilities being born in his new home increases fractionally, and decreases correspondingly in his place of birth.

We should expect the entry of women into education and the workforce to accentuate this effect. Two clever, well-paid professionals, benefiting from meritocracy to have successful careers before pairing up to start a family, will have a combined income far beyond what could be achieved by a family with one breadwinner and a stay at home parent, or indeed any but the most high-earning of single parents. They will pass these opportunities – along with their genes – to their children, and thus perpetuate the pattern.

Over time, the country’s Johns and their equally ambitious wives will increasingly filter out of the general population and pass the fruits of their meritocratic success and genetic ability on to their children. These generations will be doubly advantaged, by their inherited ability and also by their parents’ relative wealth. They will also be more and more geographically concentrated in places where their aptitudes command the highest rewards.

These are tendencies, of course, to which there will be many exceptions, but in aggregate they will make a difference.

In 2017, the Social Mobility Commission reported on a growing concentration of opportunity in some areas and away from other geographic “cold spots”; in 2018 the OECD reported that inequality was becoming more acute and social classes more rigid. It is not news to point to the emergence of an elite, increasingly concentrated in areas economically, geographically and culturally distinct from the “left behind” places abandoned in the pursuit of social mobility.

But the Left has little to say about the role of intelligence in this.

For one thing, it is a little awkward. The chance for anyone to get a great job regardless of origin, and the right of women to enter and succeed in the workplace, have been cherished liberal ideals for decades. It is perhaps easier to ignore or traduce discussions of intelligence and genetics than to consider whether the long-term interaction of hereditary intelligence with meritocracy and second-wave feminism is contributing to other forms of inequality.

In an alternative world, where we accepted the influence of heritability on cognitive ability but still cared about the poor or vulnerable, what would Left-wing policy look like? Education might be less obsessed with trying to give everyone the same education, or get everyone to university, and more focused on bringing out the best in everyone regardless of natural ability. It might also pay more attention to forms of intelligence overlooked by conventional qualifications and corporate recruitment practices.

Social policy might be less fixated on “social mobility” (in other words easy movement of the clever and motivated toward the elite), and more interested in cohesion across socioeconomic strata. One way this could be applied in practice might be requiring housing developers to pay more than lip service to building a walkable, multigenerational blend of more or less affordable homes.

Such a world might also expect the cognitive elite to be less self-congratulatory about the meritocratic righteousness of their position on top of the pile. Differences of dignity or worth do not follow from differences of intelligence, a fact that seems to have escaped those members of the cognitive elite busy lecturing us de haut en bas about everything from sugar to climate change.

A Left-wing worldview that took into account cognitive ability might even ask an emerging elite to exchange self-righteous entitlement for a sense of duty to the wider community. Something, indeed, not unlike what was once called “noblesse oblige“.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.


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4 years ago

It will forever affect my views on articles by this writer that I read in future that she appears to be prepared to use words like “hereditary” and phrases like “cognitive ability”, apparently without having looked them up and discovered what they mean.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
3 years ago

“Differences of dignity or worth do not follow from differences of intelligence.” Funny how she spends the article railing against left-wing assumptions about intelligence and hereditary traits then makes her own dogmatic statement without evidence or argument.