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The war on social mobility Meritocracy might not be working, but that doesn't mean we should junk the system.

Credit: Anthony Devlin/Getty Images

October 3, 2019   7 mins

Because Jeremy Corbyn often gives his more important speeches on a Saturday, and because there’s a lot else going on in politics, it would be easy to miss one of the most interesting — and potentially troubling — strands of recent political thinking: social mobility is under attack.

I don’t mean that it’s getting hard for people to advance up the socio-economic scale — to end up richer and more secure than their parents. That may well be true, but it isn’t new. What’s new is politicians and thinkers rejecting the very idea of social mobility.

Here’s Corbyn, one Saturday in June this year:

“Social mobility has failed, even on its own terms. The idea that only a few talented or lucky people deserve to escape the disadvantage they were born in to, leaving in place a social hierarchy in which millions are consigned to the scrap heap, results in the talents of millions of children being squandered.”

A Corbyn Labour government, the leader announced, would scrap the Government’s Social Mobility Commission — once led by Labour’s Alan Milburn — and replace it with a “Social Justice Commission” with a remit to audit all government policies to ensure they promote that as-yet-undefined goal of social justice.

“Social mobility helps just a lucky few to move up the social hierarchy, whilst leaving the hierarchy of entrenched inequality and disadvantage firmly still in place,” Labour says.

The Corbyn Project has always attracted some surprising admirers — remember when Jim O’Neill, formerly of Goldman Sachs and the Coalition ministry endorsed it? — but Yale Law School is still an unlikely place to look for fans. Yet Yale is the base of Daniel Markovits, author of a book that seeks to offer some intellectual foundations to the attack on social mobility and a meritocratic society. It’s called The Meritocracy Trap and while it’s ultimately not very good, it does deserve some attention.

Markovits, who praises Corbyn as a “reformer”, wants to make a similar challenge. He argues that the idea of a meritocratic society is the root of just about every social and economic ill suffered by Western nations today. For him, the guiding principle that people should rise to a socio-economic station according to their talent and industry is a recipe for inequality and misery.

The Meritocracy Trap is a remarkable book in several ways, few of them good. It is remarkable that a work so inconsistent and ultimately unconvincing should have become one of those “books of the moment” that “everyone” (i.e. some journalists and politicians) is talking about.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this book on meritocracy is how hazily it defines that term. Often, when Markovits says “meritocracy” he appears to means “the general state of the US economy”; despite his repeated claims, he does not convincingly demonstrate that inequalities of wages and wealth are solely explained by the idea that people should be rewarded according to their talents.

Still, when he aims for easier targets, he has some success. Drawing usefully on his own experience at Yale educating the next generation of America’s legal elite (he appears to both pity and scorn his students), Markovits does a good job of describing the way educational and thus economic advantage have effectively become hereditary. He tells a good story of successful professionals whose salaries and lifestyles are ever more distant from those of “ordinary workers” and how they pay and push to get their kids every possible advantage and thus capture high-paying jobs of their own. The kids of those “ordinary workers” thus find it ever harder to climb the ladder that meritocracy implies they should have access to.

But Markovits is hardly the first to make these observations. It is almost suspiciously notable that he makes no reference to Dream Hoarders by Richard Reeves, a much better book from 2017 that sets out how successful middle-class parents put a floor under their children’s prospects by getting them the best possible schooling and upbringing.

In a British context, The Class Ceiling by Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison is a better challenge to the narrow idea of meritocracy as meaning your exam results decide your final income, demonstrating that your class background doesn’t just influence your chances of entering the privileged professional elite but your chances of progressing within it.

More original is Markovits’ portrait of that high-earning “superordinate” worker class as suffering its own captivity and misery: Markovits invites us to pity those who make it through super-pressured educational careers and elite schools like his own to become corporate lawyers and investment bankers only to find themselves trapped in a long-hours culture. And perhaps doing 90-hour weeks to fund school fees and a place in the Hamptons isn’t paradise, but Markovits doesn’t give much time to the fact that his suffering superordinates are ultimately free to quit and do something else, like move to the low-wage “left behind” places whose lack of growth and economic opportunity he fairly describes.

Is stagnant social mobility and the seeming impossibility of moving up the wage ladder for many people, especially poor white people, a grievance expressed in votes for Donald Trump and Brexit? This is not the place for a full answer, but Markovits deserves credit for exploring the possibility. Progessive politicians seeking to win back the support of Trump voters and Brexiteers would do well to do the same.

Here it should be noted that challenges to the notion of social mobility do not come only from the progressive Left. In a recent Centre for Social Justice report, the Conservative MP Sir John Hayes suggests that the drive to social mobility is at odds with the notion of community: uprooting bright children from their home towns to attend far-off universities then work in the high-wage south-east of England is a source of harmful tension, he argues.

If anything, this underestimates the magnitude of the issue here: it is the difference in worldview between those who go away to graduate and those who stay at home without getting a degree that increasingly dominates our politics, though few politicians are yet willing to accept that.

I think that CSJ critique conflates social and geographical mobility; the answer to the problem Sir John diagnoses is a familiar prescription of economic rebalancing, industrial strategy and investment in skills and education. It should be possible to enjoy social mobility and climb at least a few rungs on that ladder without ever leaving your home town; there’s no automatic reason that attaining a degree should distance your values and worldview from your peers who don’t go to university.

Markovits, meanwhile, makes a much bigger and more culpable leap of logic. Having — reasonably — observed that some Bad Things are happening in societies that say they value meritocracy, he concludes that meritocracy is itself a Bad Thing. This is, of course, in keeping with the political spirit of our times: when democratic votes produce outcomes we do not like, it’s becoming common to question the system, not the outcome; when markets allocate resources in ways we regret, people like Corbyn conclude that markets themselves must be swept away. As it is with consumer goods, so it is with economic and political principles: instead of fixing something when it doesn’t work properly for us, we throw it away and get a new model.

This is Markovits’ approach, yet for a book demanding a fundamental reordering of societies and economies, it is stunningly light on detailed recommendations for action; Team Corbyn will find few new policies here.

There’s some perfectly sensible, familiar stuff about pushing private schools and top universities to admit more poor kids, and to create more places to accommodate them, but anyone who thinks letting a few more hundred poor kids go to Yale or Oxford will solve this puzzle simply isn’t serious.

If some of his proposals are too small, some are far too grand. After nearly 300 pages and as many footnotes describing his chosen problem, he reels off, in a few sentences, prescriptions that amount to an entire new understanding of economics.

“The most direct way to promote middle-class labour is to promote ways of making goods and services that favour middle-class workers,” he says, without bothering to explain how this could be done, by whom, and what the very considerable consequences would be. Likewise his plan to turn back the clock on work and jobs and reverse decades of increasing human capital and productivity: instead of prioritising ever-higher skills, “a second reform should use taxes to encourage employers to create mid-skilled jobs.”

Rejecting the specialisation and comparative advantage described by Adam Smith and David Ricardo is, to put it mildly, a novel approach to economics, but Markovits is a philosopher not an economist, so we might infer that he thinks some things are more important than economic growth.

That inference is bolstered by his conclusions:

“Society must reduce the differences in pay among jobs and the differences in quality among schools and universities.

“True equality …cannot settle for meritocratic opportunities but must reach, democratically, towards outcomes.”

In short, the notion that human and financial capital gravitates to uses where it generates the highest return — wages or profits — has failed and must be replaced by some other system of allocation. Quite who and what should determine what “equal outcomes” look like is not explained or explored. Nor is there any reflection on the role of incentives.

It’s hard not to read this as an argument that Markovits wants less aggregate wealth more evenly distributed. Which is not an illegitimate argument, but it is one that requires far more exposition than it gets here.

If Markovits had stuck to the task of breaking the tightening middle-class stranglehold on wealth and high-wage jobs, he’d have done something useful to improve the system. Instead, he wants to smash the whole system down, with little idea of what might replace it.

Which of course brings us back to Jeremy Corbyn and his Social Justice Commission, an organisation promised without any obvious attempt by the Labour leader to define the “social justice” that must replace “social mobility” as a goal of policy.

Is that ambiguity deliberate? An undefined mission could potentially give that new Commission — based in the Cabinet Office — huge scope to roam Whitehall and the public sector, enforcing the will of the centre on all economic and social policy. At a time when many watchers of politics fixate on Labour’s utterances about nationalisation and state provision, I’d suggest the Social Justice Commission deserves more attention too.

Away from Whitehall, what would replacing “social mobility” with “social justice” mean for people and their lives? Well, standing alongside Jeremy Corbyn at that event in June was Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary who is one of the most consistently under-estimated politicians in Westminster.

Unlike her leader, Rayner did offer to define “social justice” — as “not one person doing better than the people they grew up with but all of us working together to give everyone the chance to reach their full potential”.

She left unanswered the question of whether everyone has different potential outcomes and therefore delivering social justice will mean that people who start out in the same place might end up with different outcomes, because they did different things and made different choices.

Social mobility is dead. Long live social mobility?

James Kirkup is Director of the London-based Social Market Foundation


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