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It Is Not Social Mobility, It Is Abolishing Class Divisions

Above Photo: Protesters march at the G20 Summit in London, 2009.

Sonia Sodha writes:

if we care about social mobility, then we should care about reducing assortative mating.

To which Tim Worstall replies that this requires serious infringements of freedom.

I agree with Tim. Social mobility is the enemy of freedom. Enforcing it would require governments to prevent parents from doing their best for their children to stop them falling below the glass floor, and it would prevent firms from hiring whom they wanted.

It seems, then, that we have a conflict of values.

Except we don’t, because there’s nothing valuable about social mobility.

A simple thought experiment tells us this. Imagine a dictatorial society split into three classes – slave labour, guards, and rich and powerful oligarchs – in which children of the slaves have good chances of entering the higher classes either through education or perhaps lottery. We’d then have social mobility. But the society would nevertheless be unfree and unjust. Social mobility, then, is no sign of a good society.

In fact, there’s something downright dishonest about it. Social mobility pretends that if people from poor homes do well at school and work hard then they can escape their class. But they can’t. Four facts tell us this.

One is that people from poor homes are more likely to die early, even if they get a decent job later in life. In Status Syndrome Michael Marmot writes:

Where you come from does matter for your health…Family background, measured as parents’ education and father’s social class, are related to risk of heart disease.

A second piece of evidence comes from a study of Swedish stock market investors. Henrik Cronqvist and colleagues show that people whose parents were poor are less likely to hold growth stocks than people from richer backgrounds, even if they have the same current wealth. This doesn’t mean they make worse investment choices. (Quite the opposite – value stocks tend to beat growth stocks). But it does suggest that growing up poor makes you more anxious and less optimistic in later life. This chimes in with my experience.

Thirdly, people from working class backgrounds earn less than those from professional ones, even if they have similar jobs and qualifications. This might be because they have less access to social networks and good connections.

Fourthly, the IFS shows that men from poor homes are less likely to be married in later life, even controlling for their own incomes. This is consistent with a more general pattern for the upwardly mobile to be lonely. We no longer belong to the class we come from, but don’t fit in to the one we join – in part because that class is chock full of twats who were born on third base but who think they hit a triple. As the great Jason Isbell sings:

Tried to go to college but I didn’t belong. Everything I said was either funny or wrong.

The truth is, then, that we cannot overcome the harm done by a class society. Scars don’t completely heal. Waffle about hard work, merit and mobility are lies which function to legitimate inequalities and to give the rich and powerful the illusion that they deserve their fortune. The left should think less about how to increase social mobility, and more about how to abolish class divisions.

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