08 December 2006

The left hates mobility

The observation that so-called 'relative poverty' — which really means inequality — has increased under New Labour may seem surprising. Surely the promotion of equality, even at the cost of lower economic growth, is what being on the left is all about? Isn't that what they mean when they talk about 'social justice', 'fairness' etc? Why would New Labour's policies have segregated the lower social classes even more from the upper ones?

But what is it that really gets the average leftist's goat? Is it seeing some having more money than others, because of unfair advantages such as richer parents or a higher level of intelligence? But then why are so many on the left, particularly those responsible for inventing and implementing egalitarian policies, themselves from, and in, higher income brackets?

Or is what makes the bile rise in the typical leftist rather the sight of a person from a modest background trying to rise up the social ladder, or to get their children to do so — the classic Marxist hatred of petit bourgeois self-improvement? Consider, for example, the hostility from left-leaning commentators towards 'pushy parents' — the kind that try to ensure their kids do better, by buying them more educational toys, or by trying to get into the catchment area for a comprehensive school that is less awful than the average. Such reactions suggest it's aspiration (often described as "greed"), rather than the simple state of being well off, which causes leftists to reach for the smelling salts.

The term 'meritocracy' was coined by socialist Michael Young in his 1958 book The Rise of the Meritocracy and intended to carry negative connotations. The book warned of the dire consequences of allowing social position to be determined purely by intelligence. Nearly fifty years later, the left wing fear of meritocracy has not gone away. See for example the following comment by Blair muse and Third Way architect Anthony Giddens (now Lord Giddens) on what he calls the "new egalitarianism":

The new egalitarianism is sceptical about the virtues of pure meritocracy. ... A high level of "exchange mobility", where many individuals exchanged positions over time, would in all probability be socially destructive. No society could cope easily with the large degrees of downward mobility that are implied in this; it would promote widespread feelings of disaffection and despair. (New Statesman)
In other words, mobility creates inequality, and is therefore better suppressed.

So no one should be very surprised that social mobility has declined under Blair, according to a study by the London School of Economics.

Incidentally, like most such research, the study completely evades the possibility that the correlation between the income level of parents and the income level of their offspring might be due to the genetic transmission of ability.