The Ethics of Human Rights (21): Social Mobility, Egalitarianism, Equality of Opportunity, and Meritocracy

In the best egalitarian society, people can change occupations, groups, associations etc. but their income, poverty level or social class will not change a lot as a result of this, since there’s not much difference between different income levels. This means that the society in question has decided that different occupations, talents and efforts should receive roughly the same financial reward. That may or may not be a good thing. Intuitively I would say that some occupations and some amounts of effort investment should receive higher financial rewards than others, in which case a somewhat inegalitarian society is what I want, notwithstanding my concerns about the problems created by inequality (see here for example). What I certainly don’t want is the worst egalitarian society, which combines the problem of equal rewards for morally diverse activities with the problem of fixed occupations and lack of social mobility, Soviet style.

In the worst inegalitarian society, there isn’t a lot of social mobility, social mobility in the sense of children ending up in adult life in a higher or lower level of income than the level of their parents.* There may be relatively many people changing occupations, but always within a limited class of occupations that yield roughly the same income levels. Such a lack of social mobility is an indication that income levels are not the result of merit, desert, reward, effort or talent, but rather the result of society’s choice not to equalize opportunities and to let people’s opportunities be determined by factors such as the family in which they happen to be born, unequal access to education etc. Genes do play a role in determining talent, and perhaps even willingness to invest effort, but only if genes were the sole force determining talent and effort could we claim that a lack of social mobility in an inegalitarian society is an inevitable characteristic of this society and not the consequence of a conscious choice of this society.

Since I don’t believe that genes have such a strong determining force, I have to conclude that the worst inegalitarian society chooses to limit social mobility and to accept (or even promote) unequal opportunities. Such a society in fact chooses to be a class society, a society that limits entry and exit into the various classes or income level groups and that forces parents and their adult children to share similar income levels (income levels are transmitted across generations).

The limited power of genes also allows me to conclude, positively now, that the best inegalitarian society can and should try to enact policies that promote social mobility. Such policies should remove obstacles that hinder people from using their talents and efforts in order to achieve a position in society that corresponds to a higher income level than the level their parents “enjoy”. These obstacles can be parental poverty, lack of access to quality education or to cultural resources, parental crime, peer pressure etc. In short, the best inegalitarian society should try to equalize opportunities. People with similar talents and willingness to develop and use these talents should have a roughly equal chance of ending up in a similar income level. If they don’t have such an equal chance, then it means that they don’t have the same opportunities and that certain obstacles hinder some of these people in the use and development of their talents. I can see no reason why the imposition of such obstacles on some people and not on others could ever be justified, but I’m open to suggestions.

Those who are at the same level of talent and ability, and have the same willingness to use them, should have the same prospects of success regardless of their initial place in the social system. In all sectors of society there should be roughly equal prospects of culture and achievement for everyone similarly motivated and endowed. The expectations of those with the same abilities and aspirations should not be affected by their social class. Chances to acquire cultural knowledge and skills should not depend upon one’s class position, and so the school system, whether public or private, should be designed to even out class barriers. John Rawls (source)

If we assume that genes have a limited role in distributing talent, that the distribution of talent among people is therefore to some extent random and not determined by who their parents are; and if we further assume that the willingness to invest effort isn’t completely determined by parental influence or by genetics – and if, on top of that, opportunities are equalized (to some extent), then we should find a lack of correlation between the economic status of parents and their children. We should, in other words, find high levels of social mobility. If not, the influence of genes on talent and the influence of parents on the willingness to invest effort are more powerful than we think; or – more likely – the society hasn’t been successful in creating equality of opportunity (hasn’t provided equal access to quality education for instance). The levels of mobility are therefore a good indicator of the equality of opportunity in a society.

If the best inegalitarian society tries to equalize opportunities and is reasonably successful, then this doesn’t mean that it will necessarily become an egalitarian society. Equalizing opportunities doesn’t imply equalizing rewards for different activities, and neither does it mean that everyone will make equally successful use of the equal opportunities. There will be a lot of social mobility and a lack of correlation between the social position of parents and children, but the mobility can go up for some people and down for others, depending on the talents people have, the efforts they are willing to invest, and the rewards that society gives to particular talents, activities and efforts. Because of these different rewards, and because equal opportunities will be used unequally, there is no reason to expect a convergence of income levels. The best inegalitarian society will become a meritocracy, which produces, by definition, unequal income levels because it differentiates between deserving and less deserving activities, and between deserving and less deserving efforts within an activity.

This kind of society differs fundamentally from the worst inegalitarian society which is a class society and which therefore locks people in positions whatever their merits (class society can mean different things – caste society, nepotistic society etc. – but the effect is always the same). It also differs from the best egalitarian society which allows people to move between occupations but rewards all occupations equally and can’t therefore be called a meritocracy.

I mentioned before that a society can choose to be the best or the worst inegalitarian society. But how does it do that? “Society” is a vague concept. Who are the people actually making those choices? Well, it can be the politicians for instance. It’s quite clear that different policies have different effects on the equality of opportunities and on social mobility. Estate taxes or inheritance taxes play a huge role. Redistribution policies and policies aimed at education as well. But the processes leading towards and away from equality of opportunity can also be more below the surface:

It turns out that there’s a bit of a paradoxical relationship between believing your country has a lot of economic mobility and your country actually having a lot of economic mobility. If you believe that your country is extremely mobile, you’re likely to believe the results of the economic competition are relatively fair. As such, you won’t want to slap the rich with particularly high tax rates and you won’t be terribly concerned about spreading economic opportunity. After all, anyone can make it!

On the other hand, if you don’t believe your country is terribly mobile, then you’re less likely to believe economic outcomes are fair. And if you don’t believe the outcomes are fair, you’re likely to tax the winners relatively heavily and plow those profits into things like universal health care and free college. Policies, in other words, that spread opportunity more widely and thus make your society more mobile. Put like that, it sort of makes sense. If you believe your society is already economically mobile, you don’t spend a lot of time trying to solve the problem of insufficient economic mobility. if you don’t believe that, then you implement policies meant to increase mobility. Ezra Klein (source)

* “Basically social mobility refers to the likelihood that a child will grow up into adulthood and attain a higher level of economic and social wellbeing than his/her family of origin. Is there a correlation between the socioeconomic status (SES) of an adult and his/her family of origin? Do poor people tend to have poor parents? And do poor parents tend to have children who end up as poor adults later in life? Does low SES in the parents’ circumstances at a certain time in life – say, the age of 30 – serve to predict the SES of the child at the same age?” (source)


4 thoughts on “The Ethics of Human Rights (21): Social Mobility, Egalitarianism, Equality of Opportunity, and Meritocracy

  1. possible fundamental reasoning error here; material well-being (beyond the essential requirements of life) would be “immaterial” in an egalitarian society where wealth is measured by a different success-stick

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