When leftists complain about high levels of income inequality, their opponents on the right sometimes argue that inequality is the natural outcome of personal desert. If you’re wealthy, you should be praised for your work, and if you find yourself on the wrong side of inequality you should invest more effort and try harder to be socially mobile. If you think inequality is a problem, then in fact you blame the industrious for being industrious and you exculpate the rest. Societies like the US offer lots of opportunities to escape the social class of your parents, and many do in fact escape. So if you don’t, look at yourself first.
This view is actually quite common on the right. According to a Pew survey, 38 percent of Americans are judgmental, declaring that poverty stems from a lack of individual effort, while 46 percent does not fault the poor, agreeing that their plight is the outcome of unfavorable circumstances. A large majority of Republicans – 57 to 27 – says that people are poor because of a lack of effort.
The right-wing view has a certain prima facie appeal. We all believe that effort should be rewarded. And when social mobility is easy and people aren’t artificially held back and tied to the class of their parents, then perhaps inequality is indeed the result of unequal effort and lifestyle choices. In other words, inequality is what people deserve. If there are few or no obstacles to mobility and people have some level of equal opportunity, then they basically choose their position in society: they choose to invest effort and develop their skills, or they don’t.
However, upon closer inspection the narrative is unpersuasive. It’s not always true that individuals can simply decide to develop their skills and invest effort in their social mobility. Skills aren’t just “developed”; some people are born with more talent than other people, or with talents that yield more financial profit than other talents. True, talent requires development and effort, but even effort may be a naturally acquired capacity or a capacity that requires favorable conditions in early childhood. I think we all agree that a stable and reasonably affluent family life as well as a good education are indispensable, on average, for the development of talent and of a personal ethic that favors effort and discipline. Many people at the wrong end of inequality can offer some of this to their children, but to a much lesser degree than wealthier parents. Here are some data on so-called enrichment expenditures.
And it’s not just expenses. The children of wealthy parents have other advantages compared to poor children, advantages they wouldn’t have in a less unequal society, for instance networks, internship opportunities etc. Because of extra expenses in education and other less material advantages, these children are more likely to end up in a high income group as adults. As a result, inequality counteracts social mobility. And we see that in the numbers: the more unequal a society, the less social mobility. That’s the message of Miles Corak’s famous Great Gatsby Curve.
If you argue that income inequality is not really a problem when there is a high level of social mobility and when people have good opportunities to become socially mobile – in other words when they have good opportunities to climb the social ladder and escape the social class or income group into which they were born – then you’re really taking things backwards. Social mobility can’t be a solution to inequality because inequality makes mobility very difficult. High levels of social mobility assume that we create more equality of opportunity. However, this is a dead end. As I’ve argued here, equality of opportunity is a highly problematic and unrealistic concept.
More posts on income inequality are here.