People across the political spectrum care a lot about social mobility. For instance, a recent BBC documentary entitled 'Who Gets the Best Jobs?', about how little upwards mobility there is in the British society today, seems to have hit a nerve – judging form the large number of views on youtube but also form the large number of passionate comments from the public:
And there are people who would equate perfect social mobility with justice, and who therefore deplore its absence as the most worrisome form of injustice today.
I assume this is so because equality of opportunities of one form or another is a very widely accepted political value today. Why would anyone be against fair chances? For people on the right, the principle of equal opportunities embodies an ideal of meritocracy which in turn promises that desert will be rewarded. Those on the left are keen on a version of the principle designed to condemn as unjust the obstacles that class (and other kinds of social inequalities) pose to individuals' strive to obtain socially desirable positions. For instance, John Rawls' principle of fair equality of opportunities (henceforth FEO) requires this: '[s]upposing there is a distribution of native endowments, those who have the same level of talent and ability and the same willingness to use these gifts should have the same prospects of success regardless of their social class of origin.' The rest of this post explores the value of this version of the principle.
One of the most compelling reasons for valuing FEO is the belief that it is unfair when factors such as the level of education or wealth in one's family of origin determines one's chances to lead a good life. This reason is either unstable or less compelling than it seems at first glance. If it is interpreted to say that how well someone's life goes ought not to depend on factors that are outside her control and for which she cannot be held responsible, then the principle is unstable: we are as little responsible for our native talent, and, possibly, for our ambition, as we are for our parents' money and education. If it is interpreted to say that people deserve to reap and keep the benefits of their talents the principle is contentious precisely because people have no merit in being born with particular native talents.
Here is an illustration: imagine that two children have an equally strong desire to get a job and that occupying it will contribute equally to their overall wellbeing; one is more talented, while the other has more parental support. If we bracket the question of the social utility of that job being occupied by one, rather than the other, person, does it make any moral difference which of the two gets the job? In any case there will be a winner and a loser, and in any case a form of luck will dictate who is who.
You may think that the issue of social utility ought not to be bracketed. A second ground for valuing FEO is that the ideal of meritocracy it embodies makes possible various kinds of excellence that all of us have reason to desire (who does not want to be served by competent doctors or civil engineers?). This reason has more weight when in comes to selection for some occupations than for others, and it may be most often false in an unjust society. There is some reason to want, all other things equal, that the people who are most talented for medicine (amongst those who wish to practice it) become doctors. But with respect to other professions that are sought after, 'good enough' will probably do (say, when it comes to who ends up practising civil law.) FEO is not necessary to avoid the social disvalue of incompetent individuals landing jobs where they can do harm. A method of eliminating candidates below a certain threshold of competence will do.
An even more important point here is that people who live in unjust societies have reasons not to want the most talented people to occupy those desired positions that are connected to the exercise of power. The most talented lawyers serving a corrupt legal system are likely to do more damage than more mediocre ones; the most talented conservative politicians will be most efficient at keeping in place unfair institutions; and similar things can be said about the most talented bankers, tax advices and top managers working in unjust societies.
One last thought on why it is not socially useful if the most talented land the best paid social positions in unjust societies: such societies tend to have mechanisms that harness talent in the service of a well-off minority – one such mechanism is, obviously, better pay. To take again an example from medicine, much research talent is currently used to seek cures for trivial conditions that afflict mostly the rich. There is no social utility in the most talented researchers who compete for these positions getting them. Therefore (and other things equal) it is far from clear that FEO in an unjust society contributes to the maximisation of social utility.
Third, FEO can also be instrumental to improving the situation of the worst off. In Rawls' theory of justice FEO is nested in a more complex principle, demanding FEO to regulate the competition for desirable social positions in a society whose basic institutions are organised to ensure that the worst off members of society are as well off as possible. If the most talented individuals occupy the best rewarded social positions in a well-ordered society, this will supposedly lead to the maximisation of the social product. As a result, everybody, including the worst off members of society, will end up better off than the would if other, less talented individuals were to occupy those positions. This is the meritocratic component of FEO. The best results in this sense will be achieved if individuals can develop their talents equally, unencumbered by their class, gender, race etc. This is the fairness component of FEO. In this justificatory story, the value of FEO is entirely dependent on its operation in an otherwise distributively just society. Rawls himself came to the conclusion that the realisation of the difference principle requires market socialism or property owning democracy. One may dispute this, but few dispute that current societies fail to realise the difference principle. How important is it to make sure that people have fair chances to win unfair competitions?
So it seems a mistake to worry too much about social mobility. We should be a lot more worried about substantive inequalities than about the distribution of chances to end up as a winner rather than as a loser.