In last year’s Hugo Young lecture Nick Clegg made much of the difference between ‘old progressives’, who want to redistribute income via the state, and ‘new progressives’, who want to make improve people’s life chances. Labour were old fashioned, the Liberals were exciting and fresh. The problem is not that society is unequal, the problem is that inequality is being transmitted from generation to generation:
Can we really think that a society in which people are temporarily lifted above a statistical line by a few pounds is, in the long run, fairer than one in which opportunity is genuinely dispersed and people’s future life chances are fundamentally improved?
Inequalities become injustices when they are fixed; passed on, generation to generation. That’s when societies become closed, stratified and divided. For old progressives, reducing snapshot income inequality is the ultimate goal. For new progressives, reducing the barriers to mobility is.
So the ultimate goal of new progressives is to reduce the barriers to mobility. The ultimate goal, mind. Inequality, even steep inequality, is fine if everyone has a fair shot at reaching the top.
There are one or two problems with this. It is hard to see how material inequality now can fail to affect the life chances of the next generation. If I go from poverty to become a millionaire through my own efforts in Clegg’s meritocratic paradise, I will naturally do what I can to ensure that my children have the best possible chance and will spend some of my money to that end. They will grow up surrounded by books, they will learn Mandarin as well as the languages that they learn at (private) school. I love these imaginary children of mine so much, I’ll even spring for an internship at a hedge fund.
After all that they are likely to do well, on merit, for sure. But their merit is inextricably linked to my material advantages.
There are deeper problems. The idea that those who make the most money are somehow meritorious seems implausible. Those who have done well in recent years have worked hard and showed considerable ingenuity. But they also ignored the risks they were incurring and ended up crashing the economy. Merit in an unreformed capitalist economy is one of the bits of flattery we offer to successful villains – those who dismember companies are wealth creators, timid conformists are mavericks, those with the most money are the brightest and the best, no matter how dubious their manner of doing business, how bestial their character, or how degraded their appetites. Anyone who speculates on commodities and helps drive up food prices so that poor people can’t afford bread or rice is a dick. A hard-working dick, for sure, but a dick nonetheless. There is not a strong link between wealth and merit in the current situation.
(And anyone who thinks that speculating on food prices, or packaging up sub-prime mortgages or corrupting elected officials are fine as long as the people doing it got there on the basis of a fair selection process is a dick, too. A mafia that hires on merit is still a mafia.)
The final, most serious problem with making social mobility the ultimate goal of progressives is that it leaves inequality untouched. Even if the ‘best’ men and women (anyone see anything creepy about that notion?) reached the highest-paid positions and even if those jobs contributed to the common good, a steeply unequal division of wealth would still generate all manner of social pathologies in the manner outlined by Pickett and Wilkinson in The Spirit Level.
If we want to make society more equal there are two ways of doing it – either we make sure that incomes are more equitable or we use the taxation system to flatten the distribution of wealth and thereby to deliver public goods. The most sensible way of achieving equality of outcome is to use the structure of the enterprise to ensure that the working majority can help themselves to a larger slice of the productive pie. Sharply progressive taxation is vulnerable to challenge by the rich in a way that more equitable incomes are not.
And, by the way, all the evidence suggests that equality of opportunity is best served by securing a rough equality of condition. If equality of opportunity really is the ultimate goal of progressives, then the way to get there is via equality of condition.