Social democracy and equal opportunity


My critique of Tyler Cowen’s post arguing the unimportance of social mobility has started off, or maybe merged into, of those old-fashioned blog firestorms we used to have back in the day, now also reticulated through Twitter – a few links here, here and here. But rather than criticise Cowen further, I thought I would try to work through the bigger issues involved from a social democratic perspective[1].  In particular, as discussed in comments here, should social democrats favor policies to enhance social mobility, or does mobility between generations make inequality even worse, for example by justifying what appears as meritocracy?



It’s helpful to start with some facts, and the big one is that inequality of opportunity and inequality of incomes (or, more generally) outcomes are strongly positively correlated. The US and UK are notable as being highly unequal societies in both respects. More precisely, as would be expected on the basis of even momentary thinking about the ways in which parents try to help their children, highly unequal outcomes in one generation are negatively correlated with intergenerational mobility in the next. 


That brute fact kills off one of the central ideas put forward by lots of ‘Third Way’ advocates among former social democrats, namely that it’s fine to have the highly unequal outcomes produced by free-market liberalism if you can get a modest amount of extra growth in aggregate, since governments can use education and similar policies to ensure that everyone has a fair chance at the big prizes.  If a highly unequal society allows parents to give their children an unbeatable headstart, then the idea that we can offset greater inequality of outcomes by more efforts to promote equality of opportunity becomes problematic at best.


Matt Cavanagh in Against Equality of Opportunity takes the dilemma seriously and argues for the abandonment of equal opportunity on the basis that it is inconsistent with a market society.  That’s pretty much the actual position of most Third Way supporters[2] though not too many are willing to say so.


Moreover, the factual basis for the claim that free-market liberalism actually produces higher growth is weak, though the evidence isn’t as clear-cut as for the relationship between unequal outcomes and unequal opportunities.  The time-series evidence goes the other way – the strongest period of economic growth for the US and other (then) leading countries was during the post-1945 ‘Great Compression’.  The comparison is even sharper now that we’ve had a few years of highly unequal austerity.


So, the Third Way position appears unsustainable in every way. On the other hand, as long as you accept some role for markets, or even just for individual choice, different people will experience different outcomes in life. It seems obviously sensible, for example, to allow people a choice between working hard in paid employment, and buying goods and services in the market, or spending more time at home, providing directly for themselves and their families[3]. And, if people are allowed to take real risks, some will turn out relatively well and others relatively badly.


There is no reason, however, why freedom of choice, even within a generation, requires the grotesque inequalities produced by market liberalism. In fact, by punishing any choices that don’t produce a high income, market liberalism reduces the range of effective choices. Tyler Cowen makes this point, using the examples of the US and Europe, here (his point 4, though of course it’s not intended this way).


Once we have unequal outcomes in one generation, there will be a tendency to transmit them to the next. But if the distribution of income within a given generation is reasonably equal, there is lots of scope for government action to give everyone in the next generation access to the same broad set of choices and opportunities. 


The most obvious measures relate to wealth and education. Taxes on inheritance and capital gains can discourage the transfer of large accumulations of wealth from one generation to the next. As regards education, the crucial element is centralised funding, with a commitment to offset, rather than reinforce, inequalities in starting points. That is, schools in poor communities should get more resources rather than less, to offset both the poorer starting position of the students and the greater opportunities of schools in wealthy areas to secure support of various kinds for parents.


 How does this relate to concerns about meritocracy? The more that differences in outcomes reflect different choices from a given set of opportunities, rather than differential success in climbing a well-defined hierarchical ladder, the less this seems to me to be a concern. 


As always, I’m hoping for comments to point out (preferably in a non-snarky fashion) weaknesses in my argument and to help me clarify my thoughts. So, go to it.







fn1. I’m not going to attempt a definition of social democracy. But I’m thinking about a policy view that would take the best elements of the Keynesian/welfare state polities that was developed in the decades after 1945 and extend it to cover a much wider range of people and concerns than those of the developed-country male-earner households who were taken as the model participants in those polities.


fn2. The term is pretty much dead, along with the idea that the Third Way would transcend the divide between social democrats and free marketeers, rather than just split the difference as many times as the opinion polls appeared to require. But the political tendency it represents is very much alive, as shown by the general capitulation to the zombie economics of austerity.


fn3. This glosses over all sorts of problems, from involuntary unemployment to the distribution of work and consumption within households. But however these problems are resolved, the choice I’ve described will remain important.

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43 thoughts on “Social democracy and equal opportunity

  1. Equal opportunity, in a sense, reduces the need for social mobility. If the distance from poorest to richest is shorter (say a factor of 10 as I advocate) then it is (a) easier to travel and (b) not so imperative to travel if you have values other than acquiring pelf[1].

    A social democratic meritocracy with personal wealth band limits at a factor of 10 would be about the best system. Merit and hard work will be rewarded by up to 10 times the lowest earnings. The other part of that reward will usually be more interesting, more challenging and (even possibly) more congenial work.

    The two arguments for promotion by merit are;

    (a) some merit (competence at a profession) might be acquired by harder work; and

    (b) promotion by merit benefits third parties and society as a whole by promoting ability and competence.

    The stronger argument is (b) above.

    Free market liberalism has given us chronic unemployment, impoverished underclasses, asset bubbles, private debt mountains, booms and busts, unproductive speculation, inability to meet sustainability challenges and so on. This is clearly inefficient, unsustainable and inequitable.

    The Third Way always was a merely a mealy-mouthed prevarication, a glozing lie promoted by the turncoat “moderate left” (like Tony Blaire) who just wanted to cosy up to the rich end of town.

    fn. 1

    Pelf – pelf n.

    – Contemptuous term for money or wealth especially when dishonestly acquired.

    Middle English; from Medieval Latin pelfra, pelfa, probably from Old French pelfre, booty; related to Latin pil?re to despoil.

  2. My gut feeling is a lack of social mobility is inherently unproductive and unpleasant, as is a wide income divide.

    If a economy were a business then its most productive asset is its workforce, which also happens to be its best customer.

  3. “Free market liberalism has given us chronic unemployment, impoverished underclasses, asset bubbles, private debt mountains, booms and busts, unproductive speculation, inability to meet sustainability challenges and so on.”

    Gosh, it’s just evil incarnate, isn’t it? In fact unemployment is responsive to a multitude of factors, and there’s little correlation between isms and employment levels. Asset bubbles are typically a product of anti-free market central banking policies. Booms and busts are not bad, unless you try to inflate a boom and prevent a bust, making the cycle worse, as anti-free market policies tend to do. Speculation exists independent of socio-economic system, and isn’t unproductive.

  4. John, that’s a fact-free analysis.

    1) Market economies are meritocratic – no matter what we do, they eventually sort to meritocracy. they HAVE to.
    2) Only about 10% of employees make a competitive difference. Only about 10% of citizens make a competitive difference. Everyone else simply needs to refrain from corruption, rent seeking and fraud, theft and violence.
    3) Speech, manners, ethics, and morals are the most valuable sorting skills. If weighted against what we call ‘hard skills’ the soft skills are at least if not more determinant of long term success.
    4) In a mobile economy, classes become ‘castes’ in only one or two generations – after four they’re permanent.
    5) In a large state, a ‘caste’ will defend itself and eschew redistribution. In a small state, it will embrace redistribution.

    In any political system over a market economy you can have redistribution or size but not both. And there appears to be no evidence to the contrary.

    The question is not equality. It is exchange: what can the proletariat exchange with the upper middle, and upper class so that it may obtain the lifestyle of the middle class, despite it’s inability to develop and employ the hard and soft skills of the middle class or higher?

    Conformity, and unity.

  5. If you do not separate free market capitalism from free market liberalism you will always end up arguing in a circle.

    People may claim they support “the best elements of the Keynesian/welfare state ” but this is just temporary capitalism.

    Remember it was Keynes who said just prior to the biggest crash in history:

    We will not have any more crashes in our time.

    Oops!? And you cannot have a welfare state if the country goes bankrupt like Argentina, Iceland, Greece, Portugal and the next in line …..

    I have yet to see any reasonable argument that under socialism market liberalism would produce “grotesque inequality”. In the same terms, capitalism without market liberalism would still produce inequality and just as “grotesque”.

    Consequently it is not clear that market liberalism, by itself, is the bogey so many cast it as.

    There will always be inequality based on natural endowments – but this is not grotesque.

    Once you get over Keynes and look past capitalism, it all becomes clearer.

  6. Gosh darn it Curt, I wish I was one of those special few, like yourself. Looks like I’ll just have to spend the rest of my life tugging my forelock and averting my eyes from the radiance emanating from your posterior.

  7. JQ, what practical shortcomings do you think the Witlamesque social democracy of 1975 Australia had? To me, it seemed pretty close to perfect. The tarrifs had to go, and of course we’d need to keep environmental and anti-discrimination policies, but asides from them what would we need to change?

  8. John,
    All too often discussions of inequality and education by economists tend, I feel, to place too much emphasis on “what you know” and ignore the influence of “who you know”. This can be seen much more clearly in unequal societies such as the UK and US. The importance of going to the “right” establishment schools and universities is not so much related to the quality of their teaching and academic results, but the contacts and social networks that are built up by attending them. And even if a student from a less wealthy background does go through the same educational institutions as one from a more privileged background, he or she still does not have access to the social networks of previous generations. The contacts and influence of the parents of privileged kids provide an enormous advantage to their offspring’s careers by opening doors and creating opportunities. I’m pretty sure there has been research in the UK into these factors.

  9. Social immobility inherently undermines meritocracy- you need to be able to recruit from the full pool of your population to get the best performers. That’s why generally speaking a bigger country will have more top athletes, and a bigger market will have stronger businesses. If the US is going to limit its pool of recruitment to the top 10% of households, all of a sudden you’re competing at the level of a small country the size of Canada.

    Extreme income inequality blocks opportunity just as much as a caste system would. The smaller, more inbred and more sated your pool of potential leaders is, the more your society is going to stagnate. Sports is an excellent model, and it is no coincidence that the western democracies developed the notions of team and fair play. Without a level playing field, there is no game. The superior underdog will never get his rightful victory. Ironically it is the american professional leagues that redistribute income and give top draftpicks to loser teams, whereas in euro leagues it’s every team for itself and the bottom teams drop a division.

    China, India, Brazil and the rest have only been able to reform, innovate and grow in the wake of the middle-class democracies of the west. As long as we sail with all hands on deck, they’ll always stay behind.

  10. @Leif The Chief
    The sporting analogy is a good one. India has an incredibly high level of inequality, due to the cast system, and with one billion cricket mad people, they can’t produce 11 guys to beat little Australia’s 11.

  11. @rog

    Of course- that’s the meaning of ‘opportunity’ in an economy, versus ‘guarantees’ or ‘privilege’. As par as guarantees go, one aspect of social democracy is a way to help keep people in the game by efficiently insuring against life’s statistically but not individually predictable setbacks- jobloss, accident, illness etc.

    Theoretically private insurance could provide that, but in practice socialised insurance seems to deliver far more efficiently than US health insurance for example (I suspect it’s the scale and transparency of public systems in a functioning democracy).

  12. Sounds rational. I imagine you’ll have sufficient comment about the principles.

    But I’m having trouble with implementation with “centralised funding to offset inequalities”. Apart from a small clique of self-funders (maybe) then everyone esle cries POOR and waits for a handout. The boom and bust of government department funding springs to mind.

    For how many years must children be tested nationally to see if any school needs more funding? At what age are young people allowed to say that they do not want more education? How does one stop the cycle of boom and bust as good teachers are attracted to well-funded schools, only to leave once school performance has improved and, consequently, funds have been diverted?

    I suppose my questions are not new, for planned economies. And they do not argue against the approach.

    Keep up the good work. Regards.

  13. @Jarrah

    Jarrah (sarcastically): “Gosh, it (free market liberalism) is just evil incarnate.”

    Actually yes it is evil incarnate, if the word “evil” is interpreted not emotively or theologically but empirically as “extemely deleterious for humans and the natural environment”. Perhaps I should have said “free market neoliberalism” to make my target as clear as possible.

    Free market neoliberalism is the notion that an unregulated market and financial system should govern our entire society without any checks or balances. It is the notion that the outcomes should not be ameliorated by any democratic or social action whatsoever and that the government should be minimal as in police, courts, military. Libertarianism and neoliberalism are really just the same old belief in aristocratic merit and privilege.

    Our (relatively) unregulated system is about to implode thus demonstrating its maladaptive nature. Unregulated capitalism will collapse due to its unsustainable nature in both social and environmental terms.

  14. The argument for trade-offs between inequality and mobility, and all its variants, assumes that we have an economy. The reality is a context of shrinking jobs and truly there is no plan to generate the jobs and good jobs required to get the US (or the world) into that middle class normal. The shrinking jobs is because of lack lf investment and that is because the money is going to the faster payoff of financial manipulation. And all that because of the post ww2 “up” of the american economy followed by the down since the 70’s (down first in profits and then, trying to fix that, in jobs and wages). Its like arguing over which sail to use as the ship is sinking.

  15. There is a chicken and the egg concern with the relationship between equality and economic growth. The current concensus seems to be that the post 1945 growth lead to a reduction in income inequality. I suspect it is the other way around. The reduction in equality was the outcome of a major disruption in the established order. In this case, brought on by the destruction and new technologies from World War II. A disruption destroys the social order which embeds inequality and this unleashes a wave of innovation that improves productivity. You can see the same sort of thing happening in the middle ages where the disruption of great plagues eliminated the inequality of the feudal system. It could be claimed that this led to a much more productive use of land. (This led to the introduction of crop rotation and similar technologies).

    The recent Vienna Exhibition (Art Nouveau) exhibition I recently attended in Melbourne put on display the artefacts on another such period of disruption. The disruption caused by the industrialisation of the Hapsburg Empire, ultimately destroyed the inequality of the Austrian aristocracy. And it gave us the Art of the Vienna Sesession and the Austrian school of economics as well. Wins all around!

    Basically if you’re at the top of the pile, you are not going climb of it. It takes a disruption to knock you off your roost. Sometimes that disruption makes every body more equal and on average better off. (Sounds kind of Marxian does’n it. Maybe Karl was onto something.)

  16. The issue presents a strong argument for social democracy if that is understood as the idea that direct provision of goods can be more effective than redistribution of income. (Yglesias said this once, and he studied philosophy in college, so maybe he’s right.) Direct transfers can fill in for missing insurance markets, and they can insure that the job gets done. Think mandatory public schooling and public provision of health care. The biggest losses of welfare, human potential, and intergenerational mobility are a consequence of poor children not getting what they need, and addressing these problems directly seems to be more effective, for certain goods, than just redistributing income.

    For better or worse these days, “inequality” has come to refer exclusively to a few people having a lot, rather than the much more serious problem of a sizable group of people not having enough. Certainly the rich should pay more taxes than they do in the US, and making them do so would mitigate intergenerational transmission of inequality to some (probably small) extent. But as an argument for redistribution it has a bank-shot quality, and past a certain point there is no easy way around the fact that the rich are going to do what they can to give their kids a leg up.

    I am not sure that framing this as a third way vs. social democracy issue is really accurate. Clinton was a third way guy who did a lot to improve things at the bottom. (At least the EITC; welfare reform is more complicated.) Mostly it comes down to who you want to help.

  17. Pr Q said:

    As always, I’m hoping for comments to point out (preferably in a non-snarky fashion) weaknesses in my argument and to help me clarify my thoughts. So, go to it.

    If you say so. Since we are all working in the spirit of open-ended inquiry I would like to throw a ticklish question to the audience. What has been the biggest driver of increasing functional (“factoral”) inequality in the distribution of incomes over the past few decades?:
    economic liberalism [1] inflating the relative income share of the top decile or
    ethnic liberalism [2] depressing the relative income share of the bottom decile.

    Wikipedia reports that, since the mid-seventies, the factoral and financial regressive trend in the US and UK , as measured by Gini coefficient, has increased income inequality by more than 20%. (With fiscal progressive measures reducing the polarisation, although not much.)

    During that period we have seen a massive increase in both economic inequality and ethnic diversity. So what proportion of this has been generated by economic liberalism, that is, greater returns on investment by the rich people of the global North. And what proportion has been generated by ethnic liberalism, that is, higher immigration of poor people from the global South.

    Social democrats have been leery of following up the functional tensions between ethnic diversity and economic equity. But this gorilla in the living room will not remain silent especially given Right is constantly tempted to taunt it. Not surprising, given the Culture War conundrum of reconciling the interests of white working class and non-white under-class.

    Obviously this is a sensitive one, which I have been banging on about since God knows when. More recently David Goodhart has been losing friends to the Left doing the same thing. Can the Left at least hold a frank and worldly discussion about this before hell freezes over?

    Its not as if we are being “concern trolls” here, the future social democratic project is at stake. The EU Left is currently treading water or going backward despite the best opportunity in generations to strike a blow at the Right, after the catastrophic own goals scored over WMDs and the GFC. Obviously the AU Left is in the same boat and the only reason the prospects of the US Left are looking less than dire is the complete disaster of the REP party leadership plus a limping recovery.

    And I’ll throw in a thumb-sucker for good measure: is there a functional relationship between (“communitarian”) nationalism on the one hand and libertarianism-egalitarianism on the other? We have heard endless denunciations of nationalism by liberals both Right- and Left-. But maybe there is a underlying relationship between anthropological familiarity and ideological modernity. After all the French cooked up the Enlightenment but they were also the most enthusiastic exponents and exporters of nationalism.

    [1] Economic liberalism = liberalisation and globalisation of global capital markets.
    [2] Ethnic liberalism = liberalisation and globalisation of global labor markets.

  18. @Jack Strocchi

    Gorilla in the room my eye. Just set (and enforce) a generous minimum wage and set (and enforce) a highly progressive taxation system, maybe even a maximum wage. Hey presto! Your gorilla evaporates.

  19. dear Jack Strocchi
    “the French . . . were also the most enthusiastic exponents and exporters of nationalism.”
    except to haiti.
    yours sincerely
    alfred venison

  20. Dan #19 Reply

    Gorilla in the room my eye. Just set (and enforce) a generous minimum wage and set (and enforce) a highly progressive taxation system, maybe even a maximum wage. Hey presto! Your gorilla evaporates.

    Sure that would work, provided that the native working class don’t get to vote. Regrettably due to an incorrigible fault in our constitution, the populist red-necks do get to vote. And they tend to electorally object to their workfare state eroded by cheap foreign competition, their welfare state overloaded by low-contributors and their lawfare state under siege from gangstas in the ‘hood. No doubt egged on by cynical champions of the elitist wealthfare state.

    This has been the Culture War political narrative for the US in the racial integration era since about 1968 and in the EU in the national integration era since about 1992. Same deal with Howard in AU since 1996. In all cases the Centre-Left’s seemingly unstoppable ascendancy was stopped in its tracks by a Right-wing populist revolt.

    As Milton Friedman once observed, you can have a welfare state and open borders, but not both. Or at least not both coexisting with effective liberal democracy (obviously now compromised by political correctness.)

    At some stage realistic political scientists will have to ditch the “false consciousness”, “race card”, “dog whistle”, “wedge” excuses and come to terms with the fact that these political trends represent the authentic informed preferences of the electorate.

    BTW, you should have said that the gorilla “melts away in the mist” to maintain the pop cultural reference. But I love the “Hey Presto!”, which evokes memories of the more innocent age of seventies “fiat” Leftism. “Bliss to be alive, to be young was very heaven”, alas “Never glad confident morning again!”

  21. I reiterate my empirical question: what fraction of the post-seventies increase in the average OECD Gini coefficient is due to the two intertwined strands of post-modern liberalism slowly tightening around the body politic:

    1. Economic liberalism – liberalised and globalised capital markets unleashing investors in the Global North, thereby inflating the income share of top decile.

    2. Ethnic liberalism – liberalised and globalised labour markets unleashing a flood of immigrants from the Global South, thereby depressing the income share of the bottom decile.

    I’ve got a rough idea of the answer (it ain’t pretty) but I would like to know if progressive Leftists are even aware of this problem in their program.

  22. @Jack Strocchi

    Jack, if you mean by “liberalism” modern “neoliberalism” then you may have a point. Modern neoliberalism and libertarianism mean inadequate regulation of markets hence the rich oligarchs run politics and society and the poor get no say. Ethnic neoliberalism means not free emigration and immigration (which you erroneously imagine as it bolsters your concocted case) but free exploitation of the poor and ethnic outsider groups where-ever they are; in the home country with poor or no labour laws or in a new country with poor or no labour laws or inadequate protection of hidden immigrant workers.

  23. dear Ikonoclast
    nice. succinct.
    yours sincerely
    alfred venison
    p.s. – the rich oligarchs are still screwing over haiti.

  24. ‘They’re taking our jerbs!’ sounds even more ridiculous if everybody’s guaranteed a jerb.

  25. It should go without saying that, FWIW, I generally endorse Pr Q’s comprehensive critique of economic liberalism. Particularly his ruthless neo-classical analysis of the depredations of financial marketeers, mineral oligarchs and the cult of rock star CEOs.

    Failing financial institutions should have been nationalised. Banks should be closely regulated and their risky investments should be excluded from any guarantees, vendor emptor. Exotic derivative trading should be out-lawed. Off-shore tax havens should be used for naval gunnery practice.

    Although I stay to the Right of him on the utilitarian effects of state support for religious schools. As a Durkheimian-Dawinian social democrat I believe communitarian objectives can over-ride egalitarian ones. See Robert Putnam American Grace on the critical role religious education plays in the accumulation of social capital.

    Obviously I argue his general support of (what I call) ethnic liberalism undermines national social democracy. Although I can imagine a world in which social democracy is globalised this state of affairs is generations off at the current rate of cultural evolution. Therefore, for the time being, national social democracy is the only kind of social democracy going.

  26. @PeterM

    That is interesting. I’d always thought that the post WW2 low inequality was because people who had asked others to risk (and lose) their lives couldn’t in good conscience pay themselves a fortune. And that the subsequent rise in inequality occurred as the memory of WW2 faded.

    But the idea that the extreme disruption leads to growth (and more equality?) seems to fit with the experience of Germany and Japan after WW2, and maybe China after the cultural revolution?

  27. Both Peter M and John Brookes are partially right.

    The Great Compression (egalitarian effusion of the Keysnian period replacing polarised concentration of Robber Barons and Roaring Twenties) came about due to both destructive Revolution and constructive Reformation.

    The destructive Revolution was the decomposition of the old bourgeois aristocracy in the aftermath of WWI and the Great Depression. The constructive Reformation came about due to the consolidation of national social-democracy as part of the WWII war “land fit for heroes” political settlement.

    Ethnic solidarity was a critical to the establishment and effective management of both the warfare and welfare state. Both depend on equally shared communal sacrifice for like-minded somewhat familiar citizens.

    More generally, equality of opportunity and equity in outcomes requires a fair amount of underlying (“basal”) uniformity in the population. Its vital that there be relatively small standard deviations in key attributes of the gene pool so that genetic regression to the mean can counteract the polarising effects of assortative mating.

    Cultural uniformity is so obviously the antagonist of cultural diversity that it is embarrassing to point it out.

  28. Jack Strocchi writes “I believe communitarian objectives can over-ride egalitarian ones.”

    This is a contradiction in terms. To be communitarian is to be egalitarian. I do not see how any form of communitarianism, properly construed, can be other than highly egalitarian. Inequality is the diametric opposite of community.

    Communitarianism which sees the norm of community as being an ethnic/cultural monoculture is misguided to say the least.

    The position I support – secularism, empiricism, democracy, egalitarianism – is perfectly consistent with ethnic-cultural diversity in a community. It is true that some extreme and harmful behaviours, including some harmful cultural legacies will be (rightly) proscribed by the majority of citizens of such a society. In all cases, truly harmful cultural legacies will be found to be of the nature of authoritarian power (often backed by superstition and ignorance) of a few in that culture over the many in that culture.

  29. JQ, what your analysis seems to leave out, and what troubles me, is the following politically incorrect observation, which I fully recognise as antithetical to any kind of social-democratic values.

    There are some traits (like IQ, but also traits like personableness and other harder to measure traits) which have, speaking generally,
    a) a high heritability
    b) a high, ?causal association with various corollaries of “success”

    Given that people (on average) tend to have kids with people quite a lot like themselves, it would be unsurprising if, over several generations (particularly if mobility *has* been relatively strong during those periods) differences in averages in different socioeconomic populations emerged for such traits (ie a kind of sorting occurs).

    And nor can we discount that such differences would account for *part of* what gets appears to be lack of mobility (and is in fact not lack of ability to move, it’s just lack of movement).

    Note I’m not denying the (unfair) role of inherited social and material privilege or underprivilege. Nor do I deny the need for actively progressive / redistributive policies to minimise the role of privilege (eg I favour an inheritance tax, subject only to addressing inevitable loopholes that will be sought out) or an obligation to spend extra resources providing opportunity and seeking out merit / talent in less privileged places (averages are only averages after all).

    My concern though is that by failing to acknowledge the plausibility of some inherent differences in people and groups, we entrench the *mutual* alienation of different socioeconomic groups.

    So for instance, I (and others) were alienated by our three years at the local public school (among the best performers according to measures like NAPLAN, very high ICSEA, homes with books and computers at home, tertiary-educated two-income households, almost no ethnic diversity etc) that spent a year teaching the A B Cs (one letter a week) to kids who for the most part, owing to the advantaged backgrounds etc etc, learnt them at preschool or on their parents’ knees a year or two earlier. That’s what comprehensive education means, right? The same curriculum there as in a remote community with English as a second language and no public library or household books? (and this is just one example).

    So, being alienated, we go private (or selective) despite a social, financial, philosophical and ethical commitment to comprehensive education (in theory) because it isn’t meeting our kids’ needs. Knowing full well that our actions further entrenching difference, distinctions in privilege etc between those who can and do, and those who can’t and don’t.

    And this must play out in many different arenas – not just schooling – although schooling is an easy one to exemplify as it’s an obvious area where inherited privilege plays out – and the difference between theory and practice of social democratic principles plays out.

    And before anyone mentions Finland, please note they confess to a relatively homogenous society (and kids) as a starting point, and high local autonomy for schools.

  30. I went to Kent St Senior High School, a reasonable government school in the early 70’s. Its intake area included South Perth, which was comfortably middle class, as well as working class areas.

    In my year we had one guy whose dad was a dentist, and another whose dad was head of the WA department of agriculture.

    These days, there is no way that any head of a state government department would send their kids to Kent St. They might just consider sending them to a government school which drew its students only from high ses areas (Shenton College and Rossmoyne spring to mind). Ditto for dentists.

    So we have a self fulfilling prophecy, where government schools are perceived as bad, so they lose kids who would likely be higher achievers, so they get worse.

    Income inequality allows this to happen.

  31. Jack @22
    I think Australia stands as a counter-example to your ethnic liberalism argument. Immigration has been high for the whole post-war period, and in the last 20 years the relative skill level of immigrants has risen. So I can’t see how this could explain the observed _changes_ in inequality.

  32. “Matt Cavanagh in Against Equality of Opportunity takes the dilemma seriously and argues for the abandonment of equal opportunity on the basis that it is inconsistent with a market society. ”

    I don’t understand Matt Cavanagh’s ‘position’ because:
    1. A ‘market society’ is something that exists in theoretical models of economies where the institutional environment consists of ‘a price system’ (ie a competitive private ownership economy wth complete markets). In all models of this type familiar to me, each individual has ‘equal opportunity’ in the sense that the minimum wealth condition in these models assures that each individual is endowed with sufficient wealth to have ‘freedom of choice’.
    2. On empirical grounds, we know that markets are not only imperfectly competitive but markets are incomplete. There are no empirical examples of pure market economies. (The point has been made numerous times by the owner of this blog site. I see no need to repeat it in historical and geographical detail.) Indeed, having an institute of policy research is a reminder that the assumption about the institutional environment in the models referred to in 1 is empirically not fulfilled for otherwise there would be no need for policy research.

    3. In direct contradiction to Matt Cavanagh, I conclude that any policy which aims to take the moral content of the idea of a ‘market society’ seriously will have to take the notion of ‘equal opportunity’ seriously.

  33. @Mandarina
    Any argument that social stratification is caused by genetic stratification – a cream rising mechanism – has to contend with a few brute facts.
    1) Genetic predispositions like “intelligence”, speed, fertility, height, muscle power, etc are normally distributed in the population; they follow a bell curve.
    2) The distribution of income and wealth in our society looks nothing like a bell curve (It looks like a black-body energy distribution with a power law tail).
    3) Therefore, wealth and income are not distributed according to genetic predisposition. QED.

  34. That’s a bad argument.

    Suppose for a second that high-paid jobs were available to people with, say, blue eyes (not as far-fetched as it sounds; look at the way pale-skinned actresses are prized in Bollywood, for instance).

    Are blue eyes normally distributed?

    No. It’s a binary variable and maybe 1/3 of the Anglo-Celts have ’em.

  35. First my compliment to JQ on a well written piece on an important topic. While appreciating the desire for constructive feedback, I think there is no credible counter-argument to what JQ says. The work of people like Picketty and Saez in the USA shows that, even ignoring immigration effects, inequality has been rising for the the locals in the USA. There are a lot of poor white people in some US states, notably in the south and in the “rustbelt”.

    In my view, the evidence in favor of JQ’s thesis, and against the counter arguments, is so strong that the counter arguments are not credible. They are arguements often made in bad faith. I think the possibility should be acknowledged that there are some on the extreme right in this debate who not only don’t value equality, but actually value inequality. They WANT a world where there are poor to do their bidding. They just don’t want to admit it too directly, hence the sophistry in arguments about “efficiency” via deregulation. There is no such efficiency – only a justification for an exploitable underclass. Ironically, I think there are some among the poor who support this status quo, deluding themselves that one day they may be on top, and the ones doing the exploiting. In this regard myths like”the American dream” are powerful enablers.

  36. @James Haughton

    Hi James,
    My point is about whether there are elements of social motion (which I understand is what we may be measuring, as a proxy for mobility) that are attributable to heritable things other than material and social privilege.

    To test that, one could check if
    a) siblings, or people from backgrounds similar in privilege experience different social movement to each other and those differences correlate with other heritable factors (height, IQ etc) despite identical social and material privilege. My inexpert understanding is that numerous studies do in fact find such links.

    b) Whether groups of people from advantaged or disadvantaged backgrounds show statistically significant differences in those traits (contentious subject, but also not without empirically supportive evidence).

    The hypothesis makes no prediction about the nature of the correlation (other than that there will be one) or the shape of the curve. As we are using totally different types of scales (centimetres, quotients, dollars etc), and more importantly, as I am not denying the role of inherited privilege (along with all kinds of other factors, including some random ones) in social / financial outcomes, it would make no sense to attempt such a prediction other than through regression analysis.

    unQED, I think.

    BTW what I’m interested in here is questioning whether even in conditions of maximal social mobility, we would not find some intractable, residual lack of intergenerational movement – owing to inherited factors unrelated to material and social privilege. An obvious – and I think unproblematic – example of this would be inherited mental or physical ill-health that limits education and workforce participation. It seems feasible to me that there is (potentially) a similar role for inherited fitness for the particular educational, social and economic conditions that are associated with upward motion today.

  37. Mandarina, there’s nothing wrong with not having knowledge of a topic, but if you’re going to push your opinion it’s a bad thing. Your inexpert understanding in this case on (a) and (b) are dead wrong. I would suggest to anyone here who has been making claims about genetically inherited meritocracy that they should go read “The Mismeasure of Man” by Stephen Jay Gould.

    Dan, the problem with your blue-eyes example is that there are no such binary on-off traits advanced as dimensions of “merit” that I’ve ever heard. It’s always “intelligence” (not that we know what that is), or “emotional intelligence” or other, even fuzzier concepts, all of which seem to be things that if they were measurable at all would be ranked on a scale and distributed on a bell curve as James Haughton pointed out.

    For some reason the “merit” dimensions rarely mention ruthlessness or dishonesty, even though a high proportion of large fortunes are founded through crime. In Canada most of the largest multi-generation fortunes derive originally from rum-running during US prohibition, basically the business partners of the Al Capones. In terms of help or harm to society it could readily be argued that far from a meritocracy, to the extent that radical social mobility exists it owes more to anti-meritocracy: Those who harm society most, the most damaging and predatory, the thugs, cheats and swindlers, rise to the top. One might say that in a tautological sort of way this is “merit”; they rose to the top, therefore they are “fit” in some Darwinian sense. But that doesn’t mean it does society any good to enable them; to the contrary, it would be better to change the social environment such that the destructive are not “fit” within it.
    Which brings us back to equality of opportunity. Meritocracy is not a standalone concept. Society is not a state of nature, and “merit” can only exist within some social context. The best stab we seem able to take at measuring a simpler concept like intelligence is the IQ test, a bogus and discredited exercise only still used for anything because nobody thinking seriously about it has any idea how to measure it at all, or even really define it. How then are we going to figure out “merit” except to conclude that anyone with success must have it? So for instance, Stalin must have been an exceptionally meritorious fellow.
    Unless we’re really sure we know exactly what kind of “merit” our society encourages and are really sure that is something we actually want to encourage, we’re probably better off shaping society to give as many people as possible the chance to do something with their particular “merits”.

  38. Purple library guy,
    You seem to be confusing my *question* about how things *are* with an *opinion* about how things *should be*.

    Also, assuming equivalence of “inherited traits” and “merit”. I don’t.

    As for Gould’s, his expertise is somewhat less relevant than, say, Steven Pinker’s _The Blank Slate_ . But really I’d prefer peer-reviewed meta-analysis.

    I’ll try to speak more slowly next time.

  39. Purple library guy,

    I apologise for sounding/being narky above. I was frustrated at being read as agreeing with the status quo and “pushing an opinion” to support it.

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