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Social Mobility is More Important Than Equality

May 25, 2013, 12:00 PM

It’s tremendously important that a society have social mobility.  That’s more important than its degree of inequality because you can imagine a society in which there was quite a wide distribution of income, a big gap between the top one percent and the bottom one, but high mobility.  And you could also imagine society in which there was more compression in income distribution, but low social mobility.  And I’d rather take option one and have a society in which you start flipping burgers, but you have the chance of being CEO.  That’s the society that appeals to me.  

That is partly because it’s reflective of the human condition.  We are not capable of perfectly reproducing ourselves.  Smart, talented, beautiful people get together, but they don’t actually have smart, talented, beautiful kids every time.  That’s the way it works. And when you have a very rigid society without social mobility the underachieving kids of overachieving parents get a privileged run and get helped into colleges they shouldn’t really be getting into.  

Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, two underachievers get together and they have a prodigy.  In socially mobile societies, the prodigy gets the scholarship and ends up at Harvard or Stanford or somewhere like that.  I don’t think we are really making that happen enough.  So there’s a lot of lost talent down there in the bottom quintile, raw talent that never gets developed.  That’s really the key thing that a successful civilization gets right.  It’s actually the most important way in which successful institutions work.  

If you combine all the different things that I talk about in civilization, if you go all the way from competitive institutions, competition in the economic sphere right through to the things that incentivize work, the common factor in all of these is they will allow the able people to get to the top. Of course, conversely, the not so able people have to go down.  

We have a big problem with social downward mobility.  We feel it’s sad and we should do something to stop it.  So a very strong impulse in Western civilization for the last 100 years has been to create safety nets so that nobody should fall too far or too hard.  And we want to take the pain out of the competition.  Everybody has to win at school, there are no losers because that’s upsetting to little Timmy and little Sharon.  But that’s a horrible distortion of the competitive processes that we really need to ensure that in any given class, we identify the most talented.  We also identify the least talented.  That’s what we need to do.  We need to do it right all through our lives from the most early education to the way in which chief executives are appointed and remunerated.  That can’t be determined by cozy little clubs of self-appointing people who give themselves bonuses even when the firm is losing money.  

It’s those problems, those pathologies of a sclerotic society that really interests me because they crop up over time almost the way that barnacles grow on the hulls of ships.  It’s a kind of natural process of social sclerosis where elites say, “Well I'd just like to pass on my privileges to my son and my grandson,” even if they’re completely undeserving, useless kids.”

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock. 


Social Mobility is More Imp...

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