I read James Bloodworth’s The Myth of Meritocracy (which I highly recommend) and had some thoughts:
- A liberal order needs social mobility. Firms need access to the best workers. And support for a market economy relies on the faith of people in their ability to better themselves.
- Success depends on a mix of social circumstance (e.g. privilege), talent (i.e. merit), and luck (let’s include risk taking in this).
- Bloodworth argues that social mobility has fallen in the last few decades, and that people are increasingly aware of it. Lots of people have cited it as an important cause of the Brexit vote.
- But he also argues that policies to boost social mobility by establishing a meritocracy (policies largely focused on education) have failed to do so and have in fact cemented class divisions. More people go to university, but poor people are still locked out of the best universities. Etc.
- We can’t do much about luck.
- That leaves social circumstance. Well, we could have more affirmative action based on social class rather than just ethnicity, gender or sexuality. The problem with that is that we would see more social mobility – downwards, as middle class people lose out to working class counterparts. That’s one reason why Bloodworth argues we shouldn’t pursue social mobility as an overriding aim of policy – it should be a positive side effect.
- So that means improving the socioeconomic lot of the working class. But that has sort of happened – income inequality as measured by the Gini coefficient has fallen to its lowest level for 25 years, driven largely by wealth redistribution through the welfare system. If wealth redistribution isn’t the answer, what is?
- I think this gets to the big gap we are facing in social policy. It probably means looking harder at things like employee ownership, new routes into home ownership, properly incentivising entrepreneurship and business creation, and looking at ways to harness the value of big data for everyone, not just business. We have to look at things beyond wealth transfers (which will become increasingly difficult anyway with years of fiscal constraint ahead) to readjust the balance between privilege, merit and luck.