Social mobility is falling and has been for decades—but does it matter?
Eric Cantor bailed out on giving his grand speech on inequality friday. The UPenn student newspaper printed it instead. The speech is long and, like most speeches given by politicians, not really worth reading. That the speech was prepared and hyped reflects the amazing success that Occupy Wall Street has had in shifting the national political focus, but nothing in the speech deviates from the usual right-wing line.
After strangely telling the story of his grandmother’s struggle for economic prosperity (a story that Cantor’s cannot tell about himself due to his economically privileged background), Cantor trots out the tired canard of opportunity and social mobility. Instead of attending to the very real needs of the 46 million impoverished Americans and the tens of millions more who live economically insecure lives, Cantor suggests that we need only ensure the opportunity that the children coming out of these wretched living circumstances have the opportunity to do better.
The usual responses to this tired line are applicable as always. Economic inequality contributes in a major way to opportunity inequality: there is simply no way that a child living in poverty will have the same access to opportunity-enhancers as a child growing up in an affluent family. Thus, it is absurd to talk of the two — equality of condition and equality of opportunity — as if they can possibly be separated.
Additionally, social mobility is falling and has been for decades. As Rick Santorum uncomfortably pointed out in the last Republican debate, Western European countries — which Cantor no doubt regard as socialist hellholes — have far greater social mobility than the United States. Any cursory look at the state of opportunity and mobility in the United States would lead one to conclude that the US is far away from the sort of country Cantor imagines it to be.
But these usual responses to the right-wing line all kind of buy into the notion that social mobility is a chiefly important thing. While more social mobility and more opportunity is — all things equal — better than less mobility and opportunity, they should hardly be conceded as the most important things.
If the distribution of economic products is manifestly unjust, social mobility and equal opportunity cannot possibly make up for that fact.
Consider for example a hypothetical society in which one person owned almost everything and had a life of great opulence, but everyone else lived in totally subjugated misery. If everyone had an equal shot at being the one person who lived well and exploited everyone else, would that make such an economy just? I don’t think so and I don’t think anyone else would seriously say so either. The US economy is not as stratified as that, but it is similar in some respects. We have a class of managers, executives, and bankers who live very well while a great number of others struggle. Even if it was the case (and it is not) that everyone had an equal opportunity to be one of the select few who lived well, that would not make the widespread misery of others justifiable.
High social mobility in an unjust economy does not decrease misery; it just changes the distribution of it. Instead of all the misery of deprivation and insecurity falling on those born to poor parents, social mobility allows for it to equally fall on children born of poor and rich parents. Is this a better world? Not really.
Poverty and inequality reduction is a freestanding good and is necessary for the construction of a just economy. Although the right-wing’s social mobility fairy tale is a farce and easy to attack as such, we should not forget that mobility is just one component of a just economy, and arguably not even the most important.