In the Financial Times a few days ago, Janan Ganesh wrote an excellent piece on Theresa May’s attempts to make British system more meritocratic, or differently put, to increase upward mobility. But Ganesh writes, if you are really serious about upward mobility in an era of low growth, then the upward mobility that the “bien pensant” upper middle classes like to champion, implies some downward mobility for the progenies of those same upper middle classes. But not only are they unwilling to contemplate this but they do everything to make sure the chances of those from the bottom overtaking the sons and daughters of the rich remain negligible. I have to quote here Ganesh’s full paragraph:
“The room [at the top] rarely opens up because those mediocrities [mediocre sons and daughters of the top class] are too well screened by parents who hire private tutors, buy cultural enrichment, teach etiquette, set expectations, stand as personal examples of success, coach interviewing techniques, navigate any bureaucratic maze put before them, set up home in nice areas, arrange internships via friends and, just to rub in their supremacy, make direct gifts of cash and assets. To fail under these conditions is a kind of achievement in itself”.
If we were not hypocritical and really wanted to support upward mobility or give equal chances to all there are many political measures we could enact. By listing them, and I am here adding a few from within the US context, Ganesh shows how totally politically unfeasible they are: confiscatory inheritance taxes, smaller class sizes in poorer neighborhood funded from the taxes from the rich, end of tax-exempt status for the richest universities, moral suasion that rich universities annually transfer 1% of their wealth to poorer state schools, criminalization of nepotism etc. None of these proposals will have the remotest chance of being accepted by those who currently wield political and economic power. Hence, hypocrisy.
Ganesh’s article prompted me to write about what I thought for a while was a somewhat facile support of equal opportunities. (I wrote about it a bit before; here). It is today treated by some as a panacea and by others as “motherhood and apple pie”, something that must be believed in, even unreflectively. It has joined the Pantheon of democracy, transparency, accountability and similar things we preach, do not observe, and never dare to question.
If upward mobility is about the relative positions in a society, then upward mobility for some implies downward mobility for the others. But if those currently at the top have a stronghold on the top places in society, there will no upward mobility however much we clamor for it. This positional (or relative) approach to mobility is a fairly accurate description of reality in societies that are growing slowly. In societies that develop quickly even if a lot of mobility is about positional advantages (and they are by definition fixed) it can be compensated by creating enough new social layers, new jobs and by making people richer. Thus the upwardly mobile have some room to move up which does not require an equal number of people to move down.
In more stagnant societies, mobility becomes a zero-sum game. To effect real social mobility in such societies, you need revolutions that, while equalizing chances or rather improving dramatically the chances of those on the bottom, do so at the cost of those on the top. In addition, they destroy many other things including lives, not only of those on the top but also of those on the bottom. (In that way, somewhat ironically, the near equality in death does the job of equalizing life chances). The French Revolution, until Napoleon to some extent reimposed the old state of affairs, was precisely such an upheaval: it oppressed the upper classes (clergy and nobility) and promoted the poorer classes. The Russian revolution did the same thing; it introduced an explicit reverse discrimination against the sons and daughters of former capitalists, and even of the intellectuals, in the access to education.
There is also an age element to such revolutions which fundamentally alter societies and lift those from below to the top. The young people benefit. In a beautiful short novel entitled “The élan of our youth” Alexander Zinoviev, a Russian logician and later dissident, describes the Stalinist purges from a young man’s perspective. The purges of all 40- or 50-year old “Trotskyites” and “wreckers” opened suddenly incredible vistas of upward mobility for those who were 20- or 25-year old. They could hope, at best, to come to the positions of authority in ten or fifteen years; now, that were suddenly thrown in charge of hundreds of workers, became chief designers of airplanes, top engineers of the metro. What was purge and Gulag for some, was upward mobility for others. Or consider the age of Hitler and his closest associates when they came to power. Hitler was by far the oldest: at 43 years of age (Goebbels 35; Himmler 32). I would not be surprised that something similar is today afoot in many Middle Eastern societies where a huge inflow of the young in search of better positions has been met by the wall of stagnant economies and immovable top. ISIS provides a solution to that: you cannot become a head of a corporation, or a deputy minister, but you can lead a battalion of 100 suicide-warriors.
There are other disconcerting things about upward mobility. The Ottomans promoted it by creating a corps of Janissaries, children born in Christian families that were abducted at a young age, and then through military drill molded into a most formidable elite Army corps. Many of them went to rule at the highest positions, including the vizier or the prime minister. This is a beautiful example of both upward mobility and ethnic non-discrimination. But at the origin of that great example was a crime of abduction of children from their parents.
It is then not surprising that, short of such massive upheavals that shake the societies to their very core, countries tend to display relatively little positional mobility. The two recent studies, of Sweden and Tuscany, found this by examining the names of most eminent families over several centuries and came to the conclusion that they have little changed.
I think that we are led to a very somber conclusion here. In societies with slow growth, upward mobility is limited by the lack of opportunities and the solid grip that those who are on the top keep over the chances of their children to remain on the top. It is either self-delusion or hypocrisy to believe that societies with such unevenness of chances will come close to resembling “meritocracies”. But it is also the case that true upward mobility comes with an enormous price tag of lives lost and wealth destroyed.