Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, recently spoke about social mobility. He said,
My particular focus is on inter-generational social mobility – the extent to which a person’s income or social class is influenced by the income or social class of their parents. Social mobility is a measure of the degree to which the patterns of advantage and disadvantage in one generation are passed on to the next. How far, if you like, the sins of the father are visited on the son.
There is, of course, plenty of argument within the social science community about precise measures, international comparisons, and preferred metrics. But I think intergenerational social mobility speaks to most people’s definition of fairness.
Fairness means everyone having the chance to do well, irrespective of their beginnings. Fairness means that no one is held back by the circumstances of their birth. Fairness demands that what counts is not the school you went to or the jobs your parents did, but your ability and your ambition.
In other words, fairness means social mobility.
Social mobility is only half-imagined — as movement from lower rungs to upper rungs, not vice versa. Society, currently constructed, offers a relatively fixed (likely declining) number of upper shelf jobs, and it thus reasons that for every n transitioning to the upper echelon, a similar ought to transition to the lower rungs. Now a politician wouldn’t sell his idea — that he wants a certain number of rich people to make way for the poor and in turn, take their place — but then we all expect such diplomacy from politicians.
Fairness as a level playing field or a fair lottery is widely accepted as an ideal. Wide acceptance is no insurance against fundamental problems. To help illustrate the problems, here’s an example.
Imagine a fair marriage in which at the beginning husband and wife flip a coin — heads the wife does all chores for the entire tenure of the marriage, tails the wife never has to do chores. Of course, marriages based on this fair coin toss don’t seem fair to us — we would ideally want all couples to share the unpleasant chores equally or by some such equitable arrangement arrived at by mutual agreement.
Carrying over the analogy to society — we would want everyone to take part in unpleasant chores and everyone to take part in more pleasant activities equally. Of course, such a lack of specialization makes for a very inefficient system. So perhaps one can prorate the wage to the unpleasantness of work, with people stuck doing unpleasant work being provided wages at higher rates, greater leisure time, etc. exactly opposite to the system we have in place now.
In summary, the current society is unfair not only because not everyone has a similar chance of success but also because there are only a few good opportunities — mandating that there be a large set of losers and a small set of winners.
p.s. I discuss the relationship between education and economic equality here.