28 June 2017

Is social mobility beyond the government’s control?


Alan Milburn and his Social Mobility Commission are convinced there isn’t enough social mobility in this modern Britain of ours. Awkwardly for Milburn, social mobility appears to have gone downhill around when the Social Mobility Commission was established. So a remedy would appear to be to hand.

Sadly, if unsurprisingly, the Commission’s abolition is not one of their recommendations. But turning the country into something more Nordic is. Yes, we’ve returned to Polly Toynbee’s puzzled lament: why can’t we be more like Sweden?

For that largely is what they recommend. More pre-school, dropping the divisive parts of the education system, and, above all, higher taxes. It’s a series of policy options that have been thrust at us for years, all that has changed is the justification.

There is, however, a problem with the wishlist. We’ve absolutely no evidence at all that this will all increase social mobility. The truth is that no society has ever had very much social mobility, whatever the systems in place to either encourage or discourage it. Quite why no one really knows but a good guess would be that those at the apex of our pyramid are likely to be those who know how it all works and thus are able to manipulate whatever the system is in favour of their children.

Manipulating things in favour of ones’ own children is how the world works, certainly. Or, rather, it’s rather how evolution works and we do tend to think that’s a basic driver of much behaviour – not all of it human.

Milburn’s report is here and it does fail on that basic point. No one has ever had a social mobility rate much different from the UK’s today. The researcher to go to on this issue is Greg Clark. He has done a series of studies of different societies over time. He uses surnames, looks for odd ones, then tracks how they appear, again and again, over the decades and centuries in those with power or wealth in a society. Take a look at his detailed papers on Britain and Sweden. There simply isn’t much variation in the rate across time, society, societal structure or geography. As the Swedish paper points out:

True rates of mobility in modern Sweden are similar to those of the supposedly more socially immobile economies of the UK and USA. They are perhaps no higher than in pre-industrial Sweden.

The British paper also makes the point that rates don’t seem to have changed much post-Industrial Revolution either. The methods of mobility might have changed, feudalism rewarding those who could decapitate with a broadsword, the bureaucracy of the modern world rewarding those who can fell with a well-crafted memo, but the rates don’t seem to have changed at all.

There is an argument that post-WWII rates soared, but that’s a statistical illusion, nothing more. If we classify indoor office work, no heavy lifting, as being of a higher social status that hammering out machine parts down on the factory floor then that’s fine. But the entire society pouring out of manufacturing and into office work is not a change in relative social status. It’s not social mobility in any meaningful sense. We are not ascribing higher social status nor higher relative income to someone who now works in a call centre than we did to their forbear who hit metal for a living. 

Millburn’s attempted solution is therefore unlikely to work. No one ever has managed it whatever the policy, the policies being advanced haven’t worked elsewhere. Clark’s conclusion is that we must accept that mobility isn’t something human society really ever offers a great deal of and thus to work to create greater equality so that relative position matters less. My own would be similar but with a different emphasis, let’s all get rich so that it truly doesn’t matter. Inequality used to mean that your children starved to death just before or after you did, today it means they might be more likely to be obese. That seems like a fair bargain so why not just continue what we’ve been doing these past few centuries, given that we don’t know of any manner of changing social mobility itself, let’s just make it less important.

Tim Worstall is senior fellow at the Adam Smith Institute