Social mobility’ and all that

So Alan Milburn is back, allegedly to deal with ‘social mobility’, no less. Here we have yet another example of the government’s parallel universe (see here). Aided and abetted by both the main opposition parties, the government still wants more money to spend on the manifest failure that is the welfare state.

IEA followers will be familiar with the far superior record of the great charities of the 19th century versus the welfare state, whether in education, health or direct money benefits. Their success with social mobility is less well known.

The best example I know is the transformation, within a generation, of Irish immigrants to New York over 150 years ago. The genius of John Hughes, Catholic Archbishop of New York, took them from the bottom to the top of nearly all social class indicators.

The tireless Hughes formed and promoted schools, codes of conduct, respect, responsibility, church societies, youth groups, literary classes, prison visits and so on – as well as founding a university (see here).

It is delusional to think that after 60 years of the welfare state, including 40 of the hugely damaging comprehensive schools policy, that government should be involved in social mobility in any way, shape, or form.

Under true ‘mobility’, without the camouflage of economic growth, there is a loser for every winner. The haphazard outcomes from enforced transfers are too horrible to contemplate and everything to date suggests that the only sure-fire winner is the state. 

I’ll wager that Alan Milburn, or any other senior politician, cannot score more than 30% in the quiz below. (Yes I know that counts as a pass these days!)

1. As philosopher Jamie Whyte has pointed out here, under entirely random movements, a member of any social quartile at one point of time has a 25% chance of being in that quartile at any other point of time; on average the remaining 75% would be spread evenly amongst the other 3 quartiles. Aren’t the available statistics entirely consistent with such randomness?

2. Why quartiles? Why not do a proper job and use deciles? (Perhaps we’d all see the madness then.)

3. Scandinavian countries are cited as having more social mobility. But aren’t countries with a generally more equal income distribution likely to experience far greater migrations amongst quartiles?

4. Why is the age of the parent or parents (a major determinant of income) ignored in establishing quartiles?

5. What is the effect of enforced ‘social mobility’ on meritocracy?

6. What are the effects on (lifetime) income of (a) staying at school beyond 16 and (b) attending university? The last time I looked at this, lifetime incomes seemed remarkably similar. Universities for all would surely reduce national income.

7. When it comes to their spending, not ours, why do politicos focus exclusively on money income as a measure of well-being? Are they arguing that varying dispositions (hereditary or not) to have an easy life do not affect income?

8. Is income calculated before or after tax?

9. Under free markets and willing exchange, doesn’t a person’s income and wealth measure the extent to which others have benefited from exchanging goods and services with that person?

10. Under entirely equal opportunities, can hereditary factors regarding abilities be wished away (whilst those of physical appearance cannot)? If not, would the government be prepared to refuse emigration to those of high ability, and indeed to enforce the concept of social mobility by outlawing marriages within the same quartile?

Terry Arthur is the author of Crap: A Guide to Politics.

That doesn’t mean though that there’s nothing we could learn from Scandinavia. The Swedish model of school competition is worth emulating. In Sweden, parents can opt out of the public school system, transfer their kids to a private school, and the tax money then follows the pupil. That’s a good start. What they should do next is allow schools to charge top-up fees, and to choose their pupils. That should boost the market share of private schools, for-profit or non-profit, and hence give way to true competition driving up the quality of education.

That doesn’t mean though that there’s nothing we could learn from Scandinavia. The Swedish model of school competition is worth emulating. In Sweden, parents can opt out of the public school system, transfer their kids to a private school, and the tax money then follows the pupil. That’s a good start. What they should do next is allow schools to charge top-up fees, and to choose their pupils. That should boost the market share of private schools, for-profit or non-profit, and hence give way to true competition driving up the quality of education.

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