It’s an all too familiar line, that there is too much talk of reducing inequality of outcome and that really we need to acknowledge the importance of equal opportunities. Equal opportunity is valuable and we have nowhere near enough of it, but pursuing equal opportunity alone would be a disaster. The two ideals are themselves interrelated and even if they weren’t related, it should be clear that the wide inequalities our economic system breeds harms our quality of life.
The narrative that we need equal opportunities alone rests partly on an assumption that markets solely reward hard work and that this meritocratic justice is worth any side effects, the notion that one person’s wealth could be down to another’s exploitation is conveniently ignored. This narrative that equal opportunities will allow you to rise up the ladder is unscrupulously individualistic, rests on countless others being left behind and assumes that lower paid work is lower worth work.
After all, upward mobility for all is a contradiction in of itself, some people will have to be downwardly mobile, while those who fail to rise up the ranks must be seen to be failures and deserving of their lack of wealth. Dreams of social mobility and notions of meritocracy tend to uphold and reinforce existing economic inequalities, whilst downplaying the negative social effects of extensive inequality.
Firstly, perfect meritocracy does not exist in contemporary society as evidenced by the dominance of those who attended elite private schools, the numbers of those who are born into poverty and never escape it and the disconnect between the productivity and pay of the very highest earners. The relationship between the pay of CEOs and their productivity and performance in the job illustrates this wide disconnect. But secondly, perfect meritocracy does not solve the numerous problems created by inequality and the myth of perfect meritocracy serves to rationalise it.
For those with vast amounts of wealth and a large sway in the economy, perfect meritocracy serves as a very convenient myth which rationalises unfair privileges. The broad direction of Thomas Piketty’s analysis of meritocracy is correct, that we overestimate the role of merit in inequality and that merit as an ideal upholds current levels of inequality. Despite the obvious contradiction ‘meritocratic extremism’ and patrimonial capitalism go hand in hand.
These myths of opportunity and merit are frequently used, though probably unknowingly by evangelists for inequality such as Sheryl Sandberg (a former Facebook executive and advocate for entrepreneurial women) and Oprah Winfrey. Nicole Aschoff puts this effectively noting Oprah’s mentality of ‘If we just fix ourselves, we can achieve our goals’, the poor are seen to be poor because they aren’t trying, the low paid simply need to free themselves from their own failure.
Likewise Sandberg’s analysis, which implies women are primarily to blame for the gender pay gap, applies the same karmic logic. In a bizzare inversion of any basic morality, suffering (at least in economic terms) is your own fault. In Oprah’s own words ‘the boundaries and limitations that prevent us from living our Utopia are those we have created in our own mind’, so if your life goes wrong it is ultimately your fault — this might as well be Thatcherism for new age liberals. As Peter Frese eloquently points out, the meritocratic work ethic makes all kinds of dubious assumptions about the value of work and what kinds of economic activity are socially useful.
When Owen Jones recently had the temerity to point out how socially exclusive journalism is as a profession he was met with howls of fury from much of the British media. Yet this is a categorical truth, less than one quarter of columnists went to a comprehensive school and fewer working class people make it into journalism than almost any other profession. When you break down the background of ‘leading’ journalists the number who were privately educated rises to 51% and the number who went to comprehensives falls to a dismal 19%. Crucially, the same research shows the dominance of the privately educated has increased since the 1980s. To a sizeable chunk of prominent journalists structural issues, nepotism and institutional classism play no role in the profession — and certainly have no role in the stances and political slant of a newspaper. The possibility that stuffing newsrooms full of people who’s background will be disproportionately Tory could be a problem seems to have escaped many commentators.
Analysis of who can afford to go to private schools variously places the parents of the privately educated in the wealthiest roughly 5% or the wealthiest roughly 10%. The idea that journalism isn’t skewed towards those with rich parents is fantasy, yet talking about this frequently generates fury. A patrimonial economic system is being repeatedly justified as inherently meritocratic, and when public figures play this narrative they reinforce inequality. Many of the staunch meritocrats who do seek to change the status quo do so by advocating for changes which undermine upward mobility, and don’t just reinforce existing inequalities but will likely actively increase them.
Hence you have Toby Young, Nigel Farage and Julia Hartley-Brewer, among many others, arguing for a more stratified, hierarchical school system despite the evidence that grammar schooling keeps poor children in poverty. This same mentality rationalised Thatcher’s assisted places scheme, in which the state subsidised private schools to take less affluent children, but the effects were broadly the same. For those who have not been willing to jump onto the selective education train, stringent ‘streaming’ and selection-lite through the backdoor have been good enough tools for ingraining stratification. Hence David Cameron’s call for more setting and streaming, and the push from the centre and centre-right for academies in the UK and charter schools in the US, despite a body of evidence that such reforms are inequitable. There is a strong current among social mobility advocates of calling for measures which increase inequality and which almost invariably undermine social mobility and working class hopes of economic success.
We clearly don’t have widespread equality of opportunity. An individual from an ultra-rich background will have far more opportunities to ‘get on in life’ than someone brought up in a deprived area or a low-income household. With wealthy connections, access to elite education and financial resources just a few of the myriad of factors which prevent a level playing field. Vast wealth and income inequalities are integral to keeping equal opportunity out of reach.
This is why high levels of wealth and income inequality breed lower social mobility. This is borne out in virtually every study of the subject and almost every international comparison — in fact social mobility in Britain peaked around forty years ago when income inequality was historically low. In areas where grammar schools and private education proliferates social mobility is at its lowest. Of course equal opportunities and social mobility don’t equate to the same thing, but few of us believe that low social mobility is a consequence of working class people not trying hard enough, or that the wealthy are just inherently better. Though, at times, certain arguments about ‘good’ genes and entrepreneurial upper-middle class values being passed down from the parents are somewhat universal — a clearly pernicious assumption.
Factors such as a multi-tier school system, large inheritances and regional inequalities all clearly hamper equal opportunities. The fact that one kid can go to Harrow and predominantly mix with the children of multimillionaires and Oxbridge graduates puts them at an instant advantage over the rest. The fact that a child in Trafford or Kent may end up at a secondary modern will put them at an instant disadvantage in terms of their life chances and potential future living standards.
Large inheritances, and the avoidance of inheritance tax, are in themselves obstacles to equal opportunities. Our government’s cuts to inheritance tax will undermine equal opportunity, enhancing the competitive advantages of those in the richest less than one fifth of the population. Capital derived from inherited wealth, particularly very large quantities of inherited wealth, tilt the best opportunities towards those with the financial resources to succeed. This in particular raises a dramatic dilemma, if very large inheritances inhibit equal opportunity, do we need more radical solutions?
Likewise, shocking levels of regional inequality also likely contribute to the UK’s low social mobility and inhibit the opportunities of anyone from an area at the worse end of scale. Equal opportunity is difficult to reconcile with the UK’s position as one of the most regionally unequal nations in Europe, with regional inequality in terms of disposable income several times higher in Britain than in Austria, Denmark and Iceland. This postcode lottery of unequal opportunities is directly created by our highly unequal economy.
Equal opportunities and better social mobility don’t provide the answers to countless injustices that people face every day. They don’t provide answers to poverty wages, voicelessness in the workplace, predatory lending or exploitative rents. They don’t provide answers to a tax burden which disproportionately hammers the poorer half of society, or the shortage of full-time work or barely affordable bills.
Out of a group of 18 wealthy, industrialised countries including America, Japan, Ireland and Italy, the United Kingdom has implemented the largest tax cuts for the richest 1% of since 1960. The UK also had the second biggest rise in that groups wealth. That doesn’t look like an example of hard-earned wealth for deserving professionals and entrepreneurs.
In fact the evidence appears to suggest that the highest earners are not tangibly more productive. The workers who are most vital to our society, from nurses and firefighters to care workers, are typically among the comparatively low-paid. Unless you’ve had your eyes closed since the recession you may have noticed that many of these people are on the breadline, that they struggle to make ends meet and that their children will often have poor life chances. Converse to any plausible sense of merit, many of the quickest ways to get rich involve not working at all and activities based around rent seeking — profiting from economic activities that don’t create wealth.
The final nail in the coffin is the fact that the richest tenth of Brits pay less as a proportion of their income than the poorest half. For the most part, the belief that modern Britain has a progressive tax system in which the rich pay more is a myth. Income taxes self evidently rise as individuals get richer and richer, but once other taxes like National Insurance and Council Tax are taken into account the reverse becomes true — with the working class and lower-middle class paying a higher proportion of taxes. If we want to stop punishing lower earners Council Tax needs to be re-balanced or replaced, and Income Tax ought to rise at the top where the better off are getting an unduly easy ride.
If we want to have a fairer society than we need to acknowledge that gross economic inequalities are unmerited, and that they rest on injustice. We effectively pay people the most to own things, or to look after things that rich people own. Our contemporary economy is not so much rigged, but it is stomach-churningly tilted toward privileged interests at the top. You can see it in distorted growth which barely touches most of the public, in low social mobility and in exorbitant pay and bonuses with little connection to performance or productivity. We need fairer taxes, fairer ownership and fairer, much more inclusive growth.
To make equal opportunities a tangible reality we need to do a lot. An end to the multi-tier education system in which wealthier groups benefit from grammars and fee-paying schools would be a crucial step in the right direction. Likewise, lower entry requirements at sixth forms, FE colleges and universities for children from the least wealthy backgrounds and the most underfunded schools would go a long way toward rectifying unequal opportunity in the UK. The reintroduction of Education Maintenance Allowance and Student Grants would help to ensure education is more financially viable for those who don’t rely on the bank of mum and dad. And proper, high-quality technical and vocational education needs to not just be restored, but treated with greater respect.
We need a higher top rate of tax and increased spending on tax credits. That’s because a fairer, more progressive tax system will reduce inequality and will likely stimulate economic growth. This would be a win win for the vast majority of the population and for quality of life in modern Britain. The wealth gap must be addressed too. It should offend anyone that in a wealthy, ostensibly fair society one of the key routes to enjoy high living standards is for someone to own property or inherit wealth. There is a need for tax policies designed to inhibit the growth of large hereditary estates. George Osborne’s ongoing plans to exempt estates worth up to £1 million from inheritance tax is a scourge which entrenches the notion that the easiest way to be wealthy is by birthright.
The labour market is ridden with and characterised by injustices. Weak bargaining power for workers and concentration of ownership is leaving countless working people with lower living standards and a worse quality of life. Unequal, unfair outcomes are supposedly justifiable on account of meritocracy, but this has little meaning when ownership and control of industry is concentrated in the hands of a single monied class. Exploiting ordinary people is currently a legal right for employers — who can happily exercise the right to pay their staff less than a living wage. And this is no fringe experience, with one in five employees being exploited in this way. A universal living wage, stronger organised labour and a vast expansion of mutually-owned enterprises are the fairest solutions if we want a decent future and a good quality of life.
The other half and other side for those at the receiving end of drastic inequality is the worklessness and under-employment which befalls many ordinary citizens. Real unemployment is now around 1 million higher than the largest official estimate. Theresa May repeatedly drones on about the UK’s supposedly low levels of unemployment, conveniently ignoring the fact the Tories are relying on quoting the lowest available estimate.
By sweeping away any serious discussion of unemployment, its social effects have been shut out of the debate. High unemployment generates a race to the bottom in terms of wages, encouraging desperate people to take on lower and lower wages — encouraging people to accept a declining quality of life. It sets those who work against those who don’t, polarising society in the worst way. And further high unemployment ensures that no matter how equal opportunities are, there aren’t enough job opportunities for everyone to have some benefit.
Mass investment in creating new middle-income skilled jobs is absolutely vital. Anybody with a sense of priority needs to accept the need for a coherent strategy for bringing about full employment fit for the 21st century. Radical proposals like giving everyone a universal basic income, or making basic services like WiFi or bus travel free, are entirely compatible with a strategy for full employment.
There is a wider issue with the political left in Britain, of a lack of strong theoretical underpinnings of the left’s thought. Of understanding only the simplest policies and the simplest principles. This is how lazy or even dangerous thinking can survive on the left, blaming the problems solely on the likes of an ‘incompetent political class’ or worse, a secretive cabal.
There has been a lack of perspective when it comes to explaining the immense class stratification which defines our economic lives. A failure to adequately see how the power relation between property-owners and labour generate the inequities we face. A better theoretical understanding of the injustice of vastly unequal outcomes is necessary if we’re to succeed in bringing about meaningful, sustainable change.
No matter how much we talk about better opportunity, we will not change the fact we live in a world where some people are paid vastly less and others are trapped in absolute poverty due to job shortages and insecurity. It is likely that this obsession with opportunity is sidelining the fact that much of the variation in wealth and income is rooted in privilege and exploitation. The proposition of equal opportunity on its own isn’t enough, not when the result will still be stagnant quality of life and the pauperisation of the many.