Social Mobility and Individualism: a Political Problem

23 Jun

On Tuesday I noted the decline of social mobility in the United States as a key underlying trend, which tax cuts and the Great Recession have brought to the fore. It is worth noting that Americans do not appear to have a very good sense of these basic trends. For instance, Americans are way more likely than other nationalities to believe that ‘people get rewarded for their effort’, while they are much less likely to think ‘differences in income in their country are too large,’ and that ‘coming from a wealthy family’ is necessary for getting ahead (all in same link). These beliefs are radically out-of-step with social reality. Aside from the studies from last post, there are others that show about half of a person’s income in the United States is determined by the class he/she is born into (page 5).

It is not easy to interpret what any of these beliefs mean politically. Other well-conducted studies show a flagging faith in the proposition that the next generation will be better off than this one. Moreover, when asked what kind of wealth distribution is most just, most respondents pick a society that looks a lot more like Sweden than the United States. So it appears Americans have some empirical awareness that society doesn’t quite live up to the ideal of social mobility, and that their general ideas of social justice might be a basis for critical thinking about our actual political economy.

But one suspects that the real problem has to do with political, not moral, philosophy. Even given the moral belief that American society is unjust, there is the political problem regarding how to use collective power. One of the ways in which Americans tend to be exceptional is in rejecting the idea that it is the responsibility of government to reduce inequality. As the graph in the previous link shows, the median position in the developed world is for 70% to think government should be used to reduce inequaliy, while just over 30% of Americans think so.

The social mobility ideology reinforces this view. We can say there are three different positions on social mobility. The dominant one we can call competitive individualism. Where you end up in life is a product of your own effort. Moreover, and this is important, you are in competition with others when you seek advancement. Your success implies someone else’s failure. That is not just the dominant view subjectively, but it is how our society works. As the graph below shows, in our society there is the top 20%, who own 85% of the wealth, take in 93% of the income, and control most of the positions of social and political power. The bottom 80% get the other 15% of the wealth (mostly houses) and 7% of the income. (In later posts I will clarify why I think this this is the relevant cut off).

For every one person who rises into the top 20% four have to not make it. Even if you don’t think top 20 v. bottom 80 is exactly the right way to divide things up, it is generally clear that this society runs on what Tuesday’s post called – quoting Jefferson – a ‘natural aristocracy.’ The idea is that the most successful make it, while the rest are subordinate to the meritocratic elite.

There is a second view of social mobility. Call this independent individualism. This is one in which one person’s success does not come at another person’s expense, but each person’s success is purely a matter of separate, individual effort. Lincoln once espoused this view: “The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while…if any continue through life in the condition of the hired laborer, it is not the fault of the system, but because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, folly, or singular misfortune.”

On this view, the ideal of social mobility is not to enter the ruling class, but for each person to attain a condition of independence – economic self-sufficiency and control over one’s daily activity. This is the kind of independence appropriate to a democratic society in which everyone is equal. I think the second view is already an advance on the first view because it at least begins to think about the problem from Tuesday’s post – how to think about social mobility in a way that doesn’t assume inequality. However, it still assumes that our fates are separate, not determined by a shared, deeply intertwined structure of economic opportunities – opportunities determined by the distribution of property, education, tax law, and the overall structure of the market.

It is only with a third view that we start dealing with the political problem – the problem of suspicion of collective power, and of the belief that the only way to advance is alone. The third view we can call the solidaristic view. On this view, we rise together. The other person’s improvement is a condition for my own, and we can only rise by cooperating, together. Other persons are neither an obstacle nor a matter of indifference. Rather others are a source of my own freedom and independence.

This view is not foreign to the American experience at all. Terence Powderly, the leader of the Knights of Labor, the most important political organization of labor before the more conservative American Federation of Labor got going, once argued “The condition of one part of our class can not be improved permanently unless all are improved together.” The key thought here is that it is only by using collective power to transform social and economic relationships that we can hope to improve our own condition. And that these new conditions will be ones in which we cooperate, on equal terms, with others. But to do that, we have to view our possibility for advancement, our fate, as inextricably bound up with everyone else’s. We have to reject both the idea that we are necessarily in competition with everyone (competitive individualism) and the idea that we can somehow just go on about our business and carve out our world without harming others (independent individualism.)

Creating this kind of solidarity and shared sense of fate is a key political task. It requires overcoming prejudices and beliefs that naturally develop in an economy like ours, especially when mainstream politicians reinforce these basic ideas all the time. But it is far more important than just winning general arguments about the most moral or most just arrangement of society.

3 Responses to “Social Mobility and Individualism: a Political Problem”


  1. What is financialization? « thecurrentmoment - July 12, 2011

    […] It would seem that it takes more than a crisis to shake the tendency in the US to allow those who appear to be experts to rule their […]

  2. From Empire to Republic…to Democracy? « thecurrentmoment - November 22, 2011

    […] on which the United Stateshas been based. The meritocracy is not an ideology of the 1%, it is the ideology of the top 20%. It says that the best positions, not just the vast majority of the wealth (93% on last measure), […]

  3. The Real Culture War III: Freedom Beyond Consumption and Equal Opportunity « thecurrentmoment - December 19, 2012

    […] just some philosopher’s idea of equal opportunity. It is well-founded in American history. As we noted before, even Lincoln once argued “The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, […]

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