All the main parties support the principle of an open and classless society. Anthony Dworkin considers their different means to that end and examines the flaws in the meritocratic visionby Anthony Dworkin / March 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
If the coming British election is the first since the official end of class politics, it is no surprise that all main parties appear to support the same general principle of social justice. Conservatives talk of creating opportunity for all; Labour now promotes equality of opportunity, often explicitly contrasted with the party’s previous enthusiasm for equality of outcome. Paddy Ashdown says the welfare state must aim at widening opportunities rather than redistributing wealth. Suddenly, in Britain as in Bill Clinton’s US, opportunity is everywhere-enshrined along with responsibility and community in the Holy Trinity of political discourse.
Opportunity is one of those political goods that are infinitely extendable-it can be offered to those who lack it, without reducing the amount available to those who already enjoy it. If a society becomes more open, there will be losers-children of a hereditary elite who will have to compete for positions and status that their parents took for granted. But what they are being deprived of is privilege, not opportunity.
There is a more fundamental way in which equality of opportunity is the perfect political virtue for our times: it is an ideal for an age of autonomy. The prevailing consensus now holds that it is neither efficient nor right for politicians to direct the operations of the economy or to distribute resources to people irrespective of their contribution to society. The right’s abandonment of the overt defence of hereditary privilege, the left’s rejection of egalitarianism-both mark the ascendancy of a model of fair competition based on market principles, with individuals correspondingly responsible for their own fate. The role of government is to create the conditions for that competition to be fair. If we are responsible for how we make our way, if governments must aspire only to let us fulfil our own potential, then we deserve the different rewards that society places on the talents we possess. Forty years after Michael Young wrote The Rise of the Meritocracy, we almost all believe in meritocracy now.
Can politics create opportunity?
The new opportunity politics does respond to a shift in public mood-but what does it amount to as the basis of a programme for government? Is the expansion of opportunity a tool for redressing social problems? How coherent are the assumptions about society, individual desert and social justice that underlie rhetoric about merit and mobility?
At the heart of the concept of equality of opportunity is the idea that people should be judged according to their abilities, and not on the basis of attributes that reflect their inheritance. So far, so good: but this neat dividing line between nature and privilege turns out in practice to be so open to dispute as to be of little help in building a consensus for social policy. Indeed, for all the policy convergence between Labour and the Conservatives, there remains a fundamental difference of vision on this question-perhaps the last defining ideological debate between left and right in contemporary politics.
Everyone now agrees that as a minimum we want a classless society. This is not so much a question of ways of speech and dress, or of social association, even of wealth; it is the removal of the old school tie networks guarding the entry to higher education and the professions. It also entails a commitment to fight sexual and racial discrimination. This, combined with market-led opportunity, is loosely the Conservative approach. Labour, by contrast, and notably Gordon Brown, stresses, more broadly, that people are denied opportunity if they are excluded from the economic and cultural mainstream. This is what Brown refers to as “lifelong equality of opportunity,” and it gives a greater role to government as an enabler, helping people develop their talents. Ideologically, it is an attempt to retain some of Labour’s old collective concerns for an inclusive society-within an individualist framework.
These different interpretations of opportunity can lead their advocates to promote diametrically opposed policies. In education, for example, under a minimal version of equality of opportunity, the aim is to allow people to rise as far as their innate talent and effort will take them. So Conservative thinkers support an extension of selection and the retention of the assisted places scheme, enabling children from modest backgrounds to move up the educational ladder. Under Labour’s version, expanding opportunity calls for more emphasis on the overall level of educational skills and training. This means scrapping the assisted places scheme and removing child benefit from children who stay at school after 16, with the money going to support the development of a wider range of abilities.
Some of the ambiguities of the new meritocratic politics are reflected in the personal careers of Britain’s two leading politicians. It is, famously, the Conservative John Major who comes from a lower social background, and who has made his way in the world without formal qualifications after leaving school at 16. By contrast, Tony Blair has risen along a classic professional trajectory, from public school through Oxford to the Bar. The claim that mobility through enterprise is possible for those with talent and determination is embodied in the prime minister’s own life story, which is one reason why the Conservatives will put his character and background at the centre of their campaign. In this respect, Britain’s 1997 election marks a move toward the American model, where anti-elitism has in modern times been as much a feature of the right as of the left-from Barry Goldwater’s “pointy-heads” through Richard Nixon’s appeal to the “silent majority” and Dan Quayle’s attacks on the “cultural elite.” We can see something of this sort here in the debate over constitutional reform, where the prime minister has accused Tony Blair of a sort of intellectual rootlessness: “You can’t shake our constitution around as if it were a cocktail at an Islington dinner party.”
How open is Britain?
Is the prime minister’s example representative? If it could be shown that people of talent generally do have the chance to make their way in society, unhampered by background, this would seem to lend support to the Conservative case. There has recently been a flurry of sociological research into inter-generational mobility-assessing people’s success both by level of income, and by occupational category. The studies have been made possible by data from the most extensive individual tracking study yet carried out in Britain-the UK National Child Development Survey (NCDS) which has followed all 11,406 individuals born during the week of 3rd to 9th March in 1958.
The most detailed statistical analysis of the NCDS has been made by Paul Johnson and Howard Reed from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. To measure mobility, they correlated data taken from the study’s participants in 1991, when they were 33 years old and would presumably have largely settled into their careers, with information about their parents in 1974. They analysed this information first in class terms, using the five occupational categories-managerial, professional, skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled. This showed a consistent correlation between parents’ and childrens’ occupational categories, and a particularly large gap between the prospects of children born to non-manual and manual workers. For example, sons of managerial and professional fathers were nearly three times as likely to hold professional jobs as sons of semi-skilled or unskilled fathers, and less than a third as likely to end up in manual labour.
Johnson and Reed also broke the figures down by income. They found that sons whose fathers were either unemployed or in the bottom fifth of the income distribution had a 30 per cent chance of being in the bottom fifth themselves, compared with a 12 per cent chance of being in the top fifth of the earnings range. By contrast, sons whose fathers were in the top-earning group had a 34 per cent chance of being top earners, compared with an 11 per cent chance of falling to the bottom fifth of the distribution.
What should we make of these figures? They show that Britain is far from a rigid society, that many children move all the way up (and down) the scale in a single generation. They also show that chances of success remain unevenly distributed. Moreover, as Johnson and Reed write, “groups of people at the extreme ends of the distribution are particularly subject to immobility.” Some people will regard this picture as surprisingly open, others as depressingly closed. But such figures do not in themselves prove how nearly British society approaches a genuine meritocracy. After all, it might be claimed that the unequal life chances of children from different classes reflect not the influence of class, but an unequal distribution of talent.
The rise of the cognitive elite
This argument has been put by the sociologist Peter Saunders in a paper for the Institute of Economic Affairs entitled Unequal But Fair? Saunders claims to demonstrate that “occupational selection and recruitment in Britain is much more meritocratic than most of us realise.” Like Johnson and Reed, he uses the NCDS data, and achieves broadly analagous results. But then he attempts to show that the crucial factor behind these results is the inheritance of intelligence: since more intelligent people tend to be more successful, and are also more likely to have intelligent children, it stands to reason that intelligence will be more prevalent among children born higher in the social scale. The greater success of children from higher social backgrounds is, Saunders argues, primarily a reflection of their native talent, and only marginally a function of social factors.
Saunders’ argument is part of a recent intellectual trend, in which biological explanations of human conduct eclipse social ones. His pamphlet is similar in this respect to The Bell Curve, by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, published in the US in 1994. Although notorious for its treatment of racial differences, The Bell Curve is fundamentally a detailed argument that in modern societies, native intelligence is far more important than any other influence in determining people’s life chances, and that the interaction of heredity and meritocracy is creating a society stratified by intelligence and dominated by the “cognitive elite.”
Like Herrnstein and Murray, Saunders assumes that intelligence is an innate quality whose development is largely unaffected by social circumstances. He analyses the information for the NCDS participants’ class origins and destinations against the results of a general ability test that they took at the age of 11. This shows a moderate link between class origin and test score, and a somewhat stronger link between test score and class destination. The first result, Saunders admits, could show either that intelligence is unevenly distributed between classes (his hypothesis), or that social advantages allow middle class children to “over-achieve” on general tests. But, he argues, the second result is more significant: it shows the test effectively predicted which children would end up rising in the social scale, and which falling.
Saunder’s critics have pointed to a number of problems. First, even assuming it is right, taking intelligence test scores into account still leaves middle class children with a substantially higher chance of ending up in middle class jobs. (In statistical terms, middle class children with high test scores have a 1.6 to 1 relative advantage over lower class children with similar scores.) Saunders attempts to reduce this by introducing the further concept of “effort.” This reduces the disparity somewhat, but at the cost of exacerbating another controversial aspect of his model: its account of the way class influence works.
Do we really believe that success in an academic test is not influenced by instruction, aspiration, and motivation, and that these things in turn are not significantly affected by social circumstances, albeit in a complex way? Those children who do well in academic tests are self-evidently the ones who are likely to proceed furthest up the ladder of education, and will therefore begin the professional race with an enormous head start. The predictive power of Saunders’ tests may thus be at least partly in the nature of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Even to the degree that we are a meritocracy, it seems far-fetched to maintain that cognitive intelligence alone is the fundamental skill that modern Britain values and rewards, without taking into account things like flexibility, persistence, initiative, the ability to process information and communicate, the ability to get on with people, and so forth. Many of these qualities are hard to quantify, but they suggest that individual abilities can be enhanced through public policy.
There are other ways of looking at the link between social outcomes and the distribution of talent. Gordon Marshall and Adam Swift at Oxford University have found (Prospect, November 1995) that children from professional backgrounds have a much higher chance of ending up in professional jobs than children from working class backgrounds even when they have the same level of qualification. But this approach is also unsatisfactory, because it is precisely in the relative likelihood of achieving the same degree of educational qualification that the most important effect of class difference is likely to lie.
In any case, it is quixotic to suppose that one could ever come up with a definition of equality of opportunity that would command universal agreement. It is more pertinent to look at the consequences of each interpretation of opportunity, and to ask which corresponds more closely with the kind of society we would like to live in.
Why does inequality grow?
The debate over opportunity and meritocracy is taking place in both Britain and the US against a background of greatly expanded inequalities of wealth and income (although the growth now appears to be slowing in Britain). To the Conservative David Willetts, the processes are linked: greater rewards to skill, and greater opportunities for women, have driven the divergence between professional and non-professional households. And the effect is exacerbated by what the sociologists call “assortative mating”: the increasing tendency of professional men and women to intermarry. In his Centre for Policy Studies pamphlet, Blair’s Gurus, Willetts castigates Labour for assuming that equality of opportunity will lead to greater equality of condition. “To believe that you have to believe that actual aptitudes are more equally distributed than educational opportunities are at the moment. It would at least be worth trying to make this claim explicit and support it with some evidence, but no Blairite, so far as I know, has ever tried to do so.”
Willetts has put his finger on the central question for the modern progressive centre left: whether the provision of education and training, within tight financial constraints, can on its own constrain the forces driving incomes apart in the west’s leading free market economies. Certainly nothing that Clinton has done in his first term has given a clear answer to that question. As Stephen Machin has argued in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy, economists are coming to see the recent growth in inequality in Britain and the US as the result of a convergence of factors: technological change, foreign competition, and the decline of trade unions. So far, however, not enough is known about the respective influence of each of these elements to be able to predict how much increased skill levels would help to reverse the effect.
As Michael Young realised, meritocracy and equality are potentially in conflict. The benefits of self-realisation may be more than counterbalanced by the tendency of the winners to think they have earned their success and owe no obligation to their less prosperous fellow citizens. In The End of Equality the US writer Mickey Kaus warns of a decline in “civic equality”-of the free and easy mixing of people regardless of differences in wealth and lifestyle. In any case the meritocratic assumption is more problematic than ever in the age of Alan Shearer, Nicola Horlick and Kate Moss. The idea that earnings in the free market correspond in any way to merit (“talent plus effort,” in Michael Young’s formulation) has been rendered unsustainable by the explosion of celebrity and professional salaries. In any case it was always a kind of rhetorical shorthand, eliding the idea of fair competition in a neutral marketplace with the rather different concepts of qualification and desert. A pure meritocracy-where people were paid according to an estimation of their contribution to society-would surely have to be a much more highly directed system, rather like a corporate performance related pay scheme, with all the attendant ambiguities of distinguishing between talent and effort, incentive and reward.
The notion of desert is something different again. In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls argued that innate talents are just as much an accident of birth as other, more conventional forms of privilege. From a strictly moral point of view, it is difficult to see why we are entitled to be rewarded for skills over which we had no control. Yet these talents form an essential part of our sense of ourselves. Remove the influence of society from one end, innate characteristics from the other, and we would be left with a thin connection indeed to any responsibility for the lives we have made.
Anyone attempting to fit political theory to the real world must acknowledge that people are intuitively drawn to the autonomy the market gives us, and feel it is legitimate for talent and effort to find a reward. We feel it is fair for people to benefit from the multiple decisions of independent purchasers, but unfair to rig the game, to profit from restricted competition or undeserved position. That is why Cedric Brown was held to be a fat cat, while Alan Shearer, who works no harder, is not. But this intuition, which is really a demand that everyone play by the same rules, stops short of establishing a moral entitlement in either case. After all the market itself is a social construct. We can say it is desirable for the state to give people some room-perhaps quite a lot of room-to make their way; we can argue about the kind of incentives necessary to produce the economic goods we want; but this does not make the rewards people earn, under whatever actual system is instituted, morally fair.
The danger of this meritocratic assumption is that it can obscure the real debate about why we value opportunity and what we can expect it to achieve.