Attacking the evidence that excessive inequality prevents social mobility doesn’t stand up to scrutiny

As intended, Boris Johnson’s ideological celebration of inequality has got lots of people talking, some of them with more expertise than others.

One of those who springs to Johnson’s defence is Toby Young, who, in this blog defends Boris’s assertion that the rich and powerful got where they are because they are better than the rest of us (not because their parents gave them the most expensive  schooling, the right connections, the financial backing or the sense of entitlement).

 Toby’s blog is entitled “Boris is right – of course you can have high levels of income inequality and social mobility”. The blog attacks George Eaton’s piece (using data from the Equality Trust), showing that countries in which the gap between the rich and the rest is unusually high* – such as the UK – can expect very low levels of social mobility.

 Toby’s case is that the data “is pretending that a complicated ideological choice can be resolved by reference to some elementary empirical evidence”. He argues that in more equal country “a son earning £10 more per week than his father might be in the top decile and the father in the bottom decile, but the son would only be £10 a week better off. It’s social mobility, but of a largely meaningless kind…to get a sense of how genuinely mobile a society is, we need to know the absolute distance people are travelling, not just the relative distance”.

 Toby argues that to link inequality and social immobility is “not an empirical argument, so much as a complicated tautological one”. If that were the case, then we would expect social mobility to increase only by as much as inequality increases, whereas countries with slightly less inequality have more than twice the level of social mobility. (For example, UK parents pass on 50% of their pay difference (relative to everyone else) in the Nordic countries it’s 15-25%).

 There are also phenomena that suggest cause and effect rather than tautology. For example in more unequal countries, not only is a person’s income more determined by their parent’s income but their educational attainment is more determined by their parent’s education. Income inequality blocks social mobility through multiple mechanisms.

We have a social immobility scandal in the UK that is wasting the potential of many talented people. Our lack of social mobility doesn’t just mean that some people are £10 a week better or worse off, it means that the people who have power in this country, in law, in politics and in business, are more likely to be people from rich backgrounds than they are to be talented people from ordinary backgrounds. Just 7% of children go to private schools, but they produce 70% of high court judges and over half of FTSE 100 chief executives.

Duncan Exley, Director

*unusually high for a developed country. There are plenty of developing countries with higher inequality, but we assume that most people would prefer not to become more like those.