Elites Protect Their Own Against Downward Social Mobility

Richard V. Reeves
Reeves headshot
Richard V. Reeves President - American Institute for Boys and Men

August 30, 2013

Lack of upward mobility – in Obama’s phrase, “the chance through honest toil to advance one’s station in life” – damages society, and the economy. Less is usually said about the other side of the coin: downward mobility from the top. But to improve relative social mobility, we need more of both.  (Check out Pew’s video on relative and absolute mobility for a great illustration of why that’s the case.)

Niall Ferguson has a challenging piece on ‘The End of the American Dream?’ in Newsweek/Daily Beast (NewsBeast?). He suggests those at the top are rigging so their own children remain there:

[W]e [cannot] dismiss the hypothesis that the “legacy” system may be the key here, as the cognitive elite discreetly rig the game in favor of their offspring with well-timed benefactions.

As a professor at Harvard, I am disquieted by such thoughts. Unlike Elon Musk, I did not come to the United States intent on making a fortune. Wealth was not my American dream. But I did come here because I believed in American meritocracy, and I was pretty sure that I would be teaching fewer beneficiaries of inherited privilege than I had encountered at Oxford.

Ferguson is witnessing, first-hand, how opportunity hoarding at the top can inhibit movement up from the bottom.  There are echoes here of S.M. Miller’s 1969 claim that downward mobility is a better measure of fairness:

The concern with upward mobility has obscured the importance and amount of downward mobility…[but] it may well be that downward mobility is a better indicator of fluidity in a society than is upward mobility.

Niall Ferguson is very far from being a bleeding-heart liberal. Something important is happening when a right-wing Brit warns that the American elite is now perpetuating itself, from one generation to the next.