In theory, social mobility ought to be a bipartisan goal. Liberals favor equal opportunity; conservatives want hard work and talent to be fairly rewarded. In fact, both sides too often miss the mark, focusing their energies on policies with uncertain implications for mobility. Gene Steuerle makes the point well in his piece on civil rights and social mobility:
What if the dominant liberal and conservative agendas over the past 50 years, at least when it came to social policy and taxes, never really had much to with mobility?…Over these past few decades, liberal agendas have focused largely on the positive effects of ensuring that people had adequate income, food, health care, and so on—that is, consumption. Conservative agendas have focused largely on the negative effects of high income tax rates, particularly at the top of the income distribution.
Welfare policy can discourage work: equally, lower taxes can mean insufficient revenue for investment in education.
But there’s a bigger problem: political myopia. Intergenerational social mobility is, by definition, a long-term business. It takes a generation to raise a child. Investments in parenting programs (which we argue for here in ‘The Parenting Gap‘), or in pre-K education, or mentoring schemes, or additional investments in the classroom will all pay off only after many years, or even decades. Politicians find it hard to think beyond the next mid-terms. Myopia is as much the enemy of social mobility as partisanship.
We need what the philosopher Jon Elster calls ‘pre-commitment devices’ to hold government to account for the long-range goal of greater mobility. Such devices are common in economic policy–from independent central banks to debt ceilings. There’s a good argument for some similar institutional supports–a policy architecture–within government in the service of social mobility.