How many birth-right privileges should we have?

Friend of the blog David Callahan and I have been going back and forth over at Demos about social mobility and equal opportunity. It started when Callahan wrote a post noting that kids born near the top of the income distribution wind up, on average, lower than their parents in the income distribution. He represented this as a bad thing.

I then wrote a post arguing that Callahan was misconstruing the data he was working with. Of course, on average, people born in the top 40 percent will wind up lower in the income distribution than their parents: they have nowhere else to go. In a world of perfect social mobility everyone from every starting point should, on average, wind up at the 50th percentile. So all kids starting above the 50th percentile will, in a socially mobile world, wind up, on average (average is key), lower than they started out, at least in terms of their position in the income distribution. This is a good thing if we truly believe everyone from every background should have an equal chance at being on the top, bottom, and in between.

Callahan then responded asking “How Much Equal Opportunity Do We Really Want?” He rightly observes that actual equal opportunity would be very politically unpopular insofar as rich parents want to rig the game unfairly in favor of their kids. More generously, his point is that parents in general want their kids to move up not down. Which is true. He ends with this:

So herein lies a basic challenge: While progressives can all agree on polices that help more kids get to the starting line and compete equally, there’s far less agreement — or even thought — about how much we should seek to strip away pre-existing advantages.

I have put a lot of thought into it, and my answer is: entirely and totally without any remote hesitation. There are two basic camps here. One camp says all kids regardless of parental background should have the same chances and opportunities as all the other kids when it comes to securing economic positions. The other camp rejects this and endorses the view that some kids should, because of who their parents are, have advantages over others. This latter camp might have diverse opinions on how much aristocracy they’d prefer, but that’s a distinction of degree not kind.

I am surprised that anyone would not come down on my side, especially on the left. You don’t see many arguing these days that maybe hereditary privileges should exist. They do exist of course, but officially we distance from them and pretend it’s all merit all the way down.

If we are going to try to ensure people born in the top half have a better than even chance of staying there, then all I ask is that we at least do it explicitly. Set up a database that establishes how much money everybody’s parents made. Then set aside half of the very well-paying jobs for kids whose parents were sufficiently rich. Then — since I assume we don’t want total social immobility — you leave the other jobs open for a fair competition.

But of course nobody would actually go for that. It’s not enough that we create a rigged system of economic advantage. It also needs to be somewhat opaque and non-obvious. Otherwise, the myth of meritocracy and equal opportunity that is supposed to legitimize everything comes tumbling down. So, on the pro-aristocracy view, we’d want to build in social advantages for rich kids to ensure they generally don’t fall below their parent’s relative positioning, but without making it in-your-face obvious that we are doing so. In that case, it seems like the system we have now is perfect for those who think rich and upper middle class kids should have some special economic advantages. And therefore I am not sure what Callahan is actually objecting to regarding our status quo situation.