The Christian Socialist on the inadequacy of mobility and opportunity

The Christian Socialist was a British publication in the late 19th and early 20th century. I pulled out this fun bit:

If the means of production were monopolised by one individual, everybody would admit that a man in such a position would have despotic power over the lives and thoughts of those who were destitute of land and capital; but they seem to think that the situation is altered because a class owns the means of production instead of an individual, and because members of that class are competing with each other, and in the competition the weakest goes to the wall, and falls into the destitute class. Nor is the situation altered, because by reason of exceptional qualities some individuals can raise themselves from the wage-earning class to the class that owns the means of production.

It is perfectly certain that no amount of thrift, sobriety, or industry by itself can raise the whole class of wage-earners into the class of those who own the means of production. For what is the advantage of being a capitalist or a landlord? Clearly this: that you can employ other men who are in want of a living to work for you. But if all became capitalists or landlords under the existing system of society who would be the workers?

Remember the basic wisdom of this as Obama retreats from the dangerous rhetoric of “inequality” into the more comforting rhetoric of “opportunity.” The big problem with the opportunity rhetoric is that it favors doing things that bestow upon people positional advantages instead of doing things that improve the overall stock of good-paying social positions. Positional advantages allow people to move ahead of others and to out-compete them for the scarce number of especially remunerative social positions, but it does not increase the number of such positions. The goal of increasing opportunity is to help the poor rise above their class, while the goal of inequality reduction is to help the poor rise as a class.

With some exceptional effort, you can probably help some poor kids become venture capitalists, executives, bankers, doctors, and lawyers. But we wont have an economy of only these highly-paid professions. If we did, “who would be the workers?” If the number of highly-compensated social positions is limited, and it is, we are dooming some people to low-paid misery one way or another. Increasing opportunity might change which people are subjected to that misery, but not its amount.

This is the ultimate conflict at stake in the battle between targeting inequality reduction versus targeting opportunity expansion. The former wants to change the economic structure so that there is no impoverishment or other substantial income stratification. The latter wants to preserve the immiserating economic structure, but make the competition to not wind up on a bottom rung less lopsided.