Making sense of mobility claims

Amy Wax explains in a Commentary magazine article why Brookings Institution scholar Richard Reeves misses the mark with his indictment of economic mobility in America.

The real question, though, is not whether privilege breeds privilege, but whether that propagation is actually unfair or socially destructive. Reeves never provides a well-thought-out theory of optimal mobility—a tall order, to be sure, but one that is essential to his avowed goal of persuading us that existing intergenerational mobility rates “are lower than they ought to be.” His lack of rigor takes its toll. In his desire to convince us that something is wrong and that something must be done, he draws a questionable analogy between the rigid class structures he abandoned when he left his native England and impediments to class mobility in the United States today. He mashes together social practices seemingly amenable to policy fixes with obstacles grounded in culture, behavior, and family life. Toggling between equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes, he often flirts with equating the two. …

… [E]ven if we could give the equally talented the same chances, it’s not clear how many more people would ascend, because it’s not clear how many are being left behind. The goal of more mobility runs up against the core dilemma of the meritocracy—which is that talent, effort, and ambition, which determine the ability to climb, are not randomly distributed up and down the social scale. And although Reeves acknowledges that “class is made up of a subtle, shifting blend of economic, social, educational, and attitudinal factors,” he strenuously avoids admitting what everyone in their heart of hearts knows: There is no substitute for having the right parents.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

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