Being Honest about Social and Economic Mobility

Both left and right in the U.S. take social and economic mobility as an unqualifiedly good thing. Americans judge economic progress, or regress, by the ability of the country’s putative Horatio Algers to lift themselves up by the bootstraps. The left argues economic and social mobility has been decreasing recently in the U.S., and blames institutional and cultural failures for that decline. Opinion on the right is more mixed. One line points to the personal failure of individuals to take advantage of opportunities as the main cause of limited mobility, and minimizes the extent to which social mobility may have slowed down or decreased. Others on the right might concede mobility is slowed down, but point to institutional causes, like crony capitalism (for example, licensing requirements that unduly limit entry into certain professions), deindustrialization due to unfair foreign competition and globalization, reduced productivity, etc., as causes.

All sides, however, agree that economic mobility is a good thing. And decreasing mobility, to the extent that it is occurring, is a reason for increasing unhappiness in the country.

Tocqueville, however, inverts the hypothesis. He argues increased class mobility decreases happiness and well-being. In this he provides a tutorial for today’s post-liberals, many whom proffer the social and economic relations of the West’s aristocratic age as preferable to those relations as transformed by economic and social liberalization. Corollary to that, however, is the social and economic stasis of those times. Few post-liberals, however, make a positive case for the stasis their program would entail. Tocqueville did not share those scruples, however, and he did not think the world could avoid the transformation he saw on the horizon, even if he was not uniformly sanguine about the consequences of that transformation.

Tocqueville argues impermeable class divisions make both for better aristocrats and happier commoners. Regarding aristocrats, he argues,

[T]he rich, having never known any state different from their own, have no fear of changing it; they hardly imagine any other; it is a manner of living. They consider it, as it were, like life itself, and enjoy it without thinking about it. The natural and instinctive taste that all men feel for well-being, being thus satisfied without difficulty and without fear, their soul heads elsewhere and becomes attached to some more difficult and grander enterprise, which inspires it and carries it off.

In a series of rhetorical questions Tocqueville earlier lays out the virtues of aristocratic society, a list that seemingly resonates with the aspirations of numerous post-liberals.

Do you want to give to the human mind a certain elevation, a generous way of envisioning the things of this world? Do you want to inspire in men a sort of contempt for material goods? Do you desire to bring into being profound convictions and lay the ground for great acts of devotion? Are you concerned with reining morals, elevating manners, making the arts shine? Do you want poetry, éclat, glory? Do you intend to organize a people so that they act strongly on all the others? Do you mean it to attempt great enterprises and, whatever the result of those efforts to leave an immense mark in history?

Of course, that aristocrats might be happier with aristocratic society than without it no doubt surprises few. But Tocqueville also argues the very impermeability of class structure in aristocratic societies increases the happiness of commoners as well.

In nations where the aristocracy dominates the society and keeps it immobile, the people end up becoming used to poverty just as the rich become used to their opulence. The latter are not preoccupied with material well-being because they possess it without efforts; the former does not think about it because it despairs of acquiring it and because it is not familiar enough with it to desire it.

In these sorts of societies the imagination of the poor person is driven back toward the other world. The miseries of real life press in on it, but it escapes them and goes to seek pleasures beyond it.

Tocqueville argues in these societies the mass of commoners would be happier because we would not conceive of the possibility of advancement and so would not covet it.

Permeable social and economic classes, in contrast, tends toward greater unhappiness:

When . . . the ranks are mixed together and privileges destroyed, when patrimonies are broken up and enlightenment and liberty spread, the desire to acquire well-being presents itself to the imagination of the poor person, and the fear of losing it to the mind of the rich one. A multitude of mediocre fortunes are established. Those who possess them have enough material pleasures to conceive the taste for these pleasures, yet not enough to be content with what they have.

With social and economic mobility, neither rich nor poor develop refined tastes or habits. Even the rich in societies with mobility between the classes merely become “drunk in the midst of the small pleasures they have pursued for forty years,” while the poor are consumed by their covetousness.

To be sure, Tocqueville’s tradeoffs are incommensurable—they are tragic in the sense that we cannot have more of both. Tocqueville challenges post-liberals to be honest with what they offer, even in theory: A society which may be happier, but less prosperous and with less social and economic mobility. Indeed, happier because it is less mobile and less prosperous.

And American Christians might become more honest as well. Even among American evangelicals, or, more accurately, particularly among American evangelicals, piety and prosperity go together. Tocqueville challenges the blithe theology that worldly and spiritual goods are coincident. We covet in the small, Tocqueville, writes, “adding some land . . . planting an orchard . . . enlarging a house, . . . making life always easier and more convenient.” But while “these are small objects, the soul clings to them; it dwells upon them closely and day by day, till they at last shut out the rest of the world, and sometimes intervene between itself and heaven.”


Capitol Storm Clouds

A War of Ideas?

Rather than focus on what set of ideas America must revive or reject, we might focus instead on the concrete realities which define our political life.