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.”

Reader Discussion

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on September 28, 2018 at 10:08:30 am

Thought-provoking. Consider the plight of women: Throughout most of the developed world, their circumstances seem to have improved--at least, relative to men's. And throughout most of the developed world, they report less happiness than before. Why?

Many theories. Men like to point out that in the US, male incarceration rates have been pretty high lately--leaving ever more ladies without a male companion. Naturally they're unhappy, amiright? eh? eh?

Alas for that theory, women seem to express less happiness even in nations that have not amped up their incarceration rates. But the obvious rejoinder is that THOSE poor ladies aren't in America--so naturally they're unhappy, amiright? eh? eh?

The first thing to realize is that measures of moment-to-moment happiness bear almost no relationship to people's retroactive reflections on their happiness on the rare occasions that someone is asked to make such a reflection. So there would be no contradiction in finding that today's women in fact experience greater moment-to-moment happiness, yet report less happiness in retrospect.

When asked to reflect on our overall happiness, we tend to consider how well our circumstances have turned out relative to what we expected, or relative to our peers. Thus the old joke-that-isn't-a-joke: The secret to a happy marriage is ... low expectations.

In a Guardian article on the paradox of declining female happiness. the author cites an example from Switzerland:

[In 1981, Switzerland had] a referendum on whether the constitution should be amended to state that women deserve equal pay for equal work. [It was discovered that] working women in areas with strong traditional values – where most people had voted against equal pay – were happier than working women in liberal cantons [where pay equity was both more common and more popular].

Even though their salaries were further below those of the men around them, the women in more traditional communities were less likely to report discrimination than their countrywomen in more liberal areas.

This inside-out result probably arises from different cognitive comparisons. Women in liberal communities are less happy and notice discrimination because they automatically compare their opportunities and salary to everyone else around them, men included. Traditionally minded women perhaps base their identities more firmly on their gender roles, and think only of other women when they evaluate their privilege and opportunities.

This kind of difference might explain the lessening happiness of American women. As women’s rights and opportunities have increased, it seems reasonable that women in industrialized countries have internalized ever more complex and optimistic expectations, and judged reality against these. Asked how satisfied she is with her lot in life, the housewife of the early 1970s probably just reflected on whether things were going well at home. The same question today evokes evaluations across many areas of life.

Moral: Happiness is not adaptive. Rather, happiness (the release of dopamine in the brain) is the carrot dangled in front of the mule to motivate it to move forward.

You can have a life of peaceful contentment, or a life of striving, but it's hard to get both. Meritocracy arguably promotes greater striving and productivity, and the results of that productivity arguably enhance the moment-to-moment happiness of people generally. But, by raising expectations, meritocracy may well depress people's reported happiness.

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on September 28, 2018 at 13:57:16 pm

Yes, life is much better for aristocrats with less social and economic mobility. Let's quote Mark Twain on how wonderful that kind of life is for people who aren't the aristocrats.

“There were two ‘Reigns of Terror,’ if we would but remember and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the guillotine, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror—that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.”--Mark Twain.

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Image of excessivelyperky
on September 28, 2018 at 17:35:30 pm

Some good stuff (as usual);

"You can have a life of peaceful contentment, or a life of striving, but it’s hard to get both."

We should share a bottle of wine one day and I can tell you how it is that some people can actually do / get both.
Do you not find contentment in the striving, albeit a striving characterized by realistic expectations married to a comparable effort (We ain't talking Napoleon here, or are we?)
In short one must be a reliable and honest *OBSERVER* of the world AND oneself.

Let me know, Merlot, GSM, Petite Verdot or what?

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Image of gabe
on September 29, 2018 at 12:31:55 pm

Well, a very wise woman once told me: 'happiness is a homemade article" (perhaps, social and economic mobility pertains). Nevertheless, I read a statement once about Ralph Waldo Emerson in which he declared "I can get along without it" to an assertion about an impending doom. The moral was people who live by this philosophy (I can get along without it) were able to have real happiness - rather such applies to permeable or impermeable distinctions "making life always easier and more convenient", well...!

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Image of Anthony
on October 04, 2018 at 23:07:07 pm

I am sorry but I do not understand the point of all this. Does anyone really think that happiness is the purpose of life? Would we really want a life where we were drugged and provided with the stimuli that we need to make us 'happy'? I do not think so. An authentic human life is one in pursuit of meaning, not just pleasure. And given the fact that low mobility will limit the pursuit of meaning it is clear the society that has no restrictions on mobility will not provide the same opportunities for meaning and the associated contentment and happiness than one which has fewer restrictions.

That brings us to two issues. First, mobility can be linked to economic earnings and the accumulation of wealth. And on that front, all human societies show a power law distribution of wealth and income. I believe that Wilfred Pareto's observations showed that 20% of the population owned 80% of the land. (At the time, the amount of land held was a proxy for wealth.) But when the 80% of the land was examined it was found that 20% of the 20% owned that. That meant that 4% of the people owned 64% of the land. And of that 64%, 20% of the people owned 80% of it. That meant that 0.8% of the population owned approximately 51% of the wealth. That is similar to the distributions that we see in ALL societies. (Note that even in a communist state like China, Cuba, or the FSU, approximately half the resources were controlled by the 1% of the party leadership.)

The second issue also deals with human nature. We are actual human beings and prefer to be permitted to be as much of what we can be as possible. That means that in egalitarian countries like Sweden we observe more women in what are considered female-dominated professions like nursing or child-care workers as a percentage of the total than we observe in the US and more men in male-dominated professions like those that we find in the STEM fields. Essentially, when people are free, men tend to become more manly and women wore womanly. That may not be politically correct but the data is what it is.

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Vangel Vesovski

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