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Social Equality or Social Mobility

Updated on August 11, 2014

Social Equality

These days there's a lot of talk about achieving social equality and a great deal of political effort has been spent trying to combat what many believe is an unequal society divided along lines of wealth. Those who support this effort generally view equality through the lense of financial accumulation.

Social Mobility

But what many don't know is that the American System wasn't necessarily designed to provide Social Equality. The Founding Fathers were much more concerned with creating an atmosphere of Social Mobility. In their view, equality was to be viewed through the lenses of rights and liberties in the eyes of the law, regardless of wealth or status.


Some of the only examples where Social Equality has been fully achieved are among small communal groups united by a religion or a strong ethnic bond. Most of these communal groups achieved their height of success while operating under a voluntary system where individuals were free to enter the society or leave it. But, generally, as soon as individuals were barred from leaving the communal society, the system was broken as individuals began to disagree with the decisions of the society while being forced to remain in it. This is why social equality on a national scale is so difficult to achieve, it's much easier to leave a village when an individual disagrees with decisions than it is to leave a country.

Classic Liberalism

The Founding Fathers who created the US Constitution were proponents of what is now considered Classic Liberalism (not be confused with modern liberalism). They believed that in order for men to be equal, they must have equal rights under the law, allowing the majority of individuals lives to follow the dictates of their own hearts, or their own decisions. The root of the word liberal is liberty, which is defined as individual liberty, or the ability of an individual to be at liberty to make decisions for themselves and to liberally view life from whatever perspective they chose. To Classic Liberals, equality was not about the size of pocket books, but by individuals abilities to pursue happiness in whatever way they saw fit. Because of this the US Constitution was not designed to provide any form of wealth re-distribution, but was designed to administer to citizens equally regardless of financial assets, enacting policies that were neither preferential nor deferential to citizens based on monetary means.

Social Equality Achieved

All men are created equal before God and before the law. But man's abilities, intellect, and talents are obviously not created equally. In order to create a society that is Socially Equal, those who have the natural affinity for success must give of the means they have accrued so that their success can be shared with those whose abilities lie in talents that are not as profitable. This is why societies that have achieved social equality are generally voluntary and religious. It must be voluntary because those who accumulate wealth must give a good portion of what they've earned to others and it must be religious so that the wealthy view this requirement from the perspective of religious duty while those receiving, and sometimes living, on the wealth of others maintain a sense of work ethic and continue to strive to achieve success even though success isn't necessary to achieve a quality of life equal to others. This complex system requiring voluntary sacrifice and religious-like sense of duty rarely works in larger societies because a sense of neighborhood and the bond of a tight-knit community is very important and because its much easier to choose a trusted individual to lead the community when everyone knows each other well. In larger societies that attempt Social Equality, to often the poor get complacent and lazy, the rich stop trying as they see others leech off their success, and the leaders become corrupt and tyrannical as they focus on the power their authority grants them instead of the responsibility to see to the needs of others.

Social Mobility Achieved

In a society striving for Social Mobility, the autonomy of an individual, rather than his wealth, is the main concern. Representative forms of government are much more successful because there isn't as much need for leaders to micromanage portions of the society. Higher and lower classes of varying degrees of poverty and wealth are considered a necessary evil. But, if the system is administered correctly, an individual maintains the rights and privileges to define success on individual terms and to achieve that success according to their individual talents and desires. The main threat to a society of Social Mobility is corruption and their has been a lively debate throughout the history of America how well corruption can be fought through the democratic process. However, there has been a general trend of Americans throughout the history of the US who believe their destinies are in their own hands.

The Comparison

The differences between Social Equality and Social Mobility can be summarized in the following points. Social Equality measures equality by using a financial meter, and is willing to empower leaders while disenfranchising citizens of certain rights in order to provide the "higher right" of financial equity for all. Social Mobility views equality by using a legal meter, and attempts to place checks on leadership in order to empower citizens as much as possible, believing that freedom of the mind is more important than freedom of the purse.

The ultimate difference between Social Equality and Social Mobility lies in who has the right and the responsibility to define success in a society. The very idea of Social Equality rests upon the necessity to define success by a single achievable standard, while Social Mobility allows for success to be defined entirely differently based upon different perspectives.

An Historical Struggle

The social struggle and political battles of the 20th Century (and beyond) are essentially a contest to answer one question: can Social Mobility, achieved when America was predominantly agrarian, continue to be achieved in a post-industrial era. Many argue that the industrial revolution introduced new forms of tyranny and suppression that the Founding Fathers did not foresee and could not prepare for. Other argue that attempting to achieve Social Equality in any way will eventually erode the system of legal rights we have already achieved. Modern liberals are descendants of the Progressive Movement which sought to actively assault the deprivations introduced by the Industrial Era through policies that generally tended to support an idea of Social Equality. Modern Conservatives are the descendants of those who felt the necessary charity to combat the problems of the Industrial Revolution could be garnered through private means without introducing elements of Social Equality into the Federal Government and thus eroding Social Mobility. Because of crisis such the Great Depression and World Wars, the political battles of the 20th Century were generally won by descendants of the Progressives. This has seen the growth of America's Welfare State and also the National Debt. But proponents of welfare programs and deficit spending often point out that while recessions have occurred, no large depression has happened since the introduction of the New Deal.

My Opinion

Thomas Jefferson can be seen as the father of American Classic Liberalism and the greatest historical proponent of Social Mobility. He viewed history as a conflict between citizens and government based on legal rights and his focus was on checking the powers of government and empowering private citizens. While many will disagree with me, I believe the champion of Social Equality was Karl Marx. His pamphlets are what introduced the idea of viewing history as a conflict between the rich and the poor and creating governments based on monetary rights and a focus on checking the "unfair" success of a few wealthy individuals who had obtained their affluence at the expense of the destitute masses. It is my view that the evidence presented by the continued existence of the American experiment in representative government and social mobility into the 21st century as compared to the collapse of the Soviet Union's experiment in Socialist government and social equality near the end of the 20th century, provides the perfect comparison as to which system leads to true equality.

What Do You Think?

The struggle between Social Equality and Social Mobility may very well end up being the defining political struggle of the 21st Century, and this struggle will be decided by a very powerful individual - YOU. What are your opinions on the strengths and weaknesses of Social Equality and Social Mobility and which theory will you support. Or do you have an entirely new idea to propose. Please, leave your thoughts in the comment section and take part in this important discussion.


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