The Status of the Politics of Status

Here’s what happens when you wait a day to publicize your new article in the Australian Centre for Independent Studies’ magazine Policy, “Out of Position: Against the Politics of Relative Standing“: David Friedman goes and writes an excellent blog post about the same subject:

It seems obvious that, if one’s concern is status rather than real income, we are in a zero sum game. If my status increases relative to yours, yours has decreased relative to mine. So this point of view seems to support the approach to politics that sees it mainly as a question of who gets to benefit at the expense of whom, of which side who is on.

Like many things that seem obvious, this one is false. It is true that my status is relative to yours. It does not, oddly enough, follow that if my status is higher than yours, yours must be lower than mine, or that if my status increases someone else’s must decrease. Status is not, in fact, a zero sum game.

This point was originally made clear to me when I was an undergraduate at Harvard and realized that Harvard had, in at least one interesting way, the perfect social system: Everyone at the top of his own ladder. The small minority of students passionately interested in drama knew perfectly well that they were the most important people at the university; everyone else was there to provide them with an audience. The small minority passionately interested in politics knew that they were the most important ones; their friends were there to be herded into meetings of the Young Republicans and Young Democrats in order to get them elected to positions in those organizations that were the stepping stones to further political success. The small minority….

Right on! Indeed, I talked with David about exactly this for about a half-hour in Vegas this April, though I claim no influence whatsoever. Nevertheless, I claim comprehensiveness! Here’s a taste of my 3600 words… (footnotes omitted)

Crucially, there is no limit to the possible forms of excellence. So, while the number of positions on any single dimension of status may be fixed, there is no reason why dimensions of status cannot be multiplied indefinitely. It does not in fact require a violation of mathematical law to produce more high-status positions, for it is possible to produce new status dimensions.

New dimensions of excellence and status often open up due to technological innovation. It was impossible to be a chart-topping pop star or a champion triathalete before there were radios and bikes. Liberal market societies not only create new technologies, they create proliferating forms of association, affiliation, expression, and identity at a sometimes alarming rate. Each musical genre, each hobby, each committee, each church, each club, each ideology, each lifestyle provides a new dimension—a new frame of reference—for positional competition. Environmental purists can compete with one another to conspicuously consume eco-friendly products (or conspicuously refuse to consume much at all), while punk rockers duke it out on grounds of anti-establishment authenticity, and economics professors knock themselves dead trying to get articles into esoteric journals no one else cares about.

The cultural fragmentation some critics lament is precisely what liberates us from unavoidable zero-sum positional conflict. Surfer dudes don’t compete with Star Trek geeks for status. Dynamic market liberal societies create higher-order positive-sum games (for example, the ‘create a new status dimension’ game, or the ‘find the status dimension on which you rank highest’ game) that have lower-order zero-sum games as parts.

Once we recognise the anarchic multi-dimensionality of status, the frequent supposition of Frank, Layard, Cassidy, and others that the distribution of income—whether within the office or within the nation—is the the main dimension of positional competition begins to look bizarre. Struggling artists do not doubt their superiority in the face of successful accountants. And it should not need pointing out that many of us simply don’t know how much our friends make, and don’t much care.


We are not destined to want fancier cars, bigger houses, and more upscale outfits, nor are we helpless to feel diminished by those who out-consume us. We can opt out by opting in to competing narratives about the composition of a good life. And we do it all the time. We can, like Gauguin, quit law and family to paint naked natives in Tahiti. Or, better, we can move the family to a quieter place where houses are cheap and schools are good. (‘Is this heaven?’ ‘No, Iowa.’) If we are aggrieved by the rigours of the rat race, the answer is not the clumsy guidance of a paternal state. The answer is simply to stop being a rat.

There is, of course, much more. Please check it out.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center