Why Status is not Zero-Sum

As I have written before, I regard the standard leftist concern for “inequality” as deeply insincere. As I recently debated, their concern is only for income inequality, and never the other kinds of inequality that arguably cut much more deeply.

Over at Sister Y’s place, there was recently an interesting discussion of inequality, where I advanced the view that, contrary to ordinary thinking, status is not zero-sum in terms of comparative welfare. There are several ways that this can work:

  1. status is obscure (i.e. most people think they are better looking than average)
  2. status is multiple among groups (i.e. Danes and Swedes both feel that their nation is superior and the other inferior)
  3. status is multi-faceted (i.e. Alan has more money than Bob, Bob has a prettier wife, both feel higher status than the other)
  4. status is chosen (i.e. people can choose to evaluate themselves according to their highest status ranking)
  5. status can be relative to non-humans (beating NPCs in a computer game may make the player think he’s high-status but no moral agent is losing out)

Naturally, points 2-4 make me think of Gluon’s excellent stuff about introversion.

However, I think it’s even more productive to break down this rather nebulous term “status.” Because I think it encompasses two things – the first is an internal sense of being “special”. Not only is this not zero-sum, but arguably equality works against it, because then no-one feels like a special little snowflake. The solution to this issue is for the envious to work on their self-esteem, not for the government to alter the tax rate. However, the second sense of status is in getting compliance from others, and here the progressive desire for “equality” suddenly becomes a lot darker. Now we’re no longer talking about welfare, we’re talking about imposing a power relation.

Here I think the moral superiority of the free market becomes very clear. There is nothing legitimate in asking for dominion over others, and the great joy of the free market is that you cannot force others, only ask for their consent. Sister Y is correct, it may not be consent all the way down, in that people don’t necessarily agree to the laws, but I don’t see how the way to fix that is by making the system have less consent. Requiring their consent is a great encourager of good behaviour towards others!

Moreover, imposing equality on a society is self-refuting, as the officials doing the imposing must necessarily not be equal with everyone else. Not only that, but they must be far less equal than our current power relations, such as they are. Bill Gates may be infinitely richer than me, but he can’t take my stuff. The inequality necessary to take someone’s property is staggering. That is of course what Orwell meant when the pigs told the other animals that “some are more equal than others.”

So while I greatly enjoy Sister Y’s blog, I can rarely sign up to her more extreme positions. Oh well.


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