Well, we’re all good at something

Chris says he doesn’t like hierarchies:

For as long as I can remember, I’ve hated hierarchies. I didn’t like school, for example, until I entered the less hierarchical sixth-form. One reason I wouldn’t want to be an academic or a civil servant is that I’d be uncomfortable with their endless gradations of status.

Discussion follows, in which a fair few people have a go at Chris for wanting to differentiate himself as an inventive blogger: i.e., he’s just as status-seeking as anyone else.

Chris’s original intent, though, was to get a bit of traction on an argument that’s come out both against The Spirit Level and against the leftish commentary that’s gone along with it. This is the argument that status differentiation is inevitable; it’s a natural extension of our heterogeneity. We are diverse to begin with – each of us is a different mix – and status is built on that, in various corresponding ways. This isn’t a particularly new story. Howard Roark isn’t the only hero of The Fountainhead; there are others, themselves to be admired for what they do. The hotelier Kent Lansing, for instance:

I want a good hotel, and I have certain standards of what is good, and they’re my own, and you’re the one who can give me what I want. And when I fight for you, I’m doing – on my side of it – just what you’re doing when you design a building. Do you think integrity is the monopoly of the artist? And what, incidentally, do you think integrity is? … Integrity is the ability to stand by an idea.

Ian Fleming extends the range of ideas somewhat:

Man has climbed Mount Everest, gone to the bottom of the ocean. He’s fired rockets at the Moon, split the atom, achieved miracles in every field of human endeavour … except crime!

Auric Goldfinger strives non-virtuously and revels in it, hence the humour. But the each-to-his-own-field-of-excellence sentiment – as diffused into contemporary society – takes a where’s the harm? tack. It goes: so what if some people are wealthy? There are some really cool skateboard kids in Pasadena; you might envy my wealth, but money just happens to be what I do. Actually, I envy the skateboarders. It’s self-consciously and defensively earnest, and I reckon it owes quite a bit to the Rand version.

Anyway, the distinction I want to remind everyone of is that between hierarchies with consequence and hierarchies without consequence. It’s not an absolute distinction, but it’s there.

For example, when it comes to golf, I’m at the bottom of the heap and I know it. Almost everyone is better than me. I hate golf, come to that, and never play. But the cause of my hatred isn’t that my options in golf (or in anything else, more or less) are constrained by other golfers (as golfers). In fact my options are almost wholly unconstrained by other golfers. Perhaps I couldn’t enter any tournament I wanted to, but I still get to have a go at just about anything else golf-related that I might fancy. It’s ‘no skin off my nose’ that other golfers are better than me.

Contrast with the hierarchy of wealth. Not the same. Your wealth – as part and parcel of our social arrangements generally – is made a condition of many, many activities. Including access to golf courses, as you may have muttered to yourself when reading the paragraph above. It’s a commonplace that other wealth-holders do tend to constrain your options; typically, they constrain you in that they outbid you in seeking something scarce. The hierarchy of wealth is a hierarchy with consequence; it is skin off your nose, it’s a hierarchy that often matters, and this is why it’ll tend to get brought into any discussion of social inequality. And perhaps this is only something odd about me, but I tend to think that if a person is constrained almost every which way he or she turns, then that person will start to feel just a little bit beaten down.

As a part-aside; apparently Nero’s palace in Rome got to be so big that other Romans had to take huge detours in order to get from one side of the city to the other. In the end, the lawful resident of the Domus Aurea pissed off other Romans so much that they did him in. Just saying.

6 thoughts on “Well, we’re all good at something

  1. And it’s worth noting, in a State bureaucracy or in academia, that wage differences are likely to be significant, but much smaller than the private sector. A 4-star general might make 4 or 5 times as much as a grunt. Similar differences exist within academia or the civil service. In the private sector, the CEO of a big company might have an income two or more orders of magnitude higher than the lowlier employees!

    This is not justifiable in terms of merit (the CEO’s “stressful” but ultimately deeply satisfying job (or they would quit) vs. the thankless work of cleaning ladies or factory workers), in terms of “added value” (I cannot believe a human being’s work actually be worth 100 times another’s), or what have you. It is not even historically justifiable, because wage differentials were much much smaller IN CAPITALIST SOCIETIES THEMSELVES until the 1980s.

    One doesn’t need to be a flaming radical to see a problem with our current situation.

  2. I dislike hierarchies too – at least, when I’m not at or near the top. Problem is they exist for a reason. If they were to vanish (as they periodically do in times of anarchy or revolution), a period of violence follows in which the prospects of those at the bottom drop even faster than the average, before a new hierarchy coalesces on the ruins of the old. This is why, as a rule, everyone in the pecking order generally supports the existing hierarchy – even if they’re low down and frustrated with it. And as a survival mechanism, hierarchies do not tolerate their discontents easily – be they Roarke or Raskolnikov.

  3. M. bought me a copy of The Fountainhead recently: I’d not read it. I read Atlas Shrugged about fifteen years ago. I think Rand writes what could be called ‘institution horror’: a minor genre which seems to have been popular in the 40s. C. S. Lewis is another institution horror writer (That Hideous Strength). Basically, the idea is to creep you out by decribing the exploits of organisation men; their secretiveness, their double dealing, their poisonous rhetoric, their endless attempts to free-ride into positions of absolute power. One feature of the genre is that the bad people know that they’re mediocrities. Given Dunning-Kruger et. al., this is just plain wrong, I think. (C. S. Lewis casts this self-awareness as a torment consequent to demonic possession, but that’s just his charming evangelical way.) Another feature is that force and violence is depicted as being OK, as long as it’s (a) a response to force and violence by others and (b) force and violence with integrity; i.e. something you’d expect from that person. (A special exception to (a) is made in the case of forcible sex.) This is how Bond villains stand half a chance of acceptance as Randian heroes.

    Actually, I think I feel an Ayn Rand post coming on. Millions and millions of copies sold; the stuff is out there.

  4. Given that Chris’ post was feeding off and in response to one of mine can I take this just a little further?

    I was making the point that every and every society ever known has a status hierarchy….or in this modern world, a multiple of such status hierarchies.

    Given that we’re a species where (most certainloy for men) mating opportunities are influenced by status, this isn’t all that surprising.

    So my point then splits into two: if the current heirarchy is based upon wealth (which it is to a certain amount, but not totally), equalising said wealth will not bring about status equality. Status will simply be measured by some other measure.

    Where this interacts with the Spirit Level is that their mechanism for all of these bad things happening is status inequality, not financial inequality. Yes, they measure income inequality but that’s simply a reflection of how our current hierarchy works. It’s actually the status inequality that leads to the bad things, not the income.

    All of which means that getting rid of wealth inequality won’t (at least, won’t necessarily) get rid of the bad things, for there will still be a status heirarchy.

    The second part of the point is that we have had other forms of hierarchy. From Calvinist type status based on how hard you pray to aristocratic based on which vagina you’ve popped out of to early feudal based on how many men you’ve killed.

    None of those seem to have worked any better than a status system based upon income oe wealth….which has at least the beneficial effect that in scrambling after income or wealth people are growing the general economy, something that slaughtering Danes (if you’re a Saxon) doesn’t noticeably do.

  5. Tim, it looks to me as though you’re constructing an argument which goes something like this:

    – A person’s wellbeing is affected by his or her assessment of his or her own status;

    – Status can be assessed in multiple ways; call each such assessment a ‘hierarchy’; hierarchies may be weighted (some may matter more than others);

    – A change in the rules that affects one particular hierarchy may turn out to have no effect on a person’s overall assessment of his or her own status, since there may be compensatory change in one or more other hierarchies, or in the weighting of hierarchies;

    – Therefore, we should not expect to help people by intervening to change a particular hierarchy.

    For example, we change the tax rules so that wealth has a more egalitarian distribution. This benefits multiple people but – you’re arguing – that benefit is likely to be wiped out by a change – say – in a hierarchy of martial skill, or in a hierarchy of religious affirmation, or in a gender hierarchy, or in the weightings of these.

    I have to say I’m sceptical. Don’t social inequalities tend to accumulate, rather than cancel? Was wealth distribution more equal in the Kingdom of Wessex than it is in modern Britain (to ‘make up for’ the other inequalities)? More relevantly: don’t contemporary societies with large wealth inequality also tend to show racial inequality, etc.? Of course, here I think you’d argue that even so, the ways in which people weight hierarchies will vary (they adjust the weightings ‘in search of status’); hence, for any society, inequality can find a way. But that depends on a psychological claim: where’s your observable?