Chris says he doesn’t like hierarchies:
For as long as I can remember, Iâ€™ve hated hierarchies. I didnâ€™t like school, for example, until I entered the less hierarchical sixth-form. One reason I wouldnâ€™t want to be an academic or a civil servant is that Iâ€™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.