The Great Chain of Status?

Last week Henry Farrell over at Crooked Timber objected to the key point of my recent article in Policy (related Cato podcast here), which is that status-seeking need not be a zero-sum game, because there are indefinite dimensions of status competition. (And therefore, the government need do nothing to mitigate the alleged harm of status competition.) It is true that there can only be one winner of every race, but there is no cap on the number or kind of races. The greater the number and variety of races, the more likely it is that everybody will be able to find one in which they can win, place, or at least show. Henry replies:

Wilkinson’s claim implies, unless I misunderstand him badly, that it doesn’t matter very much to me if I’m a despised cubicle rat who can’t afford a nice car and gets sneered at by pretty girls, because when I go home and turn on my PC, I suddenly become a level 75 Night Elf Rogue who Kicks Serious Ass! Now this example is loaded – but it’s loaded to demonstrate a serious sociological point that Wilkinson doesn’t even begin to address. These indefinitely proliferating dimensions of status competition are connected to each other in their own implicit meta-ranking, which is quite well understood by all involved. Being a world-class scrabble-player isn’t likely to win you much respect among people who aren’t themselves competitive scrabble-players; the best you can expect is that someone will write a book that pokes fun at your gastro-intestinal problems . It’s a very different matter if you’re a world class soccer player; you’re liable to be invited to all sorts of fun parties, hit upon by beautiful people, stalked by the paparazzi and the whole shebang. Being a world class blogger is somewhere between the two, albeit certainly much closer to the scrabble-player than the soccer star. Even if you’re king of your own mountain, you’re likely to be quite well aware of the other mountains around you that make yours look in comparison like a low-grade class of a gently sloping foothill, or perhaps even a slightly upraised knob in the middle of a steep declination. You’re similarly aware of those less well-advantaged foothills or knoblets whose owners you can look down upon…. In short, people are highly aware of the relative rankings of their obsessions.

I am unmoved.

I anticipated this objection in a very long blog post back in January. Henry’s argument turns on the claim that “These indefinitely proliferating dimensions of status competition are connected to each other in their own implicit meta-ranking, which is quite well understood by all involved.” I think Henry is wrong that there is shared understanding of the meta-ranking and one’s place in it, and I think he is confusing status, in the sense I was writing about, with fame.

I was talking about status as it is experienced. Higher status correlates with higher concentrations of serotonin, for example, not necessarily because of some objective feature of the world, but because of the subject’s perception (correct or not) of her place in a status hierarchy. Our perception of our place in a status hierarchy is generally constructed from all sort of signals–deference, praise, attention, inattention, mocking–we receive from people in the relevant social group. Henry’s story doesn’t strike me as having anything to do with meta-rankings, but just to do with the fact that at any time there are a number of different status dimensions we care about. If you are, as Henry says, “despised” and “sneered at,” then that may hurt, if you care your status within your office, or with certain pretty girls. But part of my point was that people can and do often arrange their lives to avoid that sort of thing. If they are able to manage it, then the fact that they would be despised and sneered at in other circumstances makes no difference to their status as they experience it.

Here is an example of how I think Henry confuses experienced status and fame. If I am the quarterback of the champion high-school football team in a football-crazy Texas town, my subjective status-meter is likely pegged to the top of the scale. That Peyton Manning is more famous than me, is a better quarterback, makes millions more dollars, and is more likely to impress a random person at a bar, is simply irrelevant. It’s no skin off my back. If I was ever in a room with Peyton Manning, my subjective assessment of my relative standing would no doubt go down. But I’m never in a room with Peyton Manning. In my small pond, I’m a big fish – and I feel like it.

The seminal paper on positional externalities is Robert Frank’s “The Frame of Reference as a Public Good.” I suspect Henry wants to maintain the idea there is a single culture-wide frame of reference against which to evaluate not only our relative position on some dimension of status, but also against which to evaluate the relative position of status dimensions. I think this is exceedingly implausible.

If Henry really thinks there is a widely understood meta-ranking, then he ought to be able to say who is higher-status: Peyton Manning or Chief Justice John Roberts? I happen to think that’s a nonsense question, since there is in fact no common frame of reference against which to compare the status of superstar NFL quarterbacks with superstar judges. Henry is a social democrat political science professor blogger. I’m a libertarian policy wonk blogger. Whose status dimension is higher in the meta-ranking? Obviously, it depends on who you ask. If Henry hangs out with people who confer high status on Henry, and I hang out with people who confer high status on me, then we both experience a sense of high status, and Henry’s doesn’t detract from mine, and vice versa. But suppose, for the sake of argument, that Henry’s dimension is slightly higher in the mysterious zeitgest meta-ranking than mine, but that I rank closer to the top of my dimension. Who’s higher status then? Is the worst player in the NFL higher status than the world’s best Scrabble player? Again: the question is nonsense. There is no common frame of reference.

I’m fully on board with Julian Sanchez’s observation:

I think everyday experience confirms that it’s also emphatically not the case that there is any Great Chain of Being among subcultures. My high school, for instance, was fairly sharply divided into pretty clear cliques with porous but recognizable boundaries. But, contra the 1950s teen movie stereotype, there wasn’t any single ordering of cliques that all of them recognized. Probably the jocks and their hangers on thought it was still 1953, and that they were at the top of the pecking order—the cool kids. But the hippies, the skaters, the computer nerds, the drama kids—they all thought the same thing, ultimately. Just as every faith is the One True Faith to its adherents, every clique is coolest to its members.

The idea that competition for relative position is a zero-sum game that necessarily creates a loser for every winner is the last redoubt of statist egalitarians. The cultural pliability of status, and the fact of our freedom (and responsibility) to opt in and out of status games and to reinterpret the frame of reference against which we judge our lives truly guts the argument. People too often get sucked unwittingly into shiny, culturally salient status races in which we end up suffering, and we too seldom recognize we have the freedom to reevaluate our priorities, and to opt into competing conceptions of a good life better suited to our satisfaction. This is not easy. Once inside a frame of reference for evaluating status, it can be extremely difficult to switch. But it is possible, and it’s much easier if you believe it.