Crooked Timber‘s Henry Farrell disagrees with the core thesis of the Will Wilkinson article on status competition that I linked the other day. Sure, Henry argues, there may be an ever-growing number of associations, activities, and subcultures within which we measure our status, but these are themselves part of a Great Chain of Being along which each group or activity also has a status. You may be king of the geeks, but you know full well that your meta-status is still low, because the jocks are cooler than the geeks. Or something like that.
Obviously there’s something to this: We all understand that being a bestselling author, a movie star, or CEO of Microsoft is going to be more impressive to people you meet at a bar than, say, making level 70 in World of Warcraft. If your professional and romatic lives are generally failures, your +8 vorpal blade will not, in fact, fill the emptiness within. But 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. And people are actually almost shockingly good at narrowing their focus to status within a clique: Recall the famous anecdote about chess prodigy Bobby Fischer bursting into a conversation about politics some fellow players were having and demanding “What does this have to do with chess?” Even when we recognize at some level that our own chosen affiliations and pursuits aren’t the most important or prestigious or lofty in the world, we do a good job of acting as though they are.
I also doubt that whether “the guy at the bar” would be impressed is necessarily the right metric. Even within, say, the world of novelists, while Danielle Steele is doubtless wealthier, sells more books, and is exponentially more likely to be familiar to the Man on the Clapham Omnibus than, say, Benjamin Kunkel, I feel morally certain that Kunkel regards himself as “higher status” because, in the eyes of his own circles, he is.
I suppose I should note that this is potentially a double-edged sword, though. Billionaires presumably don’t gauge their status relative to the great unwashed masses, but rather by comparison with other extraordinarily wealthy folks—perhaps gazing enviously at the handful of multi-billionaires. (A perk of hewing to a fringe ideology, I suppose, is that I’m not in direct status competition with my commie writer friends.) But whether you prefer Will’s more optimistic many-ways-to-succeed account or this rather more disheartening many-ways-to-be-mediocre version, the upshot for policy efforts to make people feel better about their status is proably he same. The former suggests that you don’t need policy intervention, because status isn’t zero-sum and people who aren’t high-status on the economic dimension will find another on which they are. The latter suggests that intervention just isn’t likely to do much good, since if you flatten one dimensions of comparison, others will just become more salient. Folks with equal incomes will compete to be the most stylish or erudite or otherwise badass, because the will-to-status is more deeply ingrained than any of the particular arenas in which we pursue it.