Is status a positional good?
As the concept of social status itself attains higher status (through employment in evolutionary psychology), class struggles over the material conditions of life are recognized as impregnated with status aspirations. The conclusion may be drawn or implied that these conflicts are inherently wasteful: we’d be better off if people accepted their lot, because status is a positional good—a zero-sum game—what is won by some is lost by others. (See, for example, Robin Hanson’s Inequality talk is about grabbing.) But it also seems that a society beset with severe status inequality will suffer status deflation.
One approach to the question of whether status is a positional good is whether status is (implicitly) measured using an ordinal scale of measurement or a higher scale, interval or ratio, where ordinal scales express only rank, whereas interval and ratio scales express degrees of difference. An example of an ordinal scale expressing social status is military rank. The status of the rank of major depends on the mass of soldiers a major outranks and the number who outrank the major, so, if half of the captains are promoted to major, the major’s status declines.
Social status can seem similar to military rank, but (I contend) this is a confusion: the social status of an entire population can rise or fall (inflate or deflate), because the main component of social status is prestige, which has ratio properties. The confusion results from conflating prestige with dominance, more primitive and prototypical, but prestige is a ratio scale, not an ordinal scale like dominance, because it results from summing over weighted dominance relations. Consider our major in contrast to a lieutenant under his command. The lieutenant may have received higher grades in the military academy, he may come from a wealthier family, and he may be the president of a nonmilitary club in which the major participates as an ordinary member. Which has more prestige? The point is that the question makes sense; we combine information about position in various separate dominance hierarchies with other information about their potential power to determine their prestige, the information’s additivity implying that prestige is at least an interval scale (probably a ratio scale), not a mere ordinal scale like dominance. Concern with prestige (as distinct from dominance) is a human-specific trait, with few roots other than dominance in our primate psychology.
Evolutionary psychologists propose that prestige (usually referred to simply as status, a convention I will abide) reflects a person’s value as an ally: a high-status person is a powerful ally. (The person with the highest prestige is God, the most powerful ally.) Other primates appear to have only dominance, which suffices for simian calculations because apes, living in a single hierarchy, don’t need to sum over different hierarchies. Humans live embedded in multiple social hierarchies—at root, dominance relations—which must be weighted and added to appraise an individual’s value in alliances.
If primordial alliances were exclusively alliances pitted against other allied humans, prestige could still be a zero-sum game despite its ratio scaling. But the alliances formed primordially weren’t exclusively competitive alliances: alliances were presumably formed for foraging and child care. Ratio-scaled prestige, a currency spanning dominance hierarchies, allows more and broader alliances.
Two distinct explanatory tasks regarding prestige concern its evolutionary function and its individual motivation. Evolutionary psychologists hypothesize that status derives from the differential value of persons as allies. The quest for prestige aligns the individual’s efforts with adaptation: by pursuing prestige, one becomes a more powerful ally, deriving the corresponding social (and reproductive) advantages. But the mechanism is more complex and itself provides additional clues about function. Prestige is a reaction formation against envy. This agrees with the observation that we accord prestige to those we would otherwise envy. (See Theodor Reik, Love and Lust: On the Psychoanalysis of Romantic and Sexual Emotion regarding the idealization process—rooted in unconscious envy—in romantic love. “Reaction formation” is a psychodynamic mechanism involving experiencing the opposite of certain thoughts, to deny them conscious access.)
Since status is commonly perceived value as ally, status deflation means decreased willingness to rely on—to ally with—others. In 11.3, I discussed opinionation as a pathology of belief-opinion confusion: we are opinionated when we fail to rely sufficiently on the opinions of experts. Status deflation causes irrational opinionation (as well as other adverse societal effects, including some relating to macroeconomics). The modern expression of the tendency toward excessively narrow alliances is lack of regard for the opinions of most others, including experts. At the same time, (one's own) status deflation increases the experienced envy. In societies where status is most deflated (typically, traditional agrarian societies), this two-pronged attack on the sublimation of envy results in the bullheadedness of the peasant.
Countering status deflation and generating inflation.
Economic inequality is a manifestation of status deflation as well as one of its causes (as I maintained in 21.0.) In modern capitalist societies, the main ways of reducing inequality have been restricted immigration (to reduce the supply of labor and increase its price) and progressive taxation. But these policies have been applied sporadically and are only practiced weakly in most advanced countries. Within Europe, the Common Market has opened borders, and in the United States, wealth inequality is so high it rivals some third-world countries. The reason stringent immigration control and progressive taxation are only sporadically applied is that these methods don’t correspond to any humanly valued relational model—which as Alan P. Fiske (Structures of Social Life (1991)) shows, enable the moralization of social practices and, as John Bolender elaborates (The Self-Organizing Social Mind (2010)), correspond to the four scales of measurement. (Communal/Sharing is nominal, Authority/Ranking is ordinal, Equality/Matching is interval, and Market/Pricing is ratio.) A flat tax employs a ratio scale, a fact that helps account for its ideological popularity despite its practical infirmity. To human intuition, progressive tax rates are arbitrary. As to immigration control, absolute restriction would correspond to Communal/Sharing, but like the flat tax rate, mere reduction of immigration rates doesn’t form an intuitively compelling public policy. (This is not to disparage the instrumental use of either immigration control or progressive taxation.)