Notes for a talk on status hierarchy and public policy

Reducing status inequality looks like a good idea. But can it be done? Would reducing income inequality help?

1. Dominance hierarchies help resolve conflicts over resources with a minimum of actual combat by giving the higher-ranking individual priority. To some extent, then, the hierarchy ranking is going to reflect who would come out on top if there were actual combat.

2. In complicated human societies, the structure of the dominance hierarchy(ies) is partly a matter of deliberate choice, including deliberate choice through public policy. As Aristotle pointed out, a democratic regime doesn’t just mean that public decisions get made by the many rather than by a few or by one; it means greater social equality as well.

3. In designing social institutions relating to dominance, there are two big questions:

a. How steep the gradient should be.

b. What behaviors should lead to dominant status.

4. Being on top of the dominance hierarchy means more access to resources. That makes it desirable, and worth fighting for. And in fact individuals in all dominance-hierarchy-forming species do fight for dominance.

5. But if access to resources were all that counted, then resource-rich environments would reduce the intensity of dominance conflict. Is that true?

6. Being lower on the hierarchy in a resource-rich environment can mean more access to resources than being higher up in a resource-poor environment. (We all eat better, sleep more comfortably, and have better medical care than Louis XIV did.)

7. Economists normally assume that people care about the resources available to themselves and not where they stand in dominance hierarchies. That’s what makes the Pareto Principle seem plausible.

8. But some resources are naturally scarce; not everyone can have preferential access to mating opportunities, for example.

9. It turns out empirically that, holding resource access constant, position in hierarchy is an important contributor to health and other measures of well-being. (Whitehall studies.)

10. That makes evolutionary sense.

11. It also turns out empirically that, while cross-sectionally within a society wealth correlates with happiness, that doesn’t hold longitudinally as a society gets richer or cross-sectionally among societies, above a national income of something like 1/3 of that currently enjoyed in the U.S. (Hedonics literature, e.g., Easterlin, Kahnemann)

12. Ideally, dominant status should accompany pro-social behaviors. One advantage of market-driven societies is that people gain status by accumulating wealth rather than by accumulating the means of violence.

13. On the other hand, awarding dominance to money can lead to an unhealthy concentration on money-making. As Keynes said, in a poor society getting the smartest people to concentrate on making money is a good way to expand total resources available. But now that we’re rich enough so that the benefits of getting richer are limited, maybe we ought to start rewarding more attractive human traits than diligent and well-directed greed. If you value art and science, you ought to be thinking about how to arrange things so that producing art and science is a good way to acquire dominant status.

14. Awarding dominance to money also promotes Veblenesque conspicuous-consumption behavior, and commodity fetishism. Conspicuous consumption is largely signaling behavior: spending is a market signal for wealth, so the more closely dominance runs with wealth, the greater the incentive for conspicuous waste. Marketing means convincing people that it’s important to have whatever it is you’re trying to sell. Being inundated with marketing (other than Citigroup ads) should make people value “stuff” more relative to, e.g., leisure or culture or virtue or happiness.

15. Increasing scale through rising population, cheap communication, e-commerce, and globalization tends to increase income inequality, at least at the top of the scale, because the greater the size of the potential market the greater the rewards for outstanding performance. (Cook and Frank’s “winner-takes-all” effect.

16. Given how unhealthy, and how bad for your children, it is to be at the bottom of the pecking order, we need to ask whether, and how, that problem can be alleviated.

— Gentler status gradients

— Multiple hierarchies

17. That would be worth doing even at some cost in economic efficiency, narrowly considered. But social exclusion has big external costs, so relieving the problems at the bottom of the pecking order might turn out to have big benefits, even in strictly economic terms.

18. It would seem logical that a more equal income distribution would make money less important in awarding status. But is that true?

19. If money gets less important in awarding status, does the total steepness of the hierarchy gradient decrease, or is money just replaced by something else with the gradient held constant or even increased?

20. Norms of informality, whether Quaker or hippie, seem designed to reduce status gradients. Do they work?

How I wound up volunteering to give a talk so far from my expertise would be a long story. But having done so, I’d rather emerge with as little egg on my face as possible. Comments in advance of the talk would be welcome.

Update: A reader points me to Charles Wheelan’s Naked Economics and to this post by Peter Levine on the rat-race mentality among college-bound high school students.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: