Arnold Kling  

Status and Contract

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Don Boudreaux writes,


progress necessarily involves freeing individuals from their status stations -- freeing persons from stations assigned by circumstances such as skin color, family name, genitalia, sexuality, nationality -- and thereby allowing individuals to determine as best as each can his or her own course through his or her own voluntary choices -- that is, through contract

Without denying the value of this insight, which Boudreaux credits to Henry Sumner Maine, I am skeptical that we shall ever be free from focusing on status. That is, a lot of what we try to accomplish through voluntary choice is an attempt to create status differentials.

For example, if you look at the salary structure in a corporation, you may see greed. There is that, but there is also what I would call a male dominance hierarchy, with salary constituting an important indicator of one's place in that hierarchy.

If you look at an academic department, with the emphasis on individual ranking and on the ranking of the department relative to similar departments in other universities, you may see pursuit of knowledge. There is that, but there is also another male dominance hierarchy.

If you look at politics, you may see good guys and bad guys, and you vote for the good guys. There is that, but there is also a male dominance hierarchy.

I would rather see men channel their drive for dominance into market behavior than political behavior, for reasons that Adam Smith first articulated. Competition often works for my benefit in the market. In politics, it seems to work toward achieving ever-greater concentration of power with little marginal benefit from my perspective.

Incidentally, if you do not like the pop sociobiology implied by my use of the term "male dominance hierarchies," feel free to think instead of gender-neutral dominance hierarchies.


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Radford Neal writes:

progress necessarily involves freeing individuals from their status stations

I am skeptical that we shall ever be free from focusing on status

I think the two uses of the word "status" above have entirely different meanings. The first refers to "status" like caste in traditional India, an unchangeable aspect that a person is born into. The second refers to a position arrived at (at least often) by an individual's efforts.

The two are quite different. Assigning jobs by birth status is seldom a good idea. Assigning jobs by academic status may be fine, depending, of course, on whether academic status reflects true academic worth.

Greg Ransom writes:

This is dead on stuff Arnold.

The use of math and "testing" in economics is sort of like the mounting ritual among dogs.

Candy writes:

Arnold, you've rediscovered radical feminism!

Philo writes:

I disagree with Radford Neal about the ambiguity of 'status'. In some societies it is harder than in others to change your status, but it is always possible. All you have to do is to get others to take a different attitude toward you--voila, your status has changed! But the means of effecting such a change, and the difficulty of doing so, will (of course) vary across societies.

Even Indian caste isn't *really* immutable; there are individuals who have changed caste. (And, of course, *caste* isn't the whole story about one's *status*.)

Radford Neal writes:

Sure, even in the most rigid societies, "status" isn't always completely immutable. But the first quotation is decrying status to the extent that it is immutable, whereas in the second quotation, the use of "status" has nothing to do with immutability.

Craig writes:

"male dominance hierarchy"

Don't use nouns to modify nouns. It's infelicitous and unclear. Have you never read Fowler?

Radford Neal writes:

Indeed. The prevalence of phrases such as "nail clipper", "pig farm", and "train station" are a testament to the decline of our educational system.

Mike Rulle writes:

Re: male dominance theory--Big Picture?

Arnold's comment is clearly descriptively accurate. I think there is a legitmate question to ask as to which is the cause and which is the effect. Is it possible that male dominance is the effect, not the cause, of a self selection process of female withdrawal at various stages of the advancement process? Now, this question seems self evidently absurd if one goes back, say, 200 years. But then what made humankind so male dominant?

Rather than answering that question lets fast forward to today. My undergraduate liberal arts college's economics majors are dominated by males. Three female students gave oral presentations on the anti-feminist environment of the Economics Department. This is in a Northeastern politically liberal school. I cannot vouch for the validity of that view. But assume it is true.

Wouldn't it be different if the majority of majors were women, rather than men? That is, overt male "dominance" would seem difficult to succeed if half of all Eco. students were women. Why are not half of all Eco students women? (I use this as a hypothetical that could imply to other situations). They choose not to major in it for other reasons not related to male dominance. It is more plausible to me that this describes how males react when they are in a male majority environment rather than that behavior causes a male majority environment.

Business School student population is almost 2/3 male. Why? When I worked on Wall Street, as many as half of the first year analysts were women (30 years ago). The ratio radically dropped as each cohort year advanced forward in time. Again, why? If they stayed, male dominance would have been far more difficult to succeed, simply because at some point that is not possible due to numbers. Look at political elections for example.

Women self select out for a variety of reasons I believe. This should be a valid topic for analysis. The fact that women have babies still seems like the most obvious reason. While clearly not a deterministic cause, it seems on average over time it creates a tendency.

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