When is status non-zero-sum?
It seems obvious to me that free-market societies work well because there are many situations in which the self-interested acquisition of wealth benefits society as a whole. When someone discovers a new technology or thinks of a more efficient way to do something, they don’t merely redistribute wealth to themselves (though theirs may increase and their competitors’ decrease), they increase the total wealth / total utility of society.
Competition over status, on the other hand, seems to me obviously zero-sum. People only have a fixed amount of admiration to give; if your status is being raised in their eyes, someone else is having theirs lowered or at least crowded out. We have tried to increase everyone’s status by handing out awards for eveything to everyone, especially kids; the awards become less meaningful in response. Outside of Lake Wobegon, half of the kids are always below average (along with half the doctors, half the engineers…).
But is it really so obvious that status is always zero-sum? After all, before the free market was ubiquitous, only a few visionaries realized how often wealth-acquisition could be non-zero-sum. Most people looked around and saw that the way to get rich was by oppressing peasants and invading neighboring states. Only the oddballs like Bernard Mandeville and Adam Smith could imagine a drastically different world. Even now when markets and trade are everywhere and the world is vastly richer than ever, many people have trouble seeing this.
So while it seems obvious to me that status must be zero-sum, perhaps I just suffer from a lack of imagination. The proliferation of subcultures and specialization means that there are many more groups for people to be at the top of. Better communications mean that information about all the admirable people in the world is easily accessible; it is possible that more time is spent thinking about the status of others. If you live in a small village with little outside influence for many years, there aren’t many people to think about; but with modern global media people are always talking about actors, musicians, athletes, and politicians.
So with scale and scope of status-heirarchies growing, it is possible that there is more admiration and therefore more status to go around. This actually starts to sound like Adam Smith: specialization is powerful but is limited by the extent of the market. Anyway, I’d love to hear from someone with more imagination about how status can be non-zero-sum.