It is a common complaint today that we only seem to have regard in our society for money. In particular, we have permitted the possession of money to become our principle arbiter of status. Whilst the amount of wealth a person possesses is sometimes a useful indicator of the amount of respect that one should show them, it has many failings. We have mechanisms already built into our society to help address this. We use these means badly at the moment, misunderstanding their fundamental value. I believe that we could, with a little thought, improve our conception and management of status enormously, to the benefit of us all.
The use of raw wealth as a sole indicator of a persons' worth has the main advantage of simplicity. In some circumstances, mainly those when we want to be paid, it works very well. It is a single number that one must ascertain for the individual in question. Often a rough estimate suffices. It used to be reasonably difficult to fake the outward appearance of wealth, so visual inspection was often enough to make a decent stab at that estimate, making it a useful, if shallow, measure in diverse social circumstances.
As we march into the twenty first century the many failings of this measure of worth are becoming more apparent. We have always felt as a society that it was a poor indicator of the character of a man, but its very utility seemed unassailable. A hundred years ago, when status was more broadly defined, it was balanced by many other indicators in English society. Most of these had other drawbacks but they did have the one major benefit of reducing our dependence on wealth as the only way to judge a man.
Now that we (and by 'we' I mean most western countries) have largely settled on this single measure, it has produced some nasty side effects. Amongst the many unwelcome are our current obsession with consumer goods. If one is to be judged solely by the amount of cash one has then in order to make this plain one must have visible indications of that possession. These visible indications are often expensive for no other reason than that they must cost a lot of cash to possess. It is their function. In this manner we waste much of the wealth of our society.
Some of this show is pretty, much of it deeply ugly. Consider the utility of owning a Range Rover when living in Chelsea or that American icon of excess, a General Motors Humvee, anywhere with metalled roads. Never mind the environmental concerns, in practical terms these are just a waste of money. They are the peacock's tail, without the beauty.
I have been in no way immune to the effects of this pervasive status signalling. Although I dislike fashion, brands and most other outwards displays of consumer spending, I did, after we sold our last company and in theory retired, buy a stupid car. It was an interesting experience. I'm still not sure quite why I did it. In 2001 I purchased an Aston martin DB7, a small two seater sports car with a soft top. It is a very pretty car as far as cars can be pretty, so it qualifies in my self-justifying mind as more peacock's tail than Humvee. But aside from the fun to be had driving it around, it really is a peacock's tail. How much so I did not really realise when I bought it (or at least my conscious self failed to realise anyway). Driving this racing green four wheeled environmental disaster anywhere was to be immediately accorded a level of respect and status acknowledgement that I found startling. This was true across all Europe. Part of this is probably due to the fact that the vehicle is a classic piece of design, but there is undoubtedly also the built in knowledge that it costs a hundred and twenty thousand pounds.
This strange status I found when driving the vehicle was particularly odd for me. I suspect that in normal life I do not generate this sort of respect in others when I meet them. I dress badly. This is not some kind of inverse snobbery, just indifference and laziness. My trousers are made by a tailor, but they are made to be comfortable and I wear them right out. I wear anonymous fleeces and shirts. And they are often tatty in one way or another as I don't bother with different clothes for farming and gardening or going out. So I don't look as if, in our modern society, I amount to much when I turn up at a hotel (and I have tatty old luggage as well, so it gets worse). But put me in that DB7, and everything changes, without exception. About the only place I imagine it might not would be arriving at a Greenpeace rally in it, where I would expect to be lynched, with some justification (6 litre, V12 type justification).
Not only is this automatic respect a bit odd, it is also wrong in simple practical terms. The outwards trappings of wealth are no longer hard to fake. Any fool can buy an Armani suit. And for the non foolish but economical there are several great charity shops where they're cheap. You can hire the DB7's successor, the DB9, for a weekend. I defy you to tell me the difference between a genuine Rolex watch and one of those cheap Asian copies, certainly without the use of tools.
This ease with which one can fake visual wealth indicators has created a kind of consumer spending arms war. Open the pages of Tattler or Vogue and you can see this right there in pictures. So crazy has this battle become one now needs, at the very least, to own a private jet (hard to fake) to really win. Ludicrous the whole war might have become, but there is no sign of it ending.
Even if actually telling how much money someone had still worked in any sense, it still suffers from the fact that in many circumstances it is a terrible measure of a person's character. Someone might inherit wealth. While this tells us something about the character of their parents, it tells us nothing about them. They might steal it, in which case the signals are entirely inverted. They might win it on a lottery. Or by selling a lot of dodgy mortgages and running off with a nice big payoff when it all goes wrong. The opportunities to acquire wealth in ways that do not require one to be honest, hard working, kind or smart are manifold.
A person might devote themselves to activities that do not generate wealth. This in itself does not make them worthy of status, but if they do something that grants good to society, or bring kindness to others then they should be accorded the right amount of status to reflect the magnitude of their achievement. This entire class of people is currently ill recognised, which is a particular problem when it concerns the creation of new common goods.
One of the great ironies of this whole sorry situation is that the very people who hate it now with a passion helped to bring it about. In fact I would argue that in England they did more than help to bring it about, they did bring it about. It is true that the old systems of status in Britain had much wrong with them. Being granted status as a function of birth alone, as the old class system implied, is arguably worse than according status to a wealthy heir. You couldn't even be sure that they would pay their bills. But it had the benefit of tempering the effect of money alone as a measure.
Human beings crave status. It is one of the things we have evolved to desire as much as food, water and shelter. When the old class system was slowly battered to death in the twentieth century, it did not remove this need. In the same way that America did two hundred years ago, we finally settled on straight money as a substitute. The great reformers of the late nineteenth century and the socialists of the early twentieth, would be appalled. Of the two, I hold the great liberals of the nineteenth century the least culpable. They desired an end to the stratification of society based upon birth but didn't have much of an idea about how to replace our need for status. They were so surrounded by a functioning, if distasteful, status system that they couldn't see how it could be otherwise. If anything they just thought that we'd manage well enough without. The socialists and communists of the twentieth century were just arrogant. They were aware of the need for status but thought that, like many other aspects of human nature they wished to tame, they could just abolish it and it would meekly go away. It didn't.
So what could we do about this? Well oddly here in the UK we have just the thing, the Honours System. We possess it as a historical accident, left over from the days of a functioning, powerful monarchy and highly stratified class system. It was largely used to do three things in the past. To enforce the inheritance of status independent of money for the upper classes (using the granted inherited honours, now largely defunct), to raise those who had been particularly useful to the state in status and to grant political power to an ally.
In its current form the Honours System has plenty of things wrong about it. Much of it is still politically driven, to reward loyalty and compliance with the current ruling group. This has led to the many abuses we have all been witness to in the last few years. Honours have changed hands for obvious funding commitments to political parties. There is the absurdity of the automatic awards for already well paid public service, such as senior positions in the Civil Service and Military. And the award of honours to people in a position to challenge the government, particularly where it is a 'traditional award' at the end of service, leads to frequent spineless behaviour along the lines of 'don't rock the boat or you won't get your gong'.
All of these sad issues serve only to devalue the awards themselves in the eyes of society. But it remains probable that the system can work well. Harder problems have been solved, and there is currently much talk of reform and change. Should we decide to have clear criteria by which such awards are made, with a transparent system by which the decisions are reached, it could be a powerful force for good. And if we should choose better criteria than loyal service to the machine, mere fame or having bribed a politician we could make the awards truly something to be strived for.
Let us be clear about this. This is a way we can acknowledge the contribution of someone to society in a real, visceral way that we can all recognise. It costs us absolutely no money (well, they have to make a gong for them to wear and put on a little ceremony but I can't imagine that this is very expensive), and gives that person no money. There is even a very careful graduation of such things and for the serious awards we are asked to change our address to them (once again this costs us nothing but a little surrendered pride, and that's always cheap), calling them Sir or Dame.
It is disliked by many who imagine that they prefer egalitarian principles because it clearly announces 'this person is above this person, they have more status in the eyes of society'. It announces the truth. Even if one accepts the principle (which I do not) that there should be no vertical separation in society, that we should all be equal in respect and status, one cannot escape that this does not happen. Status is insidious and inescapable. Let us not fight that, but harness it to the greater good. Leaving it to the simple measure of wealth is inadequate and stamping it out has been tried and has failed multiple times.
We award these honours to those we decide are the deserving. They don't inherit it. It costs nothing. And if we have good principles for how we make the awards then we have something marvellous that no other country possesses. A cheap, powerful means to counteract the modern obsession with wealth and the display of that wealth.
I would like to see a large expansion in the honours system . I would see its reform to embrace those values that actually matter to us as a people. To do that transparently and without exception. I would have the award of an honour become something for all of us to aspire to, not just those in the circles of the great and good who boast the acquaintance of politicians.
I was driven to write this essay by a simple realisation several years ago. Tim Berners-Lee was awarded Knight Commander in the 2004 honours list. This is a man to whom I owe almost my entire good fortune in business. Selflessly he created the Web and gave it away, enabling me and many others to create fun things and get to make money doing it. I could never repay him for what he did, but when I heard he was to be Sir Tim, I cannot tell you how pleased I was. If I ever meet him this is one man I will be very pleased to call Sir. It will be a privilege.
Uphill Farm, June 2008
1 – There is a good discussion of this (with interesting references ) in Alain de Botton's book 'Status Anxiety' (ISBN 0241142385) from pages 193 to 210 in the hardback edition, in the section on politics.
2 – These kinds of goods are known to economists as 'positional goods' , meaning that the purpose of them is largely to show status rather than their underlying utility, or that the ratio between the increase in utility to the increase in price is small. First class airline tickets, expensive watches and designer clothes are all excellent examples of this category.
3 – Back in the 1980's, when I was growing up on a small farm in Essex, England, the NFU (National Farmers Union, known locally here as the No F****ing Use) was legendary for routinely caving into government pressure, right at the height of the militancy of every other Union in the UK and at a time (joining the EU) when a bit of fight might have done some good. The reason for this was often thought to be due to the 'normal prize' sent the way of NFU presidents. Looking at the history of the NFU for that period, this does not seem an unreasonable assumption. It seems to have got less guaranteed lately which can only be a good thing.
4 – It is interesting to reflect briefly on the possible criteria that might attract awards of honours in the future. If we want them to reward behaviours that are broadly beneficial to society but otherwise unrewarded, this has interesting consequences. Some of the current criteria such as charitable giving and unpaid charitable work would remain. But being a sporting or cultural icon would go, this is already well rewarded in both money and status. Some curious new things might pop up; the writing of public domain software, for example. Placing any property in the public domain, be it actual or intellectual, is a modern trend that should be encouraged, and at the moment lacks reward beyond very limited circles (praise from fellow geeks, hurrah!) . Producing great public visual art for scant reward perhaps (Sir Banksy?). And more contentiously, paying large amounts of taxes should be recognised. At the moment if one does the right thing and just pays ones tax (and there are so many ways to legally avoid this that I'd use a book writing them down) then there is absolutely no recognition of this. I still viscerally remember the weird feeling when I wrote (after selling my main company years ago) a giant (and I mean millions of pounds) cheque to the government. They didn't even send me back a note saying thanks. That just seemed really rude to me, given how much 'public good' I'd just contributed to, especially when many of my contemporaries disappeared off to the sun and paid no tax at all. We could have a whole order of taxpayers. Can I have a gong now?
5 – There is of course the need to avoid the possibility of 'Honours Inflation', where every third person is 'Sir' and as a consequence it all becomes pointless. But the general need for better status indicators in our society calls out for the creation of new Orders. We could give some of them titles for the front of someone's name (and we already have this for Phd's and MD's, we call them Doctor, for example), and letters after names for others. With a little imagination, and with no pointless inflation of worth, we could create some very nice incentives to behave for the common good. The adoption of a little more formality in titles in general would be encouraged by this, and I suspect that this would be no bad thing. To unwind the relentless loss of formality in address imposed by the 20th century might have unexpected benefits, not least in reminding telephone support personnel that they are not our friends (“John, can I call you John? John, I want you to turn the router off then on.” Grrrr).
6 – Knight Commander is one of the Orders of the British Empire. He was also awarded he Order Of Merit by the Queen in 2007. It is limited to 24 living people. This is a curious award, wholly in the Queen's power to award (requiring and I suspect soliciting no ministerial guidance) and if you look at the current holders it is seriously rareified air, in a good way. I'd bet a dinner with this lot would be good fun, especially after a little wine had been imbibed.