All Commentary
Wednesday, August 1, 2001

An Aristocracy of Pull?

Rewarding People on the Basis of Their Status Does More Harm Than Good

There are two ways by which rewards can be allocated in a society: status or achievement. Although no society relies solely on one way, the weight placed on one side or the other has profound consequences not only for economic growth, but for politics as well. Societies that place too much emphasis on status will stagnate, or grow slowly, and will often be regarded as unjust, despite the efforts of many in the system to claim precisely the contrary. Political instability will be more likely than stability, and order will be achieved only through attempts at rigid control, often failing in the long run.

Societies that place great emphasis on status are common, and some examples stand out, such as China during most of its history, medieval Europe, Latin America, and modern communist states. In its precommunist history China had an extremely rigid system of status into which one was born and died, and could not escape. This was regulated by a powerful bureaucracy and was backed up by the concept of tao. Everyone had a little niche; no one could leave or rise above his allotted status. One was rewarded, if at all, for remaining in his place. In such a system it is no surprise that the pace of change was astonishingly slow.

Medieval Europe also placed much emphasis on status, with its aristocracy and titles, its primogeniture, its classes and guilds. One consequence was slow economic growth. Another was resentment, which from time to time exploded in violence. It was the shifting away from status to achievement that helped fuel the growth of modern capitalism and liberal democracy. This was what the nineteenth-century English jurist and historian Henry Sumner Maine seemed to realize in Ancient Law, when he wrote that movement toward more progressive societies was the “movement from Status to Contract” [his emphasis].1

Those ideas did not spread evenly or quickly. In the New World, for example, Spain clung to its devotion to status considerations and its notions of patrón and peón. In Spanish America, it should be recalled, the wars of independence in the early nineteenth century were not revolutions. They were reactionary rebellions led by native-born elites, known as criollos, aimed at restoring the monarchial system toppled by Napoleon’s invasion of Spain and ouster of Ferdinand VII.

Even in the middle of the twentieth century the value put on status by the Spaniard (and the Latin American) was still enormous. It shaped his behavior to such an extent that in 1949 René Williamson tried to explain it in a little book called Culture and Policy. Williamson wrote of the Spaniard, “It isn’t how a living may be earned that he thinks important, but who earns it. It isn’t what legal rights you happen to have that he wants to know about but who you are.”2

The primacy of status in Latin America and its effects on politics has continued to our own day. The lust for status gives Latin American politics an often chaotic appearance that many outsiders do not understand.

One exception is the American political scientist and Ideas on Liberty contributing editor James L. Payne, who wrote more than 30 years ago in Patterns of Conflict in Colombia, “Status motivation leads to certain distinctive patterns of behavior. It produces, for example, an emphasis upon ‘credit-getting’ or fame. The important thing is not to achieve but to be credited with achieving, whether one has or not.”3 Payne went on to observe that the pursuit of status had a “corrosive effect on friendly personal relations.” It led to constant infighting, to mistrust and instability. The status-motivated individual is obsequious with superiors and arrogant with inferiors. He has little interest in doing a job or seeing projects to completion.

Payne recognized that in such status-conscious societies certain political consequences were likely. It is the longing for status and the low value placed on actual achievement that leads to factionalism and shrill conflict, to corruption, manipulation, and influence peddling. After all, it is not what you know, but who you know.

The primacy of status is not, of course, unique to Latin America or to feudal states. Communists also decry economic or other rewards based on achievement. Their ideology rejects profit, individualism, competition, and wealth as “immoral.” In a system that suppresses the rewards of individual achievement, status takes on a heightened importance. One result has been party bosses with their special stores, clinics, cars, houses, and other privileges, all derived from their rank, or status.

Nowhere has this been better described than in Michael Voslensky’s book Nomenklatura.4 Voslensky captured in brilliant detail many features of the internal functioning of the old Soviet communist party and the motivations of its elite members. They were men nearly obsessed with maintaining a rigid and monopolistic system of privileges, one which produced such stagnation that it collapsed. Now an impoverished and demoralized society is trying to rebuild. It will be difficult in a land so accustomed to punishing even the attempt at individual achievement.

Status in an Achievement-Oriented Society

Yet even in an achievement-oriented society the status temptation is a powerful one to certain groups. Many intellectuals are especially inclined toward status. This is true, first, because they believe that their status qua intellectuals entitles them to rewards that a system stressing achievement might not want to hand out. They are nagged by fears of failure and inadequacy. They despise those who produce “popular” fiction or art (Raymond Chandler, Norman Rockwell). They struggle to gain money through methods other than a competitive market, especially grants, which can be controlled through a network of personal connections. A status system insulates against failure. What is a third-rate painter to do without a grant?

In any system that overemphasizes status, personal connections, in fact, become central to day-to-day life. Whom you know and how they regard you become the principal questions. Without other measures of achievement, manipulation is essential.

Public bureaucracies epitomize reliance on status considerations. How ironic it is to apply the term “merit system” to the bureaucracy, where one is seldom rewarded on the basis of merit, accomplishment, or achievement. Those in the “merit system” are those who are never fired, almost cannot be; who are never demoted (and rarely promoted); and are usually given raises on the basis of non-achievement criteria (longevity, seniority, position, and personal connections).

But once again, no society relies totally on one criterion to the exclusion of the other. The mix, however, is important.

America began as a society stressing achievement. It is no accident that titles of nobility are forbidden in the Constitution. This does not mean, however, that all considerations of status were dropped; actually, the worst kind was maintained: slavery. But in a society exalting achievement the contradiction could not be long maintained or tolerated, and in less than a hundred years from independence the issue came to a head.

The temptations of status are difficult to resist. Why struggle to achieve if I can be rewarded for who I am rather than what I do, especially if I can rig the system in my favor? There is no shortage of Americans who want more importance attached to status-based criteria for distributing rewards. Ironically, many of those we call liberals are constantly trying to strengthen status criteria, especially that of group membership. This is usually hidden in the rhetoric of affirmative action programs, “rights” talk,5 and the like. It finds its way into demands to abolish standardized testing for jobs and academic evaluations, and “gender norming.” Let us, they say, choose those we will reward on the basis of their officially approved status as a member of some group.

One of the chief complaints of American “liberals” is directed toward the unequal distribution of wealth. This, they believe, does not reflect achievement; it is not earned or deserved; it is unfair. There very well may be rich and poor in an achievement-oriented society. What is different from a status-oriented society, however, is that the same people do not necessarily stay in their place.

Toward the middle of the nineteenth century that perceptive French nobleman, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote: “It is not that in the United States, as everywhere, there are no rich; indeed I know no other country where love of money has such a grip on men’s hearts or where stronger scorn is expressed for the theory of permanent equality of property. But wealth circulates there with incredible rapidity, and experience shows that two successive generations seldom enjoy its favor.”6

Tocqueville captured in a single sentence the possibilities of an open, achievement-oriented society when he wrote, “In America most rich men began by being poor.”7

Circulation of Wealth

Nearly a century and a half later, the circulation of wealth that Tocqueville had observed was essentially still the case in the United States. Studies conducted in 1992 of tax returns showed that dividing incomes into fifths, or “quintiles,” was misleading because such great income mobility exists in the United States. The rich and poor are not the same individuals or households from year to year. The claims by the egalitarians that the top 20 percent, or even top 5 percent, control most of the wealth in the United States ignores the fact that many of the wealthy move downward, while most of the poor move upward over time. Tocqueville was right.

A status system has its supporters, and why not? Status rewards can be comfortable and give a sense of security to the lucky ones. Achievement suggests non-achievement: success frightens us with the possibility of failure. No one wants to fail or to be seen as inadequate. But do we really want a pervasive status-oriented society? It would surely be a rigid rather than a fluid one, and in the long run it would be neither just nor fair, despite the claims and rhetoric of its proponents and beneficiaries. Only the firm hand of government could keep everyone in his place, his sanctioned status. Otherwise, some would rise and some would fall.

Faced with a natural desire to pursue their own interests, many will resort to manipulation and personal connections to achieve their ends. A status-oriented society encourages this because the emphasis is on who you are, what you are, and whom you know, rather than what you do. It fuels the conflict and lack of interest in real accomplishment Payne observed in Latin America.

More than four decades ago Ayn Rand recognized what might happen if achievement were undermined as a value when she wrote this passage:

“We are at the dawn of a new age,” said James Taggart from above the rim of his champagne glass. “We are breaking up the vicious tyranny of economic power. We will set men free of the rule of the dollar. We will release our spiritual aims from dependence on the owners of material means. We will liberate our culture from the stranglehold of the profit-chasers. We will build a society dedicated to higher ideals, and we will replace the aristocracy of money by——the aristocracy of pull,” said a voice beyond the group.8

Pull has always been a fact of American life. Examples of its more corrupt form abound, from the Grant administration to the Clinton administration, from Tweed of Tammany Hall to Edwards of Louisiana. At the same time, its practice violates other basic American values. One is that no group should be granted a special or superior status and endowed with privileges denied to the rest of society. To put it another way, individuals should be responsible for themselves and be rewarded for their own grit and determination, not because they possess certain characteristics over which they have little or no control. Some years ago the sociologists Talcott Parsons and Edward Shils observed, “an orientation toward achievement is inherently ‘individualistic.’”9 It is individualism and achievement that make America unique and great. Rewarding people on the basis of their status in some officially defined and sanctioned group will, in the end, do more harm than good.


  1. Henry Summer Maine, Ancient Law: Its Connection with the Early History of Society, and Its Relation to Modern Ideas (Tucson, Ariz.: University of Arizona Press, 1986), p. 165.
  2. René de Visme Williamson, Culture and Policy (Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1949), p. 9.
  3. James L. Payne, Patterns of Conflict in Colombia (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1968), p. 12.
  4. Michael Voslensky, Nomenklatura: The Soviet Ruling Class (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984).
  5. See for example, Mary Ann Glendon, Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse (New York: Free Press, 1991).
  6. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. J. P. Mayer, trans. George Lawrence (New York: Harper and Row, 1969), p. 54.
  7. Ibid., p. 55.
  8. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Signet, 1985), pp. 381–82.
  9. Talcott Parsons and Edward A. Shils, Toward a General Theory of Action (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967), p. 208.