Are Political Correctness Police Really Outraged, or Are They Signaling Their Social Standing?


Credit: Jon Sullivan/wikimedia

Over at the Institute of Economic Affairs Senior Research Fellow Kristian Niemietz wrote an interesting blog post on the economics of political correctness that is well worth checking out.

Niemietz explains how those obsessed with political correctness use moral superiority as a "positional good," which is a "good that people acquire to signalise where they stand in a social hierarchy." In the post Niemietz uses expensive wine and a degree from a reputable university as examples of positional goods: the motivation for purchasing them may not be the taste of the wine or what is learned in pursuit of a degree but rather the fact that having expensive wine and a degree from a good university signal your social standing:

I may buy an exquisite variety of wine because I genuinely enjoy the taste, or acquire a degree from a reputable university because I genuinely appreciate what that university has to offer. But my motivation could also be to set myself apart from others, to present myself as more sophisticated or smarter.

Niemietz goes on:

…if you see me moaning that the winemakers/the university have 'sold out', if you see me whinging about those ignoramuses who do not deserve the product because they (unlike me, of course) do not really appreciate it, you can safely conclude that for me, this good is a positional good. (Or was, before everybody else discovered it.) We can all become more sophisticated wine consumers, and we can all become better educated. But we can never all be above the national average, or in the top group, in terms of wine-connoisseurship, education, income, or anything else. We can all improve in absolute terms, but we cannot all simultaneously improve in relative terms.

What has this got to do with political correctness? Niemietz argues that those who enjoy acting like members of a political correctness enforcement brigade behave like people who couldn't tell the difference between vinegar and a glass of $400 wine but buy the $400 bottle in order to signal how sophisticated they are. And, like the owners of $400 bottles of wine who panic when others people start buying the same bottle, those obsessed with political correctness panic when more people start agreeing with them:

PC-brigadiers behave exactly like owners of a positional good who panic because wider availability of that good threatens their social status. The PC brigade has been highly successful in creating new social taboos, but their success is their very problem. Moral superiority is a prime example of a positional good, because we cannot all be morally superior to each other. Once you have successfully exorcised a word or an opinion, how do you differentiate yourself from others now? You need new things to be outraged about, new ways of asserting your imagined moral superiority.

You can do that by insisting that the no real progress has been made, that your issue is as real as ever, and just manifests itself in more subtle ways. Many people may imitate your rhetoric, but they do not really mean it, they are faking it, they are poseurs (here's a nice example). You can also hugely inflate the definition of an existing offense (plenty of nice examples here.) Or you can move on to discover new things to label 'offensive', new victim groups, new patterns of dominance and oppression.

So, next time you see people declaring their outrage at whatever the next political correctness fad is, consider if they really are upset, or whether they are feigning outrage to signal their social standing.

Disclaimer: I used to work at the IEA.