The New Aristocrats: A cultural and economic analysis of the new status signalling

A new report, released today by the Adam Smith Institute, argues virtue signalling has made widely-held ideas like ‘keeping up with the Joneses' and conspicuous consumption completely outdated. Rather than trying to one-up one another by buying Bentleys, Rolexes and fur coats, the modern social climber is more likely to try and show their ‘authenticity’ with virtue signalling by having the correct opinions on music and politics and making sure their coffee is sourced ethically, the research says. The paper, The New Aristocrats: A cultural and economic analysis of the new status signalling by Prof. Ryan Murphy of Southern Methodist University in Texas, lays out how trends in status signalling—showing one’s self to be worthy of respect and privilege in the eyes of one’s group—have changed over recent decades.

While the conventional understanding holds that families are apt to buy ever-bigger cars and ever-bigger homes in the pursuit of higher social rank—a fruitless zero-sum competition that might well be tackled by luxury taxes—the new race for prestige is quite different.

A modern aspirant elitist would be better off getting an arts degree than buying a gas-guzzling four-by-four, Prof. Murphy points out, if they want to raise their profile in the eyes of their peers. This trend of ‘virtue signalling’ has been widely noted, but policy has not shifted with society.

Education is one policy where Murphy’s analysis is readily applicable. Though pursuing practical education, a STEM degree, or even building up work experience may be better for an individual’s earnings and society’s productivity, individuals may pick extended study of essentially useless degrees in pursuit of status.

This is enabled by an extensive system of subsidies, which actually, since the last reforms, made the terms for those expecting to earn very little—i.e. those pursuing degrees that barely enhanced their career potential—much more generous. Murphy’s analysis suggests these subsidies should be scaled back—we are only encouraging an endless arms race.

To read the full press release, click here.

To download the paper for free, click here.

Foundations of a Free Society wins 2014 Sir Antony Fisher International Memorial Award


I am quite chuffed. My short book Foundations of a Free Society has just won the 2014 Sir Antony Fisher International Memorial Award. Named after the late business and think-tank entrepreneur, goes annually to the think-tank that publishes the study that has made the greatest understanding to public understanding of the free society. That means the $10,000 prize goes to our good friends at the Institute of Economic Affairs, who published it, rather than to the author (sob!), but all power to them. The book was only published last November but has already gone into nine translations plus one overseas English edition.

Previous winners have included the bodies that published such books as How China Became Capitalist, by the Nobel economist Ronald Coase, and Prof James Tooley's hugely influential book about private-enterprise education in poor countries, The Beautiful Tree. So I am in excellent company.

It is a fine example of what can be done when think-tanks collaborate, each doing what they do best in a productive partnership. And I will be there in New York next week, collecting the silverware along with my friends and colleagues from the IEA.

Foundations of a Free Society is designed to explain what a free society is, for people who do not live in one (which is most of the planet, really) and cannot understand how a free society can be made to work. It is written in very straightforward, non-academic language, with no big footnotes and references and all that jazz – the sort of stuff that even a politician could understand.

It talks about rights and freedom and representative government, and toleration and justice and free speech and all the other principles of social and economic freedom. And it explains how and why a free society can run itself, without needing top-down control from some strong, dictatorial government. I hope therefore that it will help get these principles lodged in the mind of the upcoming generation, and give them the confidence to build genuinely free societies in their own countries around the planet.

Download a free copy of Foundations of a Free Society here