Excellence vs. Excellence

by Reihan Salam

Robin Hanson, riffing on a recent David Brooks column, observes the following:

A world that disapproves of most all superiority displays could be one with a distaste for overt inequality, and sympathy for the less fortunate. In contrast, a world that disapproves of only some superiority displays while relishing others looks more like a world where folks with some types of excellence have won a battle to be seen as higher status than folks with other types of excellence.

One interpretation of this phenomenon is that our political battles pit one elite against another, and the stakes are primarily about social esteem. When the president says that he wants taxes on people like him to be higher, one could reply that his income is a trivial part of his portfolio. Rather, he has chosen to devote himself to becoming a person of high status. Becoming president takes a tremendous amount of work — at least as much as starting a modestly successful business enterprise — yet the payoff to those who “win the tournament” is enormous, both in narrowly economic terms (future earning power presumably skyrockets) and in many other ways as well. So in lieu of taxing the market income of those who specialize in production that tends to increase psychic income, we might want to choose some more neutral tax regime. Unfortunately, that is probably beyond the capabilities of our existing institutions.