If leftists support “political programmes that seek to eliminate status differences or moderate their impact” then the best way to reduce the left’s opposition to free markets would be to sever the link between income and status.
But how strong is the existing link between income and status? This issue can be approached from two directions. We can ask people what weight they give income when assessing the status of another person – I am not aware of research on this, though I’m sure somebody must have put the question in a survey. We can also ask people how they perceive their own status and compare that self-assessment with their income. A question in the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes 2005 asks:
In our society there are groups which tend to be towards the top and groups which tend to be towards the bottom. Below is a scale that runs from the top to the bottom where the top is 10 and the bottom is 1. Where would you put yourself on this scale?
Overall, whatever others may think of them, most people do not think they are on the ‘bottom’ of society. Only 2% rate themselves as ‘1’ and only 18% below 5. If we thought of society as having 10 status deciles, 40% should rate themselves below 5. Consistent with an egalitarian ethos, few rate themselves too highly either. Only 3% of respondents put themselves in the top 20% of society.
Low income is, however, associated with lower status. Here I calculated average self-assessed status. For the sample as a whole, mean status was 5.75. On average, people with an annual household income of between $10,400 and $15,600 rated their status as 4.6, so more than one status point below average. Those earning $41,600 to $52,000 were almost exactly on the mean. Households earning between $104,000 and $130,000 put themselves at, on average, 6.4, and those earning $182,000 plus at 7.5. Though there are individuals in all these groups who don’t give the expected answer, overall these results are consistent with the view that income plays a part in status.
It’s presumably not just how much people earn that contributes to their self-assessed status, but what they do. Professionals and managers top the list, with both groups averaging 6.4, with associate professionals on 6. The only group not above 5 are labourers on 4.5, below even those receiving unemployment benefits, who give themselves 4.9 on average (though perhaps some of the unemployed were having a laugh at the expense of the survey; several rated themselves as a ‘9’ or ’10’, while no labourer did so).
Education too shows the predictable pattern. People with a vocational certificate or diploma rate themselves at just above the overall mean, those with a bachelor degree at 6.5, and those with a postgraduate degree at 6.6.
Of course education, occupation and income are all inter-connected; it would require more sophisticated analysis than this to sort out what’s most important in contributing to self-assessed status.
Two sociological variables often thought to be important, whether born overseas and religion (at least of those with enough in the sample to be meaningful) make no difference to status.
On the issue of whether leftists are preoccupied with status, people who class themselves on the two most left categories in the left-right spectrum report below average status, as do those on the mid-point. But overall being able to place oneself on the left-right spectrum (nearly a quarter of the sample could not) was associated with higher status, with all but 3 of the 11 categories reporting above-average status. Those in the third highest right-wing category come out on top with 6.5. Whether this is because people acquire status from their political views, or because other status-variables (eg education) are associated with having enough political understanding to identify an ideological position, I cannot say.