Economy of Esteem

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Book: Brennan, Geoffrey and Pettit, Philip. The Economy of Esteem: An Essay on Civil and Political Society. Oxford UP, 2004


"However much people want esteem, it is an untradeable commodity: there is no way that I can buy the good opinion of another or sell to others my good opinion of them. But though it is a non-tradable good, esteem is allocated in society according to systematic determinants; people’s performance, publicity and presentation relative to others will help fix how much esteem they enjoy and how much disesteem they avoid. The fact that it is subject to such determinants means in turn that rational individuals are bound to compete with one another, however tacitly, in the attempt to control those influences, increasing their chances of winning esteem and avoiding disesteem. And the fact that they all compete for esteem in this way shapes the environment in which they each pursue the good, setting relevant comparators and benchmarks, and determining the cost that a person must bear–the price that they must pay–for obtaining a given level of esteem in any domain of activity.Hidden in the multifarious interactions and exchanges of social life, then, there is a quiet force at work–a force as silent and powerful as gravity–which moulds the basic form of people’s relationships and associations. This force was more or less routinely invoked in the writings of classical theorists like Aristotle and Plato, Locke and Montesquieu, Mandeville and Hume and Madison. Sometimes it was invoked to explain why people behaved as they did, sometimes to identify initiatives whereby they might be persuaded to behave better. Although Adam Smith himself gave it great credence, however, the rise of economics proper coincided with a sudden decline in the attention devoted to the economy of esteem. What had been a topic of compelling interest for earlier authors fell into relative neglect throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This book is designed to reverse the trend. It begins by outlining the psychology of esteem and the way the working of that psychology can give rise to an economy. It then shows how a variety of social patterns that are otherwise anomalous come to make a lot of sense within an economics of esteem. And it looks, finally, at the ways in which the economy of esteem may be reshaped so as to make for an improvement–by reference to received criteria–in overall social outcomes. While making connections with older patterns of social theorizing, it offers a novel orientation for contemporary thought about how society works and how it may be made to work. It puts the economy of esteem firmly on the agenda of economic and social science and of moral and political theory." (

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