Positional goods

There is much in modern society that we’re so used to that we don’t realise it’s happening. An example of this is the effect of ‘positional goods’. At its simplest, the concept is that they are a good whose ownership is only worth having because others don’t have it. Thus the attraction of having a bigger car is not that you actually want the benefits that go with it, but because it will make you stand out compared to other people.

Whilst in that case the effect is on you is purely emotional, other examples are more rational; given that employers have too many applicants for a job, they will go for the most visibly qualified. Thus getting a degree comes to be mandatory for higher paying jobs. Similarly having a degree from the best university becomes more attractive, whilst getting into the right school becomes more competitive etc. And little Johnny ends up learning Ancient Greek and Egyptian Hieroglyphics just to stand out…

What occurs is an arms race – where it is rational for any one participant to allocate more resources to the issue at any one time, but with the result that over all noone is better off; the ultimate consequence for overpressured kids is powerfully expressed in Pink Floyd’s ‘Post War Dream’:

“And it can’t be much fun for them
Beneath the rising sun
With all their kids committing suicide”

For Christians to fall for this is a failure in two ways:

  1. To seek to earn public kudos by consumption must always be a mistake: we should rejoice before the Lord for what he has given us, and it’s only His opinion that matters.

  2. We are going about things in the world’s way, not trusting our Heavenly Father to provide us with all that we need. Of course there’s a balance here; accepting the worst option in schooling, making no effort to do as well as possible is to disdain the gifts that God has given us. But as Christians we need to be careful not to be merely following the cultural norms of our society.

Much of this comes from our failure to keep the eternal perspective. Given that we will live forever in the presence of the Lord, then our actions now need to be in assessed in that light. Is this use of resources truly glorifying God – or merely keeping up with the Joneses.

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