Latterday Knight Fever: the economics of prestige

The Abbott government has announced it bringing back Knightoods and Damehoods to Australia. Each year, four people will arise with the title of Dame or Sir.

Of course, the whole thing is a retrograde step taken by a man with, by George, a madness for kings. Knighthoods were first axed by Whitlam in 1975, reintroduced by Fraser in 1976 then axed again by Hawke in 1983.

In one way, I like it. The old honours system which topped out with ACs and AOs was both sterile and opaque. The Sir and Dame system is one that people can grasp. From Sir Lancelot to Dame Judi Dench, people see and understand. If a comprehensible public honour is not the point of an honour system, I don’t know what is.

(One also can’t deny it’s a political football that you kick up into the sky when you want to distract attention from something else, in this case the fact the Assistant Treasurer is featuring in a very unflattering way in a corruption inquiry.)

But the real question for an economist is why would people value a knighthood. It doesn’t come with a free horse and castle. It doesn’t get you a discount at the shops. In some ways it’s less useful than a seniors card.

While the income bump from winning an Oscar has been comprehensively studied, old-school conventional economics has little to say on the matter of awards for public service. Luckily our friends in the fields of behavioural economics have tuned their antennae more closely toward the workings of the human mind.

These Knighthoods and Damehoods are the ultimate in positional goods. A positional good is one whose value comes from the fact that others can’t consume it too. Being the richest person in the world, or gold medallist in swimming, having the best address in the best neighbourhood or a degree from the most elite university. The values of these goods “depend not only on the amount the individual consumes but also the amount others consume.” 

At my old employer, Fairfax, the publication of the BRW rich list was an event that carried huge importance. As if the money was not reward enough, certain business people would contact BRW to make sure their assets were sufficiently valued that they would feature prominently in the list. Being on the list did not increase the value of their money in a consumption sense, but it strongly increased its positionality.

Positional goods are theorised to create negative externalities for the many while benefiting the few (See paper from Brookings Institute.) And the giving of medals, etc. is not without negative externalities. Here is Churchill acknowledging that fact:

“A medal glitters, but it also casts a shadow. The task of drawing up regulations for such awards is one which does not  admit of a perfect solution. It is not possible to satisfy everybody without running the risk of satisfying nobody. All that is possible is to give the greatest satisfaction to the greatest number and to hurt the feelings of the fewest.”

In the case of Australia’s newest old-fashioned honour, just four will be handed out per year. Something so rare will indeed have cachet to spare.

The honours are apparently designed for public service, so the tabloids obsession with a Sir Shane Warne may never materialise: “My intention is that this new award will go to those who have accepted public office rather than sought it and who can never, by virtue of that office, ever entirely return to private life,” Mr Abbott said.

Such prizes may be efficient. In a world where tax dollars are not exactly overflowing from Treasury coffers, the government can use prizes as compensation for jobs that would otherwise command a lot of pay.

As Bruno Frey notes in his paper Knight Fever (which title I happily stole for this post) “The material costs of awards may be very low, or even nil, for the donor, but the value to the recipient may be very high.”

Where you can pay someone with a reward that costs you nothing, it would be economically unwise not to do so.

Phaleristics is the study of awards. There is a strong economic literature on the merits or using awards as motivation. From the merits of prizes in furthering science to prizes for poetry and independent film. 

Awards litter most fields. They are especially prominent in fields where the best make a lot more money than the rest, such as acting, and in fields where the government pays the players (the military). These may be fields where contracts are especially hard to specify ex-ante.

Awards like sportsperson of the year carry less weight than Best Actor awards, because it is far easier to identify success in sport, so an award adds little marginal value. (Roger Federer does not always show up to accept the Swiss Sportsperson of the Year award.) Similarly in fields where a free market determines the pay of participants, such as the private practice of law and business, awards are less visible and carry less prestige.

But the award benefits not only the recipient. Mr Abbott emphasises the reciprocal nature of these awards. They are intended in his mind not just as reward for service, but are in fact a payment for keeping mum:

“If you’ve been the Governor-General or a Governor, there are certain things that you can never really do again. You can never really be as free with your opinion as might otherwise be the case. There are certain jobs that you could never really do again because of the position that you’ve occupied. Ditto for a Chief Justice. There is lots of legal work, for instance, that a former Chief Justice could never really do. If you’re a former Chief of the Defence Force or a former Chief of Army, there are lots of issues upon which you can never really comment by virtue of the position that you’ve held. I think when someone does accept a position of such importance and gravity in our system, it is perfectly fitting to honour them in this way.”

When it comes to creating new awards, there may be motivation on the part of the giver, too:

“The institution (or person) bestowing an award can be taken to be a principal who maximises his utility by inducing the agents, as the recipients of the awards, to behave in his interests,” Professor Bruno Frey argues. He continues:

“The whole area of awards is very vague. The semantic is unclear and the various types of awards are not well defined. There is, for example, no clear distinction between orders,  decorations or medals, and they can go with or without titles and money. It will be argued in this paper that these unclear distinctions are no accident, but an important feature of awards. The suppliers of awards have an incentive to differentiate awards at many different levels and to continually create new awards.”

Managing to keep Australian knighthoods and damehoods to just four a year may prove very challenging. And if it can be done, might such an exemplary public adminstrator not be rewarded with the creation of a still higher honour? Time will tell.

Thoughts on the economics of honours and awards? Further reading you’d like to suggest? Put your thoughts in the comments section below!

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thomasthethinkengine

Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

2 thoughts on “Latterday Knight Fever: the economics of prestige”

  1. Just a thought … In the UK you see company boards populated by the odd baroness or knight which to me suggests that aristocratic connections are still prized in business. Will we see a renewed enthusiasm for this in Aussie business once we start marking up a few superannuated public servants? Or will the dames just get a stack of charities to represent and the knights an offer to join the Melbourne club?

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