Previously on the Deep End we’ve challenged the idea that political correctness is just a modern form of politeness. A related misapprehension is that PC is all about inclusivity – i.e. a recognition of the undeniable truth that you don’t have to be white and male to matter.

On the IEA blog, Kristian Niemietz argues that the essence of PC is exclusivity. In doing so, he draws a parallel with the economic concept of positional goods:

“A positional good is a good that people acquire to signalise where they stand in a social hierarchy; it is acquired in order to set oneself apart from others. Positional goods therefore have a peculiar property: the utility their consumers derive from them is inversely related to the number of people who can access them.”

Note that “positionality is not a property of the good itself”, but of the consumer’s attitude to it:

“If I value those goods for their intrinsic qualities, their increasing popularity will not trouble me at all. After all, the enjoyment derived from wine or learning is not fixed, so your enjoyment does not subtract from my enjoyment. I may even invite others to join me – we can all have more of it.”

A classic example is the mobile phone. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, they were ridiculously expensive, not to mention ridiculously big, but to brandish one in public was the ultimate yuppie status symbol. By the late 1990s they had shrunk in both size and price, but despite these improvements they lost their function as positional goods because they were no longer exclusive.

Of course, there’s always the option of purchasing the very latest iPhone, thus staying one step ahead of the common herd. Niemietz argues that the development of increasingly elaborate forms of political correctness serves a similar purpose:

“The PC brigade has been highly successful in creating new social taboos, but their success is their very problem. Moral superiority is a prime example of a positional good, because we cannot all be morally superior to each other. Once you have successfully exorcised a word or an opinion, how do you differentiate yourself from others now? You need new things to be outraged about, new ways of asserting your imagined moral superiority.”

This helps explains why PC is now so complicated. To excel in the field you need to master advanced concepts like ‘intersectionality’, ‘microaggression theory’, ‘safe space policies’ and ‘trigger warnings’.

It’s the lefty equivalent of knowing how to address the son of an earl, but I wonder if advanced PC is just about the enjoyment of feeling superior. Certainly there’s a strong element wanting to be seen as au courant with the latest pseudo-intellectual fad, but it goes well beyond that.

PC is underpinned by the ideology of the post-modern left which seeks to improve the lot of groups regarded as under-privileged by restricting the rights of those regarded as over-privileged. Thus, in theory, there’s a lot riding on one’s precise position in the hierarchy of oppression. It doesn’t matter how under-privileged you might be, if someone else is even less privileged then you have to defer to them – which is why arguments between rival activist groups can become so heated (such as the conflict between radical feminists and the transgender rights movement).

Political correctness, therefore, is both a zero-sum game and a power play. In this respect, the post-modern left is identical to the traditional left: both ideologies insist that the size of the cake is fixed and that the only way in which someone can get a bigger slice is if someone else gets a smaller one.

The difference is that while the traditional left wants to take away your money, the postmodern left wants to take away your right to free speech.