If you consider the high price placed on one of a kind collectibles, you can note the value placed on being something no one else can have. Economists call items valued for exclusive possession, such as movie memorabilia or works of art, “positional goods.” A positional good has value only insofar as one can possess it and no one else can. Anyone can have a replica, but there is only one original. The difference in value between a unique item and the material that composes it can be thought of as its positional value, the value it accrues through exclusive possession.

Capitalist systems motivate the creation of positional goods because the value of sentiment is unbounded, unlike the cost of labor and materials. A merchant dealing in collectibles can turn a significant profit by purchasing from one party ignorant of the item’s value and selling it to an interested collector. Positional goods can become status signifiers, attracting increased value based on the associated status. Without producing any new material good or fulfilling any need, positional value inflates prices in favor of merchants and to the detriment of consumers.

The sentiment that enables positional value reflects some of humanity’s worse impulses. When a person enjoys positional value, they place an equivalent degree of value on the dissatisfaction of others. One celebrates not what one has, but that someone else does not have it. Embracing positional value then entails embracing another’s deprivation.

From a moral perspective positional value encourages immoral attitudes such as greed and insensitivity to suffering. The separation created between people who have and people who do not enable fragmentation of the community into factions anchored on their status and associated signifiers. Positional goods provide a perpetual wellspring of carrots for the owner class to offer workers in exchange for betraying their class interests. An anarchist should be skeptical of positional goods and positional value, and a communitarian should treat them as a pollutant.

The persuasive utility of positional value appears in the pitch for many scams, threatening the mark with missing out on something significant. The NFT market exploits two forms of positional value, inherent and external. Inherent value refers to the core concept already discussed, but external positional value refers to status signifiers associated with ownership. NFT promoters encourage adoption so that the buyer can be part of the next big movement. Owners create community around NFT collections, as if they have attained membership in a clique of Bored Apes. If you don’t buy any NFTs, you won’t have any stake in the cryptocurrency economy to come. In the end, the value of the asset will increase until no buyers remain. The price plummets, and the status withers.