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Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Not Right, But Necessary

In my previous post, I pointed out how within-group favoritism can lead to between-group hostility.

Since strong group behaviour has such serious pitfalls, why would anyone prefer a rigid, elitist society?

Yet, it turns out that this is a pretty popular system in the world today.

For the individual, an elitist social structure can be highly attractive because somebody benefits by a lot.

For the whole society, having strong group behaviour is also beneficial because that is amenable to effective central control.

Let's examine this in greater detail.

Imagine that you're in a technical profession that has a limited social component, say a high-rise window cleaner paid a couple K a month.

Dangling precariously on the outside of a tall office building, you look at the well-dressed, highly paid managers inside and think to yourself: "Wow, I wonder how many windows I would need to wash in order to make their kind of salary. They must have a lot of work to do and must be enduring a lot of stress or risk!"

Actually, the managers don't have a riskier or more stressful job than the window cleaner outside.

A leading member of a rigid hierarchy can borrow the existing power structure to her personal advantage. That spiffy-looking manager inside may never need to "wash windows" or do any technical task herself if she has dozens of subordinates at her beck and call.

Oddly, as she gets promoted higher and higher, she will get more staff, more leave benefits and is required to spend less and less time doing actual work - although on paper her responsibilities get heavier.

Stranger still, if she reaches the top echelons of the organization, she might be able to absolve her "responsibilities", just like the bank CEOs who created the economic mess in the world today.

And if she screws up spectacularly enough, the organization might even pay her more money to fix the mess that she created!

Her subordinates seem to be resentful of this, but since they are locked into the social structure, they also dream of the day when they can scale the ladder and claim that power for themselves (never mind the fact that the elite has tilted the tables against them).

So they grit their teeth and become amazingly compliant to the manager's every whim, reinforcing the rigidity and unitary strength of the system.

All the "management universities" of the world sell this dream; their campuses are filled with young people who were never that young. Perhaps it's not surprising that people who amplify their power via social organizations, such as bankers, lawyers and administrators, would be in favour of an elitist society.

They don't seem to realize that a society that confers disproportionately large benefits will confer them to the disproportionately few. The game is fixed.

Now let's consider the other extreme - a loose organization of people who are not interested in group behaviour and can never be convinced to create strong group alliances.

A manager who doesn't really care about hobnobbing with the higher-ups, who can't be bothered about networking, and is supported by a bunch of subordinates who are indifferent to her commands.

The entire hierarchy would simply fall apart!

In a society where social influence has low value, only individual merit counts. Without the compliance from her subordinates, the "manager" would really have to wash her own windows and invent her own longer-lasting lightbulb in order to make a living.

Not surprising that such a society might be favoured by scientists, inventors and artists, people who create new value with their own hands.

However, they don't seem to realize how big the world has become, and how difficult it is to compete with other people using their own strength alone. Life would be so much easier if there was an organizational division of labour.

No matter what individuals may prefer, the whole society (or more precisely, the leadership class) would rather have strong group behaviour, because that greatly simplifies the process of central control.

Instead of trying to chase down a million people with a million little agendas, all you need to do is to contact a few top leaders and tell them what you want their group members to do. Members will then comply out of strong in-group loyalty. This is quick and effective, allowing a whole State to have a unitary response to a powerful threat - for example, mobilizing the people for war.

However, most social groups are quite small; families only have a few members each, and even large corporations rarely have more than a few thousand people.

How would you encourage people from thousands of unrelated groups to come together, to form a huge social group and act in concerted strength?

Stay tuned for the next article about faith - a powerful tool of social organization.

4 Comments:

angry doc said...

I've actually been thinking about this topic these past few days, specifically on how each society decides which skill-sets to reward - or: who get to become the 'elite'?

A while ago I made the remark to a friend that some people end up in the lower strata of society because they can't help being 'dumb'. She thought it was an 'elitist' thing to say, but I countered that it was more 'elitist' to assume that everyone one had an equal chance on a level playing field, and that whatever one achieved was due to ones own hard work, especially when the playing field is not level, but (as you said) tilted in a way to select for those with the same traits as the existing elites. Being book-smart didn't make us any 'better' than 'dumb' people, but somehow our society is structured in such a way that rewards us for our smarts.

It seems to me that the elite in each society would structure their society to select for people with the same skill-sets as they themselves. In societies with strong military traditions those with martial prowess rule, and entry to that rank is by birth or proving oneself in battle.

In imperial China the state exams were the criteria for entry into the civil service (which held power, albeit a delegated one from those who held military power), and those who made it into the system through it kept the system.

I think the trait each society requires in its elite shapes its people's perception of the worth of each individual. Thus in a martial society physical weakness is scorned, and in a scholastic society those whose intelligence may not manifest through the particular academic form practised in that society may be considered 'stupid'. In other words, 'desirable trait' is a social construct.

In our own society, it seems that formal education is the pass to the ranks of the elite. At the same time, in some contemporary societies martial prowess is still the prerequisite to becoming an elite.

The questions I ask myself are:

1. Are the elites the people who make the most important contribution to their respective societies? If not, how did they convince the rest to let them become the elites?

2. Do such systems persist because they are the 'best' systems for their time and place (i.e. the system works), or do they persist through efforts of the elites, even when they are no longer the best system for the circumstances?

3. Was there, or is there or will there be a society where intelligence or martial prowess are not the defining traits of an elite? Is there a society where, say not the smartest or strongest people make the decisions, but the kindest? If not, is it because in the harsh reality of our world, intelligence and martial prowess are the best means to survival (i.e. that society that let its kindest people be in charge got wiped up millenia ago)?

Lim Leng Hiong said...

To Angry Doc:

While formal education and military experience are important parts of the elite skillset, I would argue that social prowess is the most critical.

There would be less widespread unhappiness about elitism if the elites were elected into power based on some widely accepted linear metric such as academic score or battlefield kills.

Those are merely entry passes, not the primary determinants of leadership selection. Instead, the elites subjectively self-select among a tiny core based on who they know and who they like. To borrow your example of the state exams in imperial China, a 状元 (top scholar) on paper becomes a highly-ranked court official, but ultimately the royal family and allies can have his head at any time. If he ever forgets his place he will henta-kaki or worse his head will roll. Too many father-son teams in top leadership positions will make people suspicious of the claims of meritocracy and the value of elitism.

You have raised some interesting questions, and I would like to try answer them too:

"1. Are the elites the people who make the most important contribution to their respective societies? If not, how did they convince the rest to let them become the elites?"

I think historical contingency plays a big role. In addition, it is the access to power, rather the contribution to society that is the stronger factor.

In a nutshell, an ambitious person borrows an existing social power structure to her personal advantage. Together with her closest allies, they become the core of the elite and self-perpetuate their power base. Until a stronger political force displaces them, they will stay at the top.

No need to convince anyone. Just rule.

"2. Do such systems persist because they are the 'best' systems for their time and place (i.e. the system works), or do they persist through efforts of the elites, even when they are no longer the best system for the circumstances?"

For a system to persist, at the minimum it needs to be internally stable.

Throughout human history all sorts of social systems have been tried and are quite stable, some of which still persist today (eg. nomads, loose tribal alliances, matriarchal rule...)

However, the system also needs to be competitive against rival systems, and that's the real catch. A centrally controlled system with strong group behaviour can mount a fast unitary response, whereas loose alliances become hesistant or produce a fragmented response.

This is easier to do if much of the power is concentrated in the hands of a small elite leadership who are best friends with one another.

Then, when societies clash, the society that is better at fighting wins.

The society need not be anywhere near ideal in terms of fairness or benefits to its members as long as these are neutral with respect to the society's ability to survive or conquer.

"3. Was there, or is there or will there be a society where intelligence or martial prowess are not the defining traits of an elite? Is there a society where, say not the smartest or strongest people make the decisions, but the kindest? If not, is it because in the harsh reality of our world, intelligence and martial prowess are the best means to survival (i.e. that society that let its kindest people be in charge got wiped up millenia ago)?"

To me, social prowess is the most powerful trait of the elite class, so kindness has already been factored into the equation. Leaders who borrow the social power structure unavoidably have to deal with lots of people, thus it helps if they have some measure of genuine kindness. Even the most brutal dictators have their tender moments with the young, the elderly and the disadvantaged in their society.

In-group compassion is no guarantee against out-group brutality.

In addition, kindness is likely to be an incidental rather than an enduring trait of the elite class, because the "kindest" people are unlikely to be attracted to their lifestyle.

Imagine a genuinely selfless person who was appointed to power and money because she is a family member of the ruling elite. She would start to give away her time, energy and resources to those who in need, diminishing her own assets and drawing the ire of fellow elite members.

So you not only have trouble putting kind people in power, you also have trouble keeping them there. I doubt there was ever a society that could systematically assign the kindest people to the leadership class.

angry doc said...

I think I am looking at a broader definition of 'elite' then.

Needless to say one always looks out for one own's family, regardless of social status - if we have learnt anything from 'The Godfather' it is that one should always put the family first. :)

However, since one cannot be sure that one's own descendents are of the same calibre as one (see The Godfather...), one needs to co-opt others into the system to help one maintain ones position. Imperial China, specifically the Qing dynasty, provides a good example of how this is done: the imperial family gained power through martial prowess, and to maintain this continued the Manchu practice of having a military elite, even though it had to be supplemented by non-Manchus (mainly Mongols), and at the same time kept the civil elite through the exam system.

The interesting question then is how does one approportion the benefits of being an elite such that:

1. There are not so many elites that the benefits become so divided or diluted that it is no longer worthwhile being or becoming an elite.

2. How to ensure that there are enough elites to allow the system to function and perpetuate itself, yet not allow the elites to supplant oneself.

I believe achieving that belance is vital for any dictator. Or as you said, how to achieve internal stability.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

Those are interesting questions. I'm not sure how to answer them, especially the second question.

To want people who are ambitious enough to climb nearly to the top, but yet expect them not to contest the top position seems to me like conflicting requirements. Perhaps nobody can truly guard against this (eg. Nepal).

It must be rather scary to be a "nearly-top" elite, with the royal family watching their every move closely. Come to think of it, it must be pretty scary to be the royal family too. The Sword of Damocles hang over their heads.

Personally, I can't see the attractiveness of the elite route.

If I wanted to take over the world I would hide away from civilization as a reclusive insane genius tinkering with cyberneticz emerging decades later with my army of premium lovebots at an affordable price. Quality control is very important! [/movie quotes]

On second thoughts, maybe I'll stay in hiding.