Call it moxie

Monday, August 27th, 2018

Gregory Clark finds that social status is strongly heritable, and Gregory Cochran runs with this:

Combined with a very high degree of assortative mating for the genetic factors behind this heritability, social mobility is surprisingly low. This happens without anyone particularly trying to make it this way — although it can happen less if people do try to stop it. An interesting example out of Plomin’s group: genetics explains “twice as much variance in educational attainment and occupational status in the post-Soviet era compared with the Soviet era.”

Plomin (or maybe more exactly his student Kaili Rimfeld) says that “The extent of genetic influence on these social outcomes can be viewed as an index of success in achieving meritocratic values of equality of opportunity by rewarding talent and hard work, which are to a large extent influenced by genetic factors, rather than rewarding environmentally driven privilege. ”

I don’t think that statement is entirely wrong. Estonia today is better run than it was in 1953, or 1990. But I am just as sure that it isn’t entirely right. We’re talking about genetic factors that tend to increase social status: intelligence helps, sure, but the people at the top, the people running the show are rarely the smartest — or the most decent, or the most effective. If we define ‘merit’ as a tendency to effective action that favors the best interest of society as a whole — surely what high-status people have more of is only loosely associated with ‘merit’. They have more of what works for themselves. Call it moxie.

So the ideal social policy would attempt — and succeed — at picking people for high-status job that were good at getting the job done — not just good at getting the job. Talent and hard work are influenced by genetic factors, but then so is being a back-stabbing, credit-stealing asshole.

I don’t think it would be easy: nature’s agin it. But it’s possible. I think. To a degree.

What should the Classical Greeks have done with Alcibiades, who surely had enough genetic moxie for a platoon? Answer: shoot the bastard. Him better off dead.


  1. Graham says:

    Well, there’s always Michael Young, admittedly from the left, on the horrors and eventual deserved fate of a pure meritocracy.

    You also reminded me of Steven Pressfield’s second novel set in ancient Greece- Tides of War. It both left me a favourable impression of Alcibiades as a sort of aristocratic, meritocratic, existentialist hero, and satisfied me why it was just, after his career had taken its course, that he was vengefully assassinated. What a world we would live in if it was designed never to produce such men.

    Sucks to be in their way, though.

  2. Kirk says:

    I am a pragmatist; if it works, it works.

    Conversely, if it ain’t working, it ain’t working. And, I am afraid, that describes about 99.9% of our institutions and ways of doing things, especially after about the second generation of management and/or leadership post-establishment of that institution.

    So far, everything we humans have tried ceases to function as designed or intended after that point. Whether you are talking about a corporation, a government organization, or anything else, once the founders and their chosen successors are gone, it all devolves into corruption and self-serving bastardry. I would suggest that this is because establishing a center of power and authority attracts the exact sort of people in whom we should never entrust that power and authority, much the way rotting food attracts flies.

    It is unfortunate that we fail to observe and comprehend this set of facts, and persist in creating these “solutions” to our problems. The observed facts are that you cannot avoid the third-generation issue, so why do we keep rotting food where we don’t want flies?

    The only real solution to the issue is to not play the game. Quit looking to establishing entities to “solve problems” in society, because those entities are going to attract the power-hungry sociopaths among us. The thing we ought to concentrate on is learning to deal with issues at the lowest level possible, only organize as much as required, and then end the organization as soon as the problem is dealt with. Leaving an organization laying around after its purpose and reason for existence is gone is like leaving a loaded submachinegun around the house for your kids to play with.

  3. Harry Jones says:

    From a social Darwinist point of view, meritocracy seems like a tautology. Those who tend to rise to the top and stay there are those who tend to rise to the top and stay there.

    From any other point of view, you’re left with the problem of defining merit. Objectively defining it, that is. (We all have our likes and dislikes.)

    The saying “if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” comes to mind.

  4. Kirk says:

    Meritocracy sounds wonderful, right up until you notice who it is that decides what merits membership in the -ocracy. Generally, it’s the same sort of person you wouldn’t trust to leave your pets with overnight…

    The other thing is, what’s the damn point? In the early Middle Ages, “merit” was whoever could keep the barbarians from sacking the estate that fed you–Which led directly to feudalism and getting locked into be a serf. Later on, it was guild membership and having the capital to be a merchant. We say “merit”, but what we really mean is “what we want and need right now”. Which has this nasty, nasty habit of… Shifting. Like so much sand beneath our feet. One generation’s merit is another’s social parasite–Which is why France ran most of their aristocracy through the guillotine, and the British bankrupted them with estate taxes.

    Better, in my mind, not to set up the -ocracy in the first place. What is needed today will almost certainly be obsolete tomorrow, and it would be best to be adaptable, instead of ossifying everything into some idealized structure that ain’t going to work with what’s coming. And, since you can’t really predict “what is coming”, well… Best to be flexible. And, adaptable.

  5. Harry Jones says:

    It’s the nature of life. Structured emerge. They grow strong, and then they ossify.

    After a while, their justification for existence evaporates. With it goes their immune system. Nobody needs the structure save the elites themselves, so nobody will defend it from enemies. The elites, many generations removed from the heroic founders, will have regressed to the mean, or – even worse – be suffering the effects of inbreeding.

    There are two kinds of rigidity: strength and brittleness. An ancient but ossified order is brittle. But it can tax our patience as we wait for it topple. No reason not to give it a nudge…

    But nature abhors a power vacuum. Before you give that push, have your new system ready to go or there’s no telling what evil will emerge to fill the top slot.

    Brinton’s Anatomy of Revolution goes into details about the pitfalls.

    Anarcho-capitalism? I have my doubts.

  6. Kirk says:

    Anarchy has too much structure, for my taste…

    When you get down to it, what we need should be embedded in the people, not the institution. You can’t force truly effective cooperation; you need to have the values and mores that foster it already present in the people who are to cooperate, and they need to be in consensus about that which needs doing.

    T.R. Fehrenbach put his finger precisely on the difference between forced cooperation and willing collaboration in one of the opening chapters of This Kind of War:

    “As a case in point, take the experiences of one platoon sergeant in Fort Lewis, Washington. During the big war he had held sway over a platoon of seventy-two enlisted men. The platoon was his to run; the officers rarely came around the barracks.

    The platoon sergeant was a reasonable man, in charge of reasonable men, who knew why they were in the Army. Their average age was thirty-two; one-fourth of them, roughly, were college trained. Almost all of them were skilled, in one trade or another. This kind of man cannot be made to dig a six-by-six hole to bury a carelessly dropped cigarette, nor double-timed around the PX on Sunday morning. The platoon sergeant relieved a multiple-striped young idiot— as he termed the man— who tried just this. The platoon, as platoons can, ruined the former sergeant. The new platoon sergeant told his men the barracks needed cleaning, but if everyone would cooperate, each man clean his own area each day, he could get a few men off detail to clean the common areas, such as the latrine, and there need be no GI parties. The platoon cooperated. There were no GI parties, no extra details. A few men went off the track, now and then; the older men of the platoon handled them quietly, without bothering the platoon sergeant. This was discipline. Ideally, it should well up out of men, not be imposed upon them. The platoon prospered. It won the battalion plaque for best barracks so often it was allowed to keep the plaque in perpetuity. Even after VJ-Day, every man fell out for reveille, promptly, because the platoon sergeant explained to them this was the way the game was played. And the platoon was proud of itself; every man knew it was a good outfit, just a little better than the next. Then, one by one, the men went home, as the war ended.

    The platoon sergeant now was promoted to first sergeant, six stripes, an enlisted god who walked. He got a new company of several platoons, all filled with the new, callow faces entering the Army to be trained. The war was over, and every man coming in knew it. The first sergeant, wise now in the ways of handling men, as he thought, carefully explained to the newcomers that the barracks must be cleaned, but if everyone would cooperate, each man clean his own area each day, there would be no GI parties, and there would be passes.

    On Saturday the barracks were dirty. The sergeant, who thought that men needed only to understand what was required to obey, carefully explained what he wanted. Friday, with a great deal of hollering, shouting, and horseplay, the new men cleaned the barracks. On Saturday, the barracks were still dirty, and the captain made a few pointed remarks to the sergeant. The sergeant got everyone together, and told them how it was going to be. These men on the mops, these men on the brooms, these men with the lye soap. No hollering or sloshing of water or horseplay— just clean the goddam barracks. It took most of Friday night, and the men had to stay in the latrines to clean their rifles, but they cleaned the barracks. A few of them got out of hand, but there were no older hands who could— or would— hold them in check. The sergeant handled each of these himself.

    The platoon prospered, but it wasn’t easy, particularly on the sergeant. Gradually, he came to realize that seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds, mostly from the disadvantaged areas of society, had no feeling of responsibility to the Army or to the Republic for which it stood. They were not self-disciplined, and they tended to resent authority, even more than the college men and skilled artisans he had commanded before. Probably some had resented their parents; definitely most resented the sergeant, even as most of them, back in their home towns, had instinctively resented the police. There is no getting around the fact that cops and sergeants spoil your fun. The platoon prospered, as a sort of jail, until someone wrote to his congressman.

    After that the captain spoke to the sergeant, telling him that it was peacetime and that perhaps the real purpose of an Army was not to learn to use the bayonet, but to engage in athletics and take Wednesday afternoons off. The sergeant, now a confused young man with six stripes who walked, left the Army, and graduated from college. If the Army was going to hell, it was a lot more pleasant to watch it go to hell from the Officer’s Club than from the Orderly Room.”

    Fehrenbach, T. R.. This Kind of War: The Classic Military History of the Korean War. Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.

    Fehrenbach manages to lay out the difference between cooperation that wells up from the interior spaces of men, and that which is forced upon them. It’s a case study in how dysfunction comes to institutions that lose sight of their purpose and relevance–The WWII Army was one that knew what it was for, and most of the men serving in it were there for that purpose. Post-WWII? Vestigial purpose, and the institution was failing–Not least, in the leadership, which failed to realize the change from the old order of draftee wartime soldiers, who were (mostly…) on board with the mission, task, and purpose. As well, the Army had lost th bubble with regards to operating with recalcitrant troops, something it hadn’t had to worry about for literally decades. During the Depression, if you were a disciplinary problem on a small scale, well… It was easy to get rid of you, and send your ass back to the civilian world. Discipline wasn’t really a major problem for the pre-WWII Army. After the war, conditions on that front changed, and the Army had to contend with turning unwilling civilians over into soldiers in an environment where the civilian leadership didn’t want them to be too harsh. Which was why Korea was such a shock to the system…

    The point is, you’re always going to be more effective with members of a culture that are not forced into discipline and order; you’re far better off if your discipline and order come from within the members of the culture. The trick is, you have to properly inculcate,and reward these virtues, which is something we’re terrible at.

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