On Flexibility, or Saving the Best for Caste

Dearest friends,

We all have choices.

For instance, I am often confronted with the weighty and significant choice between the Quadruple Stacked Beef McChapula and the Double Down Syndrome Ultrachicken Pentawich. Naturally, being a man of culture and taste, I always make the right choice. But others are not endowed with as fine powers of discrimination*. How are they supposed to decide what to eat in this crazed Gibson Guitaresque Cyberpunk reality not rated for teens?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter.

Speaking of buying things, let’s talk about customer service. I have often been treated poorly by receptionists. A decent number of them are not particularly generous with time. The same holds true of customer service representatives, TSA grunts, and all sorts of people with a little power. By contrast, I have never been treated badly by the branch manager of a bank.

Just a little power.

Now, one might counter-argue there are real economic reasons for this. The branch manager generally deals with more important patrons, so of course they’re going to be kinder. They are, after all, more profitable. However, I’m not quite sure this is true. Certainly, this is true at the margins. A billionaire customer no doubt generates far more revenue than a streetrat. But when you compare your average prole to your average millionaire, the former is a reliable source of fees, while the latter is quite stingy. And if pure profit was the main reason, representatives would be easily swayed (or at least trained to be swayed) if the customer is important. Suggestions that the firm would like not to lose a valued customer, I find, have little effect. The kind ones are kind even before they find out who you are (and this is quite admirable), while the mean ones are unmoved.

It generally takes the harsh intervention of reality to change minds. When it comes down to it, only raw force will persuade.

So what’s the payoff matrix for being rude? In the best case scenario, they go away, unsatisfied with you, but do nothing for one reason or another. In worst case scenario, you get disciplined and maybe even crushed like a bug. So why do it? From an economic standpoint, it’s a dumb idea. Well, it’s simple. It feels good! But that’s not a terribly satisfying answer, now is it? Why does it feel good?

It comes down to a very simple thing. Signalling. Humans care about social status. They care about social status a lot. One would expect that the deepest group hatreds exist towards very alien strangers, but that tends not to be the case, really. The medieval Europeans were willing to ally with Mongols to strike down the Saracen. The alien has the element of the exotic. Familiarity breeds contempt. And why? Well, the more similar two groups are, the MORE DIFFICULT it is for people to tell them apart. Therefore, it means people must signal even more vigorously! In this light, ethnic wars become a very, very expensive and bloody way for Serbians to signal they’re not Bosnians. The more alike two groups are, the more powerful the signalling must be to distinguish them.

The person with a little power abuses it not for real material gain (nobody’s going to bribe a fucking bank teller), but for social gain. In that moment, they raise their social position over those they have power over, their kith and kin with no power. A person with real power? They don’t give a shit. They’re above all of this. It’s only because it’s very, very hard to tell between a little power and no power that this small amount of power must constantly be demonstrated. And sure, there might be a Black Swan event of fucking with someone you shouldn’t have. But, by and large, people are surrounded by people like themselves, so it becomes a rational decision to make small gains in social position through power abuse. So what if the real monetary or power payoff is at best negative? Viewed in the light of Homo Economicus, this is dumb. But as a signal, it makes perfect sense. Signals have to have costs and not benefits because if they were genuinely beneficial, everyone would adopt that practice since there’s no reason not to and it would quickly lose its signal value. It has to be costly to convey information.

Nobody really likes castes. But then again, who really likes casts? The purpose of both is simple – to keep things in their place. Do allow me to illustrate.

Once, in the before times, society was not free. You are probably well-aware of the standard narrative, but I will briefly repeat the tragedy of it. Because of arcane legal privileges and various systems of oppression, the talented were kept away from positions that they could have thrived in, thus depriving society of many boons and consigning many brilliant people to lives of meaningless drudgery and deprivation. And you know what? That’s not wrong. Neoreactionaries often like to gloss over the flaws of the past, making it into this idealized golden idol, but the truth of the matter is that the past was pretty shit. Even being noble in the past was pretty shit, and does not hold a candle, let alone an energy-efficient lightbulb, to the wonders we have now. Now, the neoreactionaries like to say that those improvements come not from the political structure, but from advances in technology – but those advancements in technology are intricately tied with the liberalization of society. If half the salarymen at modern Japanese megacorps come from samurai lineages, that means half of the salarymen come from the bottom 95% of families, who, thanks to liberalization and the free society, were able to lift their families up and advance to the upper middle class, our modern, democratized aristocracy. The modern education system really is an efficient machine to pipeline talented commoners into an upper middle class and inculcate into the roles and cultural traditions of its aristocratic predecessor. And this does not just mean the upper middle class is twice as large as its predecessor. It isn’t. In our hypothetical restricted world, that half is not just gone, it is replaced by dumb sons of fine families, meaning advancement should be *less than half* of what it is, thanks to the mucking up one bad apple can do to a barrel. The standard narrative is not a lie!

The problem is that it is only a story of first-order effects. It does not address the second-order side effects.

In our original society, class status is formal. A strapping young lad, through one way or another, goes to Venice U and, four years later, gets a sheepskin saying “BS Civil Engineering” and a fine little form letter in the mail from His Imperial Apostolic Majesty congratulating him on his accomplishment and elevating him to the nobility. He proceeds to go down to the local tavern to hit on local wenches as Freiherr Lad, a Somewhat Important Fellow, gets slapped a few times, and thinks nothing more of the matter. Or, today, a lad goes to law school and exists Lad, Esq., a formally protected title. When things are formal, there is a designated font of honor and the government enforces status. That means, at least in regards to matters of class, there is no point to signalling. The government shuts down the signalling spiral.

When society is freed, it begins the spiral. No longer can people pull out their business card and point to it as a definitive final word on status. Instead, status is marked via various indicators of taste and other informal mechanisms. What came to dominate markers of class? As recounted by Bourdieu and other such scholars, the answer was pretty simple. The Ancien Regime fell, but the University took the sovereign’s place as font of honor. It had many advantages – it was already tied to the old system, it had a formal hierarchy, it was easy to understand and communicate, and it was even somewhat formal, since a degree is a real and verifiable thing. Now you had the University, and it made sweeping decisions on who was Harvard Material and who was not. And though many Harvard Material lads were so because of their socioeconomic status, there were also many young lads of common origin who possessed talent. If things stopped there, it would’ve been pretty good.

Things didn’t stop there.

How could they? Universities couldn’t own up to the truth and admit they were just the new fonts of honor. They had to come up with some sort of lie as cover. The lie was that education created wealth. This is, of course, a farce. A society needs doctors, but a society of only doctors would quickly come to resemble a syringe-themed Lord of the Flies. Universities credential people to enter prestige professions, but there are only so many of those to go around. We quickly enter elite overproduction as the signal is diluted more and more. But the natural impulse of people is to try and aim as high as they can, and since education creates wealth, why not? Even if it didn’t, the individual incentives would still be the same. A Bachelor’s degree quickly becomes worthless. The education signalling spiral intensifies. Today, 42% of the modern descendants of Europe’s high nobility have doctorates. That is a spectacular rate of educational over-representation. As more and more people crowded into education, one had to flee higher and higher to maintain the status signal.

At this point, you may be exasperated with me. Either you are rolling your eyes and spouting the standard prolish wisdom of college education being good for nuthin’, or you are reminding me that as a Classy Person, you read the Important Books, and you already read Caplan’s book, The Case Against Education, and you already know all this.

Please, bear with me.

What’s the core problem with this signalling race? It’s pretty simple. Education is not purely a signal of status. It is also used to select people for certain professions. “No duh,” you say. Well, as education becomes diluted further and further, you start seeing scary things like the average IQ of psychology majors falling to 100. And engineering? 106. The problem is that jobs need a minimum level of intelligence to be done at any level of competence. This is why the Armed Forces gives an IQ test to all people who want to join. And for some jobs, this minimum is relatively high.

If engineers were becoming dumb, you would start seeing projects go more and more poorly. Slower, more expensive, less reliable. Bridges would collapse. Outlets would write articles about the end of infrastructure. Mysterious holes and cracks would be found in new buildings. Past feats would become impossible. Websites would slow down even though, by all rights, they should become ever faster.

A job is not just a fancy hat. Societies need aristocratic castes in the first place because societies need persons who can manipulate complex systems, and those people will then reward themselves handsomely. When the Cathedral gives an important bureaucratic position to an Evil Fat Black Lady as a signal, government starts to run a little bit worse.

A caste system puts an end to all this. In a system of free labor, people are constantly trying to push to the highest prestige level they can reach, which is not always the highest level of work they can competently do. Under restricted labor, people are kept in their place. This may keep men of talent away from where they might make the most impact. But those people don’t just disappear. In an unfree system, they have to make the best of what their lot is, so they practice, practice, practice (not like they have a choice), and they push the envelope and make advancements in their low prestige fields. And they serve to help stabilize lower strata of society and ward against destructive tendencies.

Just as desegregation removed the pillars of the community from black neighborhoods and sucked them into white suburbs, leaving a tremendous void, so too does a free society create brain drain across social classes. The proletariat is stripped of its most talented members and receives only dregs as recompense. Belmont may get nicer year after year, but Fishtown sinks into a deeper and deeper swamp.

Of course, I would be in favor of more restricted labor, now wouldn’t I?

Crushed by competitive wages,
Monsieur le Baron

 

*See my book, 50 Shades of Grape Soda: A Field Guide to Racial Slurs

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