Lorenzo Warby on Adverse Selection of Elites
The Best Deceivers Win; also, Greg Thomas on imperial decline
Many problems in the contemporary academy stem from a lack of effective character tests. Moreover, as political conservatism correlates highly with the personality trait of conscientiousness, driving out or muting conservatives means wildly disproportionately driving out or muting the conscientious.
This can be expected to lead to falling standards and institutional domination by folk of low conscientiousness—including the lazy, the cowardly and the manipulative. Hence universities being increasingly comprised—with honourable exceptions—of conformist cowards and toxic zealots.
Later, he writes,
As social niches insulated from consequences of error multiply, so does the level of efficient self-deception. With those most insulated from the consequences of error having the highest levels of efficient self-deception. We are increasingly creating situations where our elites are more cognitively dysfunctional—due to higher levels of efficient self-deception—than the general public.
He includes this aside concerning feminism.
Feminism functions as the networked social aggression of highly educated/credentialed women.
…One of the deep problems of feminism is that it tends to encourage women to lean into their worst traits, particularly being self-deceptive about their aggression.
He introduces the concept of hyper-norms.
These are norms that trump all other considerations, even practicality or the basic structure of things.
…Hyper-norms do not emerge from difficulty dealing with the structure of things (as conventions and social norms do), or coordinating social interaction with minimal information (as moral norms do). Instead, they come from coordinating status, social leverage and cognitive identity in prosperity-and-technology-cocooned societies flooded with information.
…Hyper-norms produce a sense of righteous status uninhibited by the structure of things. A status reinforced by treating those who disagree with a righteous anger and contempt. An approach to politics that, since norms trump structure, sees constraints as a sign of oppression (including biological restraints), so finds oppression everywhere.
Useful norms serve as heuristics to enable us to navigate a complex world without having to work out everything from first principles. Hyper-norms allow certain elites to signal to one another and to coordinate to punish opponents.
If adverse selection of elites is occurring, why now? Warby offers this explanation:
If external threats are small, then self-interested gaming of norms is likely to be more common. Muslim polymath Ibn Khaldun’s analysis of group cohesion as intensifying in harsh or threatening environments, but degrading from peace and sedentary living, fits with this.
An insecure society requires more group coherence and less self-interested behavior in order to survive. A secure society can move in the other direction. Are we developing the traits of a secure society? If anything, today’s elites strike me as insecure.
Warby is attempting to offer a sweeping explanation for today’s puzzling cultural phenomena. I am skeptical that such an explanation is possible. It reminds me of the financial crisis of 2008, where at one point the Congressional Research Service catalogued dozens of causal factors that had been identified by different commentators.
On a somewhat related note, Greg Thomas writes,
Here are the phases that empires go through, according to Glubb: an Age of Pioneers, followed by an Age of Conquest and an Age of Commercial expansion. An Age of Affluence is next, where money replaces honor and adventure for ambitious young people, and educational qualifications that command the highest salaries becomes the goal. This age can be summed up as going from service to selfishness. The Age of Intellect follows, with scientific discoveries and mental cleverness replacing sacrifice and service. The final age is an Age of Decadence.
…The causes of decadence, of mental and moral deterioration? Too long a period of wealth and power, selfishness, love of money, and the loss of a sense of duty.
I assume that this overlaps with Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society.
Although I found the essay interesting, once again I find myself inclined to push back against sweeping explanations.
There is a template for complaining about decadence that goes, “Progress was really good until _____, but then it went too far.” If you are Patrick Deneen, you fill in the blank with “John Locke.” If you are Jonathan Haidt, you fill in the blank with “the iPhone, the retweet, and the like button.”
I am being somewhat facetious. I believe that Haidt sees societies as complex adaptive systems, constantly solving old problems and generating new ones. That is certainly my outlook. I am troubled by the institutions that seem to be going down hill. But a lot of conservative ideas strike me as attempts to put the toothpaste back into the tube. I put more of my hope into entrepreneurial experimentation.
Substack referenced above:
First, thank you for engaging with my essay(s). Second, the conscientiousness point was over-stated and has been corrected.
I agree, modern elites are status insecure. That’s why they cling to various markers of status so fiercely. The point that ibn Khaldun and I are making is not that competition for status and resources goes away, but that it becomes inwardly focused (so corrosive) rather than outwardly focused (so cohesive).
The notion of efficient self-deception is not an explanation on its own. Efficient self-deception is a persistent feature of human existence. The question is what are the patterns and levels of efficient self-deception in a society. If the levels of efficient self-deception are rising, and are particularly high among elites, that will have consequences.
But I agree, lots of other things are going on. For instance, if one wants to identify a period most analogous to our own, then it is the Christianisation of the Roman Empire in the C4th and C5th. We see very similar factors: collapse of a religious order, massive increase in bureaucratisation, flipping of the gender-orientation of sexual mores.
Christianisation feminised sexuality (no sex outside marriage for anyone: sex-as-commitment being the dominant female orientation, given our remarkably biologically expensive children, for obvious evolutionary reasons). The Sexual Revolution masculinised sexuality (sex as cathartic pleasure). A pattern dating apps have ramped up.
So, the patterns and levels of efficient self-deception in our society is only part of the pattern.
"analysis of group cohesion as intensifying in harsh or threatening environments, but degrading from peace and sedentary living, fits with this."
Isn't it somewhat more complex than this because of all the niche and fractured micro cultural identity groups and the internet. In Turchin's "War and Peace and War" he references Khaldun to talk about high asabiyya required to form an empire and the meta-ethnic frontier that brings this about for a society. Don't people on the left and the right currently have high in group asabiyya because the meta-ethnic frontier is now digital? You can go online and join any group and with social media you will see trolls and detractors of your in group everywhere even if they are very small in number. Noah Smith made a comment that he has never experienced much if any anti-semitism in real life, and yet he can see people espousing it online regularly to no end. Martin Gurri made a similar point with regard to the fascism/anti-fascism discourse to say the number of actual Nazis living in America might number somewhere around 3000, in a nation of over 300 million.