The Midwit Hypothesis, 2/1
Why we need Thiel Fellowships, Emergent Ventures, and Substack
In an essay that says out loud a lot of what I have been thinking, Brian Chau writes,
The key term for understanding the ferocity of the Democratic attachment to mid-level managers is “midwit.” A midwit is typically described as someone with an IQ score between 85 and 115; more colloquially, it describes a person with slightly above-average ability in any domain—someone who is able to pass basic qualifications and overcome standard hurdles but who is in no way exceptional. For a dominant political party, this is an obvious constituency and exactly the type of person you want on your side. While midwits often are preferable to dimwits for obvious reasons, they’re also preferable to an elite (those with exceptional abilities but who may not wield power) that might one day decide to overturn existing structures and ways of doing things.
In an interview, Marc Andreessen says,
“Super-talented” people, Mr. Andreessen figures, leave academia or big companies because they realize they’re “swimming in an ocean of mediocrity.” Hence the positive selection for venture capitalists. “Doesn’t this take a bold person to make the jump?” I ask. “Yes, an aggressiveness and intolerance. Or aggressive intolerance!” Mr. Andreessen says. “But it’s not the fault of the people, it’s the fault of the systems.” Academic research and big companies like IBM “keep running the same scripts.”
How do institutions end up dominated by midwits? Back to Chau.
First, incumbent institutions disproportionately select for midwits; second, ideologically conformist midwits select for others of the same ideology, which can be done through hiring decisions, HR law, or employee activism; third, the selection process is amplified further by incentives—because ideological conformity benefits midwits, they change procedures to elevate themselves over their less conformist but more productive colleagues; fourth, the increase in ideological conformity skews selection further toward midwits.
This cycle helps explain why incumbent institutions become stagnant or decline, and eventually become incapable of doing what they were created to do.
This cycle will perpetuate itself because it is driven by an incredibly resistant set of decentralized incentives that incorporate built-in reactions to the most common challenges. The common mistake of the “anti-woke,” “depolarization,” and “never-Trump” factions is in underestimating the phenomena they claim to oppose.
There are ways to get around the Midwits. Apply for Thiel fellowships instead of going to college. Apply for a grant from Emergent Ventures rather than the NSF. Read writers on Substack rather than WaPo.
My experience is that there are people who like to create and people who like to conform. The conformists have a very difficult time with the people who create. The creators experiment and question. The conformists see this as troublemaking. The conformists do what’s been done before without question, and they defer to the judgment, expectations, and preferences of their perceived betters, who they hope to emulate and replace. I don’t think IQ per se has a lot to do with it: frequently the conformists did quite well in school, and the creatives did well in spite of school.
The IQ range of 85 to 115 may be in the middle distribution but this is not the kind of people actually described in the hypothesis. To become a mid-level bureaucrat or a run-of-the-mill academic you need to be 115 and up.
The conflict posited in the hypothesis (with which I partially agree BTW) is mostly between the 115- 130 crowd and the 145+ crowd, with the 131 - 145s sometimes aspiring to the higher level and sometimes conforming down.
This said, I think that although the conflict stratified by IQ level exists, the reason for institutional decay has more to do with infiltration by high-functioning status-maximizing psychopaths. Psychopaths are attracted to power like flies to shit which is why every movement, club, religion, company, or party that achieves some success tends to accumulate them in proportion to the amount of power that is available. Looking from the outside you may think that power corrupts but the real mechanism is that the corrupt are attracted to power, and they corrupt everything they touch.