Yves here. This new piece from reader and sometime blogger albrt has a go at the question that has been bedeviling more and more commentators: why are the putative people in charge in the US and the EU making such a hash of things? It dovetails with our post today on how a large number of Western policy makers and pundits seem unable to escape the intoxicatoin of heavy doses of Ukraine war propaganda. Importantly, albrt adds some relatively new theories to explain these pathologies
By albrt, a solo lawyer from flyover country who has previously posted at Calculated Risk and Corrente
Several Naked Capitalism commenters noted the similarities between recent blog posts by Aurelien & John Michael Greer (formerly known as “the Archdruid”). Both were linked under Imperial Collapse Watch at Naked Capitalism on August 2. Both bloggers commented on the sad state of western elites, who seem unable to manage much of anything.
Aurelien faulted the Professional Managerial Caste (PMC) for their “vast carelessness,” similar to Tom and Daisy Buchanan from the Great Gatsby. Tom and Daisy
…were so confident of their own superiority that they didn’t care much about ordinary people. That’s today’s PMC: the main danger they pose to people like you and me is the fatal collective, ingrown confidence that they and their ideas can never be wrong, and that in the end nothing is ever really serious. If they break something, it doesn’t matter.
Greer had a slightly different take, observing that western elites “are stuck in habits of thought that make it impossible for them to do anything useful in a crisis.” He called the problem “stormtrooper syndrome” because children of the western elite are brought up thinking that bad people, like the Imperial Stormtroopers in Star Wars, can’t possibly shoot straight. Since bad people always lose and good people always win, the way to win is to define yourself as a good person rather than making rational decisions or ensuring that you have the material necessities for success. In other words, being woke (or anti-woke, if that is your ideological thing, I think it applies both ways) matters more than being competent, to the point where competence is not even on the radar.
I agree with Aurelian and Greer that western leadership is failing spectacularly on all the important issues of our day, from Covid to Ukraine to providing concrete material benefits for the populace. This post builds on several theories, some more persuasive than others, as to why western leaders appear so oblivious to facts, logic, and competence, despite being relatively smart and well-educated.
I’ll start with a theory I consider unpersuasive – the classic right-wing nationalist trope that a group of degenerates is engaged in a conspiracy to keep the plucky local ubermen down. This post (linked at NC August 4) is a lightly sanitized example, mentioning some of the same points as Aurelian and Greer about how western institutions are failing. The post suggests that a diverse conspiracy of incompetent people dedicated to a certain kind of ideological purity has succeeded in purging everyone who possesses superior general competence, intelligence, and independent judgment from the leadership of all western institutions. The conspirators “usually use ‘white men’ as a proxy” for the intelligent and capable group.
I will call this particular variation of the classic trope the “conspiracy-of-incompetents” theory. Like all similar theories, the conspiracy-of-incompetents theory begs the question of how degenerate and inferior people can be so successful at conspiracies, especially against ubermen. I guess they unleashed the awesome power of critical theory and wokeness, or something. The post doesn’t say.
Since I am not persuaded by the conspiracy-of-incompetents theory, why talk about it at all? Because history tells us that when incumbent leaders do stupid things (repeatedly, over and over, ad infinitum, etcetera), more people will turn to demagogues and strong-men who offer simplistic explanations, often blaming a stereotyped out-group. As Greer said in his recent post, “Quite a few people have become convinced that our government and corporate elites can’t possibly be as stupid as they seem. No, it’s got to be a sinister conspiracy!” Simplistic conspiracy theories thrive when nobody is offering anything better.
Unfortunately, neither of the two major political parties in the United States is currently offering the populace anything better – not sensible explanations, and certainly not concrete material benefits. I don’t see much sign of anything better being offered in other western countries either. This brings us back to the question at hand: why are the people in charge right now doing so many obviously stupid things?
In 1911, Robert Michels published a book called Political Parties. His thesis was called the Iron Law of Oligarchies – any organization, even if it is trying to be democratic, will end up being controlled by a few people.
A hundred years later, blogger Jon Schwartz articulated the Iron Law of Institutions, proposing that
…the people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself. Thus, they would rather the institution “fail” while they remain in power within the institution than for the institution to “succeed” if that requires them to lose power within the institution.
This insight goes beyond just saying that people are acting like crabs-in-a-bucket. The Iron Law of Institutions recognizes that if people are exercising skills to advance within an institutional framework, their advancement goals are different from institutional goals, and people who prioritize advancement over institutional goals will often rise to the top.
But the Iron Law of Institutions doesn’t really answer today’s question. Unlike a bucket of crabs, our institutions occasionally push out an action or a policy of some kind. Why do the actions or policies produced by our leadership classes always seem to be stupid? Pushing out a smart action or policy once in a while would clearly be better for both the institution and the individuals within it, especially its current leaders who will eventually get blamed for all the stupidity.
Blogger Zvi Mowshowitz took the analysis a step further in 2020, riffing on the work of Robert Jackall. The context is that Mowshowitz was correct about several important facts early in the pandemic, at a time when the WHO, the CDC, and Dr. Fauci were obviously incorrect (or outright lying shamelessly). Mowshowitz wrote a blog post to explain why he could never be in charge of a high-profile government agency like the CDC or the FDA. As Mowshowitz himself said, this was a “[l]ong piece written because the speed premium was too high to write a short one,” but I think it is worth quoting sizable chunks:
The government is like any other moral maze. If you want to succeed, you modify yourself to be someone who instinctively plays the political game of success, seeks power and forms an implicit coalition with others who seek power. You implicitly reward power seekers and those with power, and punish those without power and who do not seek power, without thinking about it. If you didn’t, the others in the game would notice you thinking about it, or worse notice you failing to act on it, and punish you accordingly.
You instinctively know that you must continuously demonstrate your commitment to power seeking, and to rewarding your allies and being with the program, or else you won’t be a reliable person who can be trusted to do what is required. You must avoid motive ambiguity, and make it clear that you are not going to sacrifice considerations of power to improve physical world outcomes or otherwise do the ‘right thing,’ or to assert the true answer to a question simply because it is true.
Mowshowitz then applied this model to the CDC (emphasis original):
In Scott’s model,1 Rochelle Walensky (the Director of the CDC) is a utility maximizer, has the utility function of F(p+r) where p=power and r=being right, and chooses to produce along the production possibilities frontier, making tradeoffs where she can be less right to gain power, so she can in other places sacrifice some power to say more things that are right.
Standard disclaimer: All I know about Rochelle Walensky is that she’s the new head of the CDC. I know nothing about her personally or history.
In my model, that’s not how someone in her position thinks at all. She has no coherent utility function. She doesn’t have one because, to the extent she ever did have one, it was trained out of her long ago, by people who were rewarding lack of utility functions and punishing those who had coherent utility functions with terms for useful things. The systems and people around her kept rewarding instinctive actions and systems, and punishing intentional actions and goals.
Thus, she does what seems like the thing to do at the time rather than thinking about things in terms of trade-offs. Sometimes that does a reasonable job mimicking trade-offs and making reasonable decisions, sometimes it doesn’t. Often it seems to mean ‘implement whatever Biden’s latest executive order says and call it CDC guidance.’
Mowshowitz’s model sounds to me like a pretty accurate description of how people in the Biden administration operate (at least those who have staying power).2 Unlike the conspiracy-of-incompetents theory and the Iron Law of Institutions, this seems to be a plausible mechanism for transforming purportedly smart people at least part way into idiots.
The key point, in my mind, is that members of the in-group must at all costs signal their loyalty to power-seeking, and it is more important for them to signal adherence to their West Wing instincts than to do something useful or say something true. As Aurelien said, “[t]hese people recognise each other by their declaratory vocabulary and performative acts.”
Doing something useful or saying something true can actually harm your career if it makes the other power-seekers suspect you of disloyalty to power-seeking.
But this doesn’t entirely explain current levels of elite stupidity – Mowshowitz’s post lists ways that power seekers can excuse useful actions and true statements when necessary.
Success and failure do matter, and you probably still have a preference for better outcomes over worse ones all things being equal. But to act outside the usual course of events in order to do the right thing, you’ll need a good excuse, so you can claim you’re doing it for other reasons. “My boss ordered me to do that” is the gold standard, as is “the people demand it.” Doing it because of a (de facto) bribe from special interests isn’t the best public look, but suffices to satisfy your fellow bureaucrats and power seekers.
It seems as though we are not even seeing a token level of better outcomes these days. Mowshowitz’s model of instinctively prioritizing intra-elite signals adds something to the Iron Law of Institutions, and probably suffices to explain the garden-variety cynical views I have held for most of my life. I don’t think it fully explains the Bizarro World level of wrongness we are seeing from western elites today.
Signaling theory is not new. In an earlier life I was an anthropology student, and one of the more insightful books I read was Roy Rappaport’s Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. It’s a long and complicated book, so long and complicated that Rappaport died before it was finished. But a core point is that rituals have a unique power to signal acceptance of a conventional social order. Ritual performance is public acceptance of the conventional order, and this is important because the very existence of a conventional order is contingent on acceptance.
The occurrence or non-occurrence of a ritual transmits a binary signal and reduces ambiguity about acceptance of the conventional order (Rappaport 1999 at 89-138).
Rappaport emphasized that public rituals signify acceptance, not necessarily internal belief. He suggested that this was an advantage because acceptance is easier to achieve and demonstrate than subjective belief – to paraphrase Lewis Carroll, requiring people to signal acceptance of six impossible things before breakfast is less costly to society than requiring people to actually believe six impossible things before breakfast.
Mowshowitz says something different – power-seekers watch each other closely for quick, instinctive responses to ensure that power-seeking values have been internalized. Apparently, our elite in-groups require more than just a few pro-forma rituals to demonstrate loyalty to the cause.
One of the things I took away from Rappaport’s book, although Rappaport didn’t say it, is that basing signals on ridiculous beliefs might produce stronger social cohesion than basing signals on sensible or obvious beliefs. Accepting a conventional social order that is based on ridiculous beliefs probably requires a greater level of commitment.
Mowshowitz recognizes that costliness of signals helps avoid motive ambiguity, but I think I am suggesting a step beyond that – the value of a social cohesion signal may not only be based on cost in terms of money and effort, it may be inversely correlated to truth value. Adherence to truth-seeking scientific methods, for example, would not work very well as a signal of commitment to in-group social conventions, even if it is costly. You are going to follow the truth and the method, even if it means going against the social order.
Ritually adhering to a ridiculous version of science might work better as this type of signal, and indeed that is what we observed throughout the pandemic: many American leaders, particularly PMC Democrats, told us to “believe the science” while saying things that were plainly false, and while promoting policies that were homicidal.
Anthropologically, ritual adherence to belief systems that strained credulity might have been helpful for strengthening internal cohesion in relatively unified tribes of people. I don’t think it can be considered a positive development when a fractured society like ours reaches a stage where the elites are forming subgroups, and the subgroups demand such an extreme level of internal loyalty that they need to distinguish their cliques by how divorced from reality they are.
This intra-elite-signaling dynamic is admittedly speculative and theoretical. To the extent it exists, it isn’t the only factor making leadership in western countries dysfunctional. What I like about the intra-elite signaling theory is that it helps make sense out of a frustrating conundrum – why relatively smart people in positions of power seem to keep doing stupider and stupider things.
I hope this post will help reduce your frustration at official manifestations of obvious ridiculousness. I hope it will also help you recognize potential leaders who value something other than intra-elite signaling, if any ever come along.
1 Scott Alexander, proprietor of the blogs Astral Codex Ten and later Slate Star Codex.
2 Sadly, in the particular case of Walensky, it turned out she wasn’t really very good at this sort of thing so she was defenestrated after her credibility had been duly sacrificed.