The Relationship Between Hierarchy and Wealth

Epistemic Status: Tentative

I’m fairly anti-hierarchical, as things go, but the big challenge to all anti-hierarchical ideologies is “how feasible is this in real life? We don’t see many examples around us of this working well.”

Backing up, for a second, what do we mean by a hierarchy?

I take it to mean a very simple thing: hierarchies are systems of social organization where some people tell others what to do, and the subordinates are forced to obey the superiors.  This usually goes along with special privileges or luxuries that are only available to the superiors.  For instance, patriarchy is a hierarchy in which wives and children must obey fathers, and male heads of families get special privileges.

Hierarchy is a matter of degree, of course. Power can vary in the severity of its enforcement penalties (a government can jail you or execute you, an employer can fire you, a religion can excommunicate you, the popular kids in a high school can bully or ostracize you), in its extent (a totalitarian government claims authority over more aspects of your life than a liberal one), or its scale (an emperor rules over more people than a clan chieftain.)

Power distance is a concept from the business world that attempts to measure the level of hierarchy within an organization or culture.  Power distance is measured by polling less-powerful individuals on how much they “accept and expect that power is distributed unequally”.  In low power distance cultures, there’s more of an “open door” policy, subordinates can talk freely with managers, and there are few formal symbols of status differentiating managers from subordinates.  In “high power distance” cultures, there’s more formality, and subordinates are expected to be more deferential.  According to Geert Hofstede, the inventor of the power distance index (PDI), Israel and the Nordic countries have the lowest power distance index in the world, while Arab, Southeast Asian, and Latin American countries have the highest.  (The US is in the middle.)

I share with many other people a rough intuition that hierarchy poses problems.

This may not be as obvious as it sounds.  In high power distance cultures, empirically, subordinates accept and approve of hierarchy.  So maybe hierarchy is just fine, even for the “losers” at the bottom?  But there’s a theory that subordinates claim to approve of hierarchy as a covert way of getting what power they can.   In other words, when you see peasants praising the benevolence of landowners, it’s not that they’re misled by the governing ideology, and not that they’re magically immune to suffering from poverty as we would in their place, but just that they see their situation as the best they can get, and a combination of flattery and (usually religious) guilt-tripping is their best chance for getting resources from the landowners.  So, no, I don’t think you can assume that hierarchy is wholly harmless just because it’s widely accepted in some societies. Being powerless is probably bad, physiologically and psychologically, for all social mammals.

But to what extent is hierarchy necessary?

Structurelessness and Structures

Nominally non-hierarchical organizations often suffer from failure modes that keep them from getting anything done, and actually wind up quite hierarchical in practice. I don’t endorse everything in Jo Freeman’s famous essay on the Tyranny of Structurelessness, but it’s important as an account of actual experiences in the women’s movement of the 1970s.

When organizations have no formal procedures or appointed leaders, everything goes through informal networks; this devolves into popularity contests, privileges people who have more free time to spend on gossip, as well as people who are more privileged in other ways (including economically), and completely fails to correlate decision-making power with competence.

Freeman’s preferred solution is to give up on total structurelessness and accept that there will be positions of power in feminist organizations, but to make those positions of power legible and limited, with methods derived from republican governance (which are also traditional in American voluntary organizations.)  Positions of authority should be limited in scope (there is a finite range of things an executive director is empowered to do), accountable to the rest of the organization (through means like voting and annual reports), and impeachable in cases of serious ethical violation or incompetence. This is basically the governance structure that nonprofits and corporations use, and (in my view) it helps make them, say, less likely to abuse their members than cults and less likely to break up over personal drama than rock bands.

Freeman, being more egalitarian than the republican tradition, also goes further with her recommendations and says that responsibilities should be rotated (so no one person has “ownership” over a job forever), that authority should be distributed widely rather than concentrated, that information should be diffused widely, and that everyone in the organization should have equal access to organizational resources.  Now, this is a good deal less hierarchical than the structure of republican governments, nonprofits, and corporations; it is still pretty utopian from the point of view of someone used to those forms of governance, and I find myself wondering if it can work at scale; but it’s still a concession to hierarchy relative to the “natural” structurelessness that feminist organizations originally envisioned.

Freeman says there is one context in which a structureless organization can work; a very small team (no more than five) of people who come from very similar backgrounds (so they can communicate easily), spend so much time together that they practically live together (so they communicate constantly), and are all capable of doing all “jobs” on the project (no need for formal division of labor.)  In other words, she’s describing an early-stage startup!

I suspect Jo Freeman’s model explains a lot about the common phenomenon of startups having “growing pains” when they get too large to work informally.  I also suspect that this is a part of how startups stop being “mission-driven” and ambitious — if they don’t add structure until they’re forced to by an outside emergency, they have to hurry, and they adopt a standard corporate structure and power dynamics (including the toxic ones, which are automatically imported when they hire a bunch of people from a toxic business culture all at once) instead of having time to evolve something that might achieve the founders’ goals better.

But Can It Scale? Historical Stateless Societies

So, the five-person team of friends is a non-hierarchical organization that can work.  But that’s not very satisfying for anti-authoritarian advocates, because it’s so small.  And, accordingly, an organization that small is usually poor — there’s only so many resources that five people can produce.

(Technology can amplify how much value a single person can produce. This is probably why we see more informal cultures among people who work with high-leverage technology.  Software engineers famously wear t-shirts, not suits; Air Force pilots have a reputation as “hotshots” with lax military discipline compared to other servicemembers. Empowered with software or an airplane, a single individual can be unusually valuable, so  less deference is expected of the operators of high technology.)

When we look at historical anarchies or near-anarchies, we usually also see that they’re small, poor, or both.  We also see that within cultures, there is often surprisingly more freedom for women among the poor than among the rich.

Medieval Iceland from the tenth to thirteenth centuries was a stateless society, with private courts of law, and competing legislative assemblies (Icelanders could choose which assembly and legal code to belong to), but no executive branch or police.  (In this, it was an unusually pure form of anarchy but not unique — other medieval European polities had much more private enforcement of law than we do today, and police are a 19th-century invention.)

The medieval Icelandic commonwealth lasted long enough — longer than the United States — that it was clear this was a functioning system, not a brief failed experiment.  And it appears that it was less violent, not more, compared to other medieval societies.  Even when the commonwealth was beginning to break down in the thirteenth century, battles had low casualty rates, because every man still had to be paid for!  The death toll during the civil war that ended the commonwealth’s independence was only as high per capita as the current murder rate of the US.  While Christianization in neighboring Norway was a violent struggle, the decision of whether to convert to Christianity in Iceland was decided peacefully through arbitration.  In this case, it seems clear that anarchy brought peace, not war.

However, medieval Iceland was small — only 50,000 people, confined to a harsh Arctic environment, and ethnically homogeneous.

Other historical and traditional stateless societies are and were also relatively poor and low in population density. The Igbo of Nigeria traditionally governed by council and consensus, with no kings or chiefs, but rather a sort of village democracy.   This actually appears to be fairly common in small polities.  The Iroquois Confederacy governed by council and had no executive. (Note that the Iroquois are a hoe culture.)  The Nuer of Sudan, a pastoral society currently with a population of a few million, have traditionally had a stateless society with a system of feud law — they had judges, but no executives. There are many more examples — perhaps most familiar to Westerners, the society depicted in the biblical book of Judges appears to have had no king and no permanent war-leader, but only judges who would decide cases which would be privately enforced. In fact, stateless societies with some form of feud law seem to be a pretty standard and recurrent type of political organization, but mostly in “primitive” communities — horticultural or pastoral, low in population density.  This sounds like bad news for modern-day anarchists who don’t want to live in primitive conditions. None of these historical stateless societies, even the comparatively sophisticated Iceland, are urban cultures!

It’s possible that the Harappan civilization in Bronze Age India had no state, while it had cities that housed tens of thousands of people, were planned on grids, and had indoor plumbing.  The Harappans left no massive tombs, no palaces or temples, houses of highly uniform size (indicating little wealth inequality) no armor and few weapons (despite advanced metalworking), no sign of battle damage on the cities or violent death in human remains, and very minimal city walls.  The Harappan cities were commercial centers, and the Harappans engaged in trade along the coast of India and as far as Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf.  Unlike other similar river-valley civilizations (such as Mesopotamia), the Harappans had so much arable land, and farmsteads so initially spread out, that populations steadily grew and facilitated long-distance trade without having to resort to raiding, so they never developed a warrior class.  If so, this is a counterexample to the traditional story that all civilizations developed states (usually monarchies) as a necessary precondition to developing cities and grain agriculture.

Bali is another counterexample.  Rice farming in Bali requires complex coordination of irrigation. This was traditionally not organized by kings, but by subaks, religious and social organizations that supervise the growing of rice, supervised by a decentralized system of water temples, and led by priests who kept a ritual calendar for timing irrigation.  While precolonial Bali was not an anarchy but a patchwork of small principalities, large public works like irrigation were not under state control.

So we have reason to believe that Bronze Age levels of technological development (cities, metalworking, intensive agriculture, literacy, long-distance trade, and high populations) can be developed without states, at scales involving millions of people, for centuries.  We also have much more abundant evidence, historical and contemporary, of informal governance-by-council and feud law existing stably at lower technology levels (for pastoralists and horticulturalists).  And, in special political circumstances (the Icelanders left Norway to settle a barren island, to escape the power of the Norwegian king, Harald Fairhair) an anarchy can arise out of a state society.

But we don’t have successful examples of anarchies at industrial tech levels. We know industrial-technology public works can be built by voluntary organizations (e.g. the railroads in the US) but we have no examples of them successfully resisting state takeover for more than a few decades.

Is there something about modern levels of high technology and material abundance that is incompatible with stateless societies? Or is it just that modern nation-states happened to already be there when the Industrial Revolution came around?

Women’s Status and Material Abundance

A very weird thing is that women’s level of freedom and equality seems almost to anticorrelate with the wealth and technological advancement.

Horticultural (or “hoe culture“) societies are non-patriarchal and tend to allow women more freedom and better treatment in various ways than pre-industrial agricultural societies. For instance, severe mistreatment of women and girls like female infanticide, foot-binding, honor killings, or sati, and chastity-oriented restrictions on female freedom like veiling and seclusion, are common in agricultural societies and unknown in horticultural ones. But horticultural societies are poor in material culture and can’t sustain high population densities in most cases.

You also see unusual freedom for women in premodern pastoral cultures, like the Mongols. Women in the Mongol Empire owned and managed ordos, mobile cities of tents and wagons which also comprised livestock and served as trading hubs.  While the men focused on hunting and war, the women managed the economic sphere. Mongol women fought in battle, herded livestock, and occasionally ruled as queens.  They did not wear veils or bind their feet.

We see numerous accounts of ancient and medieval women warriors and military commanders among Germanic and Celtic tribes and steppe peoples of Central Asia.  There are also accounts of medieval European noblewomen who personally led armies. The pattern isn’t obvious, but there seem to be more accounts of women military leaders in pastoral societies or tribal ones than in large, settled empires.

Pastoralism, to a lesser extent than horticulture but still more than plow agriculture, gives women an active role in food production. Most pastoral societies today have a traditional division of labor in which men are responsible for meat animals and women are responsible for milk animals (as well as textiles).  Where women provide food, they tend to have more bargaining power.  Some pastoral societies, like the Tuareg, are even matrilineal; Tuareg women traditionally have more freedom, including sexual freedom, than they do in other Muslim cultures, and women do not wear the veil while men do.

Like horticulture, pastoralism is less efficient per acre at food production than agriculture, and thus does not allow high population densities. Pastoralists are poorer than their settled farming neighbors. This is another example of women being freer when they are also poorer.

Another weird and “paradoxical” but very well-replicated finding is that women are more different from men  in psychological and behavioral traits (like Big 5 personality traits, risk-taking,  altruism, participation in STEM careers) in richer countries than in poorer ones.  This isn’t quite the same as women being less “free” or having fewer rights, but it seems to fly in the face of the conventional notion that as societies grow richer, women become more equal to men.

Finally, within societies, it’s sometimes the case that poor women are treated better than rich ones.  Sarah Blaffer Hrdy writes about observing that female infanticide was much more common among wealthy Indian Rajput families than poor ones. And we know of many examples across societies of aristocratic or upper-class women being more restricted to the domestic sphere, married off younger, less likely to work, more likely to experience restrictive practices like seclusion or footbinding, than their poorer counterparts.

Hrdy explains why: in patrilinear societies, men inherit wealth and women don’t. If you’re a rich family, a son is a “safe” outcome — he’ll inherit your wealth, and your grandchildren through him will be provided for, no matter whom he marries. A daughter, on the other hand, is a risk. You’ll have to pay a dowry when she marries, and if she marries “down” her children will be poorer than you are — and at the very top of the social pyramid, there’s nowhere to marry but down.  This means that you have an incentive to avoid having daughters, and if you do have daughters, you’ll be very anxious to avoid them making a bad match, which means lots of chastity-enforcement practices. You’ll also invest more in your sons than daughters in general, because your grandchildren through your sons will have a better chance in life than your grandchildren through your daughters.

The situation reverses if you’re a poor family. Your sons are pretty much screwed; they can’t marry into money (since women don’t inherit.) Your daughters, on the other hand, have a chance to marry up. So your grandchildren through your daughters have better chances than your grandchildren through your sons, and you should invest more resources in your daughters than your sons. Moreover, you might not be able to afford restrictive practices that cripple your daughters’ ability to work for a living. To some extent, sexism is a luxury good.

A similar analysis might explain why richer countries have larger gender differences in personality, interests, and career choices.  A degree in art history might function as a gentler equivalent of purdah — a practice that makes a woman a more appealing spouse but reduces her earning potential. You expect to find such practices more among the rich than the poor.  (Tyler Cowen’s take is less jaundiced, and more general, but similar — personal choices and “personality” itself are more varied when people are richer, because one of the things people “buy” with wealth is the ability to make fulfilling but not strictly pragmatic self-expressive choices.)

Finally, all these “paradoxical” trends are countered by the big nonparadoxical trend — by most reasonable standards, women are less oppressed in rich liberal countries than in poor illiberal ones.  The very best countries for women’s rights are also the ones with the lowest power distance: Nordic and Germanic countries.

Is Hierarchy the Engine of Growth or a Luxury Good?

If you observe that the “freest” (least hierarchical, lowest power distance, least authoritarian, etc) functioning organizations and societies tend to be small, poor, or primitive, you could come to two different conclusions:

  1. Freedom causes poverty (in other words, non-hierarchical organization is worse than hierarchy at scaling to large organizations or rich, high-population societies)
  2. Hierarchy is expensive (in other words, only the largest organizations or richest societies can afford the greatest degree of authoritarianism.)

The first possibility is bad news for freedom. It means you should worry you can’t scale up to wealth for large populations without implementing hierarchies.  The usual mechanism proposed for this is the hypothesis that hierarchies are needed to coordinate large numbers of people in large projects.  Without governments, how would you build public works? Or guard the seas for global travel and shipping? Without corporate hierarchies, how would you get mass-produced products to billions of people?  Sure, goes the story, idealists have proposed alternatives to hierarchy, and we know of intriguing counter examples like Harappa and Bali, but these tend to be speculative or small-scale and the success stories are sporadic.

The second possibility is (tentative)  good news for freedom.  It says that hierarchy is inefficient.  For instance, secluding women in harems wastes their productive potential. Top-down state control of the economy causes knowledge problems that limit economic productivity. The same problem applies to top-down control of decisionmaking in large firms.  Dominance hierarchies inhibit accurate transmission of information, which worsens knowledge problems and principal-agent problems (“communication is only possible between equals.”)  And elaborate displays of power and deference are costly, as nonproductive displays always are.  Only accumulations of large amounts of resources enable such wasteful activity, which benefits the top of the hierarchy in the short run but prevents the “pie” of total resources from growing.

This means that if you could just figure out a way to keep inefficient hierarchies from forming, you could grow systems to be larger and richer than ever.  Yes, historically, Western economies grew richer as states grew stronger — but perhaps a stateless society could be richer still.  Perhaps without the stagnating effects of rent-seeking, we could be hugely better off.

After all, this is kind of what liberalism did. It’s the big counter-trend to “wealth and despotism go together” — Western liberal-democratic countries are much richer and much less authoritarian (and less oppressive to women) than any pre-modern society, or than developing countries. One of the observations in Wealth of Nations is that countries with strong middle classes had more subsequent economic growth than countries with more wealth inequality — Smith uses England as an example of a fast-growing, equal society and China as an example of a stagnant, unequal one.

But this is only partial good news for freedom, after all. If hierarchies tend to emerge as soon as size, scale, and wealth arise, then that means we don’t have a solution to the problem of preventing them from emerging. On a model where any sufficiently large accumulation of resources begins to look attractive to “robber barons” who want to appropriate it and forcibly keep others out, we might hypothesize that a natural evolution of all human institutions is from an initial period of growth and value production towards inevitable value capture, stagnation, and decline.  We see a lack of freedom in the world around us, not because freedom can’t work well, but because it’s hard to preserve against the incursions of wannabe despots, who eventually ruin the system for everyone including themselves.

That model points the way to new questions, surrounding the kinds of governance that Jo Freeman talks about. By default an organization will succumb to inefficient hierarchy, and structureless organizations will succumb faster and to more toxic hierarchies. When designing governance structures, the question you want to ask is not just “is this a system I’d want to live under today?” but “how effective will this system be in the future at resisting the guys who will come along and try to take over and milk it for short-term personal gain until it collapses?”  And now we’re starting to sound like the rationale and reasoning behind the U.S. Constitution, though I certainly don’t think that’s the last word on the subject.

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25 thoughts on “The Relationship Between Hierarchy and Wealth

  1. This post is really great and I hope it leads to further inquiry on this topic.

    One thing that didn’t quite make sense to me:

    If you’re a rich family, a son is a “safe” outcome — he’ll inherit your wealth, and your grandchildren through him will be provided for, no matter whom he marries. A daughter, on the other hand, is a risk. You’ll have to pay a dowry when she marries, and if she marries “down” her children will be poorer than you are — and at the very top of the social pyramid, there’s nowhere to marry but down. This means that you have an incentive to avoid having daughters, and if you do have daughters, you’ll be very anxious to avoid them making a bad match, which means lots of chastity-enforcement practices. You’ll also invest more in your sons than daughters in general, because your grandchildren through your sons will have a better chance in life than your grandchildren through your daughters.

    The situation reverses if you’re a poor family. Your sons are pretty much screwed; they can’t marry into money (since women don’t inherit.) Your daughters, on the other hand, have a chance to marry up. So your grandchildren through your daughters have better chances than your grandchildren through your sons, and you should invest more resources in your sons than your daughters. Moreover, you might not be able to afford restrictive practices that cripple your daughters’ ability to work for a living. To some extent, sexism is a luxury good.

    At first I thought, couldn’t you hack this with sufficiently large dowries? If one of your daughters seems like a better bet to produce quality grandchildren than any of your sons, you could just give her a dowry corresponding to most of your household wealth.

    Then I realized that I was assuming a modern financialized paradigm which often didn’t hold. Possibly dowries have to be in cash and you don’t have liquidity. Possibly you could in principle make the family business the dowry, but women effectively can’t run the family business so you’d be transferring it to her husband. Possibly if gendered power imbalances are big enough, you don’t want to lose leverage over your son-in-law by making him richer than you, since he might then mistreat your daughter or simply redistribute some of his new wealth to illegitimate offspring.

    On the other hand, medieval and early modern elite European Jewish culture seems like an interesting exception to the rule that patrilineal societies favor men more at higher levels. There’s a pattern where the best scholars often marry wealthy men’s daughters for the dowry and inheritance. I think this is the result of a hybridization where the wealth hierarchy was largely independent of the scholarly prestige hierarchy, which depended more on pure individual merit than most prestige-allocation mechanisms. It might also have to do with the fact that there was a matrilineal component to Jewish succession, but I’m not sure.

    • Definitely poor young men could become respected scholars and marry up in that circumstance. Monogamy probably also made the prospects of poor young women a bit worse, at least in relative terms.

  2. >sexism is a luxury good.
    one further up: sexual dimorphism is a luxury good
    Anthropologists report that when unexpected wealth flows into a fairly poor society, increased spending on gender differentiating goods and services (for whatever those are in the particular culture) are disproportionately spent on.

  3. A causal question calls for an instrumental variable…

    Ranged weapons.

    We know that introducing small ranged weapons (bows or handguns) decreases power distance in a society. If hierarchy creates wealth, then the introduction of guns and subsequent weakening of the warrior-elite in 16th century Europe should have been followed by an economic collapse. To put it mildly, we don’t see that.

    Granted, one datapoint isn’t much of a trend. I think there’s similar patterns elsewhere, but I don’t know them well.

    Also, this is assuming linearity everywhere, while a goldilocks zone of hierarchy is entirely plausible.

  4. A word of warning: in practice, a lack of patriarchy looks a lot like single motherhood.

    From a man’s perspective, patriarchy looks like this:
    * Men want sex
    * Sex makes babies
    * Men really aren’t into babies all that much, generally speaking.
    ** In fact, the first story men ever wrote involved a woman getting together with a snake (penis) and tasting the forbidden fruit (cherry pie, in our idiom). She was cursed with painful childbirth; Adam was cursed with toil and bills.
    *** When the snake was talking, Adam’s higher brain functions weren’t around. Sounds about right.
    * Almost all known cultures have marriage, a type of social institution that obligates men to provide for their wives and offspring.
    ** Men aren’t that into marriage, except where it’s necessary to get sex.
    ** Most cultures apply social pressure to ensure that men marry when women are pregnant, if not before.
    * Men will usually tolerate having to provide for their own offspring, but will rarely tolerate having to provide for someone else’s offspring. Female infidelity ruins the deal, and the man usually leaves.
    ** Male infidelity is less likely to destroy the marriage, and some forms of marriage are explicitly polygynous.

    To see how families work without patriarchy, see Kathryn Edins books Promises I Can Keep about single mothers and Doing the Best I Can about single fathers. For patriarchy breaking down, see the movie Juno.

    • I’m well aware. This is part of my model. I know single motherhood is hard and have personally observed it being hard, and I still have opinions besides “therefore patriarchy” but it’s more complicated.

      • Fair enough. Just keep in mind that men have our own wants and needs, and social arrangements that don’t work for us have to work without us.

    • The Mosuo people in China had a non-patriarchal system that does look a lot like single motherhood, but men are expected to provide for their female siblings’ children (instead of the children of the women that sleep with them).

      • Sure, there are a lot of strange little variants. I’ve even heard of some odd little tribe in Tibet that manages polyandry because the husbands are siblings (men don’t mind taking care of their nephews as much as unrelated kids). But these sorts of arrangements are pretty obscure and we don’t know much about how well they work in practice (How often do the men walk away? Do women find being supported by their brothers more or less comfortable than being supported by husbands? What happens if a woman doesn’t have any brothers?). I’d hesitate to draw too many conclusions from this, especially when we’ve got a billion polygynous Muslims as a counterexample.

    • That seems like a really incomplete definition of patriarchy, though, even from a man’s perspective. As a western liberal elite male, the social pressure I face is
      “In order to call your life a success, you should eventually marry a woman and have at least one kid with her. Between the two of you you need to ensure that the kid is cared for and provided for; divvy that up in a way you’re both happy with, and don’t you dare use tradition to foist an unwanted division on the woman. Until then have sex with all the women you want as long as you use birth control.”

      This is theoretically and empirically sufficient to mostly prevent single motherhood, but calling it ‘patriarchy’ seems like a stretch.

      • Birth control is a recent innovation that changes a lot, until kids are born. But in the long run kids are a necessity.
        Once kids are born, you’ll both have an unwanted division of labor. Babies kind of suck. The “divvy that up in a way you’re both happy with” is the hard part. Men often find that leaving is a very attractive option a few years down the line, even if they don’t expect to feel that way earlier in life. To say that Western liberal elite practices are “empirically sufficient to mostly prevent single motherhood” seems a bit of a stretch; divorce and serial monogamy (asynchronous polygyny?) are common in that population. Patriarchy as I’ve described it represents one common and reasonably effective solution, even if it’s not entirely satisfactory for anyone.

  5. >Finally, within societies, it’s sometimes the case that poor women are treated better than rich ones. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy writes about observing that female infanticide was much more common among wealthy Indian Rajput families than poor ones. And we know of many examples across societies of aristocratic or upper-class women being more restricted to the domestic sphere, married off younger, less likely to work, more likely to experience restrictive practices like seclusion or footbinding, than their poorer counterparts.

    >Hrdy explains why: in patrilinear societies, men inherit wealth and women don’t. If you’re a rich family, a son is a “safe” outcome — he’ll inherit your wealth, and your grandchildren through him will be provided for, no matter whom he marries. A daughter, on the other hand, is a risk. You’ll have to pay a dowry when she marries, and if she marries “down” her children will be poorer than you are — and at the very top of the social pyramid, there’s nowhere to marry but down. This means that you have an incentive to avoid having daughters, and if you do have daughters, you’ll be very anxious to avoid them making a bad match, which means lots of chastity-enforcement practices. You’ll also invest more in your sons than daughters in general, because your grandchildren through your sons will have a better chance in life than your grandchildren through your daughters.

    I think you are missing the effects of hierarchy on the status of women by confusing relative oppression for absolute oppression. Women in the aristocracy might be *relatively* more oppressed as a proportion of their overall potential power, but the absolute level of oppression is higher among the lower strata. I’m just going to crib from the notes of Harriet Taylor Mill. The tragedy of the aristocratic woman is that noble and educated minds are unable to reach their full potential in self-actualizing professions that better the lot of mankind. They suffered from the problem which has no name. The tragedy of the peasant woman is that her men sends her to work, takes her resources, and then gives her a beating for her trouble. And to be quite frank, female liberation has not fixed this. Indeed, the only change in the ghettos and the trailer parks is that now the men don’t work in between the raping and the beating.

    A sign of things to come can be seen in the popular literature of the Regency. The domestic life of the peasantry was exceedingly disordered, with men flitting about sowing their wild oats every which way, much to the chagrin of the nobility. They also wrote pop songs about cucking the country squires or about how large their genitals were. I think Sowell is absolutely right that a lot of dysfunctions of what we call black culture… are not uniquely black, they’re the problems of the “Redneck” with a different color. Anyways, to get back to the point, women wanted to get lots of dick in countryside before going to the city to get more dick, in the process homewrecking all those haughty noblewomen with their flat chests and big words. Ha! Fuck nerds.

    The selection pressures of the elite *must* incline them to allow certain outlets for their women, because you need smart women to make smart sons. And a capable women left nothing quickly becomes frustrated and unhappy. But the nature of being an elite gives you some room to work with – a noblewoman is inherently higher status than a peasant man, just as a poor white is inherently higher status than a black slave. So you see women’s education and certain women’s spheres, like stewardship and the management of an estate. You mention restrictions like seclusion and foot-binding. But the greatest heights of the Ottoman harem system were also the years of the Sultanate of Women, where women held sway over the fate of the empire. That footbinding regime? In China, female literacy was formally outlawed, but it was common for women to be educated in secret. And, of course, Empress Dowager Cixi ruled over the empire during most of the years it dealt with the West. The selection pressures towards elite feminism are *strong*. Who is responsible for the fate of your House? Often, it is the women of the house, who must carry on the business of governance and profession while the lord is away or dead. Overwhelmingly, the executors of noble wills were their wives. Is it any wonder Elizabeth Racz said noblewomen considered this state of affairs the best of *possible* worlds? The Marquise de la Tour du Pin complained that before the Revolution, women could pursue power, prestige, and office, playing the game of court politics, and afterwards they were relegated to the home, an unhappy and frustrating state of affairs.

    This introduces a second restraining factor against female equality – the need to keep up appearances. Women cannot have formal equality in Ancien Regime because it undermines the ideology and moral authority of the Ancien Regime. The need for education is balanced by the cultural needs of the regime. This introduces a mental tension and induces a painful cognitive dissonance. You have liberal-minded elite men acting against their own conscience and elite women suffering the problem with no name. But the idea is that you maintain a fragile domestic order among the lower strata. Queen Victoria, the most powerful woman in the world, consciously projected an image of docile household life. As far as I know, she invented the concept of the Hallmark card. In reality, Albert resented this and yearned to exert his “rightful” husbandly power over her, but the government and the elite would not suffer such an imposition, nor would Victoria. But the projection of this image of docility was important to bringing domestic peace across the empire and ending the wantonness of the Regency peasantry. But, again, mental tension. Their retreats to other palaces like Balmoral were so pleasant because Victoria could actually act out the happy married life she projected, bringing a temporary respite to the cognitive dissonance.

    So, obviously, this comes to an end. One of the corollaries to the idea of equality is that the lower orders do not need any moral guidance, they being equal. How can the mores of the Ancien Regime continue to survive and thrive in an age of equality? They can’t. For elite women, this is nothing but a boon. As it turns out, the best of possible worlds could get even better. This is like eating a cake and discovering a pile of gold coins underneath. Formerly aristocratic women were freed from occupational ghettos like nursing and teaching to assume the full prestige and power of their male counterparts. And they still had happy marriages and families. Women CEOs today actually have a *higher* fertility rate than the general population. If I recall correctly, you have a happy home life *and* a high prestige elite career. You have it all.

    But among the commoners? It turns out the lower strata women didn’t abandon their puerile fantasies. Ye Olde Sexe and the Citye became Sex and the City, which does not work terribly well in meatspace – it’s a fantasy! Women today go to college to get tons and tons of debt and end up as janitors in expensive cities, eventually dying alone, with no career, no husband, no children, and no money. Is it any wonder depression is so common among modern women? I think, even if you are the most hardcore feminist, you can agree that life course would suck.

    We are living in the age of elite liberation. But Wolfe’s Great Relearning may be close at hand.

  6. This is a far ranging discussion of hierarchy and very interesting, but also an oddly blinkered one in certain respects. Which is to say, this discussion doesn’t really seem to actively engage in what hierarchy actually does, what functions it performs. It says, well sometimes there is hierarchy and sometimes there isn’t and these are examples of one and those are examples of the other and how they differ; and these are how those differences align with a number of prisms.

    You know this, but hierarchy provides oversight, coordination, and control. With 5 people, you only need to watch 4 other people. You can mentally track 4 other people and have enough mental resources to do your day job, especially if you work closely with those 4 people. With thousands of people, no one can track that many people, so maybe you have one manager per 50 ground level workers, so then you have 40 managers for a 2000 people project. But those 40 have to be coordinated, so maybe you then add a board of 5 senior managers each managing 8 of the managers. At the cost of 2 additional hierarchy levels and 2.2% of the people doing management instead of ground level work you can now complete 2000 person projects instead of 5 person projects. This is, to a large extent, the main point of hierarchy. Its why the non-hierarchal societies you mention may have houses and maybe ditches but they don’t have pyramids. Now pyramids are not actually that useful, but skyscrapers, the hoover dam, and semiconductor factories are extremely useful examples of projects that need thousands of people to complete.

    The other thing that coordination does is reduce all manner of conflicts and transactional costs. The “Theory of the Firm” is a big thing in the field of Economics that investigates why so much of the actual economic activity in the world takes place inside hierarchical non-market corporate entities instead of on the open market. This constitutes a significant body of research beginning with Ronald Coase in 1937 that has significant bearing on the kinds of questions you seem interested in.

    • Yes, firm theory is relevant, & I have read a little about it. I think I *did* touch on the possibility that hierarchy is necessary for coordination of large projects; I don’t *know* how much and what kinds are necessary, while you seem to be taking it for granted.

      • For a first guess, I’d say that as the number of people coordinating approaches Dunbar’s number, the ability to coordinate everyone without some sort of fractal hierarchy deteriorates. 150 is the usual upper estimate.

      • I don’t believe that I am taking things for granted (obviously my beliefs about my thought process could be wrong). The way hierarchy works to organize people is obvious. Corporates have hierarchy. Governments have hierarchy. Armies have hierarchy. High school afterschool clubs have hierarchy. Hierarchy is everywhere and easy to see, we have a lot of observations. The basic mechanism is simple. Instead of everyone supervising an unmanageable number of people, you have a subset supervise a manageable number of people. When it gets to be too many people, you add another layer so that no one needs to track too many people. How do I know it works this way? Because I can see it. So can anyone.
        You ask, how do I know hierarchy is “necessary” for large scale projects. I don’t. But I know that hierarchy allows large scale projects. It’s a means of organization that has worked many times in many places, is both conceptually and structurally simple, and is easy to replicate.
        You seem to have searched for non hierarchical societies, and not really found any that you could confidently say have engaged in large scale projects. You have found Bali where the hierarchy is maybe branded as a religion instead of a state, and Harappan civilization, where we don’t really know that much about how they were organized (although Wikipedia seems to indicate that current scholarship supposes they did have centralized authority at the city level even if not at the civilizational level).
        That’s why I said that it seemed like a partially blinkered search strategy. If you want to know what a non-hierarchal structure would look like, one natural approach is to look for an example and see what it looks like. That’s what you attempted. The other natural approach seems like it would be to look at hierarchies, observe the various functions that they serve and then look for alternative structures that serve those functions. If individual functions were served by different alternative structures, maybe you could imagine a way to cobble those structures together to build something that covered all the functions. If neither of the obvious approaches work, then maybe you need to get really creative, but it seems odd to not at least try both obvious approaches first.

  7. Hm, so, there’s a bunch of things I want to say about this. I guess the main thing is, I think we need to break down the idea of “hierarchy” further. I mean, OK, you say what you mean by “hierarchy” at the top, but I do think we can break it down further, I don’t think there’s just one phenomenon here.

    Like, let’s start with another use of the word “hierarchy”, one you didn’t mention but which is related, namely, tree structure. It’s obvious why a tree-structured organization can be helpful, because many problems can be usefully broken down in a tree structure. So, imagine you have a tree-structured — and therefore hierarchical — organization. You’ve got person O at the top, who has subordinates A, B, and C, each of who have subordinates of their own. Let’s say person C has subordinates X, Y, and Z.

    Now, who’s higher on the hierarchy, person A or person X? Well, a tree is a partial order — the answer is that they’re incomparable. Person A isn’t authorized to give orders to person X, because person X is working on a different part of the problem entirely; that would be a violation of the very thing that makes this tree structure so useful.

    Or at least… that’s how it should be. But there seems to be a real difference between such hierarchies of idealized agents, and hierarchies of actual humans. The latter tend to… collapse together a bit, to lose their particular intended structure and become this one generic sort of hierarchy. One that’s linear in nature, even when it’s not supposed to be. One where, actually, A can give orders to X — maybe not officially still, but X will be in trouble if they don’t do as A says. One where everything correlates — where those on “top” not only control more, but also, as you say, get more of the rewards (potentially appropriate) and also are just considered “better” in general (definitely not appropriate), and come out ahead regardless of how badly things go; one where shit flows not uphill, as the tree-structure demands, but downhill, because those uphill are just “better” and can’t be at fault. One where those on top don’t properly let their subordinates get on with their own areas, handling just the top-level coordination, but instead meddle below to prove their dominance or to fend off ideas that they might be useless (even though their meddling makes them worse than useless); or where they don’t properly use their subordinates as their eyes and ears but instead make decisions blindly (they may blind themselves via the SNAFU principle that you mention, e.g.; something that wouldn’t happen in a better-run hierarchy where of course those up top want to hear about anything that’s going wrong). And, of course, ones whose top levels fill up not with people who are better at running organizations, but people who are better at social maneuvering, who seek flattery rather than effectiveness, and are basically just in the organization to extract what resources they can before it crumbles.

    To be clear, I don’t think the sort of idealized hierarchy I talk about is some sort of optimal organization — I think more liberal organizations are probably better because they can make better use of members’ brainpower — I’m just saying, it’s much better than what you typically get with actual people. Basically, as I see it, the problem isn’t so much hierarchical structure, but rather human social instincts. Of course I guess in the real world the latter are fixed and therefore not a viable approach to the problem (or at least mostly not — liberalism does seem to have taught people to check these instincts to some extent, if not nearly enough), but, there you go.

    But I think this “everything correlates” nature of actual human hierarchies — that allow sorting them along a single dimension from “top” to “bottom”, rather than having (say) position in the tree not necessarily correlate with other things — is a distinctive feature that goes into a lot of what we mean when we talk about “hierarchy”.

    But, OK, that’s hierarchy, what about non-hierarchy? Sounds quite broad, doesn’t it? Everything that isn’t hierarchy. A world of possibility! And yet it seems to me that these tend to collapse together as well. Of course, as you already mentioned, they collapse by transitioning to informal hierarchy (which being run entirely on human social instincts is potentially the worst sort). But let’s ignore that for a moment and talk about how they collapse together even before they’re but into practice.

    Which is to say, that it seems to me that often, when people speak of non-hierarchy, they don’t mean, every possible structure that isn’t hierarchy, but rather specifically mean structures that make everyone equal in some way. It’s as if there’s some sort of scalar number, which you might call “power” or “status”, that we can apply to each person in the organization, and that the structure of the organization flows from; and in hierarchy this number varies between the members and in non-hierarchy it doesn’t. But both are essentially determined by the same program but with different inputs. Or to put it differently: “Non-hierarchical” organizations of this sort aren’t ones where “everything correlates” fails to hold, rather they’re ones where it just holds trivially instead.

    And it seems to me that this is just missing so much — every possible form of organization that isn’t determined by a scalar status function. “Non-hierarchy” shouldn’t mean “everyone’s status is equal”, rather it should mean “The organization can’t be summarized in terms of something so simplistic as distribution of status.” But I worry that such a thing may not be maintainable, that human social instincts may push us towards organizations determined by status assignments, whether hierarchical or the opposite. High or low power distance, as you say, rather than power distance being a meaningless question.

    But I’m overstating things. In the real world we do see some structures with a little more complexity to them — you mention the US federal government, as set out in the US constitution; that’s a good example. The president is top dog of the executive branch — that part is basically fully hierarchical — but can’t order around a member of congress or a judge, and certainly not an ordinary citizen. After all, we’re the president’s boss, not the other way around. But note how the president and not us gets paid to run the executive branch, because, well, duh — which is an example of things actually not correlating! Hooray!

    …except, once again, in the real world this structure doesn’t work out quite as it’s been set out. Because, well, authoritarianism is a real thing. No, the president can’t order around an ordinary citizen, and indeed we’re the ones who are suppose to evaluate the president’s performance; and yet there’s no shortage of people who ignore this written structure in favor of human social instincts that say, hey, this person is high-status, show them respect! Don’t question them, don’t criticize them! That would be disrespectful of the president and the country! Even though the written structure makes us responsible for doing exactly that. And like, plenty of people in the US are not authoritarian — so I don’t think this can all be explained, as you suggest, by people having to do this in order to get ahead. Rather it seems there actually is a lot of honest authoritarianism out there.

    There’s an idea out there, I gather it’s somewhat common in the UK — and I don’t know how much to credit this, but I think it’s worth mentioning — that politics works better in the UK than in the US because, you see, the UK has a ceremonial monarch for people to direct their authoritarian instincts towards, allowing them to treat politicians as they should, i.e., people elected to do a job; whereas the US doesn’t have this, so the authoritarians venerate the president instead, screwing up the intended flow of command. Like I said, I’m not sure how true this is, but I thought it was worth mentioning. I do have to wonder if something like this, as wasteful as it might sound — you need to pay a person just to act as figurehead! — and as difficult to pull off as it might be — you have to give them no actual power, and not making it obvious what you’re doing, and people will be able to tell — could be a useful way to reduce the effective amount of hierarchy in large organizations and allow them to function better. But IDK; like I said, absent a long tradition of monarchy or something similar, I don’t see how you could even pull it off.

    Finally, one other note which doesn’t fit in elsewhere here, which is just that, like, I wanted to note that a traditional gendered division of labor in which women have the same bargaining power as men, like, still isn’t freedom, because, well, it’s still a traditional gendered division of labor.

    Anyway I don’t know where I’m going with this. I really have no clue to what extent we can escape the one-dimensional measure of power distance. But I thought all this was worth mentioning, anyway.

  8. I see a lot of clear ideas and good reasoning here. I’m concerned that I might not be accepting it because of a couple of points where maybe the argument is not as strong as it might be. One minor thing that was very jarring to me, because definitions were fairly clear elsewhere in the essay, was the equivocation in one section between “hierarchical” and “government”. The Bali link had buried in the middle of paragraphs statements like “This hierarchical system of temples ensures that decisions about water are made at strategic points” and “the temple priest decides the timing.” It expect there might turn out to be a fair amount of power distance in that system, even though it’s not part of a government. In the same way my impression is that the robber barons who privately build the U.S. railways were using hierarchical organizations that had significant amounts of power distance. So it felt incongruous that these seemed to be lumped in with non-hierarchical.”

    But the biggest gasp for me was that the essay didn’t consider how power distance might insulate people from being a “loser” in the psychologically significant way. This is something I’ve struggled with personally. I joined a group of women and was recognized as a asset at and a leader in this thing we were doing together. I began to socialize with them as a peer and an equal. And it was hard on me psychologically to hear about their lives and the successes they had without any social distance between us. After some hard work I was able to contextualize and see that as a disabled woman with a disabled husband I was in a difference life success competition from these non-disabled women with their non-disabled husbands. But the fact that as Americans in an egalitarian culture these women and I don’t use any marks of social class or make and hierarchical distinctions still creates strain for me from time to time.

    I think that if a large groups needs to pick just one direction to go in, the more people encouraged to champion their own personal favorite direction, the more losers you make. And this is a cost that need sto be taken into consideration with everything else when evaluating hierarchies.

  9. Really Really excellent description of the problem. I have always made the claim that the point of government should be to prevent other more destructive governments from forming (including mafias, abusive monopolies, etc.) I think your article clearly illustrates the constant push-pull between cooperation and defection that defines power structures.

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