Accident of Birth: A Feature, Not a Bug?

Earlier today Jeffrey Tucker asked on Twitter “In theory, the higher end your status and the more protected your position, the more you are willing to tell the truth. In practice, it seems to be the opposite”. As I pointed out in my replies, there’s a simple explanation for this: the theory is correct; guaranteed high status does incentivize truth telling, it’s just that this effect is swamped by the effects of how our society selects people for such positions.

To wit, the only people allowed to advance to any position of guaranteed high social status are precisely those people most inclined to ignore objective reality for the sake of social conformity, to mold their thoughts to the whims of the herd, to groom their very souls to the wills of the bureaucracy, the very people who will make no use of the privilege to speak the truth that guaranteed high social status grants a person.

The latter effect swamps the former effect; so we end up with this system where we have the bones of a platform that enables people to tell the truth, but we virtually never see anyone actually do so. When it comes to free inquiry, intellectual debate, even democratic politics, it’s like “the emperor has no clothes”, only instead of an emperor it’s a system, instead of clothes it’s the garb of science.

Strike the Root

So what is to be done? Often “heterodox” academics suggest some sort of renaissance of free speech, and sure, that would help; after all, this defect in our system seems to have worsened in recent years, concomitant with the rise of “wokeness”. But really, it’s been there for a very long time, and all indications suggest it’s not the emanation of some ideological fad, but rather structural in nature.

Specifically, the structure of “meritocracy” itself is defective. The very premise of a meritocracy is that those who are the best for each task, job, or role, i.e. those with the most merit, should be selected. Most prominently, and perhaps most radically, meritocracy contends that top jobs should be selected in the same fashion. That’s the sort of idea that sounds uncontroversially true: of course the people best at leadership should occupy the leadership positions, right?

But is that what an actually-existing “meritocracy” really does? Often we’re asked a good question; how is “the best” defined? Rarely is an even better question asked: who exactly is supposed to do the selecting? In practice the answer is the very bureaucratic institutions that suffuse our society; they select their own leadership.

Public choice theory tells us that bureaucrats always are incentivized to act in bureaucrats’ interests, that bureaucracies are always incentivized to act in bureaucracies’ interests; sure, occasionally they might face an incentive to act in the interests of their ostensible mission or their country’s people, but this factor necessarily waxes and wanes, and is almost never particularly strong anyway, whereas the incentive to further the bureaucratic institutions themselves is always present and very powerful. It stands to reason the latter prevails when it comes to making the decisions of who to hire, especially for secure and prestigious positions: in any system where bureaucrats exercise free choice of who to promote, the qualities of those who are promoted will inexorably trend those traits that best serve the bureaucracy.

The Virtue of Democracy

The only solution to this doom loop is to take the bureaucrats’ power of selection away from them; the incentive, and thus the trend, to select those whose traits maximally favor the bureaucracy is arrested if said bureaucracy doesn’t have a choice in the matter. If the people who have guaranteed high social status were selected at random, by lot, from the general population, you would see a lot more truth-telling than we have today; the traits that lead to free inquiry are far more common among the general population than among those who are selected for being the best at appeasing the desires of bureaucracies.

Interestingly, something like this was done in the ancient democracies; classical states very often selected their political office-holders by lot. Such personnel didn’t really have high social status, but the experience of states like Athens demonstrates that random selection can work well in even the highest positions in society.

I suspect that filling the “guaranteed high social status so you feel comfortable telling the truth” positions in society by lot would work much more effectively than our current “meritocratic” system at accomplishing its stated goal. Interestingly, although I don’t think much of elections generally, even election by the general population would be a great improvement. Consider that popular election is, like sortition, a system that strips bureaucracies of the power to choose their own top men.

Even appointment by elected officials, a more indirect method, should be effective, albeit to a lesser degree. This basically describes the “spoils system”, which had its fair share of problems, but a lack of alignment between the civil service and the elected government (serving the latter being the ostensible goal of the system), was not one of them, in stark contrast to today’s “permanent government”.

Maybe there’s something to Aristocracy?

Most interestingly of all, selection by birth fulfills this essential criterion as well: when institutions cannot select their own people with guaranteed high social status, but must suffer the progeny of whoever also had guaranteed high social status generations ago, the traits that prevail in such important positions tend to not be those that best serve the bureaucracy, but rather a far more eclectic combination of traits, which have a much higher chance of leading to those that serve the cause of truth-telling well.

Not coincidentally, back in the old days, when our social system was dominated by the upper class and positions of guaranteed social status were primarily filled by birth, there was a large number of “gentleman scientists” and scholars who routinely thought and spoke with complete independence, exactly as the traditional theory of “guaranteed high social status leads to truth-telling” would predict.

Aristocracy is often sneered at placing people in top positions “by accident of birth”, but what if that very accidentality is a virtue rather than a vice? After all, theoretically, filling prestigious positions randomly rather than by institutions’ free choice should lead to superior results, and courtesy of mean reversion, outbreeding, and various recessive genes cropping up, the traits you get after a few generations of an inherited elite have a large random element.

Indeed, this very randomness might be why aristocracy can even hold a candle to more modern methods of social organization; after all, filling positions in leadership, arts, culture, science, and scholarship by blood should theoretically be vastly inferior to filling such posts by merit, yet even by the most generous assessment the results the latter has produced aren’t that much more impressive than the former. Consider that the best of classical culture easily stands up to the best of modern culture, despite the former having been produced by a tiny elite that wasn’t particularly selected for merit in these fields, and the former being produced by masses of people who are particularly selected for merit. Some barrier or another must be inhibiting modern societies’ performance, and what I outline here is it I think.

Theoretically, therefore, the current “meritocratic” bureaucracy is worse than either a pure democracy or an aristocracy. Such a view is not often heard, at least not explicitly, but it’s really not that strange to think bureaucracy is the worst social system of all. Somewhat famously, none other than J.R.R. Tolkien declaimed “My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning the abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) — or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy”. That might sound contradictory, and some have attempted to synthesize such views into an “anarcho-monarchism”, but really, I suspect anti-modern-state and anti-bureaucracy is much closer to what Tolkien actually believed. Quite a few people share this visceral repulsion at the way our societies are organized in this day and age; as David Graeber has pointed out, it’s no coincidence that fantasy, a genre where the modern corporate-statist bureaucracy is conspicuous by its absence, is so wildly popular.

While a pure democracy would be the best cure, since if you made our guaranteed high-status positions hereditary it would take generations for the pro-bureaucratic traits to be bred out, not to mention the advantage of bringing in a group of people who are less cloistered from the common man’s experience, aristocratic methods do have certain advantages, particularly for guaranteed high-social-status positions such as scientists and scholars.

Consider that the upper class are naturally in a position of command, and raise their children from birth to be comfortable exercising power and leadership responsibly; critically, this environment also engenders more independence in thought and action, and provides time and resources to start the best education in liberal arts that a society can provide very early in a scion’s life. There’s a certain aura that only truly old money has, that comes from a family having been on top for multiple saecula, and common people just aren’t going to replicate that, even if a democratic society does inculcate all these virtues to some extent in the general population (there’s a reason autocratic France produced mob rule far worse than anything seen in democratic Athens).

Interestingly, considering this factor, the theoretically best system may well be a politically purely democratic society with generally downright anarchistic models of social organization, but where the positions of guaranteed high social status are filled by a hereditary nobility. Interesting because this is more or less what classical Athens had; although possessing no political power, there was indeed a hereditary nobility, with all the attendant informal influence and privileges. Hmm. Under current circumstances I’d recommend just doing random selection, but all it is perhaps something we should keep in mind.


The upshot of all this? You can’t have a system where institutions are free to pick and choose who gets positions of guaranteed high social status and expect the chosen ones to display any independence of thought or action from the institution that chose them. To get results, the choice must be taken out of their hands; so powerful is this effect that even systems where names are picked out of a hat or descendants of previous office-holders inherit regardless of merit produce at least as much competence in practice than “meritocracy” does. Certainly it produces much more independence and truth-telling.

An ancient and common practice that might seem crazy to moderns often in fact has a good reason behind it. As I’ve pointed out before, scholars have only recently caught on to a great virtue of the likes of oracles and divination: they introduce an independent and quasi-random element in the decision-making process, preventing bias from overwhelming judgment as thoroughly as it would otherwise. Be it by blood or by lot, a similar element of randomness could help us realize the true potential of all the guaranteed high-status positions we have in our society today that so many have found wanting.

One Reply to “Accident of Birth: A Feature, Not a Bug?”

  1. The problem is that self-perpetuating bureaucracy is as arbitrary as self-perpetuating nobility. Also to be part of the nobility is not sufficient to be in the position of power, poor knights may be somewhat better off than the common folk but certainly not in position of power. Also there is this saying that to control a person physically you need two cops which alludes to the fact that any position of power is precarious.

    That is the overlord (whether king, bureaucrat, oligarch, or mafia boss) cannot reap the benefits of ruling over people by locking them up physically forever. When people are not completely constricted physically it depends on the walls built in their minds to stay subservient to the authority, and the truth exposes this fact. The people can be ruled over only when they allow it.

    That in turn means that people in the position of power will not have propensity for telling the truth. If they had they would be dethroned shortly. The very fact that they remain means that they have a need to avoid the truth.

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