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Beneficiaries of Dysfunction
You pay an organisation to do what makes its resources go up: III
This article can be adumbrated thusly: Policies based on an imagined future—when we can only learn from the past—let vampire elites profit from poor social outcomes in areas where they do not live.
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If you want to make things work, then it is sensible to be attentive to the past—to what did and did not work, to experience with the structure of things. For most of human history, making things work at all was the central problem: having enough food, shelter, clothing, social connection, and order to get by.
If your concern is making things work better, than it is still sensible to care about the past. Making things better means one must avoid making them worse. One has to infer what may work better from experience.
In situations were most folk lived subsistence lives, there were considerable risks in tinkering with what was known to work. It’s why shifts in how things were done tended to be provoked either by changes in circumstances—moving to a new area, the disappearance of a previous food source, increases in social density—or occurred in societies that had generated surplus resources. It was worth having a go.
So, mercantile societies have tended to be unusually innovative societies, not merely because commerce is inherently a discovery process, but also because mercantile societies tend to interact with a wide range of folk and circumstances while generating enough surplus to give new things a go.
What has regularly proved to be disastrous is the belief one has a definitive Theory about how things work, so one can just apply the Theory and make things better: even profoundly better. This runs into the only law always in force: the Law of Unintended Consequences.
We Homo sapiens are pretty clever. Indeed, the fundamental structure of all human societies—transferring resources to child-rearing and risks away from child-rearing—is driven by our children being biologically expensive thanks to the time and effort it takes to grow and develop our big brains.
We are not that clever, however. To create tolerably functional societies takes a lot of learning, learning embedded in customs, habits, institutions: more knowledge than any Theory can capture.
The problem gets worse, the grander the envisaged social transformation. The grander the social transformation, the more one must discount past and present as morally inadequate, and informationally compromised. The more embedded learning one must toss away.
Discounting past and present experience means eliminating the only sources of information we actually have—there is no information from the future. This is made worse again if one characterises constraint as oppression, because it implies discounting structure itself: for instance, by treating humans as blank slates.
Only people insulated from the brute problems of making things work can consider taking such a path. Hence academe—full of people whose intellectual output is insulated from making things work—becomes a sucker milieu for disastrous Theory. This is especially so with Theory that generates shared Moral Grandeur status games.
For academics—selected for capacity but not character, and increasingly for conformity while discounting capacity in favour of identity—to see themselves as some moral and cognitive elite is a ludicrous exercise in collective narcissism. Academe is populated by a mix of toxic zealots (typically drunk on Theory), conformist cowards (often far too deferential to Theory), and honourable scholars.
There are plenty of folk in the professions and business every bit as smart as the smartest academic. Meanwhile, the morally pure intentions academics are so often so proud of reflect a disconnect from making things work, which is precisely what makes Morally Grand Theory so enticing. It generates a sense of moral and cognitive self-importance among folk shielded from any consequences. There is a reason Marxism lives on in academe.
The mass university sector then pumps Theory-drunk folk into institutions. Bureaucracies—government, corporate, non-profit—are particularly prone to such Theory. It provides selection mechanisms (pick folk who agree), aids internal coordination (everyone operates off the same playbook), hoards authority (since intentions are, of course, so Morally Grand), spends resources on itself (see Moral Grandeur) and insulate bureaucrats from the complexities of competence (see Moral Grandeur). The latter is greatly assisted by invoking the Activist’s Fallacy:
We are doing X to achieve Y.
You are critiquing doing X.
You are against Y.
We are doing Diversity-Inclusion-Equity to fight bigotry and disadvantage.
You are critiquing Diversity-Inclusion-Equity.
You are a bigot who defends privilege.
The Transcult lives off the Activist’s Fallacy. But so does Post-Enlightenment Progressivism (“wokery”) in general. We are currently observing state bureaucracies using Trans to supplant parental authority with their own, in the name of Theory.
The commitment to the Morally Grand Theory then creates a mutually-reinforcing sense of moral authority that operates through networks and social signalling. Hence, a high degree of coordination can be achieved without centralised direction.
This mutually-reinforcing sense of moral authority is useful, as it allows one to discount any resistance, complaint or disagreement. This is hugely beneficial to existing elite networks. The lower classes can be dismissed as “morally vulgar”, as lacking the discernment to appreciate the Urgent Moral Necessity of what elites must do.
Theory not only actively invites the Theory-drunk to see themselves as a Moral Elite. It also actively denigrates fellow citizens as either human clay to be moulded by their Betters or as the Deplorable Enemies of Moral Purpose.
In educated milieus, folk get to identify as Moral Betters who are In The Know. Consuming “quality” media makes them knowingly informed, even as they are fed “this is what the good and the smart believe” narratives that can be very narrow, or even wildly misleading.
The combination of narrative-driven media and self-policing through discounting “improper” sources generates media siloes. “Misinformation” has become a mechanism to encourage, even enforce, such siloing.
Russiagate provided a dramatic example of the damage this does to public discourse. It was a clear example of elite misinformation that has since been documented (pdf) as such, but only for those willing to break out of their media silo.
Mass prosperity and social complexity combined tend to shift the focus of normative behaviour away from shared threats and problems to internal competition. Our capacity for self-deception—especially when operating in social milieus that actively favour selection for effective mechanisms in gaming of norms—is easily up to making all this work.
Creating vampire elites
Add in a welfare state where colonising social pathologies is a path to more resources and one ends up with networks of folk who benefit from social dysfunction. In the US, one can see this operating very strongly. The combination of affirmative action and welfare generates incentives hostile to human flourishing.
With the ending of segregation, African-Americans patronised Euro-American businesses far more than the reverse was true. Due to discriminatory zoning, Euro-American businesses were in more accessible locations with better transport. Due to decades of under-policing of African-American localities, they were also in safer neighbourhoods.
Affirmative action in US federal employment provided congenial replacement middle-class jobs as African-American commercial opportunities shrank, even where segregation had not been law. Affirmative action in US federal employment thus helped strip African-American communities of their commercial middle class: instead, the African-American middle class flooded into federal employment.
Affirmative action in education and public sector employment also created an African-American public sector elite and literati who get social leverage precisely because their ethno-racial confreres do disproportionately badly. If African-Americans started doing as well as everyone else, that leverage would go away.
Thus was created a “vampire elite” who literally prosper from blood and death in African-American localities (where elites no longer live).
You pay people to do what makes their income go up, and even more what gives them higher status and increased social leverage. Much of the African-American elite have come reliably to support bad policies—including systematic suppression of inconvenient noticing—for communities whose poor social outcomes they profit from but do not have to share.
The most egregious recent example of this was the anti-police activism associated with the 2014 Ferguson and 2020 George Floyd riots. Raising the career and social risks for police interacting with “people of colour” led to a withdrawal of policing in such localities. This created an utterly predictable surge in homicides, reversing the previous long-term trend of African-American homicide rates converging towards Euro-American homicide rates.
Later revelations of BLM donation-grifting was in character with what BLM was functionally about, as opposed to the organisation’s self-justifying rhetoric. Supporting anti-police activism is precisely what you would expect members of a vampire elite to do.
We are excellent at (self-deceptively) gaming norms in our own self-interest, having evolved to do so across thousands of generations. Which includes, of course, gaming ourselves so as to be both more motivated and more persuasive.
Thus one ends up with people like Ta-Nehisi Coates—the African-American vampire elite’s prose laureate—using white supremacy to explain so much. When applied to the contemporary US, “white supremacy” is a bullshit concept that explains little.
Even during the period when one could talk of explicit white supremacy, a lot of social indicators among African-Americans were relatively high (notably family stability) or improving (educational attainment, exit from poverty). Many of these indicators have since stalled, gone into reverse, or are padded by recently arrived, educated African migrants. These, of course, are strangely willing to migrate to a “white supremacist” and “structurally racist” society, one in which they regularly do well.
Busing students also had adverse consequences for the descendants of American slaves. Busing weakened the connection between schools and local communities, and, by forcing associations between folk who did not like or trust each other—including taking African-American students away from African-American teachers modelling middle-class life-strategies within their communities—undermined the commitment of African-American students to education. This has since become a self-reinforcing, anti-education, cultural feedback loop.
Great Society welfare expansion enabled more chaotic, disconnected lives. Busing created a self-perpetuating, anti-scholastic cultural loop. Affirmative action in federal employment stripped out the African-American commercial middle class.
The more “progressive”—the more Theory-drunk—the policy regime under which African-Americans live, the more notable indicators of social pathology become.
Specifically progressive policies have had a range of deleterious effects. The “but how do social structures work?” “What social strategies are being encouraged or discouraged?” “What embedded-in-institutions learning is operating?” questions were not asked, or were asked only superficially.
Vampire elites exist elsewhere. In Anglo-settler Commonwealth countries, they’ve become endemic in indigenous communities. Public policy is often seen as the be-all and end-all to solve problems of indigenous disadvantage.
In Australia, for instance, the “Voice” proposal—giving representatives of indigenous Australians a constitutionally protected legislative role—would entrench a vampire elite in the Australian Constitution.
Modelling successful life strategies can be a big problem in outback indigenous communities: their local models of success in modern Australia are who, exactly? But that is all about embedded learning and personal agency. That does not at all suit those using Theory to colonise social pathologies via the social-imperial state (including ancillary non-profits).
Indigenous vampire elites not only do not suffer from making policy and analytical errors, they are actively rewarded for making certain sorts of errors that preserve or extend their leverage.
“Everyone who disagrees with us is racist” (i.e. wielding the Activist’s Fallacy) presumes that those who disagree are as obsessed with race as they are, when many of those who disagree do so because they think an obsession with race is stupid and destructive.
Ethno-racial politics are great generators of dysfunctional policies, as they elevate identity over policy effectiveness. Group valorisation wins over human flourishing. Racialising the history of slavery, for example, is a ridiculous caricature: but “we know the right historical direction” is deeply prone to such caricatures precisely because imposing direction on history goes against the messy reality of human agency.
No descendant of US slaves has graced the Presidential ticket of either major US political Party. Barack Obama’s East African father was an educated migrant. Kamala Harris is also of educated migrant origin (South Asian and Afro-Caribbean). Treating them as exemplars of the descendants of American slaves is a prime example of the nonsense of racialisation, of counting melanin content over cultural lineage.
Obsession with race—as with all forms of ethno-racial identitarianism—is stupefying and destructive. Alas, it can make a Machiavellian favour-and-dominate sense, if you rally particular groups on that basis or divide people who may otherwise network and cooperate.
Making things (not) work
Conservatively-minded folk can often have a weak sense of negative structure, of how structures hold people back. Progressively-minded people often have a weak or erratic sense of human agency, of how human action creates outcomes.
Progressives often think good things can just be allocated—such as through affirmative action—without appreciating the damage done to making things work. Affirmative action undermines signals of competence and capacity—leading people to rely more on stereotypes—because signals of competence and capacity have been occluded.
A useful question to ask is—when considering how much of a disaster any progressive idea is going to be—how much embedded learning does it screw up?
Grounding politics in an imagined future—on a pre-conceived notion of how things should turn out—makes the untidy outcomes of human agency unpalatable. Marx could not take seriously the discovering agency of commerce because that was not compatible with his golden transformative future. The reality of human variability and agency is not compatible with the belief that history has a proper direction that those with “correct consciousness” (i.e., rampant epistemic narcissism) can discern.
To accept human agency is to accept the contingency of history. All politics that accepts the Hegelian notion of proper historical direction—one understood by a knowing elite—ends up being tyrannical politics. It’s also incompatible with the contingency of democratic choice.
Humans—like every other organism in the biosphere—are strategising agents. The great insight of evolutionary theory is that such strategising can be functional without being conscious, or even intentional. All you need is feedback and response.
Some strategies work better than others. That’s how natural selection works, and how social selection works. Families and individuals achieve middle-class outcomes by following the strategies that result in middle-class outcomes. If they’re showered with social “goodies” by mechanistic (typically bureaucratised) processes, they tend to achieve bugger-all.
Marx’s failure to understand the discover/assemble/manage/risk dynamics of commerce—along with the ancient intellectual tendency to disparage commerce and its practitioners in order to proclaim moral and intellectual superiority—has inclined progressive thinkers to treat social goods as things that can be mechanistically bestowed. If life-strategies matter, by contrast, then golden, transformational outcomes founder on the shoals of human variability.
The politics of the transformative future are thus at war with human agency, hence the dysfunction of policies grounded in an imagined future. In its most intense versions, this war against human agency becomes tyrannical and murderous.
The progressive tendency to see history as “proof” that conservatives are always wrong misses the history of failed ideas. If you assume newer is always better, then progressivism can never be wrong.
Ideas need to be tested. That conservative voices have been increasingly driven out of—or otherwise muted—in the academy is a large part of why the academy has come to generate so much nonsense and pseudo-knowledge, has become so Theory-drunk.
It is important to grapple with conservative questions about making things work. Conservative answers are not necessarily required, but their questions have to be grappled with. This requires having people who can ask them without being shunned or shouted down.
State actions can certainly generate, support, or undermine life strategies. But if one does not grasp that affecting life strategies is what one is doing, policy failure is more or less guaranteed.
Between the welfare state and the non-profit sector, there is a lot of employment, even status, from being seen to “attend to” social dysfunction. It’s truly depressing how many people are employed in organisations where—if social outcome get worse—more revenue flows into the organisation and, if social outcomes get better, less does. The Homelessness Industrial Complex is a florid example of this common pattern.
The politics of the transformational future sells grand intentions—with all their rhetorical and status advantages—while providing a closed-minded (and shallow) self-righteousness that refuses to face, or even benefits from, poor social outcomes.
The next essay looks at migration in the context of the social-imperial state.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Prey: Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Women’s Rights, HarperCollins, 2021.
Stuart Buck, Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation, Yale University Press, 2010.
Gregory Clark, The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility, Princeton University Press, 2014.
David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics, Penguin, 2017.
Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, trans. Franz Rosenthal, ed. N J Dawood, Princeton University Press, ,1967.
Peter McLoughlin, Easy Meat: Inside Britain’s Grooming Gang Scandal, New English Review Press, 2016.
Keri Leigh Merritt, Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South, Cambridge University Press, 2017.
Stephanie Muravchik, Jon A. Shields, Trump’s Democrats, Brookings Institution Press, 2020.
Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Liveright Publishing, 2017.
Thaddeus Russell, A Renegade History of the United States, Free Press, , 2011.
Will Storr, The Status Game: On Social Position And How We Use It, HarperCollins, 2022.
Robert Trivers, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, Basic Books, , 2013.
Peter Turchin, War and Peace and War: The Life Cycles of Imperial Nations, Pi Press, 2006.
Articles, papers, book chapters, podcasts
Paul G. Cassell, ‘Explaining the Recent Homicide Spikes in U.S. Cities: The 'Minneapolis Effect' and the Decline in Proactive Policing,’ 33 Federal Sentencing Report 83 (Dec. 2020)., University of Utah College of Law Research Paper No. 377, (September 10, 2020).
Catherine Cubbin, Linda Williams Pickle, and Lois Fingerhut, ‘Social Context and Geographic Patterns of Homicide Among US Black and White Males,’ American Journal of Public Health, April 2000, Vol. 90, No. 4, 579-587.
Rob Henderson, ‘Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class—A Status Update,’ Quillette, 16 Nov 2019.
David C. Lahtia, Bret S. Weinstein, ‘The better angels of our nature: group stability and the evolution of moral tension,’ Evolution and Human Behavior, 26, 2005, 47–63.
Lawrence Rosenthal, ‘The Law and Economics of De-policing,’ Federal Sentencing Reporter, Vol. 33, No. 1-2, 128-141.
Manvir Singh, Richard Wrangham & Luke Glowacki, ‘Self-Interest and the Design of Rules,’ Human Nature, August 2017.
Daniel Williams, ‘The marketplace of rationalizations,’ Economics & Philosophy (2022), 1–25.