Is Ideology About Status?

At lunch one day Tyler suggested the essence of ideology is which types of people should be admired.  I told him it seemed an excellent insight, pregnant with possibility and well worth pursuing.  He’s finally blogged it

Occasionally the real force behind a political ideology is the subconsciously held desire that a certain group of people should not be allowed to rise in relative status. … Some people on the right do not like those they perceive as "whiners."  They do not want these whiners to rise in relative status.  … Some [left-wing] people … do not want the monied class to rise in relative status, certainly not above the status of the smart people and the virtuous people.  …


When happiness research indicates that money brings more happiness only up to a point, this is a popular result … [as it] lowers the status of this monied class by showing they really aren’t that happy.  When happiness research indicates that conservatives are relatively happy, however, or that many redistributions don’t make the beneficiaries much happier … suddenly happiness research isn’t talked up so much.  Inequalities which do not raise the status of this monied class, such as inequalities in the sphere of beauty or teenage sex, don’t come under so much criticism. 

Some on the right wing will stress "individual responsibility" … when it lowers the status of the whiners … Some on the left wing will stress "individual responsibility" when it is time to punish corporate wrongdoers and thus lower their status.

This seems to me the tip of an iceberg of insight.  Let us more systematically enumerate types of people who are thought to be admired too much, or not enough, and political positions that support such admiration adjustment.  This view nicely explains why ideologies tend to come in opposing pairs, but it raises the question of how there can be widely popular ideologies with little visible opposition – why don’t those whose status is being lowered complain more loudly?

Let us be careful not to selectively apply this only to others’ ideologies – let us apply it to ours as well.  For example, I’ll admit I plausibly want more admiration of intellectuals with a track record of deep original insight on important neglected topics, relative to non-intellectuals or intellectuals who show an impressive way with words, math, or tech, or a command of a mutual admiration society.

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  • Tom

    Your example application isn’t objective at all. why don’t you just say “I prefer people who are right to people who are wrong.”

  • Jerry

    While I disagree with some points of objecvitism, I think Ayn Rand did an excellent job of discussing the mentality of why a person has certain values vs other values. Your values are based on your epistemology which is based on your metaphysics…its about that simple in principle.

  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Caledonian

    I think that question takes an overly-simplistic view of the subject for granted.

    Ideology doesn’t have to “be about status” for it to sometimes serve as a smokescreen or rationalization for actions that are concerned with status.

    The trick is to determine whether the actions that logically follow from the espoused ideology are actually taken. Rhetorical despotism can be identified from the disconnection between speech and action – they never agree.

  • Lara Foster

    Hanson: “This view nicely explains why ideologies tend to come in opposing pairs, but it raises the question of how there can be widely popular ideologies with little visible opposition – why don’t those whose status is being lowered complain more loudly?”

    This question assumes that society is static. Both the feminist and gay-rights movement at one point had no loud supporters, since to do so would get you labeled as ‘loud whiney nut-job queer to be shunned, ignored, or shot dead.’

    I often find myself wondering why our society (and many others) is so hostile towards homosexuality. In everyday parlance, ‘gay,’ ‘homo,”queer,”panzy,’ ‘faggot,’ ‘cock-sucker,’ ‘cock-fag,’ ‘fudge-packer,’ etc. are used as normal insults, with extremely negative valence. ‘Asshole,’ ‘bastard,’ ‘fuck-face,’ and even ‘motherfucker,’ don’t even come close to the insult potential. Also, want to see real intense hatred? Ask a homophobic bigot what he thinks about gays when he thinks you hate them too… Oh my god… It’s terrifying. It’s Nazi-esque in its grotesqueness.

    Why are gays so hated? What have they done to these people to make them hate them so much, and I don’t buy some abstract argument about ‘undermining family values…’ I’ve heard it said (with some personal evidence in support), that the people who hate gays most have some homosexual feelings that they find unacceptable, but I can’t believe that this is where it *all* comes from. Could it? Any ideas?

    My best guess is that our society is generally sexually repressed and moralistic about our urges, and many people feel beholden to a false morality about sex that tells them to stay in a monogamous relationship with someone they may no longer love or desire, reproduce with this person, stay in a mind-numbing job in order to support their ungrateful brats, and never again even think about intercourse with one of the many beautiful gods/goddesses portrayed larger than life of the movie-screen… Then, they see these gays running around and fucking and having a great time, and of course that *must* be wrong, or why aren’t they doing the same thing?

    Of course their might be an ev-psych just-so story that explains this just as well. Though, the Greeks and Romans, and many present day South-Americans don’t seem to have such a problem with homosexuality, so I’m skeptical that it’s biological.

    Oh yeah- back to the point of the article… It’s not easy to take on an entire society that’s against you. One has to be unbelievably brave. Maybe with anonymous forums like the internet….

    I haven’t even admitted to most of my *friends* that I’m not monogamous. Should I have a sign in a protest “Sluts for equal consideration as humans!”?

    • http://notebuyer.livejournal.com Arnold Williams

      Hostility to gays tends to be because, as a group, they violate moral norms in supporting their families, acquiescing to authority, and recognizing society specific disgust and elevation objects/goals. For more, see Jonathan Haidt, Planet of the Durkheimians (paper, on his website, or more generally, the paper about moral intuitions that liberals don’t have.)

  • spacenookie

    This reminds me of where Nietzsche suggests that philosophy is a kind of disguised autobiography. Because, obviously, when people think or speak or write something, they do that instead of doing something else, and the reason why they choose that particular activity can only be something about them or the situation they find themselves in. As opposed to the more common claim of philosophy as revealed or received truth, with the philosopher cast as a priest or prophet, with a holy responsibility to enlighten others with his/her wisdom.

  • Chris

    Tom: the example application also distinguishes people who are right about “important neglected topics” as compared to those who are right about very technical matters.

    As an example, I think Robin believes Steve Levitt deserves more admiration than Terry Tao.

  • Chris

    Lara:

    I have an idea why gays are hated: disgust.

    Sex is quite disgusting. When sex is explained to 9-10 year olds (people who grasp sanitation, but have no sex drive), the universal reaction is “ewwww, gross!”. When an attractive woman is involved, the sex center of a heterosexual adult brain overrides the disgust factor. It doesn’t override my reaction to gay sex, male-female sex practices I find disgusting, or even non-sexual practices I view as disgusting (e.g. eating insects).

    I’ve got no moral objection or hatred toward gays, but I’m not very comfortable around gays either. The whole thing just makes me uncomfortable. Many people don’t make the “disgusting, but not immoral” distinction, and this leads to hatred.

    • http://www.sobs.org bronstein

      When did they decide that ten-year-olds don’t have sex drives?

  • Lara Foster

    Chris- Very interesting! Why do you find it ‘disgusting’? Do you think sex with women is disgusting, but for some biological urge you don’t choose to have? Have you ever tried anal sex with a woman? I think people have false ideas about how ‘messy’ this is. It is not at all, if you are sanitary, and I *assume* it is similar with men. I’ve known what sex was since I was 2 and my parents showed me the video ‘where do I come from,’ which I watched incessantly, so I’ve *never* thought sex was gross. Then again, eating is a pretty disgusting activity when you get no pleasure from it (ie- when you are depressed), so I suppose it is with sex you have no urge for…

    Anyone else willing to weigh in on this topic? Should this go to the open forum?

  • http://michaelkenny.blogspot.com Mike Kenny

    “Let us more systematically enumerate types of people who are thought to be admired too much, or not enough, and political positions that support such admiration adjustment.”

    conservative/republican/right wingers seem to believe these people are admired too much and would like to diminish their status: intellectuals, actors, the poor, foreigners, diplomats, bureaucrats, artists, MSM journalists, minorities, urban dwellers, consumers and proprietors of boutique products.

    liberal/democrat/left wingers seem to believe these people are admired too much and their status should be diminished: religious people, businessmen, the wealthy, provincial types, military people, cops, rural dwellers, consumers of big business products (walmart, mcdonalds).

  • J Thomas

    About the original question, it might be possible to start with first principles and develop an ideology from them, and eventually it will lead you to decide some people should be admired and others not. Or you might start out by noticing people you want to admire you, and you notice what their ideology is and you try to talk like you believe it and publicly appear to follow it so they’ll like you.

    But once you start deciding how people ought to behave, admiration and scorn will probably come into it somewhere.

    About the question of why to hate homosexuals, I’d guess it goes the other way round. Mostly people aren’t supposed to hate anybody. If you hate policemen, or capitalists, or your boss or landlord etc, it generally leads to trouble. But occasionally people find out about people they have permission to hate as much as they like. Homosexuals. Palestinians. Etc. Now, people have a need to experience their full range of emotions. Whatever they don’t get enough of will tend to come out in their art, music, and religion. (Along with what they do so much it just comes naturally to do it all the time.) People who don’t have enough fear in their lives to suit them, wind up watching scary movies. Etc. And having acceptable targets to hate gives them their chance to practice hatred.

    People who seem to *really hate* homosexuals when they meet somebody who seems to approve, are like parakeets who’ve been kept in a cage for too long who get a chance to spread their wings. Society doesn’t give them enough safe opportunities to experience hatred so they go overboard when they do get a chance.

  • http://sophistpundit.blogspot.com Adam

    Ideology is not about status. Ideology is a method of economizing the amount of information required to make a decision. Each ideology has its own positive and normative categories, with a range of appropriate actions to take for situations that fall into those categories. Once developed, the burden of deciding which of our perceptions are relevant, and how to respond to them, is significantly shrunk.

    The phenomenon that Cowen speaks of has less to do with status and more to do with perceptions of who will do what we believe needs to be done. Both the things we perceive as signals that an individual is such a person, and our idea of “what needs to be done”, are shaped in large part by the framework provided by our ideology.

  • Lara Foster

    J Thomas- Another interesting theory that makes a lot of sense… Why do you think homosexuals were originally targeted? The bible? Who do rationalists hate when they need to hate? I, personally, hate on abstractions…

    Oh- more interesting info on homsexual rationalists…
    Allan Turing, of the Turing machine, in 1952 was sentenced to life in prison or chemical castration for homosexual acts in violation of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885. He committed suicide.
    Issac Newton boasted that the achievement he was most proud of was a lifetime of celibacy. In spite of numerous attempts to uncover the hypothetical ‘Newton Mistresses,’ no women were uncovered. It is no hypothesized that Newton might have been a closet homosexual, though I don’t know if there is any evidence for this claim. Since he never claimed to be an ‘asexual,’ and frequently condemned acts of sexual intercourse as ‘immoral,’ this explaination seems to make the most sense to me.

  • http://sophistpundit.blogspot.com Adam

    Also, if I may continue to be contrary, I think the belief that “ideologies tend to come in opposing pairs” is utterly false. The fact that we tend to categorize the existing ideologies into dichotomies says less about the ideologies and more about the need to rely upon intellectual tools that are simple and easy to use. Again, this is about working within a framework that makes the most efficient use of our time and effort.

    Bottom line; Hegel was an intellectual joke. There is no such thing as an “antithesis” that is equal and opposite to a given “thesis”. There are no opposites in ideology; only alternatives.

  • Chris

    Lara:

    I *currently* love sex with women (though not anal sex), and I have since about age 11. But I can *rationally* see why I didn’t like it as a child and extrapolate to what I might feel if I had no sexual urge. I suspect age 2 is a little young for the “disgust” reaction to kick in, which is probably why you didn’t have a similar reaction.

    There are lots of things people find disgusting. Exchanging bodily excretions (except the ones we have a mental override for) is a common one. And I think that, combined with the irrational “disgust == hate” viewpoint, is the cause of hatred towards gays.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com/ TGGP
  • http://dl4.jottit.com/contact Richard Hollerith

    Mencius Moldbug has described the class structure of the United States, and in that description, a person’s system for determining a person’s status determines not the person’s ideology but rather his of her class. The dominant class in American society according to Moldbug is the Brahmin class, the prototypical member being a university professor. Brahmins put scientists and artists at the top of their status hierarchy. The main competitor to the Brahmin class in American society is the Vaisya class. Vaisyas put high income earners at the top of their status hierarchy, especially if the income comes from the person’s own efforts in a marketplace or another arena of competition. Successful entrepreneurs rank near the top of the status hierarchy of the Vaisyas — and athletes get much respect. Having children raises a person’s status according to the Vaisyas more than it does according to the Brahmins.

  • Nick Tarleton

    This explains a great deal. Mike Kenny’s list seems to nail it, except I’d put MSM journalists in both groups.

    Replied offsite about homosexuality.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    I think we need more comprehensive study of status right now. The current approach becomes too easy to subvert to status games and competitions themselves. Robin, it’s easy for us to read (and probably for you to appreciate) how hard it was for you to write your own self-analysis of whose status you seek to elevate (you wrote it in an extremely self-flatterig way, though you seemed to try in good faith not to).

    I disagree with your or Tyler’s analysis about why status hierarchies or ideologies come in pairings: I don’t think it’s that they fully check each other as much as they elevate each other’s status (particularly representational/attentional status) relative to the spectrum of other ideologies and topics of discussion. Libertarians should be able to appreciate this: many of their ideas are obscured by the mainstream right/left dialectic.

    But I agree there’s a difference between dialectical ideological/status hierarchies and monolithic ones. We don’t have much parity in a Nazism is bad/Nazism is good dialectic, even though the Nazism is bad ideology is widespread, referred to frequently, and frequently used to underpin status constructions. I don’t have a comprehensive theory yet for why some ideologies are dialectics, some are monolithic, if any are neither and how or why ideologies and their role in status heirarchies shift over time.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    As for homophobia, there’s obvious reproductive advantages for cultural memes against homosexuality, masturbation, and birth control — except in Malthusian times of scarcity, where the advantages may be reversed. Could play a factor of why in dense urban environments there may be greater tolerance for non-reproductive sex than in rural environments? It seems like it could be a testable hypothesis.

    Separately, there seems to me to be something feminist/womanist about low-level homophobia directed at men. Since back to our primate roots, one way of constructing male hierarchy is which male is the best for (the hegemonic clique of) women, taking on the role of the male that tells other males “only get your sexual gratification from consenting women, not from each other or from yourself -or I’ll kick your ass” could be a status enhancing move.

  • Tim Tyler

    Re: homophobia

    Many men like to clearly signal that they are not homosexuals – both to other men and to women. Women don’t need to so signal.

  • Lara Foster

    Just to stir the cauldron of controversy, I am always a bit bemused by ev-psych just-so stories that assume homosexualiy is *NOT* evolved. Ever wonder why the anal orgasm (and it ain’t no joke) even exists at all? Why that there are about 5-8 inches of relatively ‘clean’ rectum? Why that estimates put the percentage of homosexuals in our society somewhere between 2 and 10%?

    Patriarchal declarations that the female orgasm is vestigial *really* make my sides hurt with laughter… Have they ever compared the two??? An obvious justification for why these *male* evolutionary psychologists can’t get their frigid wives off…

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    I shouldn’t need to say this: detailed discussion of homophobia is way off topic for this post.

  • Lara Foster

    Robin:
    Sorry for starting that… though in my defense I ask if the topic should move to the open forum, which Nick Tarlton did attempt to do… so.. to the open forum!

  • Thanatos Savehn

    I think you’ve come across something very important. Much of the happiness research bolsters at least part of your point – that change in relative status is the key metric of happiness. E.g. “I’d rather none of us win anything than me win $50,000 while each of my other 10 neighbors share a $100,000,000 lotto jackpot.” Thus, poor people can be surprisingly happy; but only so long as their neighbors are even poorer. This pecking order happiness algorithm is quite robust (though appallingly irrational).

    Assuming then that a large chunk of people are indeed keen on maintaining their relative position, and assuming that people are prone to exploit their environment like the rest of nature’s critters, it seems reasonable to think that ideologies at the least are prone to being hijacked by those intent on maintaining their position at the feed trough.

    P.S. While looking for an answer to the hindsight bias a clever young fellow directed me to your website. I have greatly enjoyed it and visit it daily. I do hope, however, in light of the bizarre comments above, that IT has not now been hijacked. I’ve seen astronomy, computer gaming, philosophy and all sorts of fine sites ruined by fanatics.

  • http://brokensymmetry.typepad.com Michael F. Martin

    I have a strong ideological bias against groups that hold that a certain group of people should not be allowed to rise in relative status.

  • Constant

    the essence of ideology is which types of people should be admired

    While I have no doubt that in many individual cases a person’s ideology boils down to this, as a blanket statement it is unlikely, and moreover has the look of a fallacy which changes the subject – e.g.:

    Adam: Protectionism is bad. Here, I’ll explain…

    Sigmund: You think businessmen should be admired. I don’t. Why should I share your aesthetic?

    Adam: But you haven’t even heard my economic arguments.

    Sigmund: I am addressing the very essence of your ideology. By refusing to discuss this essence with me you are evading the essential issue, and instead arguing about non-essential issues.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Constant, yes of course one should evaluate particular support for particular claims. But the phenomena of ideology still demands explanation.

  • Julian Morrison

    More like: it’s about an anticipation of politics. Monkey-mind says: the people with high status make the rules. That inconvenient fact which raises my enemies’ status gives them a bigger political stick to beat me with.

    When someone says to me “rich people aren’t happy”, I hear “what’s yours is mine”.

  • Constant

    But the phenomena of ideology still demands explanation.

    It need not have a single, blanket explanation, particularly one which depicts ideology as loyalty to a group. Would you seriously argue that Frederic Bastiat was a classical liberal merely because he was loyal to a group (whatever group whose status he wanted to raise)? Or that his readers were classical liberals merely because they were loyal to a group and not because they were persuaded by the content of his essays? If so then Bastiat’s arguments were merely rationalizations allowing people to shore up the beliefs they had for other reasons.

  • Andy Wood

    It makes me nute when people talk about status as if it is an end. The essence of ideology is not who should be admired; it is whose ideas should be implemented in the real world such that they affect people. It’s about power, and power, in the civilized world, is usually about allocation. Status is like an incidental variable that is a side effect of power in some contexts, and a means to it in others.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Constant, yes of course the evidential content of essays must have some influence, but the overall phenomena of ideology makes it hard to believe that this is the only, or even the main, process at work.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    Andy Wood, let’s go back a step to attribution of ideas to individuals. It seems experimentally testable to me the degree to which people want a particular idea enacted depending on whether or not it will be attributed to them as their idea, vs. someone elese’s (in particular a status rival’s) idea. I think useful experiments like this could be done in a microsociological laboratory.

  • Richard

    Wow, this is incredibly dumb. You’ve rediscovered the “insight” that politics is about power. Because you know, it’s not like it’s the DEFINITION of politics, not at all..

  • Lara Foster

    OK- I’ll give my own status-classification system, which I’m sure is similar to other people’s as well and is probably more well laid out elsewhere, but since nobody has referenced anything similar yet…

    I can loosely divide people into three categories:
    1) The Leaders/Decision Makers- This is the smallest and most elite portion of my social heirarchy. These are the people who have decided to make the world and the history they follow. Very few women, for some reason, seem to choose to take this role in society, for taken this role must be– it cannot be given, no matter how many movies depict crowds of people promoting the unwilling but wise leader… The role is taken, stolen if necessary, and very little gratitude is shown until decades later if ever. Both Brahmins and Vaysias *can* fall into this class. I respect them both to a very high degree. To quote my current hero, neruosugeon Frank Vertosick, “If you want to accomplish anything important, you have to be totally right– and willing to take the consequences when you are not… Complicating the matter is that these [surgical] decisions often must be made quickly and with incomplete information.” Most people just can’t hack it.

    2) The Proles/Pawns: Almost everyone, everywhere, at any time falls into this class. Sure, I can *like* these people. I can even love and respect them, but we’re just not living in the same world.

    3)The Travellers/Watchers: The happiest, most enlightened people you will ever meet. Often artists, freelancers, nomads. They understand destiny and don’t give a fuck. They’re in it for a good time and, in the end, they really don’t care what happens or what the world thinks. So be it.

  • mjgeddes

    All arguments must first accept the objective existence of moral archetypes/terminal values.

  • http://silasx.blogspot.com Silas

    Lara: there are pretty easy answers to the dilemma’s you’ve posed:

    1) Hatred of homosexuality exist because ethnic groups without the norms got massively outbred and then annihilated (sp).

    2) Women don’t have the same desire to seize power because it doesn’t make as much a difference to them in terms of access to mates. (Sad, but true.)

    Also, I think estimates of homosexuality at 10% are ridiculously high. If they were that high a percentage of the population, homosexuals would be a big enough voting block that we wouldn’t be having these debates about what rights homosexuals should have.

  • Lara Foster

    Silas- this discussion was moved to the open forum, where I thought Nick had some good points too… I think you’re right about the 10% (though, some people count anyone whose ever had a homosexual encounter, which is just about 50% of all girls between the ages of 17 and 25 at this point… but, I will say that even 1 or 2% of the population should be enough to raise an eyebrow as to evolutionary fitness.

  • http://brokensymmetry.typepad.com Michael F. Martin

    I thought politics was the art of the possible.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    Silas, your last point is apparently not true (that 10% of the population can’t veto its own subordination). For a recent example, polling suggests 10% of the population supports reproductive human cloning, but there seems to be a global consensus among nations that human reproductive cloning should be banned.

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  • http://www.sobs.org bronstein

    Now can one of you experts remind me again why America tolerates two girls kissing and spurns two boys kissing?
    You know, while you’re talking.

  • Morgan Warstler

    None of this is as subjective as you are pretending. The arch of history points to libertarian outcomes that raise up those that produce the most value in the eyes of others…. and diminish over time those that sit ensconced on the left pontificating, rent seeking, and organizing mobs for their own edification.

    Most of the teachers will be fired (Khan Academy), and the public employees will be de-unionized…

    And if I’m right about these trends…. this will no longer be a valid discussion. We will see there was only one answer.

    To be clear: Value is judged exclusively by money / time, which represents how much of your hour / time is worth how much of someone else’s hour time.

    So, sure people on the left seek to diminish those who create the most value measured in dollars / time, they’ll argue against property rights, they’ll fight and kick and scream…. but they are cooked.

    The sad thing is it took “spending all the money” to force them into submission.