Good, Bad, & Ugly

Leaders can be good, leading for for the good of the group, bad, explicitly ruling out of self-interest, or ugly, acting bad but forcing others to pretend they are good. Let’s take these in conceptual order:

  • Bad – Our primate ancestor leaders were directly dominant, out of explicit self-interest.  While top animals provided the useful function of keeping the peace among lower folk, they weren’t shy about using their position for personal advantage (e.g., food, mates) whenever possible.  But limited communication abilities limited their dominance.  Human tyrants use language to better coordinate to give orders and identify disobedience, and so can dominate more strongly.
  • Good – Our distant human ancestors reacted to this by coordinating to discourage such tyranny.  Strong social norms enabled coordination to punish clear overt attempts by anyone to brag, give orders, or grab food, mates, etc.  Foragers even punished slight moves by anyone in such dominance directions.  Leaders had to appear to consistently follow the will of the group, and act for the good of the group, and always with individual permission.
  • Ugly – Our homo hypocritus ancestors learned to appear to follow and enforce these norms, while actually acting more dominant or submissive as the situation allowed or required.  Leaders could coordinate status and coalitions via implicit body, voice, and word status moves.  Norm violations not visible to outsiders could be hushed up, and troublemakers accused of sorcery. Folks learned to accept and not challenge high status hypocrisy if they could not muster a coalition for a successful challenge.

If the king may say he rules reluctantly, because the nation really needs him, who dares to publicly disagree?  When “mamma” tries to run your life but insists it is only for your own good, you know not to challenge this last claim if you value your hide.  A wife beaten by her husband may find it in her interest to hide such beatings from her husband’s coworkers; those coworkers might suspect such beatings, but keep silent if no concrete evidence forces them to acknowledge it.  The US can keep as an ally a foreign nation that arbitrarily tortures it citizens, if it isn’t forced to acknowledge clear evidence of such torture.

In general, when you violate domination norms, you should worry about wider audiences, who need to keep up their reputation for punishing clear violations of anti-domination norms. But if the observers that watch them are hardly paying attention, these audiences may ignore your dominance, as long as you offer a thin veneer of excuses for it.

For example, consider a government who raises the status of a profession by authorizing self-policing and by requiring licensing.  If they claim this protects consumers from themselves, those considering publicly opposition to such rules must wonder who will join them, and how effectively that profession and its allies might retaliate against their opposition.  A vague excuse like “protecting customers” may be all it takes to preserve an equilibrium of this profession’s continued dominance, via self-policing and professional licensing.  A vague excuse may be all observers need to justify the more convenient strategy of supporting the powerful against their lower-status opponents.

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  • CJ

    I would feel a whole lot happier about your posts using “ancient ancestors” reasoning if you either
    1) Gave some links, citations, anything to give me a way to see if this is actually a reasonable description of what our primate forebears actually did,
    or
    2) Restructured your language (or at least add some disclaimer at the bottom of posts) to make it clear that what you’re more interested in, and perhaps really doing, is looking at a stripped down model of human behavior where you’ve removed most of the complicating aspects of the modern world and how education/community affects people.

    Being a former physicist, I want to assume that case 2) is what you’re really doing. Constructing a harmonic oscillator model for humans, so to speak.

    In case it’s not clear, the reason it bothers me is that I’m unsure if your arguments actually depend on your assumptions about our distant ancestors being true, or if that’s quite irrelevant.

  • anon

    In general, when you violate domination norms, you should worry about wider audiences, who need to keep up their reputation for punishing clear violations of anti-domination norms. But if the observers that watch them are hardly paying attention, these audiences may ignore your dominance, as long as you offer a thin veneer of excuses for it.

    But there are other, higher-order effects. For one thing, challengers are incented to expose norm violations rather than hush them up, since this weakens the incumbent leader. Groups can plausibly coordinate to improve transparency, since current challengers provide a focus point for cooperation efforts. Sure, leaders might try to disrupt emerging coalitions. But any such efforts would be quickly punished as overt attempts at dominance.

    So as long as leadership remains contestable, norm violations should be punished fairly effectively. What am I missing?

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

    anon, you overestimate eagerness for and ease of a successful challenge. The existing coalition in power doesn’t need much overt dominance to resist a challenge, as most folks’ default is to let sleeping dogs lie. You have to motivate people to overcome inertia to support your challenge.

  • C_Whatever

    Our primate ancestor leaders were directly dominant, out of explicit self-interest. While top animals provided the useful function of keeping the peace among lower folk, they weren’t shy about using their position for personal advantage (e.g., food, mates) whenever possible. But limited communication abilities limited their dominance. Human tyrants use language to better coordinate to give orders and identify disobedience, and so can dominate more strongly.

    Can I borrow your time machine?