Prestige is Political

Imagine an ancient forager band had a conflict. For example, imagine some were eating foods that induced stinky farts which bothered others who slept nearby. There are several generic ways to deal with such a conflict:

  1. Force – someone strong might destroy the stinky foods, or threaten to beat up those who eat them.
  2. Deal – those bothered by the smell might compensate others for not eating stinky foods.
  3. Exit – those bothered by the smell might leave and find or form another band.
  4. Prestige – prestigious folks could push the idea that eating stinky foods is low prestige, to shame people into not eating them.

I think foragers had a strong preference for this last type of solution. But note that prestige is not available as a solution to conflicts unless prestige is in part political. If prestige were a fixed thing, say some fixed weighting of smart, strong, tall, etc., then it couldn’t be changed to solve problems. But if prestige is somewhat flexible, a dominant political coalition can try to flex it to encourage desired outcomes.

Now consider an analogous global conflict today, such as global warming. It seems to me that people also intuitively prefer a prestige solution. Instead of forming a world government powerful enough to impose its will, or making a deal where rich nations pay poor ones whatever it takes to get them to sign, what elite nations actually seem to be doing is visibly cutting back on carbon, and trying to shame other nations into following their lead. They’d rather risk failing to solve the problem than having to resort to a non-prestige solution. Arguably prestige is in part how world elites actually pushed for changes such as more democracy, less slavery, and better protected environments.

I’m also reminded of how people seem to prefer to choose their lawyers, doctors, investment advisors, etc. via prestige, instead of via track records or incentive contracts. And how people want to change who succeeds in the world via pushing elite colleges and institutions to change their admissions process, instead of reducing barriers to competition to make success more meritocratic.

There are two kinds of status, sometimes called “prestige” vs. “dominance.” Both exist, but on the surface at least we want the former to matter more than the latter. And we often seem to categorize gaining via trade or personal effort as gaining via dominance. Which is in part why we often dislike market based solutions. But note that these two kinds of status could also be called “politics” vs. “non-political reality”. We prefer social outcomes to be determined by prestige that can be influenced by dominant political coalitions, and fear and suspect social outcomes determined by nature, personal effort, or social competition, even when such competition is peaceful.

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  • Dave Lindbergh

    I think you’re onto something very important here.

    But I wonder if historically the “prestige” solution (shaming) is simply more effective, more successful, than the others, rather than being preferred.

    As you say, slavery, tyranny, pollution have been successfully attacked via the “prestige” route (I can add smoking in public and expect obesity to be next).

    But is that just because the other methods haven’t worked? Force requires coordination. Dealing and exit require sacrifice.

  • free_agent

    This reminds me of something I read that noted that one becomes “wealthy” in many New Guinea native cultures by accumulating land and wives to farm it. But one accumulates those by being good at warfare and the negotiations that go on around it, not by being good at farming. Similarly in England, where Henry VII (IIRC) finally forced the nobles to stop acquiring land by waging war on each other. Most of history is dominated by processes that revolve around political coalitions, not skill at dealing with the material world.

    You write, “… even when such competition is peaceful.” But of course, whether it is “peaceful” is irrelevant — if you have no money to obtain a wife, you’re as genetically dead as if you were decapitated.

  • Lord

    So people prefer the lowest cost solutions, even though they may be less effective. Should anyone be surprised? If a solution isn’t possible based on prestige, now much chance is there of a deal? Deals require much the same political negotiation necessary for prestige to work as deals become a matter of prestige.

  • arch1

    I may be missing your point but I don’t see how the last half-sentence follows from the rest (or even how it’s true – e.g. in many contexts there seems to be a strong tendency to root for underdogs and to admire effortful overcoming of, or even just refusal to surrender in the face of, huge obstacles).

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    And we often seem to categorize gaining via trade or personal effort as gaining via dominance. Which is in part why we often dislike market based solutions. But note that these two kinds of status could also be called “politics” vs. “non-political reality”. We prefer social outcomes to be determined by prestige that can be influenced by dominant political coalitions, and fear and suspect social outcomes determined by nature, personal effort, or social competition, even when such competition is peaceful.

    I question the “we.” I would agree that I prefer political solutions – I lean forager. But I don’t think you prefer political solutions. Isn’t this a forager versus farmer issue?

  • Daniel Carrier

    > less slavery

    I can’t say for other countries, but slavery in the US was decided by the bloodiest war on US soil. I think that qualifies as “dominance”.

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