The Commanding Heights of Culture

In war, each side strives to control the “commanding heights”. These are places, usually elevated, where it is easier to defend, harder to attack, and especially valuable for helping your other military units. Hilltops, walls, bridges, towns, harbors, etc. With control of commanding heights, you might win even if you don’t have as many troops, tanks, ships, planes, etc.

In a fight between factions within an organization, each faction seeks to control the commanding heights of key positions. Such as CEO, board of directors, head of finance, head of marketing, etc. An alliance can use control of these positions to push its allies into other positions of power. In this way, a faction might take control of an organization, even if it comprises only a minority of organization members. 

In business, firms strive to control the commanding heights where there is more market power, reduced competition, and entry barriers. They seek places where it is harder for rivals to displace them. This can be due to switching costs, network effects, scale economies, customer loyalty, exclusive patents, or a natural monopoly of customers or workers. Society today generally looks suspiciously on such business advantages, seeking to limit them via culture, legal liability, and anti-trust regulation. That is, we seek to flatten such heights, and failing that we often control them via regulation or direct government management. Even so, a big % of wealth today comes from control of such commanding heights of business.

In larger political and cultural conflicts, different factions fight for control over larger social levers of influence. This includes core government positions of leadership. But in a democracy, those tend to be controlled by whomever can gain a majority of the popular vote. And as voters are ignorant and fickle, gaining them can be expensive and uncertain for factions. Yes, if you can get people with money to donate to your cause, you might use that to help attract voters. But as donors are also ignorant and fickle, you also compete with other political factions to attract donations, just as you compete for voters. 

Which is why cultural and political factions also seek other more secure bases – the commanding heights of culture. For example, with an independent judiciary, politicians may not directly control who are the new judges, or their choices may be highly constrained to be acceptable to current judges. In this case, once your political faction controls most judges, you can use that base of power to ensure that only folks who prove they are loyal to your faction become judges. Then your side can set laws and their interpretation to support your political and cultural agendas. Similarly, if your faction can control the schools, or the news media, then you can use those to spread your agenda. 

Now if control over such heights were simply owned and bought with money, then they would be commanding heights of business, but not of culture. For example, if there were a business monopoly that controlled all the media, then you could get it to teach everyone your agenda, but only if you paid it more for that coverage than did your rival political factions. Yes, you might persuade its owners to donate to your cause, via giving up some business revenue to help to your cause. But that’s just competing for donors again.

We get a similar effect if you can’t directly buy control over an area, but that area is still controlled for profit. For example, labor unions might be controlled by leaders seeking mainly to personally profit, on behalf of union members who expect to personally profit from union actions. In this case, a union will only choose to ally with outside groups, or to support their agendas, when those outside groups reciprocally support that union. These sort of unions can be part of an alliance, but they are not otherwise commanding heights of political power. 

So a central feature of the commanding heights of cultural conflict is that they are not bought with money, directly or indirectly. They are instead acquired via political conflict between groups demonstrating their political loyalty to a faction. Oh there may be for-profit firms involved, but those firms are not in full control; there are also professionals who can enforce their own standards. Maybe one of the reason that many do not like such areas to be bought completely with money is that they instead prefer them to be commanding heights, places from which factions can more securely influence society.

In business, you don’t make much net profits when you are in strong competition with rivals. You might then just barely stay in business, paying almost as much to your suppliers as you get from customers. Similarly in cultural conflict, a faction can’t gain much power and security if it is constantly competing for the allegiance of fickle voters and donors. A faction instead gains stable power, and thus profits, when it controls areas not via for-profit priorities, but via political loyalties. Pushing out those who don’t show sufficient allegiance to their political side, and then using that area to promote its agenda elsewhere. 

I see three reasons why a faction might be less eager to control an area of life in this way. One is that control there doesn’t let you push your agenda very much elsewhere. For example, it is harder to push larger cultural agendas via the construction process, relative to development policies of what is built where. And it is harder to promote a cultural agenda via control over the engineering of system back-ends and internals, relative to the design of features and policies that users see and use. 

A second reason to be less eager to control an area is when there is a strong competition for who does which roles how there. For example, if positions on sporting teams are chosen via fierce competitions of sport ability, there may remain too little slack to allow politically-aligned folks in that area to favor people from their side. Making it hard for a political faction to usefully control that area. It may be similar for musicians or actors. An area is only tempting to control if some key people there have enough slack and discretion to be able to favor choosing their political allies, even when those favorites are not quite as good or productive in the usual sense there.  

A third reason to be less eager to control an area is if people there have neutrality norms that say to not use dominance in one area to favor sides in larger political or cultural conflicts. For example, most Western militaries have such a norm. That is, internal factions may struggle for control of militaries, and they might even happen to correlate with larger political factions. But they are not to use control over the military to favor their side in the larger social world. Many parts of police and legal systems have also shared similar norms. Academia, law, and journalism also once had stronger neutrality norms, before the left came to dominate them more. 

Back in 2014 I wrote:

Jobs that lean conservative: soldier, police, doctor, religious worker, insurance broker. These seem to be jobs where there are rare big bad things that can go wrong, and you want workers who can help keep them from happening. That explanation can also makes some sense of these other conservative jobs: grader & sorter, electrical contractor, car dealer, trucker, coal miner, construction worker, gas service station worker, non-professor scientist. Conservatives are more focused on fear of bad things, and protecting against them.

Now consider some jobs that lean liberal: professor, journalist, artist, musician, author. Here you might see these jobs as having rare but big upsides. Maybe the focus is on small chances that a worker will cause a rare huge success. This is plausibly the opposite of a conservative focus on rare big losses.

But consider these other liberal jobs: psychiatrist, lawyer, teacher. Here the focus may just be on people who talk well. And that can also make sense of many of the previous list of liberal jobs. It might also makes sense of another big liberal job: civil servant.

So for a while now the left has controlled the commanding heights of academia, law, journalism, art, and civil service, while the right has controlled medicine, religion, military, police, insurance, construction, and engineering. Recently the left seems to have taken control of two areas previously controlled by the right: medicine, and social tech. This seems to have resulted from the left very strongly controlling elite colleges, the source of new elites in medicine and social tech. The recent academic trend toward dropping objective test scores from college admissions will allow more admissions discretion, which enables more political favoritism.

Not only does the right seem to be on the retreat re controlling commanding heights of culture, the areas that the right still controls seem less valuable as they are (1) more behind the scenes (engineering and construction), (2) more objectively competitive (e.g., sports), and (3) have stronger neutrality norms (e.g., military, police). Perhaps the right will reconsider its neutrality norms, if it takes recent history to suggest that the left will not continue them if it takes over such areas.

As I noted before, our society has tended to seek to shrink the commanding heights of business, via anti-trust policy. But we have no similar policies to shrink the commanding heights of areas like academia, law, etc. I’m not sure how anti-trust could work there, but it seems something worth considering. 

But more fundamentally, I’d prefer to shrink these commanding heights by reducing the slack there, via increased competition. The more that we could buy all these services via paying for results, they less we’d need to let these areas self-regulate, thereby creating fertile and attractive commanding heights for factions to control. In addition to getting more useful and effective teaching, medicine, law, etc., we’d also force cultural factions to more compete for our votes, donations, and allegiance.

P.S. I love to see a board game wherein factions compete to control such commanding heights of culture.

Added July 5: A new study on which sides have which jobs.

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