Yet More Elites Vs Experts

In a stereotypic rich household of long ago, servants and the served had different roles, and different styles of talk. Servant areas of responsibility were practical, concrete and narrow, and servants were subject to being overruled by the served. The served were responsible for overall policy, especially those that reflected value choices. The served set overall goals, and servants figured out how to achieve them. The served made the biggest choices, including when to punish anyone, while servants made smaller choices.

Talk between servants, qua servant, tended to be concrete, expert, professional, and instrumental. That is, servants could usually agree on what ends they were trying to achieve, they had relatively fast feedback on what worked or didn’t, they allowed pointed criticisms and rebuttals, and their talk was generally organized to aggregate info well and fast within their areas of responsibility.

Talk between the served was usually less precise, and more eloquent, emotional, and aspirational. It allowed less for frank direct pointed criticisms and rebuttals. But their talk better managed the greater complexities of their social world. For example, their talk better allowed speakers to show off their prestigious qualities, it better protected them from pointed criticism, and it better navigated treacherous waters of motivations, alliances, and conflict.

Talk between servants and the served was asymmetric. The served could much more freely initiate topics, proposals, and complaints to servants than vice versa. The served could be more casual and arbitrary. Only the served could give direct orders, while servants were not to contradict the served who pretended to have as much expertise as servants.

Many of us are aware that a similar relation exists today between employees and bosses. Except that instead of wealth (or a master-slave relation) it is organizational authority that puts bosses in their higher role, and both sides do more to hide their hierarchical relationship. For example, both sides often wear similar clothes, and bosses tend to make suggestions, rather than giving direct orders.

But most of us seem far less aware that a similar relation also exists today more generally between our entire classes of experts and elites. Experts are the people who know and do the most on particular valuable topics, while elites are the people of highest status (status includes dominance and prestige), status based on weightings of wealth, smarts, artfulness, beauty, achievement, celebrity, and much more, all combined and ranked via a gossip-induced consensus of elites on who has how much status. The same person can sometimes sit in an expert role, and at other times sit in an elite role.

While we often pretend that everyone is equally allowed to take important actions, we in fact tend to accept many important actions only if they are taken by elites, who do it in a sufficiently elite style. For example, most are reluctant to consider proposals for innovations, reforms, or new research topics unless they come from sufficiently high elites. We disapprove of non-elites who try to complain, even about their own personal mistreatment, or who try to directly punish wrong-doers. Such things are to be expressed and suggested first in private to appropriate elites, who then might or might not choose to take such matters further. Cynical observations, sexual advances, commentary near sensitive topics, and bad news that might implicitly criticize elites are all tolerated far more from sufficiently high elites who do these things in sufficiently artful styles.

Many experts enforce such rules on associates, insisting that, when speaking qua expert, they only speak precisely, narrowly, and when asked. But many other experts chafe at these limits. They feel that experts should be encouraged to speak up on important political and social topics where they know the most. Experts should propose innovations and reforms, and criticize existing practices and dysfunctional elites. Furthermore, such advocates feel that public discourse on such topics should be done in a more expert-like “rational” style, with more precise language, arguments clear enough to allow refutations, and others encouraged to attempt such refutations. They blame poor policy in part on the usual elite talk styles, with their vagueness, emotional appeals, and implicit appeals to group attachments.

Many elites claim to agree with this, and say that they listen lots to experts and adopt their more rational styles. But in fact, elites mostly continue to do as elites have always done. And most everyone else ignores these uppity experts, looking instead only to elites for innovations, reforms, criticisms, and punishments.

Surely we should consider the possibility that these long-standing non-expert elite styles at least constitute a social equilibrium, wherein deviations would tend to be punished. And furthermore such elite styles may have functional advantages in terms of managing motivations and alliances, and avoiding criticism. Improvements might well require coordinated moves to alternate equilibria, and/or institutional changes that encourage and reward such moves. But until we find such reforms, we should wonder how sure we can be that they aren’t at least doing things roughly right.

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