Dominance: Material vs. Rhetorical

Do the rich dominate our society?

In one sense, they obviously do.  Rich people run most of the business world, own most of the wealth, and are vastly more likely to be powerful politicians.

In another sense, however, the rich aren’t dominant at all.  If you get in public and loudly say, “Rich people are great.  We owe them everything.  They deserve every penny they’ve got – and more.  People who criticize the rich are just jealous failures,” almost everyone will recoil in horror.

Do males dominate our society?

In one sense, they obviously do.  Males run most of the business world, hold most of the top political offices, hold a supermajority of the most prestigious jobs, and make a lot more money on average.

In another sense, however, males aren’t dominant at all.  If you get in public and loudly say, “Males are the superior sex.  We owe them everything.  We need to protect males from women’s emotional abuse and financial exploitation, and show them the great deference they deserve,” almost everyone will recoil in horror.

Do whites dominate our society?

In one sense, they obviously do.  Whites run most of the business world, hold most of the top political offices, hold a clear majority of the most prestigious jobs, and earn above-average incomes.

In another sense, however, whites aren’t dominant at all.  If you get in public and loudly say, “Whites have built Western civilization, the glory of the modern world.  Almost everything good in the modern world builds on white Europeans’ efforts.  The people of the world need to acknowledge how much they owe to the white race, and apologize for their many insults fueled by their own sense of inferiority,” almost everyone will recoil in horror.

My point: There are two very distinct kinds of dominance.*  There is material dominance – control of economic wealth and political power.  And there is rhetorical dominance – control of words and ideas.  Intuitively, you would expect the two to correlate highly.  At least in the modern world, however, they don’t.  Indeed, the correlation is plausibly negative: The groups with high material dominance now tend to have low rhetorical dominance.

Isn’t material dominance clearly more enviable than mere rhetorical dominance?  On balance, I suspect so.  Still, many people who could have won material dominance invest their lives in acquiring rhetorical dominance instead: intellectuals, activists, and religious leaders are all prime examples.  Why do they bother?  Because man does not live by bread alone.  Material dominance gives you luxuries, but rhetorical dominance makes you feel like you’re on top of the world: “I can loudly praise what I like and blame what I dislike – and expect the people who demur to meekly keep their objections to themselves.  Or even feign agreement!”

Conflation of material and rhetorical dominance helps explain why liberals and conservatives so often talk past each.  Liberals feel like conservatives dominate the world, because conservatives run the government half the time, and conservative-leaning groups – the rich, males, whites – have disproportionate influence over the economy.  Conservatives feel like liberals dominate the world, because liberals run the media, schools, and human resources departments.  In a sense, both groups are right.  Conservatives have the lion’s share of material dominance; liberals have more than the lion’s share of rhetorical dominance.  In another sense, though, both groups are wrong.  In the contest for overall dominance, both groups are roughly tied.  Both groups feel like underdogs because both yearn from the kind of dominance they lack.

Due to the endowment effect, moreover, both sides get angry when the other intrudes on “their” territory.  Thus, even though leftists have a near-stranglehold over research universities, the rare academic center that promotes free markets or social conservatism blinds them with rage.  99% rhetorical dominance?  We’re supposed to have 100% rhetorical dominance!  Conservatives have a similar, though less hyperbolic, reaction when business adopts liberal causes.  “Sensitivity training?!  Give me a break.”

The dream of both movements, naturally, is to hold all the dominances.  The conservative dream is a world where they consolidate their lead in the world of business and take over the whole culture.  The liberal dream is a world where they purge the last vestiges of conservative culture and bring business and the rich to their knees.  (The latter rarely means outright expropriation; I think even America’s far left would be satisfied if they could sharply increase regulation and regulation – and hear business and the rich repeatedly shout, “Thank you, may I have another?”)

When you put it this way, of course, both dreams sound like nightmares.  Neither liberals nor conservatives even dimly internalize Spiderman’s principle that “With great power comes great responsibility.” Both are epistemically vicious to the core, so habitually drunk with emotion they don’t even know what sober rationality looks like.  Frankly, I’d like to see both of these secular religions fade away like Norse mythology.  Since that’s unlikely to happen, however, I’m grateful to live in a world with an uneasy balance of power.  Or to be more precise, an uneasy balance of dominance.

* I suspect Robin Hanson will say that I’m conflating dominance and prestige.  Maybe a little, but when I picture “rhetorical dominance,” I’m picturing words and ideas that intimidate more than they inspire.  General point: You can have material prestige and rhetorical prestige as well as material dominance and rhetorical dominance.

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College Degrees are Dying Proxies

A College degree was a proxy for employers to help them see if people have what they value.

The cost of tuition plus the time it takes to complete the degree were the key ingredients. Not anything learned.

The logic was, if you can pay the cost and complete it, it’s probably because you are ambitious and resourceful and reliable enough to get a job, get a loan, get a scholarship, borrow from relatives, etc. and stick through it.

So ambition, work ethic, consistency, resourcefulness, basic professionalism, were traits sought. Not degrees. There were not easy ways to prove those traits, and the thinking was you probably couldn’t complete college unless you had them.

But we can now go one level closer to source with a much better proxy for talent. We now have access to demonstrable activities much more directly related to those traits. And the degree is a worse and worse proxy for them.

Being able to spend a ton of money one college is a weaker and weaker proof of these qualities, because college loans are handed out like candy, parents have way more education money for their kids than they used to, more scholarships, grants, etc. In fact, spending a lot of borrowed money on college is now as likely to be a sign of poor judgement, and a lot of your parents money is as likely to be a sign of not being independent or responsible.

Being able to spend a lot of time to complete a degree is weaker as well. Not only because it’s easier to defer earning due to more access to money, but because the college experience itself is less challenging and less connected to the marketplace, and because being able to do the same thing for a long time is no longer highly valued in the workplace. Jobs are far more dynamic and less monotonous, and average tenure is short.

So degrees are dying proxies for desirable traits like ambition, work ethic, consistency, resourcefulness, basic professionalism.

Good! Because now you can show them in better ways. Now you can have a proof closer to source. Proof of work. No long guesswork involved in assuming the action is a real indicator of the trait.

Now you can learn things, build things, and do things out-loud for all to see. You can create a digital footprint that gives a window into your character, skill, and ability. That’s what Crash profiles, pitches, and job campaigns are all about. But there are many ways.

It’s not just about showing expertise or the product of skills, it’s also about showing the process. You can list “Ran a marathon” on a skills profile, but better yet, you can share a series of blog posts breaking down your decision to do it, you training regimen, etc. This provides deep insight into the way you think, pick challenges, engage in self-improvement, overcome obstacles, show up consistently every day for a long period, etc.

You can communicate a history of personal progress as well as the current state of your skills in powerful ways today, and these projects and pitches and media are more directly related to the traits desired than purchased paper.

That’s the world we’re already in and I love it!

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The Difference Between Public Libraries and Public Schools

Plans for the Boston Public Library, the nation’s second-oldest public library, were approved in 1852, the same year Massachusetts passed the country’s first compulsory schooling law. Both public libraries and public schools are funded through taxation and both are “free” to access, but the similarities end there. The main difference between public libraries and public schools is the level of coercion and state power that public schooling wields.

Voluntary vs. Compulsory

Libraries are open and available for anyone to access. You can quickly sign up for a library card if you want borrowing privileges, but you don’t have to. You can come and go freely, spend time in whatever library sections most interest you, ignore ones that don’t, and leave when you want. You can ask for help and support from a librarian if you choose. You can participate in a class that the library offers or access one of the library’s many online resources, but those are all optional. You may not always like a library’s programming, but you don’t have to participate in anything you don’t want to. If you don’t like your neighborhood library, you can freely visit one in another neighborhood or another town. You mix daily with a wide assortment of people of all ages and backgrounds at your library, reflecting the diversity of your community. Aside from the public levy, everything is voluntary.

Moreover, you don’t ever have to step foot in a library and still have access to books and resources through bookstores and online retailers. Your library has no control over what your local bookstore sells, and the library system can’t dictate rules to Amazon.

Parents are required to register their children for school under a legal threat of force, and the ages at which a child must attend school are lengthening.

Public schools, which are more aptly called government schools because of the force associated with them, are nothing like public libraries. Parents are required to register their children for school under a legal threat of force, and the ages at which a child must attend school are lengthening. Parents can choose to homeschool or enroll their child in a private school, but in most states, homeschooling and private schools are regulated by the state under compulsory schooling statutes. Education is controlled by the state, even for non-public entities that receive no public money.

This is akin to your public library monitoring the books that Barnes & Noble sells, but it goes well beyond that. In each state, young people are required to meet certain attendance thresholds in terms of hours of classroom learning. It would be like the library system mandating that you visit your library—assigned to you based on your zip code— a certain number of days and hours each year, or, alternatively, visit Barnes & Noble for those same number of days and hours with a report to the state to prove it. While you’re at your library or bookstore, you are also required to learn about specific subjects whether you want to or not. And there may be a test.

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Freedom over Force

If the public library system had the same power as the public schooling system, there would be far fewer private booksellers. When you are required by law to receive library services for a certain number of hours per year, you will likely go with the “free” option rather than paying to receive your mandatory library services at Barnes & Noble, which would charge a fee. Indeed, this happened with mandatory schooling.

Most of us would never tolerate a level of coercion and state power associated with public libraries that we routinely accept with public schools.In his book Schooled to Order, historian David Nasaw explains that as government schooling became compulsory in Massachusetts, the number of private schools in the state dropped from 1,308 in 1840 to only 350 by 1880.[1]  Similar trends occurred in other states as they enacted compulsory schooling laws, with private school enrollment subsequently plummeting. It’s hard to compete with “free” and compulsory.

Most of us would never tolerate a level of coercion and state power associated with public libraries that we routinely accept with public schools and education more broadly. As back-to-school time nears, it’s worth celebrating the many ways that public libraries facilitate non-coercive, self-directed learning for all members of the community and questioning why we would ever want our children to learn in spaces where force, not freedom, prevails.

[1] Nasaw, David. Schooled to Order: A Social History of Schooling in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979, p. 83.

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Err on The Side of Liberty

There are many things I don’t know. There are things I think I know but I get wrong. There are also things people may believe I’m wrong about, but I’m not — a topic for another day.

When I’m wrong, I want to be wrong in the least harmful way possible.

I’d rather make the mistake of allowing you the liberty to live your life within your rights than to make the mistake of violating you for your own good. Or for the good of society.

Since I’m going to make mistakes either way, I’d rather make the mistakes that won’t make me into the unethical twin of those I dislike.

I don’t know the best way for you to live, the best way for you to make or spend money, or the best way for you to pursue your own version of happiness. It would be a mistake for me to try to rule over you.

It might be a mistake to let you carry a gun. It’s definitely a mistake to allow government to make and enforce rules that make it harder for anyone to carry one.

It might be a mistake to respect your decision of what to ingest — food or drugs. It’s definitely a mistake to allow anyone the power to cage or kill you in the name of a war on some drugs.

It might be a mistake for you to not wear a seat belt. It’s definitely a mistake to allow armed officers of the government to infringe your right to travel and to extract money from you for failing to do so.

Honestly, it’s not my place to “allow” or forbid anything you choose to do until it violates someone else’s rights. Since it isn’t within my rights to do so, I have no right to send hired guns to do this on my behalf. And neither does anyone else.

No one can delegate a right he doesn’t have.

As much as I don’t know, there are some things I know for certain.

I know you have the right to make your own mistakes and the obligation to pay restitution when your mistakes harm others. I know that all humans everywhere have equal and identical rights and deserve the liberty to exercise them to their fullest, regardless of the opinions of the political class.

To err is human. To err on the side of liberty and human rights is to make the ethical choice. It may not even be a mistake at all.

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Tweeting Publicly Available Information Isn’t “Shameful and Dangerous”

On August 5, US Representative Joaquin Castro (D-TX) posted an infographic to Twitter naming and shaming his city’s most generous supporters of President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign: “Sad to see so many San Antonians as 2019 maximum donors to Donald Trump …. Their contributions are fueling a campaign of hate that labels Hispanic immigrants as ‘invaders.’”

Condemnations quickly followed.

Donald Trump Jr. compared the tweet to the Dayton, Ohio killer’s “hit list.”

“Targeting and harassing Americans because of their political beliefs is shameful and dangerous,” tweeted House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), apparently forgetting the time he similarly targeted Democratic donors in the 2018 midterms.

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) played the sympathy card: “This isn’t a game. It’s dangerous, and lives are at stake. I know this firsthand.” Scalise was shot and wounded by a Bernie Sanders supporter in 2017.

US Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) called Castro’s tweet “grossly inappropriate” and characterized it as “encouraging retaliation.” While re-tweeting it.

Come on, Republicans. This isn’t even a tempest in a teapot. Castro didn’t “dox” anyone, nor did he call for, explicitly or implicitly, violence against anyone. His tweet included only public information  available to anyone with an Internet connection and a few minutes to waste.

Candidates for federal office are legally  required  to report the names, addresses, and occupations of everyone who donates $200 or more to their campaigns. Those names,  partial addresses, occupations, and amounts donated reside in a searchable database on the Federal Election Commission’s web site.

I personally don’t support these campaign finance laws. I think disclosure of donor information should be voluntary. I would be disinclined to vote for a candidate who concealed where his or her support came from, and hope other voters would as well, but I don’t believe that political speech in the form of campaign donations should be forcibly regulated in any way.

But whether I like it or not, campaign contributions are, by law, easily discovered public information, on the premise that we all have a right to know who’s giving money to which candidates … and to act accordingly (short of criminal violence) with respect to both those candidates and those donors.

And, let’s face it, someone who donates the maximum legal amount ($2,700) to a presidential candidate has an agenda. That agenda might be political (she supports the candidate’s ideas) or commercial (he’s trying to buy influence) or personal (they’re buddies or relatives). Whatever that agenda is, they’re putting real money into it.

If I know a local business owner or acquaintance donated to a candidate or cause I consider evil or dangerous, I may take my business elsewhere or not invite the donor to my next backyard barbecue. If I know a business owner or acquaintance supports the same candidates and causes I support, I might go out of my way to patronize that business or get to know the acquaintance better.

Those possibilities are just costs or opportunities of political donations. If you’re not proud of your agenda, keep your checkbook closed. “Problem” solved.

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Don’t Let Mass Shooters and the New York Times Destroy Freedom of Speech

“Online communities like 4chan and 8chan have become hotbeds of white nationalist activity,” wrote the editors of the New York Times  on August 4 in the wake of a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas. Then: “Law enforcement currently offers few answers as to how to contain these communities.”

Wait, what? Is the Times really implying what it looks like they’re implying? Yes.

“Technology companies have a responsibility to de-platform white nationalist propaganda and communities as they did ISIS propaganda,” the editorial continues. “And if the technology companies refuse to step up, law enforcement has a duty to vigilantly monitor and end the anonymity, via search warrants, of those who openly plot attacks in murky forums.”

Translation: The New York Times has announced its flight from the battlefield of ideas. Instead of countering bad ideas with good ideas, they want Big Tech and Big Government to forcibly suppress the ideas they disagree with.

Not so long ago, the Times‘s editors endorsed a very different view:

“One of the Internet’s great strengths is that a single blogger or a small political group can inexpensively create a Web page that is just as accessible to the world as Microsoft’s home page. But this democratic Internet would be in danger if the companies that deliver Internet service changed the rules so that Web sites that pay them money would be easily accessible, while little-guy sites would be harder to access and slower to navigate. Providers could also block access to sites they do not like.”

Now the Times says providers have a “responsibility” to block access to sites the Times doesn’t like. That’s quite a change. And an ugly one.

There are plenty of good reasons, both moral and practical, to oppose the suppression of white nationalist and other “extremist” web platforms.

Free speech is a core moral value for any society that aspires to freedom of any kind and to any degree. We must — MUST — have the right to form our own opinions, and to express those opinions, no matter how ugly others may find those opinions. Without that freedom, no other freedoms can survive.

As a practical matter, “extremists,” like everyone else, will choose to state, promote, and argue for their beliefs. If they can do so in public, those beliefs can be engaged and argued against. If they can’t do so in public, they’ll do so in private, without anyone to convince them (and those they quietly bring into their circles over time) of the error of their ways. The rest of us won’t have a clue what might be in the offing — until the guns come out, that is.

It’s appalling to see the New York Times endorsing an end to the freedom that undergirds its very existence and the prerogatives of every other newspaper and soapbox speaker in America. The only substantive difference between the editors’ position and that of the El Paso shooter, allegedly one Patrick Crusius, is that the shooter did his own dirty work.

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