29 March 2008

Co-operation and Hierarchy

If you want to co-operate in a group to solve a large problem, you need some amount of hierarchy, just so you know who is the expert on which subject. It really doesn't matter if the subject is computer support, roving the rivets in lapstrake ship planking, or washing the wort kettle; the point is that division of labour implies specialization implies hierarchy, because once you have specialization you have specialization in keeping track of things, and thus taxonomies, and telling a taxonomy from a hierarchy in the presence of a determined will to keep them separate requires good light and some squinting. (Also, you get arbitrage. But I probably shouldn't try to talk about arbitrage.)

This being the case, and people being East African ground apes highly specialized to co-operate in groups, the task related hierarchy becomes a social hierarchy, sometimes. Or, rather, to some degree; the existing social hierarchy will generally not quietly adjust in accordance to a maximum-consensus algorithm, because social standing matters -- in terms of your quality of life, in terms of your freedom of action, and in terms of the probable fate of any descent you may have. (Neeves count.)

And that's where the axiom lock comes in; the folks focused on do-the-job view the hierarchy as a necessary and inevitable and useful means of getting organized to get the job done, while the folks focused on their position in the social hierarchy view the hierarchy as a tool for creating and maintaining and enhancing their own social position, and the large co-operative job as significant solely in as much as it affects their position in the social hierarchy.

So the one set of folks think the hierarchy is legitimate and useful if it's helping get the job done, and the other think it's legitimate and useful if it's conferring social status on them.

This is obvious in a workplace context; it's also (I hope) obvious in a political context, where the one side figures the common problem is "take care of everybody" and the other side figures the utility is the preservation of existing wealth and status.

And since caring about relative status -- low status gets you left of the leopard, somewhere deep down in our primate brains -- is hardwired into people, it's kinda tricking figuring out how to reliably prefer the absolute changes to the relative. (Better to be a middle class member of the current Anglosphere than the King of Kings at Karnak in many-centuries BC, unless you have to be able to put people to death to feel content, and that change comes from absolute-scale improvements. From the point of view of someone after relative social standing, everything is worse now, at least to the extent that the rule of law actually applies.)

What's important about this one is, I think, recognizing the axiom lock; there is no useful compromise possible between the two different sets of objectives.