On Hierarchy

I’ve been wanting to address Coturnix’s points about hierarchical worldviews for about a year and a half now. Now that he’s reposted an old post about Lakoff and science, I have an opportunity to explain the discrepancy between his theory and reality.

First, Bora’s narrative is, roughly, that there are two basic ideologies, liberalism and conservatism. The distinction between them is that conservatism is strictly hierarchical, while liberalism is more about interconnected systems (the buzzword for that is “interactionism”). Further, interactionist liberalism is fairly new; as late as the 1930s, it was about state control of the economy, whereas now it’s about an interactionist free market.

To reiterate, until early to mid-20th century, a non-hierarchical worldview was unimaginable. Thus, capitalists replaced the aristocratic hierarchy with a capitalist hierarchy. Socialists, a few decades later, replaced the capitalist hiererachy with a socialist hierarchy. Socialists did their switch by revolution. Capitalists, on the other hand, used a single round, single cycle, single iteration of the free-market model to make their switch. A hierarchical model does not work and cannot work in theory or practice, as neither feudal (Dark Ages in Europe), nor capitalist (modern West), nor socialist (Soviet Union 1917-1989) economic system provides the greatest good for the greatest number of people (not to mention the effects on the environment).

Another important element in Bora’s theory is Darwinian evolution, a classic example of interactionist science. Hierarchists dislike it because it shows that evolution is a messy thing, as opposed to a divinely ordained system, or a strict upward advancement from lower organisms to higher ones.

The idea that the order of a system depends not on who is controlling it but on the rules of interactions between all the millions of players of the game comes straight out of Darwin’s theory. The need for a Controller was abolished by Darwin. He eliminated a need for a hierarchy. He has shown how a system with many small players and simple (but strongly enforced) rules can evolve beautiful complexity and order out of nothing.

In fact, the special status of evolution is one of the weakest parts of Coturnix’s theory, and given that the liberal/conservative bifurication is entirely unsupported by evidence, it says a lot.

First, the Enlightenment predated Darwin, and even the idea that organisms were not designed but grew on their own appears in Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (though, to be perfectly honest, that position was advanced by the character Philo, whereas Hume wanted the readers to side with Cleanthes). Coturnix says that,

The only way they could fathom an alternative to the feudal aristocratic hierarchy or the capitalist robber-baron hierarchy was to replace it with another hierarchy – a government of the people, by the people and for the people, the elected represenatives of which, trusted by the masses, would design the economy from scratch and control it from the top. That was 150 years ago.

But in reality, in 1848 liberalism was still rebelling against aristocracies; outside England and Germany, robber-baron capitalism only arrived in the late 19th century. And the Enlightenment was all about the government of the people, the elected representatives of whom would largely stay out of the economy. State control of the economy was a conservative issue at the time; even Thomas Paine didn’t want state intervention outside a basic safety net. Marxism, meanwhile, was never about “of the people”; it was about a dictatorship of the proletariat.

Second, a good test for the centrality of Darwinism to interactionism is international comparisons of belief in evolution and hierarchism. In the West, a strong conservative streak, such as in the US and Poland, indeed correlates with creationism. But East Asia is even more conservative, and far more evolutionist. This suggests that evolution doesn’t so much overthrow hierarchism as challenge religion; the secular hierarchism of East Asia is then perfectly content with evolution.

But it’s fairly easy to superficially rescue the theory, to strip it of the point about Darwinism and hierarchism. However, even that theory would be wrong, largely because social scientific research contradicts the bifurication of interactionism and hierarchism.

One theory of risk perception bias, which can pretty easily be extended to sociology and politics, is the Cultural Theory (Wikipedia article link; link to the blogger who wrote it), which posits four biases: individualism, egalitarianism, hierarchism, and fatalism. Leaving out fatalism is understandable, since it’s the ideology of the non-voter or non-participant. But ignoring egalitarianism, and ignoring the fact that individualism isn’t strictly liberal, isn’t.

Socialism is obviously an egalitarian ideology, at least in principle. When it justifies coercive state action, ranging from as social-democratic as nationalized utilities or as communistic as the Great Leap Forward, it does so in egalitarian terms: fairness, equal access, etc. In its softer form of social democracy, it’s the best example of the nurturant parent model of politics.

This is very different from liberalism, an ideology that is mostly individualistic. Although in recent decades liberalism has accepted some egalitarian and hierarchical ideas, its kernel remains individualistic.

All ideologies have ideas from all four biases; some just have different balances than others. If conservatism seems purer, it’s because it doesn’t have intellectuals who’ll tweak it to accord with reality; I don’t want to go into it in detail, but two good reasons for that are that the Enlightenment destroyed the conservative academia, and that conservatism can easily adjust without intellectuals by incorporating accepted social changes into what is to be conserved.

The real difference in ideologies is not necessarily their cultural bias, however. Liberalism and libertarianism are both individualistic. At closest, they’re considered very divergent variants on the same ideology (generally this umbrella ideology is called liberalism, and then liberalism is called social liberalism). In reality, they’re as different as each is from socialism and conservatism.

The primary goal for liberalism is equal rights, or, to put a more economic face on it, what Amartya Sen calls competencies, a concept that combines rights and access. Socialism’s primary focus is economic equality; cynically, it’s a planned economy. Conservatism’s is traditional values; whenever there’s a social change, there will be some people who oppose it, often wanting to return to the period before the more controversial changes. Libertarianism’s is free markets, which explains why libertarians say liberals and conservatives are alike: government enforcement of equal rights and traditional values is more blatant than government enforcement of capitalism.

Hierarchy has nothing to do with these formulations. To be sure, conservatism is more hierarchical than the other ideologies, and socialism is somewhat more hierarchal than liberalism and libertarianism, but that’s not the defining feature of any of these ideologies. Even measuring the balance among the four biases that each ideology aspires to won’t clue you in on many political positions these ideologies take.

5 Responses to On Hierarchy

  1. […] I’ve already written about why Bora’s focus on hierarchy is wrong. But this formulation actually suggests that there is another element he’s ignoring: the two different kinds of hierarchy. In a nutshell, there is conservative hierarchy, and radical hierarchy. Conservative hierarchy has a few fatalist elements; radical hierarchy has many egalitarian ones. […]

  2. […] Discrete classifications measure basic values. I’ve already explained that there are many more than two systems of incompatible values. Even in their most abstract cores, liberalism, socialism, and conservatism are equally distant from one another. Libertarianism is slightly harder to classify, but saying it’s just a type of conservatism is wrong. Libertarians love this scheme for their own emotional reasons. Their core value is anti-authoritarianism (frankly, it is also mine, but I am a liberal). But, if you follow the libertarian logic to its full conclusion, you will end in tragedy. If libertarians ever took control of the government, there will be two possible outcomes. First one will start with anarchy, leading to dog-eat-dog world, leading to nationwide murder-fest, leading to emergence of a few most unscrupulous murderous thugs as “leaders” of the new totalitarian regime. We’ve seen this happen in many places, including in post-communist Eastern Europe. The second possible outcome is a more ordered system, something I like to call “dictatorship of the proletariat”, an illusion of personal freedom similar to that fostered in the past by Mr. Stalin and Mr. Zedong. […]

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