Those who get the rough end of the pineapple, nanny states, paternalism, luxury beliefs

February 5, 2024 — February 24, 2024

incentive mechanisms
social graph

In Australia we are fortunate to have an unusually usable term for the people that have a tough time: battlers. Thanks be to my forebears I’m not stuck using some high-faluting word like subaltern or lumpenproletariat, when I want to describe the opposite of elites.

There are a lot of elites arguing about how to make the world fair, or safe, or good, or whatever, for the battlers, who are by assumption not part of the conversation. Such conversations are are a culture war flashpoint, the line between what provides dignity to the disadvantaged, and what is paternalistic, what is aid and what is a status game. Ergo, this notebook of choice morsels.

First: an incentive to care, which is my highly speculative counterpoint to Moore’s Law of Mad Science, the Picketty-Moore Law of Mad Social Science.

Every eighteen months, to remain elite, the number of IQ points you need goes up by one, or the number of dollars by 20,000.

The world is growing more unequal, and if it is going to have some kind of paternalisic hand-wringing concern in it, we would do well to make sure that the outcomes of that paternalism are OK on whether we are personally on the giving or receiving side of the paternalistic concern. The rising tide of inequality and competition will sweep many of us under the plimsoll line of battlership.

In the mean time, there is a popular activity in the public sphere where “we” who are elites for now, argue about what “they” want and/or need and/or can be trusted with. The fact you are reading this blog places you in the aspirational elite. Not because this blog is necessarily good, but because reading blogs is by consensus an elite activity.

Figure 1

1 Luxury beliefs and dignity of risk

This talking point comes up a lot at the moment. It originates I think from Rob Henderson, in Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class—A Status Update:

When an affluent person advocates for drug legalization, or defunding the police, or open borders, or loose sexual norms, or white privilege, they are engaging in a status display. They are trying to tell you, “I am a member of the upper class.”

Affluent people promote open borders or the decriminalization of drugs because it advances their social standing, and because they know that the adoption of those policies will cost them less than others. The logic is akin to conspicuous consumption. If you have $50 and I have $5, you can burn $10 and I can’t. In this example, you, as a member of the upper class, have wealth, social connections, and other advantageous attributes, and I don’t. So you are in a better position to afford open borders or drug experimentation than me.

The two examples, open borders and drug experimentation, are tellingly different kinds of choice. Open borders is in this context probably mostly about the labour market, and providing access to the wages in my nations state to others. If the borders are open, then the labour market is more competitive, and wages presumably go down. So if I advocate such a policy I am advocating for a negative impact people who depend upon wages in my nation-state, especially in relatively unskilled jobs. The labour market is a kind of shared resource, and as the person advocating a change in it, the degree to which it affects me might differ from other people in my nation state, without me doing anything else.

Legal drug experimentation is a creature of a different kind. If you smoke cannabis, I do not need to smoke cannabis. We can each choose this individually. Banning drugs removes the choice from both of us. But unlike an open border, the direct effect is is a personal, opt-in choice, not society-wide. Drug usage has second order effects, of course. If I am a drug addict, and I steal your stuff to pay for my habit, then you are affected by my drug usage. But to a first order approximation, the implications of these policies as imposed upon other people are different.

Anyway, as far as I understand it, this is a luxury belief argument if the following situation obtains: I personally, me, Dan, I am able to blithely endorse risky behaviours because I am privileged, and literate in various psychological and epistemological skills that mean that I am at comparatively low risk in partaking in even these activities. For example, I could probably use heroin without adverse effects, if I was interested in heroin. I can speculate in stocks or cryptocurrencies. However, by flaunting the status implied by my ability to get away with high-risk things, I am encouraging people without my privileges to take risks that they cannot afford to take.

That is certainly one of the things that could happen when I publicly make my fancy-pants lifestyle choices.

By the same token, telling other people how they can live their lives is a status move too. There is no way out of that game. Pretending that I don’t participate in various high-risk activities for fear of misleading others has its own downsides. I am not sure that “elites” should be encouraged to enact their hobbies in secret covens to conceal their edgy choices from the vulnerable masses. That feels like it ends in disaster.

I think Henderson’s observation does bite when it comes to shallow policy advocacy — say, someone who takes illegal drugs would like to simply legalize drugs, but does not propose to put into place the health or education support for a society which experiences changed relationship to drugs after that policy comes into effect, especially people who will not have the same social support in the face of the policy. Then the policy will bring about negative effects for people who are not in the same position as the advocate, since I was not using the existing institutions to manage my drug use. And of course, there are people who do advocate such things, and they are advocating poor policy; If this luxury beliefs terms was applied only to them it would be helpful.

Buuuut that would not happen on the internet we live in where all terms of art become accusations. Luxury beliefs appears as a shorthand to indicate that the bourgeoisie should not be seen to do dangerous things lest the lumpenproletariat copy them. As a random example I came across in the last 24 hours, see this article comment on a book on polyarmory:

… My one caveat would be that polyamory should be addressed (at least for the purpose of this discussion) as a possible candidate for a luxury belief: the kind of lifestyle that confers status, and maybe some sort of happiness, on wealthy people from the Bay Area, while inflicting costs on the lower classes who are going to watch a gazillion TV shows about polyamory over the next decade and are going to break up marriages and leave children unattended and fuck themselves up even further, because cool people do it.…

The full path from “high status people doing dangerous things” to “poor people copying them and experiencing negative consequence” can indeed exist. Social contagion is a thing for our social brains, and applies to many phenomena of concern. The journals are full of analyses of drinking (Ormerod and Wiltshire 2009), suicide (Gould, Jamieson, and Romer 2003; Ortiz and Khin Khin 2018), wholly new syndromes (Müller-Vahl et al. 2021), fashion (Draief, Heidari, and Kearns 2014)… We as humans do spend too much time aping the behaviour of role models of indifferent quality. That said, it seems that as a society we have some tolerance for bad role models even in the form of high-status risky behaviour; that is why we tolerate horse riding, stock market speculation, founding start-ups and car racing etc. Few societies are banning horse-racing. If we are serious about ameliorating risks of such activities, we’d best get rid of reality television, gossip columns, broadcast sports, and fashion magazines too, while we are there. Context is surely important (and in Rob Henderson’s work there is in fact context, to be clear).

cf Dignity of risk.

Bonus links on this theme:

2 Elites all the way up

A corollary to the notion that lower-status-than-me unfortunates do not know how to run their own lives is that people more elite than me can look down at me and make the same judgment about my ability to run my own. I am a batter to someone else else smarter or richer than me. Unless I think the status hierarchy tops out with me, which empirically it does not.

The same applies, I think, to think of the children arguments.

3 Connection to nanny states


4 Status economics


5 Incoming

  • Will Storr’s status game book sounds interesting:

  • The Redistribution Of Humiliation by Rory

    You can’t grant status from above, it has to be seen as earned. Directly redistributing status is really difficult, and may be one of the most important long term questions for human civilisation.


    The brexit vote has a similar function. Its goal is not to materially improve the lot of the working man, but to humiliate his betters. Now everyone has been brought down to his level, grappling with vast systems they don’t understand or control. A supreme act of political and economic vandalism to upend the UK’s status hierarchies. Nigel Farage isn’t a potential leader, he doesn’t have the capacity, and has never been elected into the formal hierarchies of Westminster. Instead he’s a clown, and the voters chose to hit David Cameron with a massive, inflatable, penis-shaped slap-stick.

    Connection to misrule, there.

  • Leighton Woodhouse writes on related themes. His own twist is “elite overproduction”, which is a kind of argument that elites will get excessively competitive about symbolic eliteness since there are not enough elite jobs for them.

6 References

Allcott, Hunt, Luca Braghieri, Sarah Eichmeyer, and Matthew Gentzkow. 2019. The Welfare Effects of Social Media.” Working Paper 25514. National Bureau of Economic Research.
Barash, Vladimir. 2011. The Dynamics Of Social Contagion,” August.
Bentley, R Alexander, Paul Ormerod, and Michael Batty. 2011. Evolving Social Influence in Large Populations.” Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 65 (3): 537–46.
Cao, Zhigang, Haoyu Gao, Xinglong Qu, Mingmin Yang, and Xiaoguang Yang. 2013. Fashion, Cooperation, and Social Interactions.” PLOS ONE 8 (1): e49441.
Cohen-Cole, Ethan, and Jason M. Fletcher. 2008. Is obesity contagious? Social networks vs. environmental factors in the obesity epidemic.” Journal of Health Economics 27 (5): 1382–87.
Draief, Moez, Hoda Heidari, and Michael Kearns. 2014. New Models for Competitive Contagion.” In Proceedings of the Twenty-Eighth AAAI Conference on Artificial Intelligence, 28:637–44. AAAI’14. Québec City, Québec, Canada: AAAI Press.
Ejima, Keisuke, Kazuyuki Aihara, and Hiroshi Nishiura. 2013. Modeling the Obesity Epidemic: Social Contagion and Its Implications for Control.” Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling 10 (1): 17.
Gould, Madelyn, Patrick Jamieson, and Daniel Romer. 2003. Media Contagion and Suicide Among the Young.” American Behavioral Scientist 46 (9): 1269–84.
Goyal, Sanjeev, and Michael Kearns. 2012. Competitive Contagion in Networks.” In Proceedings of the Forty-Fourth Annual ACM Symposium on Theory of Computing, 759–74. STOC ’12. New York, NY, USA: Association for Computing Machinery.
Lin, Liu yi, Jaime E. Sidani, Ariel Shensa, Ana Radovic, Elizabeth Miller, Jason B. Colditz, Beth L. Hoffman, Leila M. Giles, and Brian A. Primack. 2016. Association Between Social Media Use and Depression Among U.S. Young Adults.” Depression and Anxiety 33 (4): 323–31.
Müller-Vahl, Kirsten R, Anna Pisarenko, Ewgeni Jakubovski, and Carolin Fremer. 2021. Stop That! It’s Not Tourette’s but a New Type of Mass Sociogenic Illness.” Brain, no. awab316 (August).
Ormerod, Paul, and Greg Wiltshire. 2009. ‘Binge’ Drinking in the UK: A Social Network Phenomenon.” Mind & Society 8 (2): 135–52.
Ortiz, Patricia, and Eindra Khin Khin. 2018. Traditional and New Media’s Influence on Suicidal Behavior and Contagion.” Behavioral Sciences & the Law 36 (2): 245–56.
Primack, Brian A., Ariel Shensa, César G. Escobar-Viera, Erica L. Barrett, Jaime E. Sidani, Jason B. Colditz, and A. Everette James. 2017. Use of Multiple Social Media Platforms and Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety: A Nationally-Representative Study Among U.S. Young Adults.” Computers in Human Behavior 69 (April): 1–9.