In his recent post, “Contra Simler on Prestige,” Scott Alexander attempts to interrogate why prestigious people are high status. He first distinguishes between dominant and prestigious people, where dominant people are high-status because they can force you to do things. Prestigious people, by contrast, are high-status because they do something that makes you want to obey them, like sing really well. (Here he gives the example of Justin Bieber. Well, maybe you wouldn’t do something just because Justin Bieber asked you to, but there are a lot of girls who would.)
Alexander then quotes a long passage from Kevin Simler’s Social Status: Down The Rabbit Hole–which I am forced to quote in turn because it’s necessary–about a bird called the Arabian babbler:
The Arabian babbler … spends most of its life in small groups of three to 20 members. These groups lay their eggs in a communal nest and defend a small territory of trees and shrubs that provide much-needed safety from predators.
When it’s living as part of a group, a babbler does fairly well for itself. But babblers who get kicked out of a group have much bleaker prospects. These “non-territorials” are typically badgered away from other territories and forced out into the open, where they often fall prey to hawks, falcons, and other raptors. So it really pays to be part of a group. …
Within a group, babblers assort themselves into a linear and fairly rigid dominance hierarchy, i.e., a pecking order. When push comes to shove, adult males always dominate adult females — but mostly males compete with males and females with females. Very occasionally, an intense “all-out” fight will erupt between two babblers of adjacent rank, typically the two highest-ranked males or the two highest-ranked females. …
Most of the time, however, babblers get along pretty well with each other. In fact, they spend a lot of effort actively helping one another and taking risks for the benefit of the group. They’ll often donate food to other group members, for example, or to the communal nestlings. They’ll also attack foreign babblers and predators who have intruded on the group’s territory, assuming personal risk in an effort to keep others safe. One particularly helpful activity is “guard duty,” in which one babbler stands sentinel at the top of a tree, watching for predators while the rest of the group scrounges for food. The babbler on guard duty not only foregoes food, but also assumes a greater risk of being preyed upon, e.g., by a hawk or falcon. …
Unlike chickens, who compete to secure more food and better roosting sites for themselves, babblers compete to give food away and to take the worst roosting sites. Each tries to be more helpful than the next. And because it’s a competition, higher-ranked (more dominant) babblers typically win, i.e., by using their dominance to interfere with the helpful activities of lower-ranked babblers. This competition is fiercest between babblers of adjacent rank. So the alpha male, for example, is especially eager to be more helpful than the beta male, but doesn’t compete nearly as much with the gamma male. Similar dynamics occur within the female ranks.
Alexander then tries to analogize this back to Justin Bieber and the Koch brothers, and finds that it doesn’t really work, but it reminds me of something rather different. From Jim’s Blog, “A Lost Military Technology“:
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, wealthy private individuals substantially supported the military, with a particular wealthy men buying stuff for a particular regiment or particular fort.
Noblemen paid high prices for military commands, and these posts were no sinecure. You got the obligation to substantially supply the logistics for your men, the duty to obey stupid orders that would very likely lead to your death, the duty to lead your men from in front while wearing a costume designed to make you particularly conspicuous, and the duty to engage in honorable personal combat, man to man, with your opposite number who was also leading his troops from in front.
A vestige of this tradition remains in that every English prince has been sent to war and has placed himself very much in harm’s way.
It seems obvious to me that a soldier being led by a member of the ruling class who is soaking up the bullets from in front is a lot more likely to be loyal and brave than a soldier sent into battle by distant rulers safely in Washington who despise him as a sexist homophobic racist murderer, that a soldier who sees his commander, a member of the ruling classes, fighting right in front of him, is reflexively likely to fight.
Human social networks are based on reciprocity–you give me a chunk of meat, and when I kill an antelope, I’ll give you a chunk of meat. Indeed, all morality works within the context of reciprocity. The powerful establish the relationship with their vassals via the exchange of gifts, in return for which they receive taxes and service on their estates. The vassal receives military protection in return. The top bird puts his life on the line for his community, in return for which he receives food from the other birds and more opportunities to mate.
This is is different from–though not entirely–being highly skilled in some non-war related way. Skilled people are valued because they contribute to society, they just don’t put their lives on the line leading troops into battle. Justin Bieber is a glorified court minstrel, but without any real princes or kings in our society, we may have to make do.
George Washington, who lead troops in battle, was–and remains–our most popular president. #2 Abraham Lincoln did not lead troops, but has a kind of battle aura due to having “lead the nation” during wartime. Teddy Roosevelt, formerly one of our top 4, also lead troops in battle.
This is called “leadership.”
Today, it seems like we are moving increasingly away from this model.