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So I was reading this excellent analysis of how GRR Martin's books differ from the medieval world, and it brought together a few thoughts I have been having for a while:…
One of the reasons I find history so fascinating, is that it somehow reveals how our modern world is anomalous, and I think one way in which our world is particularly unusual, is the lack of real constraints on elite behaviour.
And by elite here I do not just mean billionaires, I mean university professors, and small bushiness owners and journalists. The top 10% on some ranking of financial power and prestige.
Generally in the past elites faced three kinds of constraints. (1) Reputational, (2) Religious, and (3) Cultural.
A reputational constraint consists of a case where the public revelation of your behaviour will have significant negative consequences, political, social or financial.
A religious constraint is when either I personally fear damnation and thus cannot take an action, my peers are sufficiently religious that a violation would become a reputational constraint, or there exists a church hierarchy capable of significant sanctions.
A cultural constraint consists of a case where an attempt to take action fails because those that I command will simply en masse fail to obey due to cultural or social norms.
Generally speaking here elites have seldom faced legal constraints, unless their actions are seen as a violation of one of the other three conditions by their peers to the extent that people will proactively witness against you.
Over the last fifty or so years we have seen almost all of these sources of constraints evaporate for various reasons. I will not talk much about the decline of religious constraints, I think that is obvious to most people.
The decline in cultural norms is most visible in the bad behaviour of corporates. Whether the wells fargo accounts scam, or any number of environmental disasters like flint, the reality is that *a lot of people knew enough*, but the contractual norm of confidentiality ...
... trumped any kind of loyalty to the community or nation at large. This is most clear in the tiny vignettes like the administration in flint ordering bottled water for its employees while reassuring the public all is well.
Another good example is government institutions and the WHO advice on mask wearing. Its now extremely clear mask wearing reduces your ability to spread, but they continue to say "no evidence it helps healthy people avoid infection" knowing full well that is a "small truth".
Whilst technically true it ignores that half of sick people do not know they are sick. And "no evidence" is being used to mean "no RCT" when there is actually plenty of circumstantial evidence that mask wearing protects against wide spread of respiratory and droplet infections.
These institutions are sick because they are no longer subservient to a greater cultural norm like "we should tell people the truth as best we can", and have instead developed an internal sub-culture where "we should adopt extreme epistemic scepticism to avoid ever being wrong"
trumps the wider cultural norms. Its also perniciously clear that most HR do not see companies as having duties of care towards their employees, and will often act in favour of protecting the reputations of senior employees rather than protecting the welfare of junior ones.
And this feeds back into (1). With weak cultural norms, the natural human tendency to protect and forgive your friends and peers dominates in almost all situations. Thus there become few reputational constraints.
Reputational constraints arise out of the failure to fulfill expectations imposed by cultural norms. The erosion of cultural norms around employer responsibilities means that there will be no reputational penalty for Bob Iger. Zero of his friends will stop talking to him.
His county club will not revoke his membership. Yet, 100 years ago, bad behaviour towards your employees did carry costs. Even before unionising, which is about economic power, there were several movements that improved worker conditions mainly through social shaming of elites.
Good examples are the response to the original Rowntree survey, or Henry Ford's motivations for paying double the market rate for workers. This is now recast as just good business sense, but the reality is that ford was doing things like (source:…)
Does this sound like a man driven mainly by shareholder value? He belatedly realised the above social monitoring was bad and dissolved it after a few years. Another time he said this: (source:…)
The modern world really is anomalous for lacking these social and organic constraints on elite behaviour. People are seldom faulted for the raw exercise of power to their own benefit. Sometimes even applauded for it. Legal rights are no substitute for cultural norms.
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