Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Alienation, Commodification and Other Distractions

Ever since their inception, states have dominated the extraction of surplus.

Tomb of Menna, Wikipedia commons.

Two concepts that, in their anti-commerce forms, get in the way of understanding social dynamics are commodification and alienation.

Regarding commodification (turning things into objects of exchange) we have been exchanging goods outside our immediate groups for perhaps as long as we have been Homo sapiens. Given that the only ways to get hold of something that you do not already have are to make it, take it or trade for it and that (1) we have not been generally able to individually make everything we need since we adopted a cooperative subsistence strategy (something which helped make us human) and (2) we probably want to discourage too much of the take option, that leaves trade. It is not remotely a coincidence that our material prosperity, capacity to engage in social life, personal freedom and autonomy, have all expanded as our trading has.

There are certainly questions about what should or should not be traded, and in what circumstances. But everything useful has boundaries, albeit often fuzzy ones, beyond which it stops being beneficial. That comes from living in a universe where constraints are built into the structure of reality. Constraints that we navigate by engaging in various trade-offs.

As for alienation, given that we have been trading for possibly our entire history as a species, it can reasonably be said to be incorporated within our evolved capacities, rather than being some psychic maiming. More specifically, the notion that there is something specifically bad about profit because it represents the extraction of surplus, of income that the providers of labour are otherwise entitled to, is a ludicrously simpleminded notion of profit.

We direct our labour towards what we value, but there is always the risk of consuming (or otherwise using) more value than we produce. As commercial activity thus runs the risk of loss, covering said risk of loss is a commercially necessary function that folk generally are not going to do for free.

Mistaking that labour is directed towards what we value for labour being the determinant of value obscures the central role of risk in structuring commercial activity. Those covering the risk have the greatest incentive to organise production so as to maximise the creation of value (and so minimise the risk of loss). This is why ownership of commercial enterprises by those covering the risk of loss has evolved in every commercially active society. Indeed, what exchanges are, or are not, going to be covered in that way by a particular firm is a question that helps set the boundaries of firms.

Surplus through limiting subsistence

It is also a mistake to regard such normal commercial activity as the prime method of generating surplus (i.e., production in excess of subsistence) in human societies. Ever since their inception, states have overwhelmingly dominated the actual extraction of surplus, and still do. In every developed society, the tax share of GDP is far larger than the profit share.

It is a myth that farming, the shift from taking food from the environment to making it by growing plants or raising animals, generates significant surplus on its own. What farming generates is a greater population: i.e., more babies. Hence farming’s ability to overwhelm and replace foraging across arable lands as farming populations swamped foraging populations.

In order for farming, for food production, to generate significant surplus, said surplus has to appropriated before it goes to supporting more babies. In all state societies, the overwhelmingly dominant mechanism for extracting surplus has been taxation: that is, appropriation by the state. How can we look at the Pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall of China, Angkor Wat etc, etc, etc and not realise that states dominate the creation and extraction of surplus?

Someone deriving their income from taxes gains it by a far more pure “extraction of surplus” than does anyone in business. Unless the business uses coerced labour. But labour bondage is, in effect, private taxation: using coercion to extract the scarcity premium of labour.

Businesses can leach off the surplus-extracting capacity of the state. This is known as crony capitalism. Crony capitalism harnesses the exploitative possibilities of the state through collusion between actors within business and within the state for the benefit of both, and the detriment of the wider society. Such colluding application, into the private sector, of the exploitative possibilities of the state is another manifestation of state dominance of the extraction of surplus.

The existence of states do create incentives to privatise profits and socialise losses. But through the surplus-extracting nature of the state.

Alienation and commodification may be useful mechanisms to generate an ennobling narrative of oneself as a fighter against metaphysical evils, and to de-legitimise rival (commercial) elites. In their anti-commerce forms, they are, however, not helpful for understanding social dynamics.


Yoram Barzel, Economic Analysis of Property Rights, Cambridge University Press, [1989], 1997.

Jared Diamond, Peter Bellwood, ‘Farmers and Their Languages: The First Expansions’, Science, 25 April 2003, Vol. 300, Issue 5619, pp. 597–603.

N. Blegen, ‘The earliest long-distance obsidian transport: Evidence from the ∼200 ka Middle Stone Age Sibilo School Road Site, Baringo, Kenya’, Journal of Human Evolution, 103 (2017) 1e19.

Amory Gethin, Clara Martínez-Toledano, Thomas Piketty, ‘Brahmin Left versus Merchant Right: Changing Political Cleavages in 21 Western Democracies, 1948–2020’, World Inequality Lab Working Paper N° 2021/15, May 2021.

Joram Mayshar, Omer Moav, & Zvika Neman, ‘Geography, Transparency, and Institutions’, American Political Science Review, 2017, 111(3), 622–636.

Friday, April 22, 2022

The Media Parallax View

The problem with using a distorting social lens.

A common trope of commentary, both inside and outside the US, for some years now (even before the Trump-apocalypse) was that the Republican Party had shifted rightwards. The trouble is, this is mostly not true.

The views of Republican voters has changed very little in recent decades. The views of Democrat voters have shifted notably to the left. 

Republican voters have become more consistently conservative in their views, which has pulled the median Republican voter away from the centre. But the shift away from the centre of the median Democrat voter has been much stronger

As the above graphic demonstrates, in 2016 Democrat voters were much more clustered away from the centre in economic policy, and somewhat more clustered away from the centre in cultural politics, than were Republican voters. Movement in Democrat opinion has been driven by shifts among liberal and college-educated Democrats, which began before Trump’s candidacy.

So, from whence comes this view that the Republicans have become “much” more right wing?

Partly, as Damon Linker points out, from increased used of brinkmanship by the Congressional Republicans. But this shift in tactics is not really a shift in opinion (though it may reflect a consolidation of opinion among Republicans).

Mostly, however, it comes from the mainstream media, especially the “quality” media. The views of the mainstream media, especially the “quality” media, have shifted sharply, and increasingly intolerantly, leftwards in cultural politics. The result is, even with minimal shifting among Republicans, the distance between the views of the mainstream media, especially the “quality” media, and those of Republicans has steadily grown. 

As the mainstream media, especially the “quality” media, is the lens through which many Americans, and even more international media and their audiences, see US politics, the increasing expression by many American journalists of their growing distance from Republicans have created the illusion of the Republicans becoming “much more” right wing.

It is a parallax effect. If there are two poles, and you are moving so that one seems closer and closer and other seems further and further away, it can look as if the receding pole is shifting, when it is your point of view that is actually shifting. Similarly, if you are retaining the same distance away from one pole that is shifting further and further away from another (stationary) pole, that can also create the illusion that the stationary pole is moving.

Looking at US politics through a mainstream media, particularly a “quality” media, that has been shifting leftwards (in cultural politics), has created the illusion of shifts in Republican opinion that are much larger than they actually have been. Meanwhile, the same process has obscured the reality that leftward shifts in Democrat opinion have been significantly larger than any rightward shifts in Republican opinion.

The collapse in advertising revenues has created something of a “go broke, go woke” phenomena in the US media, where falling revenues has led to smaller newsrooms that are more easily captured by the intolerant conformity of recent university graduates. This is making much of the media an ever more distorting lens through which to view US politics. Or US society in general. Or any public policy issues that touch on cultural politics.

[An earlier version of this was posted on Medium.]

Saturday, February 26, 2022

On acknowledged possession

Property law rests on conventions that evolved before it and that can operate without it, or even against it.
Waiting for the opening of a speakeasy in 1921 (Wikipedia commons).

Black markets, markets in illegal goods and services, demonstrate that state recognition and protection of property rights are not required for a market to operate. Black markets exist where the state bans the sale and/or purchases of specific goods and services and, as a consequence, will not protect the exchanges, goods, services or assets involved in, or derived from, such commerce.

The state does not only fail to provide recognition and protection of property rights within the banned market, or any mediation or adjudication services; it actively denies such and seeks to suppress the trades and accompanying property rights. Yet, black markets exist. They can even flourish, generating great (if insecure and often violently contested) wealth.

As various economists, such as Ronald Coase, Harold Demsetz and Yoram Barzel have explored at length, a trade, an exchange, is actually a transfer of control over some attribute or bundles of attributes. If such control is formally recognised and enforceable, then they are legal or formal property rights. But, as we have seen, trades can and do happen regularly even when formal legal ratification of such control, and their transfer, is actively denied.

How can this be? Because the functional element in property is not formal ratification by a legal system or process, but mutual acknowledgement by the contracting parties and others that they interact with. Such acknowledgment may be active, or it may be passive acquiescence. Nevertheless, such mutual acknowledgement is all that is needed for people to exercise effective control over attributes and so for economic property rights to exist. Indeed, such mutual acknowledgement is what makes any property law functional in day-to-day operation. The old saw that “possession is nine-tenths of the law” points to the fundamental role of mutual acknowledgement in any property system.

At this level, property-as-mutual-acknowledgement is a matter of convention, something you do in particular ways because others do so. (Language and fashion are classic realms of convention.) Property-as-mutual-acknowledgement generates basic conventions of resource use. If you have something in your possession, if you are exercising control over it, the information-economising presumption that simplifies human interaction is that it is, indeed, yours in the senses that matter. This mutual acknowledgement, as is normal for effective conventions, works because it works for everyone as a general presumption. People can operate on the basis of a common set of mutually-reinforcing, because mutually-beneficial and mutually-aligning, expectations.

Property everywhere and always exists via such information-economising acknowledgement, creating mutually-reinforcing expectations. The key thing in property is not “mine!”, any silverback gorilla thumping his chest can claim that. The key thing in property is “yours!”: the acknowledgement by others that the thing is yours and remains yours until you pass it to another.

A trade is just the process of transferring mutually acknowledged control over goods or services. All parties to the trade agree because they are getting something out of the transfer. Each gets the value they perceive out of having what the other previously had, or is going to provide, in exchange for what they themselves previously had, or will provide. An exchange they undergo because they value the former more than the latter. Hence, gains from trade: in cases of voluntary exchange, if both sides did not feel themselves to be better off, they would not have agreed to the trade.

Even in cases of coerced exchange (providing goods or services to avoid some violent or other penalty), the coercion works because the transfer is judged better than the alternative by both parties. In the case of the coerced, it is judged better than the alternative after coercion is put into play. In the case of the agent applying the coercion, before doing so. It is the legitimacy and consequences of the coercion that drives our judgement about such coercive exchanges. Taxes and a mugging are both coerced exchanges, but they are not generally regarded as normatively equivalent.

The power of mutual acknowledgement (and of information-economising, expectation-aligning, common presumption) is such that it permits black markets to operate even in the face of the state denying formal recognition of such acknowledgment. Indeed, even though the state is seeking to actively frustrate such mutual acknowledgement.

Black markets can only operate because the state is unable or unwilling to make its ban fully effective. But the difficulty of doing so points to, and is part a result of, the willingness of the parties to make the banned exchanges. Trades based on mutual acknowledgement using generally convenient conventions of property.

Because the parties involved seek to avoid the prohibiting efforts of the state, black market exchanges tend to gravitate towards places that are not regularly policed by the state. The level of black market activity in a locality tends to say more about the patterns in the policing efforts of the state than the inhabitants of the locality. Nevertheless, it is very easy for the inhabitants of such localities to be tarred by the association with the local black market activity. Something that can be useful to obscure the level of state responsibility for its (lack of) effective policing. And even more useful for dividing residents, citizens and workers by locality, or by features associated with locality.

In practice, even the blackest of black markets is somewhat parasitic on the formal property rights structure endorsed or provided by the state, if only to more securely enjoy the benefits of income and assets acquired from illegal exchanges. Hence the appeal of money laundering: converting what is illegal into what is legal by moving assets and income out of the realm that the state seeks to ban into the realm that the state acknowledges (i.e. ratifies) and protects. Obviously, the intent of such laundering of money and assets is to avoid the risks and costs of hostile state action but successfully doing so also gains the benefits of state property protection and adjudication services.

Thus, that black markets demonstrate that markets do not need the support and acknowledgment of the state to function does not mean that there are not major benefits in such support and acknowledgment. Including the various services the state may offer. Even if the state is purely motivated by the pacification needed to secure its taxation base, that normally entails some protection of property rights. Moreover, the pacifying state is likely to provide, or create social space for, or otherwise support, adjudication services as part of ensuring the social pacification that enables and supports its revenue extraction.

Trade or raid

Black markets are, of course, notoriously connected to violence. This flows directly from the state refusing to protect and acknowledge black market exchanges. In the absence of state protection and adjudication, assets have to be protected, and disputes adjudicated, by private action. In the end, by private force.

Moreover, black market exchanges happen through mutually acknowledged control of property. Such acknowledgement can be withheld or withdrawn.

Exchanges outside the ambit of state ratification, protection and public adjudication are in the pre-state situation of the primordial trade-or-raid choice. Does one bargain to secure desired things that another has by trade or does one simply take by raid?

Much of the point, and a very large part of the value, of state pacification is to minimise the attractiveness, and so incidence, of the raid choice. Thereby elevating the frequency and scale of the trade choice. Which can also further encourage the making of things, the third choice in acquiring something you do not already have, after take or trade. To the potential benefit of the state’s revenue.

Reducing transaction costs

Elevating the frequency and scale of trades is the core benefit of effective systems of legal property rights. Clarity of property rights, ease of adjudication and reliability of their protection all lower transaction costs, potentially dramatically. Transaction costs being costs entailed in making an exchange or other interaction. Specifically, search and information costs; bargaining and decision costs; policing and enforcement costs.

The lower transaction costs are, including the lower the risks involved in transacting and in having assets, and the greater the clarity in who has what rights, the higher the scale of transactions are likely to be and the more willing people are going to hold, and invest in, commercial assets. The state-revenue and economic growth advantages of this situation are likely to be very large.

While the advantages of the reduction of transaction costs through an effective legal system are very real, this is very different from stating or implying that such a happy situation is required for commercial activity to occur. It is perfectly clear, from history and anthropology, that such a well-functioning system of property rights and law is absolutely not necessary for commercial activity, even considerable levels of commercial activity.

As, of course, the case of black markets starkly demonstrate. More generally, as history and anthropology demonstrate quite clearly, mutual acknowledgement generating property conventions — whether or not such is formally ratified by the state and regardless of how efficiently or effectively the state does so — can still support considerable levels of commercial activity. Especially if agents within the state provide functional acknowledgment of property, even if formal ratification is lacking. Indeed, the case of post-1978 China demonstrates that such acknowledgement within the state apparatus can be sufficient even though private commerce and ownership is formally illegal. As it was in China until 2004.

China in the period 1978–2004 was not so much a matter of black markets — as the state was clearly not enforcing its bans on private property and private exchanges in anything remotely resembling a systematic way — as grey markets. Markets whose existence and exchanges were formally banned but functionally permitted. That such markets could operate at all, points to the key role of mutual acknowledgement in functioning property systems, every bit as much as black markets do.

What made such markets functional was being acknowledged by agents within the state apparatus. Indeed, often engaged in by such agents. What evolved were patterns of acknowledgement by such agents that permitted markets to emerge based on conventions of property (including of the transfer of property). Markets that were not typical black markets, with their associated violence and often socially disruptive goods and services; but nor were they ratified by the state within a formal system of property law. Though they were parasitic both on formal state property systems and the social peace imposed by the Chinese state.

The path of the People’s Republic from command economy to market economy, under the continuing regime of the Chinese Communist Party, can perhaps shed some light on a recurrent pattern in Eurasian history, where land starts as being owned by the ruler and, over time, becomes the property (with varying degrees of completeness and recognition) of intermediary social actors. Possibly all the way down to individual farmers. Versions of this pattern can be seen in Indian, European, Japanese and Imperial Chinese history. The difficulties and inefficiencies of central control, and the pervasive power of, and tendency towards, acknowledged possession, of property-as-convention, are clearly a recurring tension within state societies.

Manageable transaction costs

Economic agents can use connections to reduce uncertainty and manage risks, further strengthening the conventions that generate mutually-acknowledged possession. (A connection being repeated, mutually acknowledged, interactions that both agents presumptively intend to continue, or that one agent can force to continue.) Connections provide a wide range of possibilities that, without achieving the level of uncertainty reduction (and so risk clarification) that efficient property-rights regimes generate, can nevertheless enable considerable commercial activity.

Markets emerge when there is sufficient mutual acknowledgement of possession to generate property-as-convention in situations where transaction costs, and other risks, are manageable. We can identify three key elements based on the normal resource-creation-and-risk-management triad of structured sharing, exchange, and connection (that both structured sharing and exchange are embedded in, and interact with), plus the value of signalling your value as a social interlocutor.

First, there is the element of a functional common space. Passive acquiescence in control of what others possess-and-so-control makes it much easier for everyone to act within the common social space. If the state does nothing more than block public violence, it effectively creates a common social space within which such passive acquiescence will be naturally ubiquitous. That alone is a powerful protector of functional property rights, even if the state does not formally ratify property rights or does not provide adjudication services (whether at all, or sufficient to cover the demand for such).

Many societies have had private providers of adjudication services covering property disputes. Which folk have been willing to use for the same reason that they acquiesce in the possessing(s) of others: it eases their social interactions.

Second, there is mutual signalling. Passive acquiescence signals that one is potentially a person easier to interact with. The more complete the mutual acknowledgement, the stronger the signal. Folk have a powerful incentive to acknowledge the possessing of others so that their own possessing will be acknowledged in turn.

Such patterns of mutual signalling can also increase the willingness to use private adjudication services. By using such services, and abiding by their decisions, folk establish their reliability as social and commercial interlocutors. More generally, the broader the ambit of one’s repeated trading activity, the more value there is in a reputation for fair dealing; which includes respect for the possessing of others.

The value of Sharia, and Sharia courts, in providing a shared system of commercial law and adjudication, had much to do with the spread of Islam along trade routes, particularly in the Malay world. More recently, the provision of such services also had much to do with how the Taliban was able to maintain networks of support within rural Afghanistan, leading to its recapture of the country.

One sign of how effective the suppression of violence in public spaces is, is how much effort those willing to violate the general pattern of presumptive possession put in to hide or obscure their doing so. What makes a riot a riot is the breakdown of such presumptive hiding of violence. Just as what makes looting, looting is the breakdown of presumptive acknowledgement of possessing by others. Though, at some point, looters will want a return to the presumption of possession so they can more securely retain their gains. A revealing instance of how much the violation of the presumptive possession by others is itself parasitic on a more general pattern of acquiescence in possession that generate the conventions of property. As previously noted, the general utility of possessing is a powerful motivator for ongoing patterns of mutual acquiescence in possession and the alignment of expectations to generate the conventions of property.

Thirdly, there is the role of connections. The need to maintain and protect connections important to oneself may further encourage mutual acknowledging of possession, and an abiding by private adjudication, by raising the social costs of failing to protect and sustain a reputation as a reliable interlocutor. Especially if such connections also protect one’s own presumptive possession. The atomised individual may be more willing to violate such presumptions but is also a more likely target of such violations.

The use of (typically kin) connections to provide protection-via-retaliation, which is a method for protecting life, person and property particularly common in horticultural and pastoralist societies, can set off cycles of feuding. One of the ways that states pacify is by breaking such patterns of retaliatory feuding.

Societies with strong kin groups often use private adjudication services quite extensively, as protection of one’s standing within the kin group often helps motivate use of, and abiding by, such adjudication.

Certain connections may also protect one’s violation of the presumptive possession of others. Hence the tendency of criminal gangs to form so as to protect, organise and enable such violations (and of the assets gained therefrom). They are also a very useful protective device when engaged in black market activity and may be necessary if operation within the black market involves significant issues of scale or complexity in provision. Every bit as much as other firms do, criminal gangs wrestle with choices of whether to transact externally through markets (or, being criminal, via taking) or internally through organisation (i.e. managed connection using pooled resources organised through some mixture of hierarchy and structured sharing). Boundary choices that depend, as with other firms, on questions of transaction costs and risk-coverage. (A transaction that one can profit from is also a transaction that one can lose from; covering the risk of loss is a fundamental factor in why firms exist and how they are structured.)

The value in protecting the ability to interact through conventions of ownership based on mutual acknowledgement is so strong that injunctions against stealing (at least within the relevant in-group, the relevant normative community) are a universal feature of human societies. The conventions of property are thereby reinforced by social norms against (in-group) theft.

Norms arise out of a sense-of-should based on the benefits of aligning expectations in a highly social species with considerable cognitive capacity due to having large, and metabolically costly, brains.

Social norms are injunctions to act as expected, with sanctions also being expected to be imposed if such expectations are not fulfilled. The mechanisms to enforce anti-theft norms can include shunning, expulsion, violence, or other penalties. Whether enforced personally, by wider action within the community or by some authority. The universal evolution of normative injunctions against stealing (at least within the in-group) point to the ubiquitous value of the conventions of property.

We can see that, even if there is no pacifying state, so that there is what one might call a pure trade-or-raid choice, there are many reasons that trades can and will still happen. There are many mechanisms for making transaction costs and risks sufficiently manageable that trades happen, even in the absence of any state. Indeed, even against the efforts of the state. Mechanisms that are viable because of the ubiquity of mutual acknowledgement as a basis for functional systems of property.

The mutual convenience of the conventions of possession can establish functional property rights without any state action or formal legal acknowledgement. The conventions of property evolve naturally because we are so much a social and normative species, regularly engaging in mutual signalling and seeking to benefit from aligning our expectations.

[An earlier version was posted on Medium.]


Yoram Barzel, Economic Analysis of Property Rights, Cambridge University Press, [1989], 1997.

Cristina Bicchieri, The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms, Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Cristina Bicchieri, Norms in the Wild: How to Diagnose, Measure and Change Social Norms, Oxford University Press, 2017.

R. H. Coase, The Firm, The Market and the Law, University of Chicago Press, 1988. Includes ‘The Nature of the Firm’ (1937) and ‘The Problem of Social Cost’ (1960).

Harold Demsetz, ‘Towards a Theory of Property Rights’, American Economic Review, Volume 57, Issue 2, May 1967, 347–359.

Jordan E. Theriault, Liane Young, Lisa Feldman Barrett, ‘The sense of should: A biologically-based framework for modeling social pressure’, Physics of Life Reviews, Volume 36, March 2021, 100–136.

Chenggang Xu, ‘The Fundamental Institutions of China’s Reforms and Development’, Journal of Economic Literature, 2011, 49:4, 1076–1151.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

How the prestige opinion media model encourages siloing and other disasters

Opinions that mark one off as one of the smart-and-the-good can have a disastrous effect on policy and organisations.

In her review of Andrew Doyle’s recently published book arguing the case for free speech, novelist, lawyer and commentator Helen Dale makes the following observation:
Relatedly, one of the most depressing characteristics of our contemporary media environment is what I’ve come to call “the silo effect.” Both social media (by dint of algorithms) and now conventional media (by dint of deliberate hiring and firing) are herding their viewers and readers into ideological silos. Once there, they’re unlikely to encounter anything other than intellectual comfort food with which they already agree.

Cancel culture works best on little people — junior academics or low-level employees. Neither I nor Doyle (as we admit) can be cancelled. In both cases, people tried and failed: their behaviour parlayed our books into bestsellers. We can, however, be siloed. Unless you’re J.K. Rowling, siloing works on nearly everyone.
Siloing started in academe, where the boundaries between disciplines encourages it, was massively aggravated by social media and then infected institutions as social-media-inflamed university graduates spread out into the workforce. The effect being worse in media due to the “go broke, go woke” problem of shrinking incomes leading to shrinking newsrooms more easily dominated by recent graduates. A process that intensified the Hate Inc. media model analysed by journalist Matt Taibbi.

The underlying pattern revolves around media, particularly “quality” media, providing a set of opinions — prestige opinions — the holding of which grant prestige by marking one as being of the smart and the good. The great benefit of prestige opinions is that you don’t have to know about a subject in any depth, you only have to know what the smart-and-good people think.

Luxury beliefs (beliefs that provide status for elite folk while imposing costs lower down the social scale) are a subset of prestige opinions. “Defund the police”, with the resultant surge in homicides as vilified police withdraw from active policing, is an example of a luxury belief.

So, at the most general level, we have “clickbait tribalism”, where media outlets pander to their subscriber base to build and maintain an audience, leaning into the in-group/out-group tribalism to which we Homo sapiens are so prone.

In the “quality” media, prestige opinions operate as a particular version of such opinion tribalism, because they provide added status. Luxury beliefs are a subset of prestige opinions: the most directly toxic version of the status strategy.

The siloing that Helen Dale describes above feeds off the prestige-opinion media model that public broadcasting zeroed in decades ago (though the operation of the model has intensified over time) and has always been a bit of a thing.

Providing prestige opinions has increasingly become a service that public broadcasting and other “quality” media provide. The combination of surging midwit graduates in societies ever more flooded with information seriously upped the appeal of the economising-on-information (and cognitive effort), signal-you-are-smart-and-good service that the prestige-opinion media model provides.

My 2000 “Virtue Over Veracity” article in The Australian newspaper was an early attempt to articulate the prestige opinion model of “quality” media (‘Print’s elite puts virtue above veracity’, The Australian, Media supplement, 22 June 2000.)

In a recent essay, Curtin Yarvis notes that ostentatious fact-checking is part of the prestige media package: these opinions are clearly superior, for they have been fact-checked. Even though such fact-checking is often just another form of narrative enforcing. Ostentatious fact-checking thereby does double service to the prestige opinion game: providing an ostentatious performance of accuracy while protecting the prestige opinions themselves.

As Helen Dale observes in her book review, a specific view of the world that came out of media effects theory and related academic nonsense actively encourages siloing (in effect, self-curating what one reads):
Unfortunately, thanks to the now common belief that word choice is an effect of cultural hegemony, the problem for Doyle is that left partisans are likely to respond by refusing to read his book, if not actively seeking to get bookshops to drop it. And yes, this behaviour is rooted in adherence to a form of word magic. The view that words, ideas, and arguments can cause harm in the same way a punch does means safety is only possible if one refuses to engage. The logic is impeccable: when you think language makes the world, you are frightened of words. Worse, Mill’s harm principle is no defence against people who insist on equating spiritual or psychological harm with physical violence.
As folk accept the providing prestige-opinions service that public broadcasting and other “quality” media offer, such opinions become assets, the value of which one seeks to protect. Refusing to read folk outside those who are equally invested in maintaining the value of such beliefs-as-assets is a form of self-protection. Beliefs that are assets both for status and for self-identity as a good-and-smart person.

Add in all the above and you get intensified siloing and so intensified polarisation.

Another way to think about it is that, with the (increasing) flood of information, it is hard to sort out signal from noise. Media companies offer signal-identifying services. The identified signal is more welcome if it accords with beliefs one is emotionally invested in. Hence the siloed tribalism of modern media.

The signal identification is even more welcome if it provides status markers and status reinforcement. Hence the appeal of prestige opinions in “quality” media that already has a status element built into its marketing. That the "quality" media will report very similar stories in very similar ways, far from being a warning sign, is easily taken as a marker that one is getting The Truth. 

If the "quality" media does not report something, it is functionally not-a-thing for all those taking their cues from such media. The result is the behaviour of those responding to different cues becomes mysterious, and presumably malign. Because that feeds the status strategy and status differentiation.

If the public beliefs impose costs on those of lower social status, the status signal is more effective still at status differentiating. Hence the generation of luxury beliefs. With all these processes being amplified by the reinforcing feedback effects of social media.

Without even considering the problem of luxury beliefs, the problem is even worse. For prestige opinions only provide positive status if contrary opinions generate negative status. If opinion X is a sign of virtue, then opinion not-X becomes a sign of vice, of viciousness.

The prestige opinion model generates pressure for censorship of contrary opinions. Both among those for whom their prestige opinions are assets to be defended and those who purvey such prestige opinions, because central to the “service” they are applying is to also “identify” illegitimate wickedness and stupidity.

So, it goes further than self-protective siloing. Many people have been encouraged by “quality” media (including by public broadcasting) to “invest” in beliefs as cognitive assets that mark them off as being of the smart-and-the-good while also allowing them to economise on information and cognitive effort. This leads them to demand, or support, censorship to protect those assets. 

Especially as those prestige opinions become reinforced and protected by a series of pseudo-intellectual smears. Once activated (e.g. TERF), the smear puts a fence around tagged opinion and tagged person, meaning that no further consideration is required. It is revealing how these smears represent an assault on the character of the person so tagged via their (actual or alleged) opinion. The smearing attack on moral character reveals very clearly that an in-group/out-group status game is being played.

The “paradox” of journalists and reporters being in favour of censorship is no paradox at all. It is where their business model, and their own status strategy, leads them. For among the first to buy into the prestige-opinion model are those who push prestige opinions.

What is acceptable trumps what is true (or might be true). Anyone who is in favour of any form of censorship of opinions clearly (whatever they may tell themselves) prefers what is acceptable to what is (inconveniently) true, or might be true. For censorship is not only an act of social dominance, it is all about policing the acceptable.

Yet, the problem is worse still. Because the prestige-opinion model provides the “quality” media with an incentive to frustrate policy accountability. Any information or policy outcomes that contradict or undermine the prestige-opinion assets they have been providing, and adhere to themselves, attack both their own sense of status and their business model. (And yes, public broadcasters also have a business model: to create a core of active partisans for their services.)

Moreover, not-for-profit organisations, including tax-funded organisations, lacking a clear “bottom line”, tend to reflect the interests of their staff. In the case of public broadcasting, the status strategies of their staff.

The conformity of opinion across "quality" media is reassuring for the consumers of the prestige-opinion model, as it reinforces the sense that folk who matter all agree on what is the righteous truth. In fact, that "quality" media is so readily dominated by rapidly emerging conformities in what is supposed to be the "first draft" of history is a danger sign. 

For issues where there often has not been enough time to test the accuracy of claims, and which will have very different significance depending on one's social position, values, interests and concerns, to generate such rapid conformities is a sign that there are strong pressures to hold the same (narrow) range of opinions. Opinions become conventions, things one does (or holds) because other people do. As they become markers of knowing status, they become social norms: opinions one is expected to hold if one is of the smart and good and will likely be subject to sanctions if one does not as people protect their status-and-identity assets.

The prestige-opinion model also creates perverse incentives within bureaucracies: whether government, non-profit or corporate. The more folk have invested (at least cognitively) in prestige opinions as assets, the more they have incentives to block information that undermine their prestige-opinion assets. Including information relevant to the successful operation of their organisation.

While the “go woke, go broke” dynamic is easily over-stated, it is not hard to find cases of marketing and other commercial decisions clearly based on the prestige-opinion status game that have damaged sales because too many customers were not interested in paying for status games they were not invested in and that shifted the product away from what they wanted. The pattern has become particularly marked in cinema, television and comics in the US and the rest of the developed Anglosphere.

Journalist and first-rate science populariser Will Storr (whose latest book, The Status Game, is required reading to understand the world around us) made the point in his interview with the Triggernometry boys that the modern world of science and mass prosperity was built on prestige increasingly accruing to competence and success. People gained prestige from being clever at inventing new gadgets and expanding our understanding of the world around us. As Alexander Pope (1688–1744) famously said of Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727):

Nature, and Nature’s laws lay hid in night.
God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.

The modern world, the mass prosperity on which the abolition of slavery, the expansion of the franchise, legal equality for women and so much more was all built on, came about because status through competence-and-success prestige came to dominate the pre-existing (and up to then dominant) status game of virtue, of propriety.

The trouble is, competence and success through actual achievement is hard. Ostentatious performance of propriety is much easier. Social media makes it easier still and broadcasts the performative propriety much more widely.

We are observing the increasing replacement of prestige through competence and success by status through ostentatious performance of propriety. It is polluting our public discourse, undermining democratic accountability and encouraging bad (even disastrous) policy.

Michael Shellenberger’s latest book San Fransicko provides vivid examples of such disastrous dynamics in US “progressive” urban policies. In the latter part of this interview, Shellenberger discusses how uniformity of opinion among folk in the mainstream media frustrates accountability for bad “progressive” policies. What he is describing is a classic example of how media that both itself invests in, and purveys, prestige opinions undermines democratic accountability quite directly, fostering ever more disastrous policy outcomes.

The biggest problem in Western civilisation is the expansion of social milieu (public, corporate and non-profit bureaucracies; universities; school systems) where ideas are not reality-tested but they are status-selected. The prestige opinion model interacting with social media has made the problem WAY worse.

So, those opinions you have picked up from “quality media”. Are they assets you wish to protect? If so they may also be a spiralling social, organisational and civilisational disaster that you have bought into.

[An earlier version was posted on Medium. This post has been expanded since I first posted it.]