Status for status sake is a fact of political life

post by rockthecasbah · 2020-08-18T22:06:51.581Z · LW · GW · 11 comments

Epistemic status: Exploring a new area (new to me)

Recently I was listening to Political Scientist Bruce Bueno De Mesquita on the Econtalk podcast. BdM had just established that Jefferson Davis, when offered the presidency of the confederacy, already knew the South would lose the war. In fact, he publicly stated that they would lose in 6 months.

The economist then asked "well, if he knew he would lose, why did he take the position?" BdM made the mistake of giving a convoluted answer about the material advantages of fame and respect. Perhaps a bettering answer is just "people strongly desire status".

People have a revealed preference for status. Why did Donald Trump decide to take a stressful 12-hour-a-day job in his mid seventies? Why did Kruschev kill Beria? Why did Huey Long use a lackey to control both Louisiana's senate seat and governorship? Why do representatives stay for decades in the powerful US senate, but give up after every term in Jordan's powerless parliament?

A game theorist cannot tell you why the utility function of nearly every politician is "become more loved by everyone and have more power". That is a question for psychologists and evo psych and cultural anthropologists. What we do know is that this preference is widespread and strong enough to drive a levelheaded man to lead a doomed rebellion. And we know a lot about how they compete for status.

11 comments

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comment by Bucky · 2020-08-19T11:30:01.855Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sociometer theory suggests that people don't optimise for status directly but optimise for high self-esteem which is often correlated with high status (see That other kind of status [LW · GW]). 

I think this make sense in the context of the examples you give here.

comment by rockthecasbah · 2020-08-19T14:19:28.707Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That makes sense. I had no theories about why they seek status so hard. Now I have an interesting one.

comment by Viliam · 2020-08-19T10:20:25.122Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wonder how much this is about people in general, and how much is an effect of selection. People who do not have strong preference for status, usually do not get to the situation where they have to choose whether to be a president of a state that is losing the war. People who do not have strong preference for being #1 in the Soviet Union, usually do not become a General Secretary.

So, maybe it is more like: People who currently have high status, usually have a strong preference for high status, and will try to get more. Which would imply that to avoid having leaders who optimize for high status too much, you should select people who were not already competing for the position. (This strategy has the obvious problem that it only works as a surprise. If it becomes known, ambicious people will start optimizing for the appearance of being a person who is not competing for the position but still happens to be the right choice.)

And that is kinda a common knowledge; I don't remember the exact words now, but it goes something like "the power should not be given to those who desire it, but to those who don't".

comment by rockthecasbah · 2020-08-19T14:06:47.756Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I wonder how much this is about people in general, and how much is an effect of selection. People who do not have strong preference for status, usually do not get to the situation where they have to choose whether to be a president of a state that is losing the war. People who do not have strong preference for being #1 in the Soviet Union, usually do not become a General Secretary.

I agree with this paragraph.

And that is kinda a common knowledge; I don't remember the exact words now, but it goes something like "the power should not be given to those who desire it, but to those who don't".

That seems, naively, like a good plan. I agree that in practice it does not work well. Here's an argument to add to yours -

Let's look at two common political systems

Monarchy- The advantages of a monarchy to the selectorate are

1. That the leader is not selected for status seeking, unlike a warlord

2. Leader selection has a high shilling point around the lineage, keeping warlords out

Democracy - Most democracies accept that leaders will be status seeking. They then use voting and constitutions to force these status-seeking actors to serve our interests.

Democracies have generally produced more utility for their citizens than monarchy

My pet theory: High status individuals are selected for status seeking. But they are also selected for organizational skill, charisma, intelligence, predictive ability, etc.

comment by Viliam · 2020-08-19T16:09:35.009Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Makes sense; people who have useful skills should be more successful in status seeking, ceteris paribus.

You won't get people who are best at given skills, but some combination of high status seeking and good enough skills. In monarchy... you get people who were trained in relevant skills from birth, but maybe they just don't have the talent, or don't care. Also, an ambitious politician can also train their kids from birth; the political dynasties do exist in democracies -- probably much more than we realize, if we don't only look at the presidents' surnames, but consider the "ruling class" in general. (Heck, I just looked into Wikipedia and found that Barack Obama is a relative of George W. Bush. What?!)

comment by Dagon · 2020-08-19T19:03:13.683Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One possible explanatory model is that status is like money - a resource that's applicable to a huge variety of terminal goals, and something that rational agents will pursue, regardless of their actual goals. See https://www.lesswrong.com/tag/instrumental-convergence [? · GW]for a lot of related posts.

comment by PatrickDFarley · 2020-08-19T02:21:48.767Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This rings true. And most of us who realize that status is in our utility function can usually just say "Yeah but if I have higher status I'll get XYZ, so it's worth its place in my utility function, if only as a means to get XYZ."

And you've called out some situations where there is no XYZ. In those cases, would we be able to reject status for its own sake? Or is it so embedded in our utility functions that we can't help but feel driven toward it?

comment by rockthecasbah · 2020-08-19T14:24:06.869Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The commonness of the behavior suggests that most people can't help but seek it. The Jefferson Davis case certainly suggests that leaders do not reject status for its own sake. The self-esteem-seeking explanation from Bucky addresses your question.

I'm agnostic about why they do so. In the same way an economist might be agnostic about why people like having more goods and services.

comment by Teerth Aloke · 2020-08-19T14:45:45.549Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I apologize for nitpicking. But the name is Khrushchev.

comment by rockthecasbah · 2020-08-19T14:48:37.743Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

hahaha no problem! Thank you for the help.

comment by Vakus Drake (vakus-drake) · 2020-08-27T19:44:59.203Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

>Why did Donald Trump decide to take a stressful 12-hour-a-day job in his mid seventies?

This example doesn't work particularly well for a few reasons: Firstly Trump as well as his family and friends have been able to reap tremendous financial benefits from his position (through a variety of means especially corporate capture). Secondly Trump somewhat infamously has been known to take far more vacations and do a lot less actual work than most previous presidents.