Y is not about X

Is everything about status? These are some sentences of wisdom from Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias.

Clothes aren’t about Comfort
Marriage isn’t about Romance
Talk isn’t about Info
Charity isn’t about Helping
Church isn’t about God
Medicine isn’t about Health
Consulting isn’t about Advice
School isn’t about Learning
Research isn’t about Progress
Politics isn’t about Policy

High school students are easily engaged to elect class presidents, even though they have little idea what if any policies a class president might influence. Instead such elections are usually described as “popularity contests.” That is, theses elections are about which school social factions are to have higher social status. If a jock wins, jocks have higher status. If your girlfriend’s brother wins, you have higher status, etc. And the fact that you have a vote says that others should take you into account when forming coalitions – you are somebody.

Civics teachers talk as if politics is about policy, that politics is our system for choosing policies to deal with common problems. But as Tyler Cowen suggests, real politics seems to be more about who will be our leaders, and what coalitions will rise or fall in status as a result. Election media coverage focuses on characterizing the candidates themselves – their personalities, styles, friends, beliefs, etc. …As with high school class presidents, we care about policies mainly as clues to candidate character and affiliations. And to the extend we consider policies not tied to particular candidates, we mainly care about how policies will effect which kinds of people will be respected how much.

For example, we want nationalized medicine so poor sick folks will feel cared for, military actions so foreigners will treat us with respect, business deregulation as a sign of respect for hardworking businessfolk, official gay marriage as a sign we accept gays, and so on. This perspective explains why voters tend to prefer proportional representation, why many refuse to vote for any candidate when none have earned their respect…

Also related: Cowen’s relative status and ideology is here.

…and yes, perhaps this blog is not about “scholarly ideas” but about using whatever I think is interesting as a signal…

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