Interesting ideas interspersed with nonsense - RSS - by nikhil bhatla, -
Home Archives January 2007

« Stop Bugging Me - No Post Today »
Hierarchy and Equality
Jan 23, 2007, 2:54p - Organization

It begins as a child. From the moment of birth, we're told what to do and what not to do. As we age, what our parents and teachers tell us to do diminishes in weight, and we question why we should do as they request. The funny thing is, they usually don't have a very good reason why, and the most contentious of arguments seem to settle at "Because I'm telling you too, that's why!" Somehow, our parents and teachers think there's only a handful of "right" paths, and they act as if they know all of them. They've figured out this life, so they're just doing what's best for us.

Frost said take the road less travelled, yet well-worn ruts are where we're told to land.

Of the many flaws in the conventional organization, hierarchy tops my list. It's a mixed blessing. On the one hand, a strong, autocratic decision-maker is critical for a group to make effective short-term progress. On the other, hierarchy seems to deteriorate the sense of human equality and community that are hallmarks of social experience. Due to the actions and inactions of those "above," people feel like they're not appreciated, that their work doesn't matter, that their voices and opinions are considered worthless. That though we may be equal in the eyes of God and the Declaration, we are certainly not equal in the hierarchy of organization. Feelings of ownership are degraded, for when your decisions can be trumped by those "above" you, what ownership do you really have?

So what does conventional childhood have to do with conventional hierarchy? Conventional childhood trains us for conventional hierarchy. From the moment we're born, we're being trained on how to behave and treat others in the hierarchy. Those "lower" suffer at the expense of those "above", but we know that as we age we receive the privileges of seniority and the "right" to treat others as we were once treated. And so the cycle of hierarchy self-perpetuates.

If we didn't have a hierarchical childhood, perhaps we could avoid a hierarchical adulthood.

From an evolutionary perspective, hierarchy apparently evolved to minimize displays of violence and aggression - when people don't know who's stronger than whom, they're more liable to fight over access to resources. Once people learn who's stronger, they don't fight those "above" them because they know they'll lose, so they just settle for what little they can acquire while avoiding conflict.

But just because hierarchy evolved doesn't make it right or somehow prove that it's the only practical way to survive. Evolved traits do not imply moral priority or optimality over other, non-evolved options. It's just one solution in a space of many.

So assuming that you agree that hierarchy is a bad thing do to its degradation of equality, the next question is, what can we do about it? One option is to use the child-parent hierarchy as a simple model for generalized hierarchy, and try to apply possible solutions to that frame first. If we can find a solution that dissolves hierarchy in that first relationship, perhaps the same or a similar solution would also work for generalized hierarchy.

One possible solution would be this: let children do as they please as soon as (a) they can say what they want and (b) they can make an argument for why they want it. The argument need not be persuasive, just reasonable. This doesn't mean that the parent shouldn't try to persuade the child - they certainly should. But the final decision would lie with the child. I suspect that for most kids, this would make them gain independendence between the ages of 10-15.

This solution may seem frightening to some (including me). Such an approach could cause some kids to act out more or commit more crimes, or otherwise behave in ways that make parenting or teaching more difficult. Perhaps I only consider it an option because I haven't had kids yet :) But I think it's paramount that children learn, at a very young age, how to be autonomous, to really feel that their life is theirs and that their decisions are their own to make. I see so many people in our society who don't even know how to live outside the structure of hierarchy, outside the comfort of knowing that there is someone else, be it a parent or manager, who's there to make that tough decision for them. This proposal does not imply anarchy, as the legal system would still be intact. So if a bunch of students decided they no longer wanted to go to school and there was a law that said they had to, they would have to (or violate the law). So there would still be legal control, similar to how adults are currently under legal control.

Overall, this solution seems a bit risky given our poor understanding of the effects of child-raising and may not be a good experiment. But it's one idea that I wanted to throw out there.

The problem of hierarchy is inextricable from the concept of ownership, and this is where things seem to get really tricky. As a child, if you disobey your parents, they can take away access to resources (such as the family car) which they own. Technically, they usually own everything that a kid has, and this may (unconsciously) make them feel entitled to treat the child however they please. If the child were to be truly independent, she would have great difficulty surviving, given that she wouldn't have the resources. Perhaps resource independence is the only true form of hierarchy neutralization?

Is the best way to eliminate hierarchy to maximize the % of the population who are resource independent? This leaves the child-parent hierarchy intact, but basically creates a 2-class society, and we're sort of back to where we started: the have's and the have not's, the resource independent and the resource dependent. A child is dependent on its parents just as an employee is dependent on work hierarchy for survival and satisfaction of material wants.

Along with ownership comes the concept of fairness. If I start a company by myself, I would be the sole proprietor and own 100% of it. As the business grows, I would need to hire employees. It would be unfair to give equal ownership to each employee in the organization, because they wouldn't have had invested as much of their time nor shouldered the risk of starting something new. From there the cycle perpetuates, with each subsequent employee receiving less official ownership of the organization and being pushed lower in the hierarchy. If ownership implies power and hierarchy inevitably springs from differences in power, then unequal ownership implies hierarchy. So we can attack this relationship at 3 different points of inequality: ownership, power, and hierarchy. If equality of ownership would frequently be unfair (and I think it would), differential ownership will continue to exist as long as we strive for a fair society. Ownership implies power, by definition: If I am the sole owner of something I have exclusive possession and control of that thing. Even if I am the majority owner of a piece of property, in most cases I can legally decide what happens with that property regardless of what the minority owners may want.

Now here's an idea: how about a system where, for all private property, 1% each instance of property is owned by the public, where the scope of "public" is TBD (could be family, tribe, village, town, city, county, state, region, national, global). For example, if I start a company, instead of owning 100% of it, I would own 99% and the public would own the last 1%. In some ways, such a system could be considered fair because no one creates in a vacuum, and all entrepreneurs benefit from the infrastructure provided by others and the knowledge of generations past and present. The important distinction is that, before significant corporate decisions are made, the majority of the 1% would need to vote on the action. This could be a coordination nightmare, or it could be a straightforward part of doing business. In one incarnation, the company would post major decisions to a website every week, and every member of the public would get 1 vote on each decision. Every week the results would be tallied and final decisions made. Everyone would have an equal vote, albeit proportionally miniscule, in the significant operations of every piece of property. Practically, people would only take the time to vote on those decisions that mattered to them, so most decisions would be voted on by a small number of people. Recurrent voting based on voter-specified criteria would also be available, so you could specify your position on an issue and then automatically vote on all decisions related to that issue. There would be an auditing system to enforce accurate representation of decisions to the public, similar to the role of Secretary of State when compiling public election information. This proposal could be called "direct democracy on steroids", but I think the coordination problems would be tractable given the Internet.

One open issue: what criteria would define a decision as "significant" enough to be worthy of a public vote? Another problem would be corporate secrecy, as everyone would know what companies were working on. There is also the aesthetic consideration: design-by-committee is often viewed as the poorest design of all. Finally, this proposal may substantially slow down product development, in addition to being an intrusion on personal privacy. Would I have to get the public's opinion on whether I could mow my lawn? Although this proposal holds some promise, it may not be feasible after all.

If only the solution could be developed after a few hours of thought sitting at a computer. For now, I guess we'll each just have to make the personal decision to treat everyone equally, regardless of where they have landed in the hierarchy. This means treating those "below" as peers, and, perhaps even more difficult, it means treating those "above" as equals.

Resources consulted in writing this essay:
- Wikipedia's entry on Ownership
- The Declaration of Independence

Read comments (5) - Comment

omar - Jan 23, 2007, 8:25p
my father would say that we could do whatever we want, but taking his advice would short-circuit our paths and land them at the right place. ie, why go the long way when i can show you the short way?

of course, i always countered that
1) part of the reason we take the "long way" is because of the learning that occurs in the process
and 2) how do you know the proposed landing spot is the right one?

i once wrote a report, way back when, about children's freedoms in the victorian era (at least i think it was that era). anyway, they were shouldered with responsibility and decision-making at a much younger age (though this was likely for more prudent reasons than equality).

i took a class, again way back when (but less when.. er less way) on literary theory, and for a while we read about foucault's characterization of power and knowledge. here's the first link i found on the subject, which might interest you. it's a bit heavy-going, but worth it when you start to understand what he's saying. i need a refresher too, and will read.

joe - Jan 23, 2007, 8:45p
totally stupid

nikhil - Jan 23, 2007, 11:57p
joe, care to elaborate?

SB - Jan 24, 2007, 2:59p
Interesting thoughts.

Inherent need for some degree of hierarchy exists beyond the human race.
Whenever multiple entities *may not be the right term as it primarily refers to living creatures in this context* coexist, even if they start in a horizontal line (at the same level in every sense), after a certain period of time some of them will stand out thus leading to a pyramid like structure.

This comes from an ingrained need to compete, acquire more etc and is one of the cornerstones of our civilized existence.

Lastly, "helping" kids with independent thinking, not give a sense of hierarchy , even if there is one, etc are much talked about parenting challenges.

Harpoon - Jan 25, 2007, 3:23p
I would like to challenge some of Nikhils assumptions, however i agree for the most part that heirarchy sucks alot.

Firstly, parent-child isn't so much heirarchical as it is "authoritative". Parent-child relationships, are more frequently and ideally "authoritarian" rather than authoritative. However the latter does take place which tends to be disadvantageous to both parent and child, and can be attributed to lapse in parenting skill, capacity to love or care, or impaired mental capacity.

Furthermore, no parent fully dictates every single action and decision for a child, in truth, they only really have the time to prevent the child from doing things which could harm him/her or everyone. Soon a parent begins to realize their role is largely as facilitator, not as decision maker. Facilitating involves helping an unorganized person or group or inexperienced member to handle resources and responsibility, which is a more fair and accurate description of parent-child relationships, which should also be true about the majority of career and political worlds. Anyone / group who behaves as a complete psychopath, usually gets kicked out, or voted off the island. It is often times very difficult to get this information spread wide enough and timely enough in practice. So much to anti-heirarchists dismay, heirarchy is marginally beneficial to all. Also consider, each member of said organization of equality may actually not WANT responsibility over resources, decision making capacity, because it may beyond their unique function or skill to daydream. So hierarchy while it may not be equal or fair, or is in some cases counter productive when lunatics are in control, largely does offer some natural benefit to all.

I think there is some truth to entities organizing themselves heirarchically but as with many natural tendencies in society may be to longer term detriment of civilization, which is an abstract concept not physical. Ownership and allegiances create power struggles, ideals create factions and divide us, cause wars. When tradition is devalued, society declines or becomes despondent and overthrows civilization. The process produces haves vs have-nots every time, at least the illusion it can work is usually to the credit of a smaller percentage of "owners". When groups get fundamental on each other's asses it becomes chaos. Western civilizations mind you never guarantee equality or fairness, instead they promote justice and freedom. Equality is in fact opposed to that, you can't have equality and freedom.

The funny thing is ownership means very little, in society unless it is perceived to be so. So we are free to reject the notion that ownership allows others to rule us. That is, if each of us believes we are truly equal. As an owner, if I think i am "more equal" than you, as long as you know I am wrong about that, then you are doing okay. Given this kind of personal freedom, and the low cost to participate in traditional heirarchy, most are fine with it over anarchy or equiarchy.

Hierarchy almost always has the side-effect - either attracts or produces psychopaths, which happens obviously in government and corporations (not usually in families unless maybe you have 10000 children, or a parent suffering from inferiority complex). Another potential solution to the problem of inequality, might be in independent reporting. If decision makers at each level, were made proactively aware of the potential harm that their decisions make, or, of better ideas that can contribute, then it would correct the tendency for leaders to resort to despotism (if they have a conscience). By proactive I mean this would need to be a stated part of their responsibility, which they get held accountable to perhaps in a democratic way by those lower down in the order. This should in fact be a part of the facilitator role, listening, and when that fails to happen, it is automatic and public demotion followed by humiliation and desecration of their ancestry

« Stop Bugging Me - No Post Today »

Come back soon! Better yet, stay up-to-date with RSS and an RSS Reader. Creative Commons License