Andrew Norton has always been cynical about public displays of compassion. He can’t bring himself to accept that the ‘luvvies‘ and ‘worthies‘ are motivated by empathic concern or moral principle. Like many classical liberals he’s convinced it must be some kind of self-interested behavior.
for those of us who would prefer less state and more voluntary action a norm in favor of charity is pretty essential. We are not all saints who will give generously without being asked; we need a bit of social pressure. Perhaps then some of this status-seeking can be a positive thing, a by-product of trying to look good in the eyes of our peers is that we help others.
Norton is onto something, but I don’t think he has it quite right yet. On the one hand he ridicules ‘worthies letters’ where high status individuals publicize their moral views. On the other he praises self-interested philanthropy. Clearly it’s not self-seeking behavior that worries him.
The classical liberal ideal is a society with a small state and a large philanthropic sector. One way this might come about is through a kind of conspicuous consumption. By donating large amounts of money, wealthy individuals are able to signal their economic prowess. Like a peacock’s tail, philanthropy is a liability only the economically fit are able to afford. Individuals are able to signal their ability to make money in the market by creating charitable foundations and making large donations.
Norton’s complaints about luvvies seem to be about something different. Conspicuous charitable giving can be a forceful display of economic superiority. Signing a petition, attending a protest march, or performing at an anti-war rally cost too little to be signals of prowess. If we assume that these behaviors are also self-interested then what benefit to they provide? And how might they be harmful to freedom and economic growth?
Patrick West, the author of Conspicuous Compassion, thinks that it has something to do with neurotransmitters:
Why do we so desperately want to show we care? It is a symptom of what the psychologist Oliver James has dubbed our “low serotonin” society. Despite being healthier, richer and better-off than in living memory, we in the West are more depressed than ever. Institutions such as the church, marriage and the family have withered in the postwar era. Raised in fragmented family units, more of us live by ourselves. Ostentatious caring permits the lonely nation to forge new social bonds. As James concludes: “A common impulse behind wanting to give love unconditionally to non-intimates is the desire to receive it.”
Philip K Dick might have agreed (think of Mercerism) but Norton isn’t so sure. An alternative explanation depends on the distinction between ‘status’ and ‘prestige. Joseph Henrich and Francisco J Gil-White argue that while status is about dominance and power, prestige is about influence (pdf). Prestigious individuals have knowledge and skills which others are keen to acquire themselves. An individual who is allowed into the prestigious person’s social orbit has an opportunity to benefit. They may be able to learn new skills, acquire access to social networks, and pick up insider knowledge.
The desire to get close to an individual with superior knowledge and skills, according to Henrich and Gil-White, leads to deference. Others "believe that [prestigious people] have earned the right, if not to be obeyed, at least to have their opinions and desires considered more closely than those of ordinary people." This deference to opinions can extend well beyond the individual’s area of expertise. For example, an actor may be encouraged to speak publicly about politics.
One example of prestige in action is the post-graduate student / supervisor relationship. Prestigious supervisors are keenly sought after and are forced to limit the number of students they take on and the amount of time they spend with them. One way to do this is to prefer students who share their own tastes, interests, and values. Students defer to their supervisor’s views more than they would defer to a less prestigious person’s views. The editors of newspapers and journals can exert similar influence as can think tank founders and successful politicians.
This process can produce a cascade of moral emulation as lower prestige individuals attach themselves to those with higher levels of prestige. In this system not all of the emulators will be sincere. Some will feel pressured to publicly display views they do not agree with.
In an open society like Australia’s there is no reason for economic prowess and social prestige to always coincide. A constant battle for think tank intellectuals like Norton is the influence of the ‘chattering classes,’ ‘elites,’ or ‘latte left.’ These people are influential but not necessarily economically or politically powerful. Think tanks like the Centre for Independent Studies offer people with economic power an opportunity to translate this into influence over opinions. If universities won’t foster the views they support then they business people can create alternative sources of intellectual influence.
Those who want to enter public life as intellectuals or experts need to find an institution or individual to mentor them. Dumping on the values of potential mentors is bad policy. But in the process of getting ahead many young academics, journalists, and think tank researchers are forced to deny their own views and beliefs. Only a lucky few will find institutions which embody their own values perfectly. Hostility to this kind of conformity may show up in unexpected ways. I can’t help wondering what pressures Norton might have felt.