2019-12-28

Who Gets to Decide?

When I talk about social order, especially about what society values, what “the economy” builds, and where culture comes from, there is a common question: “Who gets to decide?” Non-neutral decisions are being made about priorities and governance. We are supposed to wring our hands about this and elect an ethics committee or something. There’s something stupid here.

The question implicitly asks who should decide. That is, it asks us to make a decision. “We” will presumably attempt to enforce that decision, and then grow resentful about not being able to do so. That is, the implicit framing of the question creates resentment towards power. I find this distasteful.

My favorite thing to do with such questions is to answer the explicit question while flipping the implicit framing on its head. The asker wanted a perfomative act of resentment. We shall instead give an actual answer.

So who gets to decide? Generally speaking, the elite. Decisions of import are made by people with power. The Fates have seen fit not to give us choice in this matter. Given that power is the ability to act, this is something of a tautology. Let’s expand on it a bit, and survey our actual courses of action.

Power is the ability to act to affect outcomes. Empirically, power tends to concentrate in a few hands. This is because power is positive feedback, and has large economies of scale. If you have a lot of power, you can take other people’s power, and get a lot more done. The rich get richer, and the poor serve.

The few most central power holders are the elite. The elite acts mostly in concert, because conflict is expensive and risky, and cooperation is effective and safe. For the purposes of discussing overall governance and especially political order, we can speak coherently about the elite as a single agent. Not necessarily a very coherent one, or course. When discussing individual investments and non-contradictory impulses, we need to look at individual holders of power.

It can’t be repeated enough that going against the elite is basically futile. At best, you’re the pneumonia that takes down the old man, to no particular positive outcome. By default, the immune system comes round and takes you down. As such, resentment is not a productive impulse here.

The distribution of power, especially minor powers, can be changed. Who gets to decide such things? As usual, the elite. A large power center is always free to reorganize its empire. Such actions will be undertaken in pursuit of whatever the power in question is interested in. Often that’s security and more power, but not always.

Decisions are made by power. From below, there’s little you can do about this. Thus society will be governed by the ideas of the powerful, weighted by their power. That’s who gets to decide.

The Billionaire Question

I’m especially interested today in economic power. What we might call the “billionaire question”. It’s election season, so politicians looking for a populist edge have started to talk about expropriating the billionaires. The democratic theatrics are uninteresting, but the question itself is worth analyzing.

A government taking the money of some minor powers is certainly within the realm of possibility. It’s occasional in history. It would be an example of the scenario described above of a top-down reorganization of the power landscape. But we’re mostly interested today in what kind of power these people hold, and their role in society. We can cover the pros and cons of an actual reorganization some other time.

“Billionaire” isn’t a natural category. Nature doesn’t care about our number system. A close natural category is people who command a large enough fraction of the economy to be individually significant to overall economic governance. Another is people who are able to casually hire full time labor to undertake a specific difficult project, whether entrepreneurial or “philanthropic”. Not every nominal billionaire will fit these definitions. Not everyone who does will be a billionaire. Hereafter, though, I mean these sorts of things.

“Billionaires” can be broken into three sets:

  1. The Family Office. The billionaire has enough money to warrant hiring serious people full time to manage it, but no particular idea of what to do with it.

  2. Investments and Philanthropy. We know roughly what investment is supposed to be about: direction of industrial resources towards organized projects intended to create captured wealth. Philanthropy is a bit squishier. In practice, it’s the direction of industrial resources towards social and political ends. It’s using money to govern society. Many billionaires make these activities their primary bread and butter.

  3. One Big Empire. Guys like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are billionaires because they own and command particular large economic empires. Bezos does a bit of philanthropy at least. Musk doesn’t do much investing or philanthropy at all. They are mostly focused on a particular central project, with some side projects.

These bleed into each other. This just gives us an idea of the range of what people do with huge amounts of money.

The central feature is command (via the social technology of ownership) of a large chunk of society’s industrial capacity. Along with other big piles of money like the state purse, big foundations, and institutional investors, these are the guys who get to decide what we do with our industrial capacity. They have that power, and they make those decisions, for better or worse. This is their role in society.

Whether they should own more or less, whether or not this is the right way to organize an economy, and what they should be doing with their money, are questions for another day.

Let’s not forget, though, all such “should” statements are to be judged from the perspective of the central power of society. After all, in reality it’s that elite who get to decide.