Inner rings, as described in CS Lewis's lecture about them, structurally orient around a kind of evasiveness. In this Twitter thread, Venkatesh Rao somehow evades something extremely explicit and basic in Lewis's description, but correctly criticizes Lewis for his own kind of evasion of a sort of apex inner ring.

Lewis explicitly describes the recruitment process for inner rings: being asked to transgress, implicitly in order to gain admission to the inner ring, but with no specific promises made or implied. But it turns out that's all the inner ring is made of: evasive transgression-bonding. There's no content inside it, no subject matter knowledge, only a shared unseeing of guilt, and - at most - further inner rings inside the first one.

Rao somehow has the idea that there's a game to be played in this domain, but there's no domain, there's no insider knowledge, there's no structure to the game, there's just an aggregation continually reaffirming ringhood through shared transgression.

It's notable how easy it seems to be to miss this when Lewis makes it so explicit.

Rao points out that Lewis's proposed remedy - simply not joining inner rings - effectively means declining to defend or otherwise coordinate against them, and can only work out in the long run by implying that through some nonspecific means (Jesus) things will work out in the end. Something Rao doesn't point out is that Lewis's implied advice to be an honest craftsman is inapplicable to his actual audience. The Inner Ring speech was given at an University. University students do not study to be artisans. If you occupy a white collar job in a world with inner rings, then you're in the world of Moral Mazes. Rao correctly characterizes this as recommending what he calls a Clueless strategy in The Gervais Principle.

Occupying a Bullshit (i.e. class privilege) Job while cultivating a self-image as an honest craftsman means profiting by being taken in by and thereby perpetuating the scam that your professional coverup is intellectually difficult technical expertise. Learning to distort your mind into these postures is the price students are asked to pay to join the Inner Ring of graduates. In practice Lewis is urging college students to go along with the coverup while trying to do locally valid things while posturing as experts in a technical discipline.

Ayn Rand is the only writer I've seen get both these points right jointly:

  1. There's no benefit to joining the inner ring except discovering that their insinuated benefit does not exist.
  2. Ignoring inner rings is refusing to protect oneself against a dangerous adversary

Compiled from a Twitter thread

Related: Towards Optimal Play as a Villager in a Mixed Game

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C. S. Lewis: "Avoid the desire to join the inner ring; you will lose your soul and get little in return."

Venkatesh Rao: "Inner ring is a part of life, you can't avoid it by ignoring it; learn how to use it instrumentally."

Benquo: "For the record, both of them already are members of the inner ring (educated elite) and carefully avoid mentioning that fact."

I don't understand why you say that Lewis's implied advice to be an honest craftsman is inapplicable to his audience.

... Unless you take "craftsman" super-literally and apply it only to things like woodworking and plumbing, I guess, but surely it's obvious that Lewis doesn't mean that? At least some of the concrete examples he gives are of people in jobs that mostly use their brains.

University students may or may not study to be artisans, but they frequently become artisans (in a sufficiently broad sense) when they graduate and get jobs. When I was at university I studied mathematics; my hope was to be an academic mathematical researcher, I wanted to be good at that, and I expected my studies to help me do that job well (or at least to prepare me to do the job well, which isn't precisely the same thing). I have ended up in other jobs, which make use of some of the mathematics I learned at university; I aim to do those jobs well, the work I did at university is of some value for that, and if while I was at university someone had lectured me about the moral importance of doing your job well rather than dedicating yourself to getting into "inner rings" it would predictably not have been irrelevant to my subsequent life.

It seems to me like either Bryan Caplan's made some significant error, or your learning useful mathematics was pretty much independent of your schooling, or you're in the minority, offset by cases where school caused someone to become less useful.

It seems like better discursive practice for this kind of objection to lead to a full blog post criticizing The Case Against Education, than for it to just show up ad hoc when people try to take already-established claims for granted. If there's an existing critique you think I should examine, let me know.

You are focusing on something that was incidental to the point I was actually making. That point, to make it more explicit, is: It is extremely common for university students to become "artisans" in the sense that seems relevant here. (That is: people doing a skilled job that it is possible to do well or badly and in which it is possible to do better by trying harder.) And it is extremely common for university students to intend to become "artisans" in the same sense.

Maybe Caplan is right that in fact it turns out that university education is, on balance, not helpful to people in doing their jobs. That can hardly be relevant to Lewis and his audience, back in 1944, decades before Bryan Caplan was even born.

[EDITED to add:] Also hardly relevant to me, doing my university studies decades before Caplan wrote The case against education. And only marginally relevant even to people at university now, most of whom have not read Caplan. What matters here is whether university students are likely to become "artisans", either in reality or in their expectations or both.

(On the meta-point: I do not think it is so obvious that Caplan has proved his case, that anyone suggesting that university education might have value can just be presumed to be wrong unless they write a full-length rebuttal of Caplan. Beware the man of one study, etc. I also remark that AIUI what Caplan looks at is not education's effectiveness in helping people do better jobs, but education's effectiveness in helping people get paid more. One would hope that the two are closely related, and perhaps they are, but it seems relevant that one of Lewis's key points in the talk we are discussing is that getting paid more is often determined by things that have little to do with how good a job you do.)

It is extremely common for university students to become "artisans" in the sense that seems relevant here. (That is: people doing a skilled job that it is possible to do well or badly and in which it is possible to do better by trying harder.) And it is extremely common for university students to intend to become "artisans" in the same sense.

Maybe Caplan is right that in fact it turns out that university education is, on balance, not helpful to people in doing their jobs. That can hardly be relevant to Lewis and his audience, back in 1944, decades before Bryan Caplan was even born.

I'd expect it to be significantly more applicable to the kinds of students Lewis was speaking to, than the average college student now, because college used to be more of an extreme elite endeavor, and fewer jobs used to require a nonspecific college degree. And in fact the aggregate behavior of university graduates between Lewis's time and now caused us to live in a more credentialist society, with weaker property rights, where normal college students feel like they don't have freedom of speech because it's so important to be liked, and a large share of "business" is governed by the culture of Moral Mazes.

So you're suggesting that the typical university student at a goodish UK university in 1944 would, after graduating, not be in the sort of job that involves skill and that it's possible to do better or worse?

I am not in possession of the sort of statistics that might enable us to decide that question, but I have to say that that seems awfully improbable to me.

When Lewis gives a short list of possible post-university destinations it goes like this: " ...in whatever hospital, inn of court, diocese, school, business, or college you arrive after going down ...". So he's thinking of doctors, lawyers, clergy, teachers, people-working-for-businesses, and universities. Obviously that second-last category is a large and varied one. Anyway: clearly medicine is a skilled profession in which one can learn and exercise greater or lesser skill. So is law. One could argue about the clergy, but I'm pretty sure Lewis felt that it was such a profession. I think it's clear that education is such a profession, though maybe Caplan would disagree. Businesses, as I say, are many and varied, but at any rate the ones I've worked in have contained a lot of people doing difficult work that could be done well or badly. University education: same remarks apply as "lower" education.

Make of all that what you will. At any rate, it seems that the internal evidence of Lewis's address suggests an audience to whom his advice is not in fact inapplicable. (So does the observation that Lewis was not an idiot.)

It is not clear to me how the allegedly-lamentable-in-consequences behaviour of university graduates between Lewis's time and now is relevant. Are you saying that the bad state of society now proves that university graduates in 1944 did not work in jobs where one could do a difficult job well or badly? Surely not, but then what point are you making there?

I also remark that AIUI what Caplan looks at is not education's effectiveness in helping people do better jobs, but education's effectiveness in helping people get paid more. One would hope that the two are closely related, and perhaps they are, but it seems relevant that one of Lewis's key points in the talk we are discussing is that getting paid more is often determined by things that have little to do with how good a job you do.)

I don't understand what alternative hypothesis you're advancing here. How can people afford to spend increasingly large amounts of time and money on schooling, which is mainly about teaching you to do a better job, if doing a better job doesn't get you paid correspondingly more in expectation? If an alchemist's wages aren't sufficient to compensate for the training costs, shouldn't we expect fewer alchemists in the next generation?

The alternative hypothesis I am advancing is that, in some (perhaps many) cases, people seek out education because they want to know certain things or because they want to be able to do certain things, rather than because they have made an estimate of the overall effect on their finances and decided that it's positive.

For instance, my own case (not because it's particularly important or particularly typical, but because I know more about it): I don't remember ever seriously considering the possibility of not going to university, I don't remember ever doing any net-financial-effect calculations, I mostly wanted to be an academic and knew academics weren't particularly well paid, and I did the degree I did because I found the subject fascinating and thought I probably wanted to work in it after graduation.

This was quite a long time ago. I had more ability not to make financial calculations than (e.g.) the typical student in the present-day United States; the government of my country paid my fees, the institution I attended provided accommodation without extra charge, and my parents had no difficulty covering my living costs.

It may be that in the present-day US (and to a lesser extent the present-day UK, which is where I live) the cost of going to university -- especially one of the pricier ones -- is so high that no one other than the very rich would seriously consider going without doing a careful calculation of expected financial benefit. But it wasn't true in the UK circa 1990, and neither was it true in the UK in 1944 when Lewis gave that address. And even now, if someone has the good fortune to be able to afford not to choose whether and where and how to go to university mostly on financial grounds, it seems to me that Caplan has not offered (nor tried to offer) very compelling evidence that universities don't do a good job of teaching you things that might be interesting, useful, mind-expanding, etc., unless Lewis is all wrong about "inner rings", because it could be that going to a good university and studying hard does make you better at doing your job, but being better at doing your job makes much less difference to your whole-career income than being better at getting into the inner rings.

(Or maybe going to a good university and networking hard makes you better at getting into the inner rings, but tragically it turns out that what determines your whole-career income is actually how good you are at doing your job and university education doesn't help with that.)

I think the game Rao thinks there is to be played in this domain is: if you keep joining "inner rings" then the support of other inner-ringers will get you promoted, paid better, given more interesting work, introduced to interesting people, etc., all of which will benefit you even if it doesn't in the least mean that you are doing your job any better or making the world a better place.

He may well be right about that; I think Lewis takes it for granted that his audience -- especially as he has begun by describing himself as a "middle-aged moralist" and told them that he is going to be warning them about a kind of temptation -- understands that he doesn't take "it will be profitable for me personally" to be sufficient reason to do something that's spiritually corrosive and harmful to the world.

Man I wish the original Scholar’s Stage tweet was still there, I don’t know the Lewis quote this whole thing is referring to.

It's referring to a talk, not just a quote, and I don't think any short quotation would tell you everything you need to know for context.

Brief and possibly inaccurate summary (I am too lazy to dig out an actual copy, so this is from memory):

Lewis is addressing an audience of university students. He explains that he's been invited in his capacity as a "middle-aged moralist", presumably expected to warn them against the World, the Flesh, and the Devil; says that as young men his audience already knows quite enough about the Flesh and that (on account of The Screwtape Letters) he's already uncomfortably closely associated with the Devil, so he'll talk about one aspect of the World. He settles on the tendency, within any organization or profession or whatever, for there to be an "inner ring" of people who see themselves as "in the know", "on the inside", the real movers and shakers; while the organization/profession/... presumably has some particular thing it's about, the "inner ring" is primarily about being-in-the-inner-ring itself; the point of getting in is to have got in; it's all about social status (and power, since inner-ring membership tends to go along with promotion and the like) as an end to itself. Lewis reckons this is morally corrosive, both because it intrinsically means focusing on the wrong things and also because in practice it often happens that the existing inner-ringers will want you to do morally problematic things to show how much you want to be one of them. He reckons the urge to belong to such groups is strong enough that if you don't guard against it, and if you are at all the sort of person with a prospect of getting in, inner-ringing will take over (and, from some points of view, ruin) your life. As a countermeasure he proposes focusing on doing your actual job well (in a possibly-generalized sense of "job", since inner rings arise in contexts other than specific employers) and suggests that if you do the reward will be both the satisfaction of a job well done, and a relationship with others who likewise focus on a good job well done which will amount to actual friendship which is seldom found in inner rings.

Fixed the lecture link to refer to Lewis's speech instead of a Google search for it.

I think I'm more with Rao than Lewis here.   Much like the discussions of https://www.lesswrong.com/tag/simulacrum-levels, there's a question of "do you believe your level is correct", or "do you include multiple levels in your (private) models, even as you present deceptive/incomplete public arguments".  As both of them acknowledge, there IS value in being in inner circles.  Making partner pays more.  Being church deacon gives you more respect and insulates you a little from accusations of wrongdoing.  Rising in the ranks of Freemasonry gives you access to trust, contacts, and maybe even actual knowledge.  There's a reason humans seem hardcoded to notice and seek status - it matters!  

We live in a world filled mostly with people who are less rational and more passionate and implicit-decision-makers than most participants on LW.  It's an error not to acknowledge this, as much as it is an error to believe that there's an objective "truth" behind these social constructs.

Seems to me like many such benefits are illusory for reasons Zvi alludes to in the Moral Mazes sequence; they are purchased at the price of losing the orientation that permits economic rationality and having interests.

The benefits may not be worth it for a given individual to seek membership in a given ring, but at least some of them are NOT illusory.  Also, I don't agree that one gives up one's interests or loses economic rationality in seeking to join some inner rings.

In fact, I suspect there's a fair bit of variance in the costs to join, making this just another case of signaling - showing that you can afford to join an inner ring indicates that you're either quite powerful and can afford it, or that you're fairly aligned with the ring and it doesn't cost you much.