Rob Henderson is one of a few writers outside of the rationalist community that I follow obsessively, for his consistently high insight-to-length ratio, and his general writing style which appeals to me in some hard to articulate way. Here in a recent NY Times Opinion piece, he writes about social class, social mobility, and how (some) people form their values.

Whether upwards social mobility is a real value for many people (as it seems to be), and how to achieve it if it is, I think is an important topic that I seldomly see discussed around here, so this could be a good time to do that. Personally I seem to have little desire or motivation to join the "elite" or "upper class", and would even prefer my kids to not go to an elite university, which would foreclose much of the opportunity for them to do that as well. Is that wrong? If "it all adds up to normality", what might explain that "joining or staying in the elite class" is a real value? Or conversely, how can we be pretty sure that it's not? (To be clear, these are not rhetorical questions, and I'm expressing genuine moral/axiological uncertainty.)

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It's a good piece; I liked the end a lot:

TV helped me to understand people who were worlds away from how I grew up. It gave me an understanding of the ingredients of social mobility. What I can’t quite disentangle is whether it taught me how to get what I had always wanted or taught me what to want.

I'd imagine art in general does both things to an extent.

It seems unlikely that joining a specific elite is terminally valuable as such, except to ephemeral subagents that were built for instrumental reasons to pursue it.

It seems quite likely that people seek to join whatever elite they can as a means to some more fundamental ends. Those of us who aren't driven to join the elite are probably satisfying our hunger to pursue those more fundamental ends in other ways.

For example, people might seek elite status in part to win security against bad fortune or against powerful enemies. But it might seem to you that there are other ways to be more secure against these things. It might even seem that being elite would leave you more exposed to such dangers.

For example, if you think that the main danger is unaligned AI, then you won't think of elite status as a safe haven, so you'll be less motivated to seek it. You'll find that sense of security in doing something else that seems to address that danger better.

(I also subscribe to his newsletter and was surprised positively by the quality of the writing.)

I'm not sure I understand your question at the end. Are you asking if people do indeed want to become part of the elite?

If so, it doesn't seem too mysterious to me. People want to be liked, they want to be respected. There are drives both for prestige and dominance. People want the highest quality mates and allies that they can get. Doesn't everything we know about human nature suggest that all else equal, if there are social hierarchies, people will prefer to be at the top of them?

There's a number of ways to interpret my question, and I kind of mean all of them:

  1. If my stated and/or revealed preferences are that I don't value joining the elite class very much, is that wrong in either an instrumental or terminal sense?
  2. For people who do seem to value it a lot, either for themselves or their kids (e.g., parents obsessed with getting their kids into an elite university), is that wrong in either an instrumental or terminal sense?

By "either an instrumental or terminal sense" I mean is "joining the elite" (or should it be) an terminal value or just a instrumental value? If it's just an instrumental value, is "joining the elite" actually a good way to achieve people's terminal values?

Many many humans don't really distinguish between terminal and instrumental values when making such decisions, and can't really tell you WHY they desire such things for them or their children.  I'd say that joining (or staying in, or moving up in) the elite class is a common desire that maps pretty easily to hunter/gatherer tribal status, and is very understandable as something one might desire as a default position.  

For those who have explicit terminal goals, joining the elite can well be instrumental for many of them - it does ease a lot of activities, influence, and resource direction.  But there are likely other instrumental paths to the same sort of influence and resource control, and agents will have to trade off where they think they can best focus.

Speaking of parents obsessed with getting their kids into an elite university, here's an amazing exposé about a corner of that world that I had little idea existed: The Mad, Mad World of Niche Sports Among Ivy League–Obsessed Parents, Where the desperation of late-stage meritocracy is so strong, you can smell it

Social mobility only really seems to be a middle-class value, if we consider social mobility in terms of moving up in classes.

  • Upper class people are clearly concerned with remaining upper class
  • Working class people focus much more on money. This is basically what shows like the Beverly Hillbillies and Duck Dynasty are about; they don't do different things, just pump money into their current lifestyle.
  • Poor people are mostly too preoccupied with trying to get through the short term to consider mobility explicitly. Most of the ones I was close with had some notion that it wasn't for people like them if they thought about it at all, which I found kind of surprising. All of them were from rural areas; I haven't met anyone from an urban area who expressed that feeling (maybe because they encounter high class people?).

Here's a link to the unedited version from Rob's mailing list.

Being "elite" sounds nice in abstract, but what does it mean specifically? I don't have much data, but I assume that if you want to get to the top, you need to prioritize it over many other things that you value, simply because there is not enough space at the top, and you are competing against others. And some of the others have an advantage of being born in an elite family, thus having more knowledge and contacts than you.

I suspect that starting a few decades later, not understanding how the game works, and not being willing to sacrifice everything in order to get there... this combination pretty much disqualifies you from the game.

(It's kinda like being illiterate and homeless at 25, and suddenly deciding that it might be a good idea to get a PhD at an expensive private university. Sounds possible in theory, but the actual probability is pretty small.)

My vague understanding is that being upper-class is about having some power and contacts, and using the power and contacts skillfully to gain more power. But I start from a position of zero power and zero contacts with powerful people. And it's not mere "contact" that is needed to play the game; it is a history of cooperation that signals that you are a skilled and trustworthy partner. If you are born in an upper-class family, your starting power is that you can ask your parents to use their power in your favor; your parents teach you how to play the game, and they introduce you to their contacts and vouch for your trustworthiness. Another way is to start at the bottom of some power hierarchy, and have an insane talent that allows you to progress towards the top. I have neither the family, nor the talent, so I assume the doors are closed for me. Plus, I already have decades of bad habits ("bad" in sense of "incompatible with upper-class behavior") that I would need to overcome.

Relevant links from someone who chose not to pursue elite membership.

I would say status is something that people's hind brains recognize, which trains their forebrains to seek it. The original value served is inclusive evolutionary fitness, but that is neither served in the present nor important to those seeking status.

Status is clearly instrumentally valuable for many reasons, which is why it is important to evolutionary fitness, but I would say most humans do not have a utility function--this is just something that their algorithms have been trained to optimize, and they don't worry about whether that makes it a real value or whether it is instrumental.

This in turn is likely why we have many stories about people who find themselves in high status positions but still unsatisfied with life.

For some reason I was reminded of this post, which could be seen as being about class structure within the Effective Altruist movement.

When you mentioned high insight-to-length ratio, it reminded me of Peter Drucker. I don't know if you've read any of Drucker's books or excerpts, but he is one of the few thinkers who I feel can quite often convey profound ideas in very few sentences.

Answering your clarified questions:

It seems obvious (to me) that being an elite is valuable (good) – for some people. Conversely – for some people – being an elite would be net anti-valuable (bad).

For you specifically (or me, who also doesn't particularly want to be 'elite'), I think we're probably right that that we wouldn't enjoy it overall, despite the many advantages. We could be wrong about that tho!

It's something I wrestle with for more specific cases as well. Do I want to be an elite in my profession? I have mixed feelings. For one, the money would be nice! But I also don't want to work the longer hours I'd also expect.

It would seem reasonable to try being an elite, in some cases, if doing so doesn't seem too costly. Elite status does seem to be a particularly costly signal in general tho.

If my stated and/or revealed preferences are that I don't value joining the elite class very much, is that wrong in either an instrumental or terminal sense?

Considering you haven't miscalculated the value from joining the elite class, I believe it is wrong to spend energy to be labeled as "elite". If you lost something you had to protect while you wasted your time with useless pursuits, like trying to "join the elite" by getting some very specific superior pedigree, then you took a very poor instrumental action. It all depends on what you actually want and how joining the elite will help you to achieve that. But it seems obvious that there are several ways of achieving anything you want without having to join the elite, except if your terminal value is being labeled as elite from some specific set of people.

For people who do seem to value it a lot, either for themselves or their kids (e.g., parents obsessed with getting their kids into an elite university), is that wrong in either an instrumental or terminal sense?

That seems wrong if there are less costly and much faster ways to achieve what the parents actually want from their kids without having to make them participate on the "become elite" rituals. Maybe the parents want their kids to be seen as good people, respected among the members of the tribe, without financial troubles. If elite people have these properties, you make your kids to participate on the rituals needed to make them labeled as elite (parents use the "elite" label here as a proxy to status, respect and financial support). But that's a bad choice when parents discover there are several other cheaper ways of achieving the same ends. And that's a bad choice when parents discover in the future that the proxies used in the past to filter good people from bad people are not relevant anymore. I believe what parents actually want is not just their kids being seen as good people, but also their kids being good people. Maybe if they become too obsessed with getting elite kids, what if parents discover their elite kids are not actually good people? Due to the weak correlation between being actually good and participating on elite rituals, I believe it is wrong to make your kids to become elite kids. You should focus on making them good, respectable and rich. Otherwise, if the correlation is strong (between participating on what you call elite rituals and becoming good, respectable and rich), you should make your kids participate on these rituals.