On Natural Hierarchy

Hierarchy is natural, say many neoreactionaries.[1] It’s a striking slogan, in part because it runs forthrightly against the conventional wisdom.

Bully for that, I say. But like all striking slogans, its full implications are undrawn. Here are three areas of ambiguity:

  • Which orders are the natural ones?
  • What do these orders entail? Authority? Status or respect? Material possessions? Who gets how much? By what mechanism?
  • What work does the word “natural” do here, and which theory of nature is behind it?

I’ll go through these one at a time.

On the first ambiguity: Of course not all abstract ordinal arrays of persons or groups can be equally natural. Perverse hierarchies are easy to imagine. Indeed, they emerge as a possibility the moment that anyone posits the naturalness of any particular hierarchy: if it’s natural for me to be crushed underfoot, then it would be un-natural for me to be anywhere else.

To posit the naturalness of a given hierarchy, then, is always to posit the unnaturalness of certain other hierarchies that we might easily imagine. Very few possible hierarchies can be natural at the same time, while most of the others – which are merely variants of the good hierarchies with their elements rearranged – can’t be.

Which kinds of hierarchy do neoreactionaries have in mind? Here is where the movement, never terribly unified, breaks apart a bit. Different answers emerge, and they aren’t necessarily compatible. “Hierarchy is natural” may hide at least as much as it expresses.

But might it be that any hierarchy is better than no hierarchy at all? We can easily name scenarios where this holds true, above all in hierarchies of command. These can be found in everything from the military to MMOs, and in none of them would egalitarianism work very well. When commands must issue without time for consensus or even fact-finding, a command hierarchy is indispensable. Even if our guy at the top is a certified incompetent, we will probably do better than if we had no guy at the top: The other side’s guy may be even worse than ours. If so, we win.

Still, though, I don’t believe that command hierarchies should be extended into more areas of society. Knowledge problems will proliferate, and no amount of personal talent or fitness can make up the difference. The degree of competence that neoreactionaries seemingly ascribe to past (and perhaps to some future) governments is startling and appears unsubstantiated, even if democracies are incompetent, which, yes, they commonly are.

So am I against hierarchy? No. It seems clear to me that nearly all societies are to some degree hierarchical. As such, being against hierarchy is like being against the weather. Indeed, those societies that have most strongly committed to egalitarianism as an ideology have had some of the starkest and most brutal hierarchies in practice.

It may not be in our power, then, to abolish hierarchy. But if not, then “hierarchy is natural” becomes a truism; it cannot be the articulation of a program. The question becomes not so much whether one is for or against hierarchy as which sorts of hierarchy will emerge, and with what effects, given various ideological and institutional frameworks. We know which sorts of hierarchy emerge from the frameworks of radical egalitarianism, and they are horrible. We need to try something else.

And that’s where all the hard work begins: If hierarchy is natural in this sense, its specific manifestations are pure artifice. They are all products of the institutions that we set up for ourselves.

This leads to our second ambiguity: What do our hierarchies entail?

I take a hierarchy to be a social system represented by set of individuals or groups, all of whom may be arranged in an ordered list without ambiguity or incoherence. Authority, respect, status, or material possessions are distributed accordingly, more or less in ranked order. Because I’m really stuck for unifying terms here, I’m going to use the highly approximate “rule” and “suck” as the opposite directions on the y-axis of a population pyramid. David Brin famously argued that traditional social status hierarchies looked a lot like this when plotted on a population pyramid:

triangleI think he is basically right. One thing that Brin left out of the picture, though, is exactly where the x-axis falls – that is, where rule turns into suck. I believe he’d agree with me when I say it looked something like this: rulers Everyone above the line rules. Everyone below it experiences varying degrees of suck: Domination. Disease. Hunger. Ignorance. Filth. Not necessarily through any fault of their own, either. Brin writes:

For every Lorenzo de Medici or Henry Plantagenet there were hundreds, thousands of fools who let flatterers talk them into believing ego-stroking stories — that they were lords because of their own genius, or inherent superiority, or God-given right. As I have said many times, this is human nature. We are all descended from the harems of guys who pulled off this trick. Voluptuous delusions run through our veins, so strongly that it’s amazing the Enlightenment Miracle was ever tried at all, let alone that it lasted as long as it has.

Brin praises modern, post-Enlightenment society for changing the shape of our still-hierarchical society into something that looks a lot more like this:


A few still rule. But there’s a lot less suck to go around. How much do the rulers control? How does today compare to, say, Old Regime France? These questions aren’t easily answered, but we can try. Although total government spending is today around 35% of gdp, government spending is not a good measure of liberty.

Measuring liberty is hard. Old Regime restrictions on religious practice, print and speech, entry into professions, and free trade in goods and land were all tremendous burdens. All have been substantially abated or even abolished, and we are better off without them. Even if we are taxed exorbitantly. (Note, too, that in the Old Regime, most who were above the x-axis – that is, most people in that tiny little triangle who ruled – enjoyed substantial immunity from taxation. In the Old Regime, the classes who could typically least afford it paid the taxes.)

In all, it’s hard to argue with things not sucking quite so badly for quite so many people. Where the x-axis falls on our diamond is a good question, but it’s plausibly a lot closer to the middle. And yes, a more flattened diamondoid might be preferable, but still: well done, Enlightenment. Well done indeed.[2]

At this point we need to pause and recognize that we’ve been dealing with some exceptionally fuzzy terms. Rule – that is, rising on the y-axis – may consist of many different things, morally weighted or not, just or unjust. I’ve left them aside for now, but not because they are irrelevant. They complicate the picture tremendously, in ways that anyone who claims the naturalness of hierarchy will have to contend with. But I, for my purposes, do not.

Note finally that while hierarchy may be natural – in that nonhierarchical societies barely even exist – various individuals’ endowments (with material goods, power, and respect) will frequently depend almost entirely on technological development, population, environmental factors, elective choice, and happenstance. These all present challenges to claims of the form “Hierarchy is natural, and therefore X deserves Y.” It may therefore be advisable to keep such claims few in number, even if this does push “hierarchy is natural” still further toward being merely a truism.

And now for the third ambiguity: the question of what we mean by naturalness.

It’s a common move to hold that natural means something a lot like normative: We should strive to be whatever it is that nature made us to be. The natural is the potential within us, and the good consists of living up to it.

There’s a big problem with this, though: Humans would appear to have by nature no particular goals at all outside of biological reproduction. And yet we are unprepared to remake our morals around this claim. It is exceedingly doubtful to say that all the rest – art, literature, culture, ethics, science, religion – has value only in proportion to its fitness for furthering biological reproduction. As a matter of ideology, some may claim to reason this way. But as a practical matter, almost no one judges other people or their beliefs accordingly. As I like to point out, it’s almost impossible to argue that Jesus, Queen Elizabeth I, or George Washington had worthless lives. Yet none of them bore children. The Wright brothers never married or as far as I know had any kids. The Buddha had one child, whom he persuaded to become a monk. Failures, all of them?

Finally, hierarchy might be “natural” in a purely non-normative sense: natural not in the sense of “natural law,” then, but more like “natural selection,” which doesn’t give a damn about morals. If that’s the case, we can easily imagine a normative order radically opposed to natural hierarchy: We find ourselves faced with the task of eradicating this aspect of nature, because nature is often malevolent, and we must struggle against it when it is. Smallpox was natural, but we killed it, and no one should regret it. Might some forms of hierarchy be like that? Or many of them? And if so, what are the odds that we’ve found the right ones, rather than seizing on some wrong ones?



[1] Yes, I’m still carrying on about them. I believe they are wrong about all kinds of things, but they are wrong in interesting and useful ways. That’s more than can be said of a lot of the political mainstream. They also share with me a fundamental assumption, one that almost no one else seems to share: We have never really left the Enlightenment. We’re still in it, for better and for worse.

[2] Neoreactionaries who imply that others must share their anomie and disillusionment without somehow quite realizing it remind me a bit of those libertarians who insist – despite all evidence to the contrary – that nonlibertarians must also experience taxation as theft, when clearly they do not. These nonlibertarians may be unable to account for taxation as anything other than theft, or to do so in a consistent and satisfying manner. But this asks people usually untrained in political theory to perform a fairly adept trick within the discipline, and it shouldn’t surprise when they can’t. Explaining why the modern world is preferable to traditional European societies is likewise not a task that everyone will be prepared to undertake.