FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Hierarchy of the Machine

by KEVIN CARSON

In a Washington Post commentary piece last month (“Why rental apartments have more inefficient fridges,” December 22), Brad Plumer investigated why rental units tend to have less efficient refrigerators than privately-owned homes. The answer, obviously, is that while the fridges are generally purchased by the landlord or property manager, it’s the tenant who pays the electric bill.

This is a classic example of an externality: That is, the positive and negative consequences of a decision are not fully borne by the person making it; or put another way, the person who bears the consequences of a decision lacks the authority to decide. Under such circumstances, decisions that optimize the utility of a rational individual may result in suboptimal utility for the system as a whole. Maximum rationality and efficiency require that all the costs and benefits of the decision of any particular actor be included in the bottom line that actor uses to calculate personal utility.

Externalities result from authority. Authority enables one actor to maximize her personal utility, while making socially suboptimal choices, by imposing the negative consequences of her choices on other actors with less authority.

A hierarchy is a mechanism by which an actor at one rung of authority is able to shift cost and effort downward, while appropriating the benefits from others’ efforts. In a hierarchy, the authority of those above is substituted for the experience-based judgment of those in direct contact with a situation. The judgment of the person best qualified to do a job is always subject to interference from someone with less knowledge, whose primary interest is in living off the surplus effort of those below.

When authority-based rules are allowed to interfere with the experience-based judgement of those actually in a situation, the result can only be a net reduction in efficiency and rationality. So the question is, how does such a suboptimal state of affairs continue?

The answer, to put it bluntly, is that it makes us easier to milk. The self-interest of those in authority lies not in optimizing the efficiency of the system as a whole, but in maximizing their own extraction of rents from it. Their interest is in maximizing the absolute size of their slice of the pie, even if doing so results in a smaller pie overall.

Those in authority cannot afford to do the most efficient thing — stop interfering with the judgments of those who actually know what they’re doing — because they know their interests are diametrically opposed to ours.

Efficiency is possible only when the skills and experience-based knowledge to do a job, the full decision-making authority to use one’s own judgment, and the full internalization of the rewards of one’s own activity, are all united in the same actor. But severing these things one from the other is the most basic structural presupposition of our economic system.

Economic privilege — authority — exists so that those at the top can live off the unearned wealth created by others. Those on the bottom who produce the actual wealth cannot be trusted with the discretion to use their own judgment, because they have no rational interest in maximizing the extraction of rent by their superiors.

Hierarchies exist in situations where those engaged in an activity have a fundamental conflict of interest with those who direct and profit from that activity.

Shevek, the anarchist protagonist of Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, came to the conclusion that hierarchy is a way to do as efficiently as possible what ought not to be done at all. A hierarchy is a machine — basically a steam engine straight out of the factory age — for compelling people to do what they have no direct rational interest in doing, for the benefit of those with whom they have a fundamental conflict of interest.

Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory.

 

 

We anarchists want to eliminate authority as the mechanism by which some people live at other people’s expense and impose their judgment on others. We want to create a society in which all decision making authority is possessed by those with the judgment to do the work, and all common social action results from agreement and voluntary cooperation. We want to create a society in which no one is compelled to work to feed a class of rentiers, and in which all effort receives its full reward.

Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory. He is a mutualist and individualist anarchist whose written work includes Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective, and The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto, all of which are freely available online. 

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

August 24, 2016
John Pilger
Provoking Nuclear War by Media
Jonathan Cook
The Birth of Agro-Resistance in Palestine
Eric Draitser
Ajamu Baraka, “Uncle Tom,” and the Pathology of White Liberal Racism
Jack Rasmus
Greek Debt and the New Financial Imperialism
Robert Fisk
The Sultan’s Hit List Grows, as Turkey Prepares to Enter Syria
Abubakar N. Kasim
What Did the Olympics Really Do for Humanity?
Renee Parsons
Obamacare Supporters Oppose ColoradoCare
Alycee Lane
The Trump Campaign: a White Revolt Against ‘Neoliberal Multiculturalism’
Edward Hunt
Maintaining U.S. Dominance in the Pacific
George Wuerthner
The Big Fish Kill on the Yellowstone
Jesse Jackson
Democrats Shouldn’t Get a Blank Check From Black Voters
Kent Paterson
Saving Southern New Mexico from the Next Big Flood
Arnold August
RIP Jean-Guy Allard: A Model for Progressive Journalists Working in the Capitalist System
August 23, 2016
Diana Johnstone
Hillary and the Glass Ceilings Illusion
Bill Quigley
Race and Class Gap Widening: Katrina Pain Index 2016 by the Numbers
Ted Rall
Trump vs. Clinton: It’s All About the Debates
Eoin Higgins
Will Progressive Democrats Ever Support a Third Party Candidate?
Kenneth J. Saltman
Wall Street’s Latest Public Sector Rip-Off: Five Myths About Pay for Success
Binoy Kampmark
Labouring Hours: Sweden’s Six-Hour Working Day
John Feffer
The Globalization of Trump
Gwendolyn Mink – Felicia Kornbluh
Time to End “Welfare as We Know It”
Medea Benjamin
Congress Must Take Action to Block Weapon Sales to Saudi Arabia
Halyna Mokrushyna
Political Writer, Daughter of Ukrainian Dissident, Detained and Charged in Ukraine
Manuel E. Yepe
Tourism and Religion Go Hand-in-Hand in the Caribbean
ED ADELMAN
Belted by Trump
Thomas Knapp
War: The Islamic State and Western Politicians Against the Rest of Us
Nauman Sadiq
Shifting Alliances: Turkey, Russia and the Kurds
Rivera Sun
Active Peace: Restoring Relationships While Making Change
August 22, 2016
Eric Draitser
Hillary Clinton: The Anti-Woman ‘Feminist’
Robert Hunziker
Arctic Death Rattle
Norman Solomon
Clinton’s Transition Team: a Corporate Presidency Foretold
Ralph Nader
Hillary’s Hubris: Only Tell the Rich for $5000 a Minute!
Russell Mokhiber
Save the Patients, Cut Off the Dick!
Steven M. Druker
The Deceptions of the GE Food Venture
Elliot Sperber
Clean, Green, Class War: Bill McKibben’s Shortsighted ‘War on Climate Change’
Binoy Kampmark
Claims of Exoneration: The Case of Slobodan Milošević
Walter Brasch
The Contradictions of Donald Trump
Michael Donnelly
Body Shaming Trump: Statue of Limitations
Weekend Edition
August 19, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Carl Boggs
Hillary and the War Party
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Prime Time Green
Andrew Levine
Hillary Goes With the Flow
Dave Lindorff
New York Times Shames Itself by Attacking Wikileaks’ Assange
Gary Leupp
Could a Russian-Led Coalition Defeat Hillary’s War Plans?
Conn Hallinan
Dangerous Seas: China and the USA
Joshua Frank
Richard Holbrooke and the Obama Doctrine
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail