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

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
December 02, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
The Coming War on China
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: The CIA’s Plots to Kill Castro
Paul Street
The Iron Heel at Home: Force Matters
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Timberg’s Tale: Washington Post Reporter Spreads Blacklist of Independent Journalist Sites
Andrew Levine
Must We Now Rethink the Hillary Question? Absolutely, Not
Joshua Frank
CounterPunch as Russian Propagandists: the Washington Post’s Shallow Smear
David Rosen
The Return of HUAC?
Rob Urie
Race and Class in Trump’s America
Patrick Cockburn
Why Everything You’ve Read About Syria and Iraq Could be Wrong
Caroline Hurley
Anatomy of a Nationalist
Ayesha Khan
A Muslim Woman’s Reflections on Trump’s Misogyny
Michael Hudson – Steve Keen
Rebel Economists on the Historical Path to a Global Recovery
Russell Mokhiber
Sanders Single Payer and Death by Democrat
Roger Harris
The Triumph of Trump and the Specter of Fascism
Steve Horn
Donald Trump’s Swamp: Meet Ten Potential Energy and Climate Cabinet Picks and the Pickers
Louis Proyect
Deepening Contradictions: Identity Politics and Steelworkers
Ralph Nader
Trump and His Betraying Makeover
Stephen Kimber
The Media’s Abysmal Coverage of Castro’s Death
Dan Bacher
WSPA: The West’s Most Powerful Corporate Lobbying Group
Nile Bowie
Will Trump backpedal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership?
Ron Ridenour
Fidel’s Death Brings Forth Great and Sad Memories
Missy Comley Beattie
By Invitation Only
Fred Gardner
Sword of Damocles: Pot Partisans Fear Trump’s DOJ
Renee Parsons
Obama and Propornot
Dean Baker
Cash and Carrier: Trump and Pence Put on a Show
Jack Rasmus
Taming Trump: From Faux Left to Faux Right Populism
Ron Jacobs
Selling Racism—A Lesson From Pretoria
Julian Vigo
The Hijos of Buenos Aires:  When Identity is Political
Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano
By Way of Prologue: On How We Arrived at the Watchtower and What We Saw from There
Dave Lindorff
Is Trump’s Idea To Fix the ‘Rigged System’ by Appointing Crooks Who’ve Played It?
Aidan O'Brien
Fidel and Spain: A Tale of Right and Wrong
Carol Dansereau
Stop Groveling! How to Thwart Trump and Save the World
Kim Nicolini
Moonlight, The Movie
Evan Jones
Behind GE’s Takeover of Alstom Energy
James A Haught
White Evangelicals are Fading, Powerful, Baffling
Barbara Moroncini
Protests and Their Others
Joseph Natoli
The Winds at Their Backs
Cesar Chelala
Poverty is Not Only an Ignored Word
David Swanson
75 Years of Pearl Harbor Lies
Alex Jensen
The Great Deceleration
Nyla Ali Khan
When Faith is the Legacy of One’s Upbringing
Gilbert Mercier
Trump Win: Paradigm Shift or Status Quo?
Stephen Martin
From ‘Too Big to Fail’ to ‘Too Big to Lie’: the End Game of Corporatist Globalization.
Charles R. Larson
Review: Emma Jane Kirby’s “The Optician of Lampedusa”
David Yearsley
Haydn Seek With Hsu
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail