Spent concerns the ways in which conspicuous consumption serves as modern America's primary method of trait signaling. Geoffrey Miller credibly argues that this method is inefficient, decreases our happiness, and generates negative externalities. Near the end of the book, he looks at ways in which government policy encourages conspicuous consumption, and examines alternatives. The following section deals with themes familiar to the readers of Half Sigma, Steve Sailer, and the old Bobvis blog, but Miller weaves them together in a way that shows genuine insight.
Multiculturalism Versus Local Social Norms
There is a major legal problem with creating and enforcing new social norms in developed nations, and the problem concerns housing law. Humans are still embodied beings who interact mostly with other humans who liver nearby. The social norms and trait-display tactics most favored by the local community heavily influence our behavior. However, through antidiscrimination laws regarding property rental and ownership, many countries unwittingly prohibit the development and diversification of cohesive local norms. For example, the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development prohibits “housing discrimination based on your race color, national origin, religion, sex, family status, or disability.” The laws were passed with the best of intentions, but they have toxic side effects on the ability of voluntarily organized communities to create the physical, social, and moral environments that their members want.
There is increasing evidence that communities with a chaotic diversity of social norms do not function very well. Some of this evidence comes from studies of ethnically diverse communities. I mention this evidence not because I think ethnic diversity is bad, but because it is one of the only proxies for social-norm diversity that has been studied so far.
For example, the political scientist Robert Putnam has found that American communities with higher levels of ethnic diversity tend to have lower levels of “social capital” -- trust, altruism, cohesion, and sense of community. He and his colleagues analyzed data from thirty thousand people across forty-one U. S. communities, and found that people who live in communities with higher ethnic diversity (meaning, in the United States, more equal mixtures of black, Hispanic, white, and Asian citizens) tend to have lower
- trust across ethnic groups
- trust within their own ethnic group
- community solidarity and cohesion
- community cooperation
- sense of political empowerment
- confidence in local government and leaders
- voter registration rates
- charity and volunteering
- investment in common goods
- interest in maintaining community facilities
- rates of carpooling
- numbers of friends
- perceived quality of life
- general happiness
These effects remained substantial even after controlling for each individual’s age, sex, education, ethnicity, income, and language, and for each community’s poverty rate, income inequality, crime rate, population density, mobility, and average education. Putnam did not set out to look for these effects; a great advocate of both social capital and diversity, he seems to have been appalled at these results, and published them only reluctantly. Many other researchers have reported similar findings.
I suspect that these corrosive effects of “ethnic diversity” on social capital are not really an effect of ethnicity per se, but of each ethnicity’s having different social norms -- different dialects, values, political attitudes, religions, social assumptions, and systems of etiquette. As Robert Kurzban and his collaborators have shown, ethnicity fades into the background when people feel motivated to cooperate with one another for the common good, based on shared interests and norms. Communities without a coherent set of social norms just don’t feel much like communities at all, so people withdraw from community life into their own families and houses.
Sadly, it has become almost impossible now for like-minded people to arrange to live together in a small community with cohesive social norms. Real norms can be sustained effectively only be selecting who moves in, by praising or punishing those who uphold or violate norms as residents, and by expelling those who repeatedly violate the norms. These are the requirements to sustain the type of cooperation called network reciprocity, in which cooperators form local “network clusters” (communities) in which they help one another. Current laws in most developed countries make network reciprocity almost impossible. Black Muslim property developers cannot set up gated communities that exclude white oppressors. Lesbians who were traumatized by childhood sexual abuse or rape cannot set up male-free zones. Pentecostals cannot exclude Satanists and Wiccans from their neighborhoods. Medical-marijuana users with cancer or glaucoma cannot set up cannabis-friendly zones. Polyamorous swingers cannot exclude monogamous puritans, or vice versa.
So, while modern multicultural communities may be very free at the level of individual lifestyle choice, they are very un-free at the level of allowing people to create and sustain distinctive local community norms and values. This is actually a bad thing, liberal ideologies notwithstanding. It means that the only way to have any influence over who your neighbors are, and how they behave, is to rent or buy at a particular price point, to achieve economic stratification. Antidiscrimination laws apply, de facto, to everything except income, with the result that we have low-income ghettos, working-class tract houses, professional exurbs: a form of assortative living by income, which correlates only moderately with intelligence and conscientiousness.
Moreover, when economic stratification is the only basis for choosing where to lie, wealth becomes reified as the central form of status in every community the lowest common denominator of human virtue, the only trait-display game in town. Since you end up living next to people who might well respect wildly different intellectual, political, social, and moral values, the only way to compete for status is through conspicuous consumption. Grow a greener lawn, buy a bigger car, add a media room. If a Pentecostal lives next to a polyamorist, the only way they can compete with each other is at the default economic level of wealth display. But if all the Pentecostals lived together, they could establish new social norms that renounce such wealth displays, and compete for status through Bible-quoting, speaking in tongues, and spreading the gospel. And if all the polyamorists lived together, they could compete for status through good conversation, great sex, minimal jealousy, maximal affection, and emotional authenticity. In both cases, their local social norms could rein in runaway consumption, and shift their time and energy to other activities that are more congruent with their most fundamental values.
This idea -- the freedom to live near folks with shared values -- may sound radical to members of the educated Euro-American elite, who tend to take multiculturalism, diversity, and tolerance for granted as good things. But it would sound perfectly sensible to almost any of our ancestors from any well-functioning culture in any epoch of history. It’s called choosing your tribe: you have to be able to control who enters your community, and under what conditions they will be exiled. The efficiency and cohesiveness of local social life demands protection against outside threats and internal selfishness. Minimally, this requires that everyone local shares rules of etiquette for avoiding conflict, a common spoken language for resolving conflict, norms governing social, sexual, parental, kin, and economic-exchange relationships, and norms for coordinating group action, especially in emergencies. Strangely, many “communities” in developed nations lack these basic prerequisites for living together. These communities function like computers that have hardware (a physical location and infrastructure) and an operating system (a government, an economic system, and a set of metanorms concerning tolerance and diversity), but no software applications (no specific social norms governing trait display and status seeking in any domains other than wealth).
To a limited degree, people with shared values and lifestyles can sometimes coordinate their movements into particular locations. American gay men often move to San Francisco or New York. Mormons often congregate in Utah. But they are always mixed up with others hostile to their values; they must rub elbows with homophobes or atheists, and they cannot do anything about it. Under some special circumstances, people can create co-living communities with a limited set of shared rules that constrain runaway consumerism: college fraternities and sororities, communes, cooperative housing, condominium governing by internal rules and managerial boards, gated communities with restrictive covenants. However, the antidiscrimination laws still apply -- these co-living systems still cannot legally select or expel members on the basis of sexual orientation or religion, which doesn’t help gay men or Mormons create their own communities, and it still leaves wealth display as the default basis for social status.
So governments should give people the freedom to create local housing communities with the power to sustain their own social norms, as long as a few basic human rights are respected. Adults must be free to move away from a community they don’t like. The punishment for violating social norms must not exceed temporary ostracism or permanent exile. As John Stuart Mill argued, children must not be subject to abuse that is permanently physically or mentally disabling (such as, arguably, circumcision, clitoridectomy, religious indoctrination, or anorexia-inducing ballet lessons). Clearly, it is hard to draw the line between normal acculturation and disabling child abuse, but that has always been true, and I can’t offer a panacea. Civilization progresses in part through people arguing about these issues and reaching the most enlightened, provisional, pragmatic consensus that they can achieve within their culture. At any rate, the government still has a crucial role to play in protecting the oppressed or vulnerable from the tyranny of the majority, even within the most radical of the local communities. However, if the local majority cannot impose some distinctive social norms on our forms of trait signaling, conspicuous consumption will remain the only game in town.
I will make a couple of comments. First, Miller's "educated Euro-American elite" -- in which Miller himself is a member in good standing -- is well-served by our current assortative housing patterns. Beyond a certain price point, "diversity" costs nothing: the interaction of zoning and finance means that nobody able to afford a large house in "good school district" full of other large houses will rank low on the social traits that make for bad neighbors. These houses may strain the budgets of the middle and upper middle classes, but not of the elites. And at higher thresholds, our elite is remarkable in its social uniformity. Its members, regardless of race, came from the same social background, went to the same Ivy League schools, and hold the same values. They have no interest in polyamory and Mormonism. They are already surrounded by exactly the people with whom they would freely choose to associate. Extending assortative opportunity to the middle class gives them no benefit.
It would, however, carry a heavy psychic burden on their own moral vanity. Miller is naive, or pretends to be, about what assortative neighborhoods would look like down the income scale. Outside of, say, Idaho, the social taboo against overt racial discrimination would prevent race-exclusive neighborhoods -- at first. But the imposition of middle-class behavioral norms would have -- wait for it -- a disparate impact on non-Asian minorities. Kind of like how the young black male character on MTV's Real World always got chucked mid-season: it was never because of his race but because of his behavior . . . which correlated with his race.
For an idea of how intolerable this would be to our "educated Euro-American elite", consider poor Huntingdon Valley Swim Club. Their half-hearted effort to enforce behavioral norms at a private club -- in full compliance with the law -- has generated outraged commentary across the entire country for a couple of weeks. Miller's voice in defense of Huntingdon Valley has been conspicuously absent.