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The return of the servant problem

by Eric S. Raymond, first published 2018

I think we all better hope we get germ-line genetic engineering and really effective nootropics real soon now. Because I think I have seen what the future looks like without these technologies, and it sucks.

A hundred years ago, 1918, marked the approximate end of the period when even middle-class families in the U.S. and Great Britain routinely had servants. During the inter-war years availability of domestic servants became an acute problem further and further up the SES scale, nearly highlighted by the National Council on Household Employment's 1928 report on the problem. The institution of the servant class was in collapse; would-be masters were priced out of the market by rising wages for factory jobs and wider working opportunities for women (notably as typists).

But there was a supply-side factor as well; potential hires were unwilling to be servants and have masters -- increasingly reluctant to be in service even when such jobs were still the best return they could get on their labor. The economic collapse of personal service coincided with an increasing rejection of the social stratification that had gone with it. Society as a whole became flatter and much more meritocratic.

There are unwelcome but powerful reasons to expect that this trend has already begun to reverse.

An early bellwether was Murray and Hernstein's The Bell Curve in 1994; one of their central concerns was that meritocratic elevation of the brightest out of various social strata and ethnicities of poorer folks might exert a dyscultural effect, depriving their birth peers of talent and leadership. They also worried that a society increasingly run by its cognitive elites would complexify in ways that would make life progressively more difficult for those on the wrong end of the IQ bell curve, eventually driving many out of normal economic life and into crime.

What they barely touched was the implication that these trends might combine to produce increased social stratification -- the bright getting richer and the dull getting poorer, driving the ends of the SES scale further apart in a self-reinforcing way.

Only a few years later social scientists began noticing that assortative mating among the new meritocratic elite was a thing. What this hints at is that meritocracy may be driving us towards a society that is not just economically but genetically stratified.

Now comes Genetic analysis of social-class mobility in five longitudinal studies, a powerful meta-analysis summarized


The takeaway from this paper is that upward social mobility is predicted by genetics. And, as the summary notes: "[H]igher SES families tend to have higher polygenic scores on average [and thus more upward mobility] --- which is what one might expect from a society that is at least somewhat meritocratic."

Indeed, the obvious historical interpretation of this result is that this is where meritocracy got us. At the beginning of the Flat Century meritocrats had a lot of genetic outliers to uplift out of what they called the "deserving poor"; which is another way of saying that back then, the genetic potential for upward mobility was more widely distributed in lower SESes because it had not yet been selected out by the uplifters. This model is consistent with what primary sources tell us people believed about themselves and their peers.

But now it's 2018. Poverty cultures are reaching down to unprecedented levels of self-degradation; indicators of this are out-of-wedlock births, rates of drug abuse, and levels of interpersonal violence and suicide. Even as American society as a whole is getting steadily richer, more peaceful and less crime-ridden, its lowest SES tiers are going to hell in a handbasket. And not just the usual urban minority suspects, either, but poor whites as well; this is the burden of books like Charles Murray's Coming Apart. J. D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy, and the opioid-abuse statistics.

It's hard not to look at this and not see the prophecies of The Bell Curve, a quarter century ago, coming hideously true. We have assorted ourselves into increasing cognitive inequality by class. and the poor are paying an ever heavier price for this. Furthermore, the natural outcome of the process is average IQ and other class differentiating abilities abilities are on their way to becoming genetically locked in.

The last jaw of the trap is the implosion of jobs for unskilled and semi-skilled labor. Retail, a traditional entry ramp into the workforce, has been badly hit by e-commerce, and that's going to get worse. Fast-food chains are automating as fast as political morons pass "living wage" laws; that's going to have an especially hard impact on minorities.

But we ain't seen nothing yet; there's a huge disruption coming when driverless cars and trucks wipe out an entire tier of the economy related to commercial transport. That's 1 in 15 workers in the U.S., overwhelmingly from lower SES tiers. What are they going to do in the brave new world? What are their increasingly genetically disadvantaged children going to do?

Here's where we jump into science fiction, because the only answer I can see is: become servants. And that is how the Flat Century dies. Upstairs, downstairs isn't just our past, it's our future. Because in a world where production of goods and routinized service is increasingly dominated by robots and AI, the social role of servant as a person who takes orders will increasingly be the only thing that an unskilled person has left to offer above the economic level of digging ditches or picking fruit.

I fear that with the reappearance of a servant class the wonderful egalitarianism of the America we have known will fade, to be replaced by a much more hierarchical and status-bound order. Victorian homilies about knowing your place will once again describe a sound adaptive strategy. The rich will live in mansions again, because the live-in help has to sleep somewhere...

This prospect disgusts me; I'm a child of the Flat Century, a libertarian. But I've been increasingly seeing it as inevitable, and the genetic analysis I previously cited has tipped me over into writing about it.

Some people who seem dimly to apprehend what's coming are talking up universal basic income as a solution. This is the long-term idiocy corresponding exactly to the short-term idiocy of the $15-an-hour-or-fight campaigners. UBI would be a trap, not a solution, and in any case has the usual problem of schemes that rely on other peoples' money -- as the demands of the clients increase you run out of it, and what then?

There is only one way out of this, and that's science-fictional too. We'll need to figure out how to fight the economic and genetic drift towards an ability-stratified society by intervening at the root causes. Drugs to make people smarter; germ-line manipulation to make their kids brighter. If we can narrow the cognitive-ability spread enough, the economic forces driving increasing divergence between upper and lower SES will abate.

There's a good novel in this scenario, I think. Thirty years from now in a neo-Victorian U.S. full of manors, a breakthrough discovery in intelligence amplification gets made. Human nature being what it is, evil people who like their place at the top of a pecking order -- and good people who fear destabilization of society -- will want to suppress and control it. What comes next?

In the real world, I don't want to be living in that novel at age 90; it would be a miserable place for too many, heavy with resentment and curdled dreams. So let's get on that technical problem; intelligence increase now, dammit!