The return of the servant problem

The return of the servant problem, by Eric Raymond.

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. …

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.

Which drives politics, particularly on the left. A century ago the left was mainly run by bright working class people concerned with lifting themselves out of the working class. That’s been largely achieved now. By 1990 the western left had stopped championing the working class — whom they regard as stupid deplorables — and turned to identity politics instead to keep themselves close to the troughs of cash and goodies from running government.

The future ain’t so bright for most of us:

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.

Commenter Greg:

Reduce regulation. Simplify the tax code. Make it easier to hire and fire.

The rural poor ‘left behinds’ do just bloody fine in areas where their urban elite masters don’t create regulatory regimes that make it impossible for rural people to make a living.

You are solving the wrong problem, which is only natural because you are a member of the urban cognitive elite.

Commenter Deep Lurker:

It’s not the stupidity of those born on the wrong side of the bell curve that will doom them, but rather rapacious regulation driving them into neo-serfdom as they’re pressed into giving up their freedom in exchange for protection.