Honors Fuel Achievement

Link post

[Cross­posted from my Medium blog]

For many it is a cher­ished dream to win a No­bel Prize, or an Os­car, or a knight­hood, or what­ever honor is most re­spected in the field they ded­i­cate them­selves to. Th­ese rit­u­al­ized hon­ors are very im­por­tant to us, but do we fully un­der­stand them?

We usu­ally think hon­ors are about the re­cip­i­ent, but the giver of hon­ors also gains. The giver and re­ceiver col­lab­o­rate to pub­li­cly as­sert that the re­cip­i­ent is wor­thy of pres­tige, and that the giver has the au­thor­ity to grant it. Honors are thus acts of mu­tual pres­tige-boost­ing al­li­ance.

This mean­ing is even cod­ified in diplo­matic pro­to­col; rep­re­sen­ta­tives of coun­tries of­ten ex­change hon­ors for the ex­plicit pur­pose of sig­nal­ling al­li­ance.

The au­di­ence also par­ti­ci­pates in this trans­ac­tion. They ei­ther ac­cept the whole af­fair and the im­plied claims of the par­ti­ci­pants, or re­ject or ig­nore it. The hon­ors only have mean­ing, and thus the pri­mary par­ties only gain, if the on­look­ers take them se­ri­ously. The pub­lic perfor­mance of honor-giv­ing is a bid for that au­di­ence as­sent.

The au­di­ence ac­cepts the frame be­cause they rec­og­nize the pre­ex­ist­ing pres­tige of some­one in­volved. Honors can be pres­ti­gious be­cause pres­ti­gious peo­ple re­ceive it, or be­cause pres­ti­gious peo­ple give it, or both.

Con­sider the No­bel Prize in sci­ence. Its pur­pose is to tell the pub­lic who the most no­table ex­perts in a field are. In other words, it makes stand­ing within a sci­en­tific com­mu­nity more visi­ble to the rest of so­ciety, in the pro­cess for­tify­ing that stand­ing within the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity. This is a use­ful ser­vice to the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity and the pub­lic.

I note that the No­bel Prize has differ­ent func­tions de­pend­ing on the field in which it is awarded. In the Liter­a­ture and Peace Prizes, its func­tion is at least par­tially to ad­vance the poli­ti­cal goals of the over­see­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion. Rather than mak­ing the ex­ist­ing dis­tri­bu­tion of pres­tige more leg­ible, these prizes al­ter it by grant­ing pres­tige to the pro­po­nents of preferred causes. Look­ing at a list of No­bel Peace Prize win­ners gives an im­pres­sion of a par­tic­u­lar poli­ti­cal ori­en­ta­tion, but the pub­lic story of the prize, from which it gets much of its pres­tige, is much more neu­tral. Th­ese more poli­ti­cal prizes also de­rive much of their pres­tige from the sci­en­tific prizes.

The No­bel’s ini­tial pres­tige came from the rep­u­ta­tion of Alfred No­bel and of the in­sti­tu­tions named to over­see the prize (the Swedish Academy, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Karolin­ska In­sti­tutet, and the Nor­we­gian Par­li­a­ment), as well as some money at­tached to it, which came from the for­tune No­bel made by in­vent­ing dy­na­mite. Money, how­ever, is a limited source of pres­tige. The nega­tive con­no­ta­tions of the term “nou­veau riche” re­flect this. This begs the ques­tion, then, what things are sources of pres­tige?

The ruler is the font of honor

A ruler is a source of pres­tige, usu­ally the pri­mary source of pres­tige in a so­ciety. This fol­lows nat­u­rally from their sta­tus as the so­ciety’s leader, that is the per­son who has the high­est au­thor­ity in de­ci­sion-mak­ing, who is deferred to above all. This au­thor­ity ex­tends to the do­main of pres­tige. For ex­am­ple, Queen Eliz­a­beth I granted empty or cheap ti­tles to former pirates, like Sir Fran­cis Drake and Sir John Hawk­ins, who helped ha­rass the Span­ish and set the course for later English naval dom­i­na­tion. King Charles II granted a char­ter cre­at­ing the Royal So­ciety, which would play a cru­cial role in the sci­en­tific rev­olu­tion. Th­ese may be the most im­por­tant de­ci­sions these rulers made.

Some­times the ruler is also the re­cip­i­ent of honor. Com­rade Stalin is a ge­nius of liter­a­ture. And biol­ogy. And ar­chi­tec­ture. Be­cause if he isn’t, you go to the gu­lag. He has a monopoly on vi­o­lence. He uses this monopoly to mo­nop­o­lize pres­tige. He can then quite effec­tively award it, push­ing nearly any sta­tus sys­tem in the di­rec­tion he chooses to. If he has a good un­der­stand­ing of ex­perts and isn’t too afraid of be­ing de­posed from his monopoly, he can use his stand­ing to re­ward ex­cel­lent gen­er­als, sci­en­tists, and po­ets.

Com­rade Stalin, how­ever, has a prob­lem. His au­thor­ity, the le­gi­t­i­macy of his monopoly on vi­o­lence, for­mally rests on him be­ing the Ge­nius of So­cial­ism, and thus on the qual­ity of all those pa­pers. The in­se­cu­rity of this le­gi­t­i­macy re­quires him to ag­gres­sively prop it up by hoard­ing pres­tige.

Things don’t have to be this way. If the le­gi­t­i­macy of Stalin’s monopoly on vi­o­lence was offi­cially grounded in some­thing more se­cure and more true, he could dis­pense with biol­ogy and ge­ol­ogy pa­pers be­ing writ­ten in his name. He could dis­pense with the pa­pers be­ing en­shrined as obli­ga­tory read­ing in the rele­vant fields. He would be not just the mo­nop­o­list of vi­o­lence, but the mo­nop­o­list of le­gi­t­i­macy much more di­rectly. Peo­ple feel the need to prove them­selves where they are in­se­cure. A se­cure ruler does not need to prove his le­gi­t­i­macy. In turn, a more di­rect claim of le­gi­t­i­macy is less falsifi­able, and thus re­quires less up­keep and less dis­tor­tion.

So while power can be used to cre­ate pres­tige, some ways to do this are more func­tional, in cost­ing less and hav­ing fewer nega­tive side effects than oth­ers.

A ruler try­ing to gain stand­ing by play­ing foot­ball is silly, be­cause if he truly is the ruler, peo­ple will feel obliged to lose, ru­in­ing the game. Of course there are the un­wise like the Ro­man Em­peror Com­modus, who fan­cied him­self a glad­i­a­tor. Com­modus always won his fights in the arena, and his sub­jects viewed his predilec­tion for glad­i­a­to­rial com­bat as a dis­grace. For rulers try­ing to gain stand­ing, what re­mains is the role of the referee, the one who con­fers honor across do­mains. Dis­tor­tions in­tro­duced by hav­ing to praise his work are thus re­duced. This is one of the most im­por­tant roles of the ruler; the ruler uses his font of pres­tige to reg­u­late over­all sta­tus and pres­tige com­pe­ti­tion, so that the right peo­ple and the right be­hav­iors win, solv­ing co­or­di­na­tion prob­lems and tragedies of the com­mons.

There are brilli­ant rulers who re­ally might have some­thing to con­tribute to a field, and some who aren’t par­tic­u­larly brilli­ant but wish to en­gage in hob­bies for per­sonal fulfill­ment. A com­mon prac­tice for both of these kinds is to be ac­tive un­der as­sumed iden­tities or prox­ies, some­times con­vinc­ingly, some­times not. Fred­er­ick the Great of Prus­sia, for ex­am­ple, anony­mously pub­lished a poli­ti­cal trea­tise shortly af­ter as­sum­ing the throne. The anonymity pre­vents the pres­tige dis­tor­tions that might come from the ruler visi­bly com­pet­ing in one of the do­mains that he rules over.

The pres­tige of rulers, and more gen­er­ally the pres­tige land­scape cre­ated by power, is the font from which most other pres­tige flows. If some­one tries to grant pres­tige out of line with this source, it may not be taken se­ri­ously, or may find it­self un­der­mined by power. If some­thing is not be­ing taken se­ri­ously, power can be ap­plied be­hind the scenes to pro­mote it un­til it is.

For ex­am­ple, af­ter World War II Amer­i­can offi­cials in the State Depart­ment and the CIA wanted to un­der­mine the dom­i­nance of pro-Soviet com­mu­nists in the Western high­brow cul­tural scene. To do this they planned to pro­mote artists and in­tel­lec­tu­als who were ei­ther anti-Soviet or at least not es­pe­cially Soviet sym­pa­thetic — at the time this was of­ten the best you could do in high­brow cir­cles. They con­sid­ered ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ist paint­ing, which was then a new and ob­scure move­ment, a promis­ing can­di­date. Though no one would call it pa­tri­otic, it was Amer­i­can and it wasn’t es­pe­cially com­mu­nist.

So in 1946 the State Depart­ment or­ga­nized an in­ter­na­tional ex­hi­bi­tion of ab­stract paint­ing called “Ad­vanc­ing Amer­i­can Art.” It was so poorly re­ceived that the tour was can­cel­led and the paint­ings sold off for next to noth­ing. Un­de­terred, the CIA, un­der a front or­ga­ni­za­tion called the Congress for Cul­tural Free­dom, con­tinued to ar­range in­ter­na­tional ex­hi­bi­tions for ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ists. Even­tu­ally, the move­ment caught on. It would be an over­sim­plifi­ca­tion to say that the CIA made ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ism fa­mous — there were other in­fluen­tial pro­mot­ers, like the critic Cle­ment Green­berg — but their sup­port was not ir­rele­vant.

Similar phe­nom­ena will be ob­served if one looks closely at any so­ciety. When the land­scape of power shifts, the land­scape of pres­tige shifts ac­cord­ingly. It is then crit­i­cal that rulers are in­cen­tivized to al­lo­cate pres­tige well, that is in ac­cor­dance with the ac­tual dis­tri­bu­tion of ex­cel­lence. If they aren’t, as in the case of Stalin, the re­sult­ing dis­tor­tions in the al­lo­ca­tion of pres­tige pro­duce dis­tor­tions in their so­ciety’s un­der­stand­ing of what is good and what is true. Ly­senko­ism was an epistemic and moral dis­aster. This kind of cor­rup­tion can ul­ti­mately have catas­trophic effects on the so­ciety’s health, be­cause the abil­ity to as­cer­tain the truth is fun­da­men­tal to the func­tion­al­ity of a so­ciety’s peo­ple and its in­sti­tu­tions.

Awards are bet­ter than prizes

Among the many differ­ent kinds of hon­ors, we can pick out two es­pe­cially com­mon ones: those meant to in­cen­tivize a par­tic­u­lar achieve­ment with a fi­nan­cial re­ward, which I call prizes, and those meant to af­ford pres­tige on the ba­sis of past achieve­ment, which I call awards. Prizes aim to get some spe­cific thing done, whereas awards aim to af­fect the dis­tri­bu­tion of pres­tige, in­cen­tiviz­ing achieve­ment in a more in­di­rect way. With a prize, money is fun­da­men­tal. With an award, it is in­ci­den­tal. The Millen­nium Prizes are a prime ex­am­ple of the former, the Academy Awards of the lat­ter.

This dis­tinc­tion is of­ten mud­dled, lead­ing hon­ors to be less effec­tive than they could be. I have to clar­ify what I mean by each term, be­cause in prac­tice they aren’t used in a re­li­able way. There are awards that are called prizes and prizes that are called awards. De­spite its name, the No­bel Prize is a hy­brid case that is more of an award. Though it comes with a fi­nan­cial re­ward, it is pri­mar­ily about af­ford­ing pres­tige, and this is what those who try to win it are af­ter. The money is nice, but the glory is bet­ter.

It’s for this rea­son that I think awards are more effec­tive than prizes in in­cen­tiviz­ing the pro­duc­tion of knowl­edge. Glory is a greater mo­ti­va­tor than money. Fur­ther­more, the money at­tached to prizes is of­ten in­suffi­cient for jus­tify­ing the in­vest­ment of money, time, en­ergy, so­cial cap­i­tal, and so on re­quired to achieve the rele­vant goal.

A bet­ter use of prize money is to di­rectly fund pro­jects aimed at the de­sired achieve­ment. The ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists of Sili­con Valley and grant­mak­ers like the Mer­ca­tus Cen­ter’s Emer­gent Ven­tures pro­gram are good ex­am­ples. Be­fore any pro­ject be­gins, it’s pos­si­ble to de­ter­mine which in­di­vi­d­u­als or teams have the best chance of suc­cess. Giv­ing them the money be­fore­hand solves the fi­nanc­ing prob­lem, and even if suc­cess won’t make them a for­tune, the glory of the achieve­ment (per­haps aug­mented by an award) should be in­cen­tive enough.

A prize also pro­vides less re­turn on its cre­ator’s in­vest­ment of so­cial cap­i­tal than an award. Once the goal is achieved and the prize won, there is no longer a rea­son for it to ex­ist. It is self-abol­ish­ing. An award, on the other hand, can con­tinue to be given out year af­ter year, com­pound­ing the in­vest­ment of pres­tige. Rec­og­niz­ing this fact, prize-giv­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions of­ten con­vert their prizes into awards, con­tribut­ing to con­fu­sion about the dis­tinc­tion.

The X Prize illus­trates some of these flaws. Created by en­trepreneur and space en­thu­si­ast Peter Dia­man­dis in the 90’s, the prizes are meant to in­cen­tivize break­throughs in solv­ing the world’s biggest prob­lems. Their web­site says, “Rather than throw money at a prob­lem, we in­cen­tivize the solu­tion and challenge the world to solve it.” Per­haps the most well-known past prize is the An­sari X Prize, which promised a $10 mil­lion re­ward for the cre­ation of a reusable space­craft. Many of the other X Prizes are also about break­throughs in space tech­nol­ogy.

And yet, the great ad­vance­ments to­wards space ex­plo­ra­tion in the past twenty years have had lit­tle to do with the X Prize. $10 mil­lion is a paltry sum com­pared to the money re­quired to fi­nance se­ri­ous efforts in the area, and even less com­pared to the re­wards of suc­cess, as SpaceX and Blue Ori­gin have demon­strated. It’s safe to say that an X Prize and $10 mil­lion play no part in Musk and Be­zos’ mo­ti­va­tions. Even the pro­ject that won the An­sari Prize had $100 mil­lion in fi­nanc­ing. Either the prize money wasn’t much of an in­cen­tive, or the win­ning team was very con­fused.

If it’s not re­ally in­cen­tiviz­ing break­throughs, then what is the real use of the X Prize money? It’s to gar­ner pub­lic­ity. The idea of mon­e­tary prizes ex­cites our imag­i­na­tion and so lends them viral­ity. For this pur­pose the X Prize money has worked. Its cre­ators may un­der­stand this, and hope that the pub­lic­ity brings at­ten­tion to the rele­vant prob­lems and so it­self in­cen­tivizes break­throughs, but the ev­i­dence doesn’t bear this out.

While pub­lic­ity is good, it’s even bet­ter to be able to af­fect the dis­tri­bu­tion of pres­tige through­out so­ciety. The more closely so­cial sta­tus cor­re­sponds to ac­tivity that’s ul­ti­mately benefi­cial for so­ciety, the more such ac­tivity is in­cen­tivized, much more strongly than by even a large fi­nan­cial re­ward. Wisely dis­tribut­ing sta­tus makes the differ­ence be­tween a world where most kids dream of be­com­ing pop stars and one where they dream of tak­ing us to space.