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How the Failure of “Prestige Markets” Fuels Populism

Given the requirements of today’s technology, dismissing expertise as privilege is dangerous. That's why a well-functioning prestige market is essential to reconciling technological progress and the maintenance of a healthy polity.

CAMBRIDGE – One of the slogans of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers is, “We can’t eat prestige.” In other words, the university should not get away with paying low wages just because it is prestigious to work there.

But while prestige may not be nourishing, it is sustaining. In fact, the logic behind prestige, and its relation to technology and to people’s identity, may have everything to do with the rise of populism and with the perils of populist policies.

Prestige is in our genes. According to biological anthropologist Joseph Henrich, it evolved because we are a cultural species, in the sense that our individual survival depends on acquiring the knowledge that resides in the collective brain. We acquire it through imitation, but we need to decide whom to imitate. Numerous scientific studies have shown that we tend to imitate people who are perceived to have prestige, a sense that develops very early in childhood.

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