Wokeness as a bootlegger-baptist coalition

The bootlegger-baptist coalition is an idea from the economics of regulation, which libertarians are fond of invoking. The idea is that, when new regulations are being considered, the coalition supporting a particular regulation often comprises one group with a moral or political objective, and one group with self-interested or monetary objective.

The original example – analysed by the economist Bruce Yandle – comes from prohibition-era America. On the one hand, baptists supported bans on the sale of alcohol for moral reasons; they believed that drink had a corrupting influence on society. On the other hand, bootleggers supported prohibition because it did away with the competition, thereby driving prices through the roof. Despite their opposing values, these groups both worked diligently to get more restrictions placed on the sale of alcohol. Baptists took the moral high-ground in the public debate, earnestly spelling out the evils of an unbridled market for drink. Meanwhile, bootleggers offered bribes to corrupt politicians, knowing there were huge profits to be made down the road.

In their work on economic regulation, Yandle and his colleagues have identified various other examples of bootlegger-baptist coalitions. For example, scrubbers regulations were backed by both environmentalists and dirty-coal producers; ethanol subsidies were endorsed by both climate-change activists and wealthy corn farmers; bans on logging were supported by both wildlife enthusiasts and incumbent logging interests. The theory helps to explain why regulations are often sub-optimal (or even harmful) from society’s point of view. For example, Pigouvian taxes are more efficient than emissions standards, but the latter have been easier to get passed because they tend to benefit existing producers.

How is this relevant to explaining wokeness? Ever since The Great Awokening became a discernible phenomenon in the mid 2010s, the question of where on earth it came from has been widely discussed. One theory says that it leaked from a humanities department, and then spread across social media via activist super-spreaders in a largely bottom-up process. This is probably the most widely accepted account of woke origins.

The basic idea is that – with the launch of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram between 2005 and 2010, and the invention of the smartphone in 2007 – it became much easier for left-wing activists to mobilise politically. Where before, they would have had to meet in physical locations (or private chat rooms), they were now able to meet, chat and exchange ideas in the digital public square – affording them untold new opportunities for activism. Only a few humanities graduates had heard terms like “person of colour” and “decolonisation” in 2010. Yet by the late 2010s, these terms were appearing regularly in the New York Times. And indeed, this isn’t only a story about social media; some trendsetters went to work for major newspapers and TV channels, thereby helping the newfound concepts to diffuse across the internet, and across society.

But the theory, as I’ve stated it so far, is incomplete. That’s because the rise of social media and smartphones can’t by itself explain why it was left-wing activists who managed to radically change the culture. After all, the networking benefits of social media were also afforded to conservatives, libertarians and non-woke left-wing activists – at least initially. How did the woke gain total internet supremacy?

One reason is simply that young people with left-wing views are more likely to be active on social medias (the young, note, are woker than the old – even among Democrats). This is partly because libertarians and conservatives are more interested in other things, such as making money, starting a family and going to church.

Another reason is that woke ideology has certain features that help it to survive in the ideological struggle for existence (so it tends to be favoured by memetic selection). The most notable such feature is an extreme intolerance of opposing views, up to and including the ostracism of friends and relatives, and the cancellation of persons deemed “problematic”.

As several commentators have noted, wokeness exploits an inherent vulnerability in liberalism – the latter’s tolerance of dissenting views – and then goes about making society less liberal. Woke is “defect” to liberalism’s “cooperate”. On social media, this manifests in mobs, pile-ons and calls for banning. Since many liberals and conservatives still believe in quaint notions like the marketplace of ideas (where the argument, not the epithet, wins the day) they are often defenceless against this tactic. As a consequence, they begin to self-censor, which helps wokeness to gain more power via the spiral of silence.

Even if woke people are initially the minority on some social media platform, as long as they are more willing to deploy tactics like going after people’s jobs, or getting them banned from the platform, it will soon feel like they’re in the majority. Some non-woke people may then keep their mouths shut for fear of inciting woke retribution; some may pay lip-service to wokeness in order to preempt attacks; and others may leave the platform altogether. Over time, large swathes of the platform may fall under woke occupation, even though out-and-out wokeists are a small share of the total population (albeit one that is overrepresented on social media). For example, the Hidden Tribes project found that “progressive activists”, who tend to be “highly engaged on social media”, comprise just 8% of US adults.

A third reason the woke gained total internet supremacy is that people who work for social media giants are overwhelmingly left-wing; in 2020, more than 90% of political donations from employees of Facebook and Twitter went to Democrats. Now I suspect this 90% is a fairly broad church: some woke, certainly, but also some libertarian-ish tech bros who just don’t like Trump and the Republicans very much. But if only one third of the 90% are truly woke, that’s still a lot of internal clout that can be put to use getting people banned, or making terms of service less favourable to dissidents.

What’s more, I suspect that – within tech companies – those with a predilection for speech-policing (i.e., the woke) select into roles like “content moderation” that afford them disproportionate influence over what’s gets read online. In contrast, I’d bet that people on the technical side of things – the ones who’ve “learned to code” – tend to be more libertarian or at least traditionally left-liberal.

However, there’s another account of woke origins. This alternative theory says that corporate entities coopted what was initially a fringe left-wing movement to further their own interests. Unlike the first theory, it posits a largely top-down process. In particular, some shrewd actors inside large corporations – you know, the ones that put LGBT flags in their logos during pride month – realised that woke pandering was an excellent way to earn brownie points with the Democrats, shift the conversation away from tax-and-regulate, and undermine working-class solidarity (by pitting white deplorables against oppressed “people of colour”). It was, in order words, a flanking manoeuvre – one designed to keep the left myopically focussed on identity issues.

As the conservative writer Steve Sailer has noted, banks and other large corporations may have “cynically conspired to divide and conquer economic leftism” as a direct response to the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. Note that Occupy protests were not confined exclusively to Wall Street; they eventually spread to college campuses, where they disrupted recruiting events for firms like Morgan Stanley. (Today, your typical recruiting event is probably a woke extravaganza, complete with LGBT lanyards and diversity pep talks). This version of the theory has the virtue of explaining why the antics of woke capitalism have become so much more conspicuous over just the last ten years.

We know that corporations’ support for left-wing causes is not sincerely motivated because of their inconsistency with respect to foreign versus domestic opponents of those causes. Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, went out of his way to criticise an Indiana law that allows businesses to refuse certain kinds of services on religious grounds (e.g., cakes for gay weddings). However, he hasn’t bothered to criticise far more draconian laws in other countries where Apple does business (e.g., laws punishing homosexuality with death). Similarly, the NBA has done a great deal to promote Black Lives Matter (even arranging for the slogan to be stencilled on the court alongside its own logo). Yet when fans wanted to express support for the Hong Kong protests in 2019, they had their signs confiscated on the grounds that the such signs were “political” and therefore prohibited.

What’s more, the investigative journalist Lee Fang has uncovered cases in which large companies effectively bribed woke activists to portray their desired policies as beneficial to “communities of colour”. For example, Uber and Lyft paid nearly $100K to the firm of an NAACP leader, who campaigned in support of a controversial ballot measure that prevented delivery drivers from being classified as “employees” (thereby exempting them from most employee benefits). “Capital does not care about culture”, Fang argues. “When an oil company operates in Malaysia, it donates to Muslim groups; when the same firm needs to win a ballot measure in SF, they sponsor LGBT rallies and BLM orgs”.

Note: woke capital is not a conspiracy theory in the sense of positing clandestine meetings where CEOs sit around smoking cigars, and discussing how to bolster their market power using the theory of intersectionality (though this may not be too far from how things play out at Davos). What probably happened is that one or two firms independently discovered that woke pandering could be used to their advantage (Starbucks may have been an early innovator with its 2015 “Race Together” campaign, which suspiciously coincided with an EU tax scandal). Then, once a few others caught on, the practice spread through the sector via imitation.

It should now be obvious that the two theories of woke origins that I have outlined are not alternatives, but rather complements. Wokeness is a bootlegger-baptist coalition, with social-media activists as the self-righteous baptists, and woke corporations as the self-serving bootleggers. Despite their opposing interests, these two groups have collectively engineered the most rapid cultural shift in recent history. (Of course, their interests are not completely distinct; some activists just want to make a quick buck, while some CEOs are starry eyed true-believers.) With all this mind, the key question going forward is: “Will the woke coalition hold?”

Image: Californian police agents dump illegal alcohol, 1925


The Daily Sceptic

Lockdown Sceptics has been renamed the Daily Sceptic, and will henceforth cover a broader range of topics. I’ve written four more short posts since last time. The first responds to Scott Alexander’s recent post about lockdowns. The second notes that the COVID-19 mortality rate among children is even lower than previously thought. The third argues that we should donate our remaining vaccines to other countries. The fourth responds to a recent paper arguing that lockdowns do not cause more health harms than they prevent.


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