Servants Without Masters

When I visited Singapore a few years ago, I kept noticing novel bits of social technology that managed to solve problems that I didn’t even realize I had. One favorite example was parking: all parking garages were equipped with an RFID reader, and everyone had an EZ-Tag type device in their car. Instead of picking up a ticket when you go in and waiting to hand it to an attendant on the way out, you just drive in, park, and drive out, and they automatically deduct the payment from your account.

But what made the biggest impression on me was the maid system in Singapore. Singapore’s policy on guest workers would make for an interesting essay in its own right. Briefly, though, the government makes it easy for guest workers to come if they can find work in various industries, including domestic service. Once in, you get a visa for a couple years, which does not come with voting rights or many of the perks of citizenship. But because this system is so rigorous in ensuring that would-be guest workers are net economic positives, it’s politically feasible for Singapore to take in a lot of guest workers. Proportionally, Singapore’s guest worker population is equivalent to the US taking in about two-thirds the population of Mexico – with huge net benefits to them and their families.

Which is all well and good from a policy perspective, but did nothing for me when faced with the reality of interacting with my host family’s maid. There, in the flesh, was a middle-aged Filipino woman who was just there to attend to my needs, as a guest of the family. I was expected to ask her to wash my clothes, for example, and prepare whatever I wanted for breakfast. And for all my admiration of the political needle-threading of Singaporean immigration policy, this situation completely freaked me out. It made me intensely uncomfortable to have someone hanging around just to attend to my needs, and tell them to do menial chores for me.

And yet, when I thought about it, I realized that I had no problem with janitors or baristas doing dirty work for me. My emotional reaction was not really about being an American with sturdy frontier values of self-sufficiency. I was perfectly happy to farm out menial work – as long as it was done by a faceless worker in a uniform, rather than a single person I was expected to have a relationship with. This incongruence was one of the major lessons I took from my trip to Singapore. Even after I returned to the Land of the Free, I kept being struck by the ease with which I blithely accepted the service of servants as long as they were framed as business transactions with dehumanized service workers.

And I noticed that the same blind spot applied in the other direction, in people’s attitudes towards submission towards superiors. The very word “submissiveness” tends to raise people’s hackles in our culture, but in fact we are happy to accept it – if and only if it’s submission to a faceless institution, rather than to someone’s personal authority. In an old-school apprenticeship, the master essentially runs your life for seven years and can bring you back if you run away, possibly with a flogging for good measure. This seems incredibly coercive today, and is probably one of the reasons apprenticeship and other forms of demanding mentorship are in short supply. But at the same time, it’s considered completely unremarkable for someone to go into nondischargeable debt to go to grad school and work hard to satisfy every whim of their professors. For a more barbed example, it’s considered entirely unremarkable for a woman to be submissive to her boss, but sounds terribly suspect to expect her to be equivalently submissive to her husband.

A manager can order around his subordinates, but only to the extent that he’s acting as a manager, to the extent that he can be trivially replaced by another executive taking on the same powers. If he begins to lead in ways that conspicuously make him a person, say by asking for personal favors or developing strong mentor-mentee relationships with some of his subordinates, the arrangement starts taking on a countercultural air.

Once you know what to look for, you see this all over the place. Students behave submissively towards their professors. Workers are obsequious to their bosses (to a large extent, even in companies with a veneer of informality). Sick patients in a hospital are (aside from a few frankly abusive ones) meek and unquestioning towards their nurses and doctors, to the extent that we often have to encourage them to ask questions and tell us when things bother them. These behaviors are essentially the same as the sort of attitude that I found jarring from the maid in Singapore, but we don’t consider them odd or even notice that they count as “real subservience.” What individualism has bought us is not the end of servitude, but merely the cloaking of masters.

It’s pretty perverse that our culture celebrates individualism and yet condones submission only to inhuman institutions like schools, companies, and governments. It’s a sort of inverse Confucianism – a system where authority can only be exercised by people who deliberately do not engage in one-on-one superior-inferior relationships. And while a principled liberal might dislike hierarchy in all its forms, if you’ve got to have one or the other, we’ve settled on the greater of the two evils. Both institutions and personal authority may have incentives imperfectly aligned with yours, but only personal leaders may disregard their incentives in the interests of their subordinates. And for the most part, institutional authority feels less human-shaped than personal authority – compare a visit to the DMV with filling out paperwork with a trusted secretary, or a minor pay raise compared to a minor pay raise with a handshake and word of thanks from a long-time boss and mentor.

It’s not obvious, then, why “inverse Confucianism” has taken hold. One hypothesis is that workplaces are an unprincipled exception to an overall individualist ideology. Hierarchy is necessary to run any sizeable institution and to have a modern economy, so vital institutions get grandfathered in as “not the sort of dominance that you should get upset about” even when norms shifted so that dominance by parents or mentors became instinctively upsetting.

Another – advanced by a friend – is that this is really a case of Nietzschean slave morality run amok. Individualism isn’t about freedom so much as it is envy of the powerful and dominant. We therefore have a strong instinct to pull down anyone who’s in a position of personal authority, but this instinct doesn’t care about domination that doesn’t appear to be done by a human-shaped agent. And as a result, we’ve gotten rid of the sorts of hierarchy that could lead to personal relationships and noblesse oblige, and replaced them with the sorts of hierarchy that are least likely to be human-friendly.