Thursday, October 6, 2011


Earlier this week, I and some other guys form the dojo were running 2-mile loops through campus to train for the USMC Mud Run. As we ran, we went over, under, and through various obstacles like signs and barriers. Some people saw us and asked is what fraternity we were pledging for. This was a reasonable assumption. If you see a group of guys doing odd things on campus in September or October, they are probably frat pledges.

The incident got me thinking about fraternities. Before I was an economist, I assumed that fraternities were just parasitic nests of drunkenness and nepotism. But in the last few years, I have learned to think more deeply about features of society. If something persists for a long time, there are probably good reasons for it. I have realized that a lot of things fraternities do are actually useful skill-building exercises.

For example, consider the way they make their pledges wear suits and carry frat paddles. Every fall in my class, there is always a day when about half a dozen guys come into my class wearing suit jackets and bow ties, and I know they are frat pledges. This continues for several weeks. At first, they are obviously uncomfortable and self-conscious. But as time passes, they become much more comfortable. You can see the improvement in self-confidence.

Bring comfortable in a suit is a very useful skill. By forcing pledges to live weeks of their lives in a suit, fraternities develop this skill in their members, which will serve them for the rest of their lives. They will look better in any formal setting. Beyond this, they are teaching their members to be comfortable drawing attention to themselves. Carrying around a frat paddle and wearing a pink bow tie is awkward and embarrassing, but after a while, the pledges get used to it. They learn that there is nothing wrong with being loud, bold, and a center of attention. This too is a useful skill, and will serve them well whenever they have to give a speech or presentation.

There are a lot of skills that help people get ahead in the world. Many of them are a mystery to me, a kind of black magic. I suspect that a lot of what fraternities do is build these skills in their members. The best way to train any skill or learn anything new is to join a group of people who either have that skill already or are also training in it. Fraternities are probably a lot like dojos, but instead of training in physical fitness and mostly obsolete combat skills, they train in the art of social power. The evidence suggests that this training is remarkably effective.

And of course, power corrupts.

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