Notes From Moloch

Select excerpts from Slatestarcodex’s:

Meditations on Moloch (Link)

The premise:

The implicit question is – if everyone hates the current system, who perpetuates it? And Ginsberg answers: “Moloch”. It’s powerful not because it’s correct – nobody literally thinks an ancient Carthaginian demon causes everything – but because thinking of the system as an agent throws into relief the degree to which the system isn’t an agent.

Categories and examples of “multi-polar traps”

Situations where the best course of action for an individual makes the group worse off.

I sorted them as follows:

  1. Prisoner’s Dilemma
    • Dollar auctions (think of “pay to bid” auctions)
    • Tragedy of the commons problems (ie overfishing)

  2. Race to the bottom
    • Malthusian Traps (intense competitive pressures that penalize attempts at “slack”)
    • Capitalism (an instance of the evolutionary mechanism underlying Malthusian traps)
    • Two-income traps (From within the system, absent a government literally willing to ban second jobs, everyone who doesn’t get one will be left behind.)
    • Agriculture (Maybe hunting-gathering was more enjoyable, higher life expectancy, and more conducive to human flourishing – but in a state of sufficiently intense competition ag wins)
    • Arms races
    • Education signaling
    • Science and pseudo-science research
    • Gov’t corruption
    • Politics (Congressmen tactics to get elected)

All these scenarios are in fact a race to the bottom. Once one agent learns how to become more competitive by sacrificing a common value, all its competitors must also sacrifice that value or be outcompeted and replaced by the less scrupulous. Therefore, the system is likely to end up with everyone once again equally competitive, but the sacrificed value is gone forever. From a god’s-eye-view, the competitors know they will all be worse off if they defect, but from within the system, given insufficient coordination it’s impossible to avoid.

…in some competition optimizing for X, the opportunity arises to throw some other value under the bus for improved X. Those who take it prosper. Those who don’t take it die out. Eventually, everyone’s relative status is about the same as before, but everyone’s absolute status is worse than before. The process continues until all other values that can be traded off have been – in other words, until human ingenuity cannot possibly figure out a way to make things any worse.

My own local example:

The public school system shifted the start date of the scholastic year up from late August to early August to gain an artifical advantage in year-end standardized test scores by giving the students more time to prepare. Eventually, all schools will adopt this to maintain competitiveness and we’ll sacrifice the value of summer vacations in August when people commonly take off work and camps are not in session.

Select Excerpts

On incentives and initial conditons…

Any human with above room temperature IQ can design a utopia. The reason our current system isn’t a utopia is that it wasn’t designed by humans. Just as you can look at an arid terrain and determine what shape a river will one day take by assuming water will obey gravity, so you can look at a civilization and determine what shape its institutions will one day take by assuming people will obey incentives. But that means that just as the shapes of rivers are not designed for beauty or navigation, but rather an artifact of randomly determined terrain, so institutions will not be designed for prosperity or justice, but rather an artifact of randomly determined initial conditions.

We just analogized the flow of incentives to the flow of a river. The downhill trajectory is appropriate: the traps happen when you find an opportunity to trade off a useful value for greater competitiveness. Once everyone has it, the greater competitiveness brings you no joy – but the value is lost forever. Therefore, each step of the Poor Coordination Polka makes your life worse.


Capitalism is a lossy accounting system in that it can elevate priorities without precision. Not unlike napalm. Its a victim of its own success in the sense that any critique of it galvanizes its defense with soothing rationalizations both by the rich and by those to whom it has unknowingly imprisoned. Look, capitalism is good. It doesn’t need religious arguments in its favor to affirm that. Those arguments discredit its supporters which is a collective self-own. It’s possible to discuss its merits and flaws in the same room.

With that said, here’s a nuanced point from the essay…

I know that “capitalists sometimes do bad things” isn’t exactly an original talking point. But I do want to stress how it’s not equivalent to “capitalists are greedy”. I mean, sometimes they are greedy. But other times they’re just in a sufficiently intense competition where anyone who doesn’t do it will be outcompeted and replaced by people who do. Business practices are set by Moloch, no one else has any choice in the matter. (from my very little knowledge of Marx, he understands this very very well and people who summarize him as “capitalists are greedy” are doing him a disservice)


Politics is similarly skewed…

As well understood as the capitalist example is, I think it is less well appreciated that democracy has the same problems. Yes, in theory it’s optimizing for voter happiness which correlates with good policymaking. But as soon as there’s the slightest disconnect between good policymaking and electability, good policymaking has to get thrown under the bus. For example, ever-increasing prison terms are unfair to inmates and unfair to the society that has to pay for them. Politicans are unwilling to do anything about them because they don’t want to look “soft on crime”, and if a single inmate whom they helped release ever does anything bad (and statistically one of them will have to) it will be all over the airwaves as “Convict released by Congressman’s policies kills family of five, how can the Congressman even sleep at night let alone claim he deserves reelection?”. So even if decreasing prison populations would be good policy – and it is – it will be very difficult to implement.

The libertarian-authoritarian axis on the Political Compass is a tradeoff between discoordination and tyranny. You can have everything perfectly coordinated by someone with a god’s-eye-view – but then you risk Stalin. And you can be totally free of all central authority – but then you’re stuck in every stupid multipolar trap Moloch can devise. The libertarians make a convincing argument for the one side, and the monarchists for the other, but I expect that like most tradeoffs we just have to hold our noses and admit it’s a really hard problem.

This reminds me of a story I heard from my wife about an elementary school class election. One kid gave an impassioned speech about what they would change (no hall monitors anymore? I have no idea what kids see as the real issues in that otherwise simulcrum of no reality I know of called “school”). Anyway, the challenging candidate rolls up to the podium and declares that if you elect him, he’ll secure the school a…rollercoaster! In the exit poll one of the students was asked why they voted for the rollercoaster candidate and the student said, “I know it probably won’t happen, but what if it did?! That would be soooo cool”.

I suspect the challenger is on their way to a lucrative career in politics.

And we are all worse off for it.

How conservative and liberal views of societal evolution dictate thir imperatives

Societies, like animals, evolve. The ones that survive spawn memetic descendants – for example, the success of Britan allowed it to spin off Canada, Australia, the US, et cetera. Thus, we expect societies that exist to be somewhat optimized for stability and prosperity. I think this is one of the strongest conservative arguments. Just as a random change to a letter in the human genome will probably be deleterious rather than beneficial since humans are a complicated fine-tuned system whose genome has been pre-optimized for survival – so most changes to our cultural DNA will disrupt some institution that evolved to help Anglo-American (or whatever) society outcompete its real and hypothetical rivals.

The liberal counterargument to that is that evolution is a blind idiot alien god that optimizes for stupid things and has no concern with human value. Thus, the fact that some species of wasps paralyze caterpillars, lay their eggs inside of it, and have its young devour the still-living paralyzed caterpillar from the inside doesn’t set off evolution’s moral sensor, because evolution doesn’t have a moral sensor because evolution doesn’t care. Suppose that in fact patriarchy is adaptive to societies because it allows women to spend all their time bearing children who can then engage in productive economic activity and fight wars. The social evolutionary processes that cause societies to adopt patriarchy still have exactly as little concern for its moral effects on women as the biological evolutionary processes that cause wasps to lay their eggs in caterpillars. Evolution doesn’t care. But we do care. There’s a tradeoff between Gnon-compliance – saying “Okay, the strongest possible society is a patriarchal one, we should implement patriarchy” and our human values – like women who want to do something other than bear children.

Too far to one side of the tradeoff, and we have unstable impoverished societies that die out for going against natural law. Too far to the other side, and we have lean mean fighting machines that are murderous and miserable. Think your local anarchist commune versus Sparta.

An optimistic angle. Or maybe not.

Franklin continues: “The project of civilization [is] for man to graduate from the metaphorical savage, subject to the law of the jungle, to the civilized gardener who, while theoretically still subject to the law of the jungle, is so dominant as to limit the usefulness of that model. This need not be done globally; we may only be able to carve out a small walled garden for ourselves, but make no mistake, even if only locally, the project of civilization is to capture Gnon. “

I maybe agree with Warg here more than I have ever agreed with anyone else about anything. He says something really important and he says it beautifully and there are so many words of praise I want to say for this post and for the thought processes behind it. But what I am actually going to say is…

Gotcha! You die anyway!

My Concluding Thoughts

  • First a general thought:

    This essay is infotainment. It’s a work of art, it’s provocative, and one I expect to return to because it is stirring. Its sense-making Slatestar at his best. It’s dreary by default. But I see a glimmer of liberation peeking from behind its nimbus:

    If you accept its hopelessness and kneel to Moloch, you might fare better. But it’s delaying the inevitable. Instead, you can rebel. It might be quiet. And maybe nobody will care. But a large part of your reality is your own internal narration of it. There are truths that inhabit the physical world. Beyond that, things veer pretty quickly towards “it’s all made up”. This is liberation. How you feel about how you play matters. You might as well play your way since it doesn’t matter anyway.

    But this is not even the useful part.

    The real gift is once you witness how others deal with this non-mattering, you have found a magic compass. It points you to the family you choose. It gives you back control of your attention. And while we’re here, that’s probably the most useful choice we have.

  • A (pollyannish?) thought:

    This essay highlights how capitalism and competition narrow our values. ESG seeks to broaden our values. There is some irony in that one of the arguments in favor of ESG is that if we internalized our externalities, through what amounts to a broader system of accounting, that it would also maximize a Chicago-school capitalists brand of utility.

    Perhaps this is true. Companies that are more virtuous might be better for “shareholder value” in the long run. But part of me finds that reasoning patronizing. Like hiding the dog’s pill in peanut butter. 

    The ESGer is conceding a point they shouldn’t have to. Instead of trying to fit a wider set of values into an existing legible accounting system we could realize that the system is a needless sacrifice to legibility.

    (I don’t need a lecture on the grifty aspects of ESG. Every movement that gains traction brings its share of mops and sociopaths.)

  • Finally:

    You should read the essay. It’s a classic from a good writer. If you need another breadcrumb, one of the questions Slatestar poses:

    Why do things not degenerate more and more until we are back at subsistence level?

    I can think of three bad reasons – excess resources, physical limitations, and utility maximization – plus one good reason – coordination.

    You’ll need to read it to explore the answers.

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