Moloch only exists if we believe he does

A shorter meditation on Meditations on Moloch by Slate Star Codex

A shorter meditation on Meditations on Moloch by Slate Star Codex

A metaphor has been making waves in the crypto community: Moloch, a mythical demonic creature that gets people to do bad things as a collective though individual intentions may be good. For more on Moloch, go here: Meditations on Moloch by Slate Star Codex. (The rest of this blog post probably won’t make much sense to you if you haven’t read this post)

Moloch is a good metaphor for systemic failures — many of them classic economic problems (externalities, prisoner’s dilemma, etc.), others first introduced to me by Yuval Noah Harari (in his books Sapiens, Homo Deus, etc.). This is the first time I’ve reflected on them one big agency problem caused by a metaphoric demon — it’s a powerful and compelling abstraction.

Upon reflection, I realized that Moloch is against my core (and perhaps naively optimistic) belief that collective human systems result in overwhelmingly good things because we are more than just rational beings optimizing our own utility functions, following the rules of the system blindly.

Something as simple as why people give their seat to others on the subway gives me hope that this is true every day. There are societal norms that get enforced through trust and other incentives which compel individuals to be “good” and do “good”. Some of these factors have been explored by studies on altruism, social signaling, etc. They are harder to quantify as motivators, but still nonetheless exist and are engrained our society. I wrote a post about trust some time back that talks about its positive effects on markets.

“But not only have we not yet reached the sea, but we also seem to move uphill surprisingly often. 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.” — Meditations on Moloch by Slate Star Codex

The discussion around “racing to the bottom” is interesting, but I don’t think it’s these things per se which keep us from plummeting but also the perception of these things — e.g. perception of excess resources creates more cooperative rather than competitive behavior which leads to more excess resources (e.g. growing the pie); perception that pursuit of happiness is a fundamental right keeps us from enslaving ourselves and others; perception of coordination makes us at least try. We agree to value optimism as a society, this makes it a fulfilling prophecy in some way. It allows us to cooperate, even today, and potentially more in the future with the help of technology.

As I wrote about before, I think we are on the brink of being able to align peoples incentives within a network to the network as a whole (using technology) to control for the agency effect. This, in addition to the societal values, makes the feedback loop even stronger.

Last thought, I don’t like the idea that it must be done by some super intelligent machine — if we humans can’t figure it out, there is no way some machine we build can.

P.S. The title is potentially misleading, Moloch exists whether or not we think he does because these coordination problems absolutely do exist. The more accurate (but certainly less snappy) title should be: the more we believe we can contain Moloch, the easier he is to contain…