The Problem With Knee-Jerk Coordination Against Moloch

If society responds to its Moloch-related issues by coordinating with each other, they may be able to kill Moloch. If someone overfishes/pollutes/etc. all other members take the offender’s money and distribute it towards fixing the problem. Or they kill the offender. Or they put the offender in jail. If everyone coordinates to have rules to end Moloch-inducing behaviors, we will have killed Moloch. But even if these rules are successfully enforced, we may not have ended our problems.

For those of you that are unfamiliar with the idea of Moloch, here’s the overfishing example:

Let’s say we have a bunch of fishers in a lake. One of them overfishes. The fish population won’t sustain itself at this rate. Usually, the rest of them would begin to fish more and more, afraid that the fish will run out. If they want to get any fish at all, they better start fishing as much as possible. This accelerates the process of overfishing. Everyone does what’s best for themselves, which ironically makes the entire group worse off. This is an oft-cited example of the coordination problem. The blog Slate Star Codex calls it Moloch, after an evil demon from antiquity. Because coordination problems are the closest thing to an evil demon the world has faced, I’ll call them Moloch as well.

To prevent this from happening, imagine the fishers all agree to certain rules. If someone overfishes, the others kill the offender and distribute their stuff amongst themselves. What have they solved? The next person to think of overfishing would be dissuaded. Sounds good, but this has problems as well.

Let’s say that society has anti-Moloch rules in place, but something else changes. Say the fish population adapts to outswim the birds that eat them, and this spreads quickly. They are so ahead of the birds that the predators die out altogether. This would be great; the people have more fish for themselves. They can catch 50 fish a day instead of 40. But the social institutions are solid; they won’t just change because a few people noticed there’s more fish available. Even if everybody noticed that there were more fish in the sea, you couldn’t do anything about it, because the laws are set in stone. If someone fishes again, there’s a good chance they will still be killed. This problem becomes worse the better societies are at fighting Moloch.

An amazingly well-organized (in terms of fighting Moloch) society would be terrible at adapting to changes. The most well-coordinated societies would have static laws. These static systems of actions constrain them. If Moloch becomes less powerful (e.g. more fish are available) we should be able to adapt and update our beliefs and our political coordination structure. Before updating is possible, we need to be able to measure how powerful Moloch is for any given coordination problem.

At any given time, we should know what’s going on with the fish. How many there are, how big they are, as well as if there is anything that could change the population. If something changes the amount of fish we get, we should know about it. Even if something changes the quality of the fish, we should know. Ideally, we should be able to predict the amount of fish as well as meteorologists predict the weather. From there, the rules about how many fish can be caught is dynamic. Each week or each month, fishers should be able to catch the updated amount for that time period.

If there is a change in fish population, then a change in fishing is needed. This becomes more complicated when there are two problems which constrain our actions. If the fish population decreases, we must decrease the amount we catch. But let’s say there is a crop failure at the same time, and we need more fish to make up for the lack of grain. This is where it gets interesting. In today’s world, this would be solved by economics: people would fish more until the next crops came, and then catch less when demand for fish decreased back to normal levels. As long as the famine was temporary, this should allow the fish population to recover. The action that results in fewer people dying is usually taken through the market system. However, with our policy of dynamic changes in fishing based on the changes of fish supply, we can’t solve this problem. Assuming fish supply was stable for this season, a terrible potato famine could cause a huge spike in global fish demand. People should overfish somewhat in the short run, and fish at lower than equilibrium levels when the problem subsides. Hopefully, there won’t be another famine during the fish population’s recovery.

So the amount we fish will have to be dynamic with respect to both fish supply and fish demand. What is the difference between this policy and the current market economy? The new policy would be coordinated in a way to minimize starvation, including situations where Moloch appears. With an uncoordinated free market, we will have Moloch, but as long as we are coordinated, we can fight Moloch to a great degree. This does not just require a legal system that solves current problems, but one that predicts and accounts for other issues as well. There are always constraints placed by the supply and demand curves, and we still have an economy, but it is somewhat resistant to Moloch / multipolar traps / tragedy of the commons.

The other requirement is a constantly updating legal system, that is fast enough to create laws that deal with sudden problems and data-driven enough to understand their causes. Not only that, but the laws themselves need to be updated to face new threats. When the law only focused on fish population, it stopped being effective when crop failure became an issue. The legal system must be able to factor in new threats as quickly as possible, lest the society starve itself of both crops and fish.

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