The previous post listed some of the causes of higher than normal maze present in today’s society.
This post asks what might be done about it, both as an individual and via group coordination.
I believe it is better to first ask “what are the things that would help?” even if one does not know how to implement them or convince others to get them implemented or even if they are good ideas worth implementing. Then figure out if any version of the idea is worth implementing. Then ask how to put the ideas into practice.
All of this assumes that lowering maze levels is both desirable and important. This post takes that assumption as its premise. My case for it has already been made previously.
Some items on this list are political interventions. They require solving the collective action and public choice problems of writing and passing good versions of the appropriate laws and regulations.
Some of these items are cultural shifts that happen one person at a time. This is a different kind of collective action problem. Word would be spread, potentially convincing others to support the cause.
In both cases, pointing out that coordination is hard, and that game theory says any given person by default shouldn’t cooperate or devote any effort, are important things to remember. They are not full justifications for dismissing potential solutions.
Finally, there is one last solution that asks what one determined person or organization with extensive resources might do, and comes back with the answer of quite a bit. That will be the next post.
As a reminder, I am not, except where explicitly saying so, endorsing the political proposals as good ideas or rejecting them as bad ones. Nor am I interested in having political policy debates, or any other political debates, on the internet – any comments along these lines will be ignored at best and deleted at worst.
I am only saying these actions might help with the problem of mazes, without being obviously catastrophic.
This post considers nine potential ways to fight mazes in general, out of nine I could come up with. The last method will be the next post in the sequence.
Potential Partial Solutions
Solution 1: Knowledge
Not all solutions start with knowledge of the problem. Most of the solutions are good ideas anyway even if you don’t know about mazes.
Knowledge remains a logical place to start any list of solutions. Knowledge is also key to implementation of any of the other solutions. There is a reason we roll our eyes whenever anyone seeks to ‘raise awareness,’ but it is often vital to cause people to notice and understand things they instinctively avoid noticing and understanding.
People mostly do not understand what mazes are, how they work or the effects they have on those who work for them or interact with them.
People treat many aspects typical of these mazes as normal that did not used to be considered normal, many of which are not conducive to human flourishing, life or happiness. People entering mazes mostly do not expect what they will find therein. They often spend years of their lives and much of their human and social capital preparing for such roles, both before and after they enter the maze, before realizing what they have signed up for.
When people do realize what mazes are in time to realize they want out, they are often left without the knowledge and skills to exit and land on their feet. They are also often surrounded by people who would react badly to a decision to exit.
When people realize what mazes are and are doing to society, and move to help with those problems, they tend to pursue regulatory solutions that make the problems worse rather than better, because those regulatory solutions favor big organizations over small organizations, and entrench existing systems.
In addition to learning about mazes themselves, people learning what matters in life will generally raise their asking price to participate in mazes, no matter their level of understanding of what they are up against. I am not claiming to know what matters in life, but all the plausible answers point towards staying away from mazes on the margin.
There are of course some exceptions. Knowledge is not everywhere and always good for all good things.
Mazes grow and coordinate in large part via spreading the covert information that being the type of person who supports mazes is how one gets resources. While this information remains covert, it benefits mazes, whether or not it is true. Where it becomes common knowledge, again whether or not it is true, unpredictable things happen. People can fight back, or they can use this to justify imposing maze values more forcefully on others.
Another place mazes benefit from knowledge is in supportive technologies such as methods of building large organizations.
Surveillance of individuals tends to favor mazes, and make mazes more damaging to humans, in ways I won’t reiterate here. Surveillance of corporations by default seems like it would do the opposite. But it depends in both cases on what is being measured.
In most other aspects, both about mazes and not about mazes, common knowledge about the world and what is true of it and happening in it in general, as opposed to details about particular events, tends to strictly benefit the non-maze cause against mazes.
Solution 2: Regulatory Reform
Society-wide or important problems are not always political problems, and are not always helped by even well-intentioned political intervention.
The obvious first political intervention is thus almost always to stop making things worse.
Regulatory capture is the technical term for the inevitable result of government regulation. The mazes that are major corporations and professional associations and accrediting institutions, who have the expertise and lobbying power and financial incentive and perseverance, and the cultural affiliation with a fellow maze, inevitably gain control of the regulatory bodies supervising them. They then engineer those regulations as tools of expropriation: to limit supply and subsidize demand, to stifle innovation, for oligopoly or monopoly, insiders and existing firms against outsiders and upstart firms, for the industry against the public.
Regulatory gatherings are gatherings of those in the same trade. Adam Smith reminds us in The Wealth of Nations these phenomena might be getting worse but they are not new:
“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”
If we were to simplify the rules and minimize the regulatory burdens, and the regulatory burden on doing pretty much anything at all, in particular on small businesses and the ability of individuals to do object-level work, that would help level the playing field.
Even where action is effectively permitted, it is usually technically forbidden, and citizens have the correct intuition that doing pretty much anything useful is illegal and would be clamped down on if it threatened the powerful.
Severely limiting occupational licensing would be the natural place to begin.
Another strategy would be to end actual direct subsidies to the maze.
Solution 3: End Corporate Welfare, Too Big to Fail and Implicit Subsidies
Blatant lies are the best kind. Some of the things propping up mazes at public expense, in their fight against real production, is sufficiently brazen that it is obviously and explicitly expropriation.
Corporate welfare is everywhere despised and everywhere prospering. One could use mistake theory and think of this as an inadequate equilibria problem. If your area subsidizes a large corporation to move, expand or stay, that enriches the corporation at the expense of the public, and gives it an edge on its competition.
You do it anyway, because it also transfers jobs and other resources from another jurisdiction to yours. Everyone else is doing it, so you can ill afford not to follow suit. Thus, everyone cries out for the policy to end, but does it anyway.
Maze theory says that this is too generous. Mazes like to make deals with other mazes, to expropriate resources from the public and potential non-maze competition. Thus, they instinctively work together to do this in steadily more corrupt fashion, on steadily grander scales. This correctly predicts a lot of obviously bad and/or obviously unnecessary deals even for the locality in question, such as many deals for new sports stadiums. It also predicts that corporations will often not follow through on their promises, and not be held to account, because the deal is primarily a conspiracy rather than a trade.
One could respond by pointing to the Winner’s Curse and the need to make risky deals that might not pay off, which also predicts some of the same. That response implicitly accepts that not only can different jurisdictions not cooperate to not go to destructive economic war with each other despite being part of a government, it also implies that they care so little about expropriation of the public by corporations that they do not even ensure that the deal is a net economic win for the local jurisdiction. The argument implicitly accepts that it’s the incentives, and it would be crazy to act on anything else.
The effect in either case is the same. Regardless of whether you think a given deal is locally good, these deals get more available and more generous as corporations get larger. Thus they constitute an explicit bribe, a tax that gives larger corporations a competitive edge on smaller ones. End that, and the balance shifts back.
Implicit subsidies are expropriation of resources from the public, in the form of subsidies that are created knowing who the recipients will be, likely for doing nothing or what is already going to be done. Alternatively, they are conditional future expropriation where the government makes clear that if things go a certain way, likely a way that causes mazes trouble, then there will be a bail out. Mostly they go to mazes. Where they don’t, they directly reward maze behaviors. This is obvious pure corruption. Ending or minimizing this would help.
Too big to fail is a special case of implicit subsidy. If you get big enough, the short-term collateral damage of your potential failure is so big that the government would have no choice but to prop you up at its expense. This is an enormous competitive advantage. Even if shareholders would be wiped out by the intervention, it makes such firms much better business partners, better places to pretend to work, better places to loan money. The shareholders reap those benefits. Even if they didn’t reap the benefits, we all still bear the costs of keeping old dinosaurs around as they become less and less productive and competitive, and their maze levels continue to rise.
Another subsidy is retroactively strengthened intellectual property protections. Some amount of protection is necessary to allow people to capitalize on innovation and creation, but there can be little doubt that copyright law has run amok at the behest of companies including Disney, and patent law is often now used as a way to bury anyone attempting something new or to protect rents and monopolies long past any reasonable bounds.
Solution 4: Tort Reform
As a very rough approximation, in America, the current way lawsuits work is that if something goes wrong, you can attempt to blame anyone in the area. Doing so means they lose a lot of time and money even if you lose in court. In court, you win if you convince a jury, although judges can throw it out. That introduces a lot of random variance, raises risk of doing anything, and greatly advantages anyone who can plausibly deploy the resources to fight back.
Insurance against this is expensive and requires conforming to the legibility requirements and standards of care laid down by mazes, and still won’t reliably work when things get truly bad and/or someone decides to come after you for real, because your time is still destroyed and you could potentially get liability in excess of any insurance.
A key concept is standard of care or the similar what a reasonable person would do. Effectively, this means that if you do the thing that is usually done and check off all your boxes, you are mostly safe. If you do anything else, you are at the whim of a jury of random people who do not know anything about the area, and who are focused on the thing that went wrong.
You can get a waiver of liability or other form of consent and assumption of risk, and this helps somewhat, but they often do not hold up, and many key rights to sue cannot be given away.
When we employ lawsuits like this, we are enforcing an extreme form of Asymmetric Justice. If doing something means capturing a small percent of the gain and being on the hook for all or more than all of the loss, it is going to be hard to find profitable action or divergence from standard action.
Our justice system enforces Asymmetric Justice towards communication and especially keeping records even more than it does towards actions. Consider this recent column by the excellent Matt Levine. It vividly describes the conflict between engineering, which requires people communicate information and keep accurate records, and the legal system and public relations, which tell you that keeping accurate records is insane. Because in the future, someone will sue you or seek to embarrass you, and they will gain access to your records.
Those who adopt the maze nature and seek success within a maze also want to destroy records, so they can avoid accountability for mistakes within the organization. Giving a valid, hugely valuable legal rationale for the destruction of knowledge, of favoring the implicit over the explicit in all recorded communication, seems incredibly bad. We need the ability to have private communication that is both recorded and stays private, which isn’t the result of the blackmail that is lawsuits settled by non-disclosure agreements, which is more destruction of records rather than a loophole allowing records.
This all gets complicated and could of course backfire. Mazes will capitalize on any openings to escape blame or exposure for the things they have done. Juries and results being unpredictable has its huge advantages, both here and elsewhere. This is not an endorsement of any particular action. It is only a note that this is an opportunity for improvement.
Solution 5: Health Care Reform
America’s current system of effectively requiring health insurance, since if you attempt to self-insure they inflate your bill to ludicrously fraudulent levels, and making the purchase of health insurance prohibitively expense for individuals or small businesses, acts as a gigantic tax on self-employment and small business.
Even a small business cannot efficiently buy its employees reasonably priced (even on relative terms to what large business pays) health insurance. If your company can’t buy insurance for you, not only do you pay a huge and increasing premium to use the exchanges or otherwise buy an individual policy, you also are hugely tax disadvantaged.
One does not simply go without health insurance.
The system allows mazes in the medical industry to capture a large portion of national wealth. People are legally required to allow such mazes to confiscate all of their wealth, if the mazes decide this is appropriate. They can charge arbitrarily large and increasing fees for drugs and actions, which insurance companies must pay, out of insurance people must buy or face even higher prices.
Getting the right to enter and profit from these mazes requires over a decade navigating educational mazes, which together with existing professionals tightly regulate and ration the right to make human beings more healthy. Getting the right to enter these mazes as a seller of goods usually requires epic spends over years working with existing governmental and other mazes to convince everyone that what you are doing is safe, and thus you are all but forced to then extract rents to make back your money.
And so on. I would hope I need not convince anyone, regardless of their politics, that our current healthcare system is deeply broken. Other countries have systems less broken in important ways. They usually form and promote mazes in their own ways, but also usually do so to a lesser extent, in a less broad reaching and less toxic way.
It is difficult to overstate how disastrous this has all been. A crippling of the ability of people to do things at all, on any level, without a major organization, isn’t necessarily even the biggest loss here. As a nation, the United States spends roughly 18% of our GDP on healthcare and has almost nothing to show for it.
This is not the place to debate or suggest in detail, or even in broad outline, which reforms should be undertaken. It is enough to note that our current hybrid system, where we insist on pretending we use markets but massively distort those “markets” to allow fraudulent rent extraction at every turn, is one of the largest debacles in human history.
While also acknowledging that things could be made so much worse by the wrong intervention. As has already happened. A lot.
Solution 6: Demand Less Illusion of Safety and Security
Demands for real safety and real security will tend to favor existing proven solutions and methods over new ones, because all things being equal they will tend to be safer, and there will be less uncertainty about how safe they are. We demand more real safety than we should, and reducing that would help a bit.
Real security is tricky, as discussed previously; it’s not clear we know what that actually entails. Demands for real security would involve things like trying to stop atomization, and of course better solutions to existential risk.
The illusion of safety and security is both in much higher demand, and much more unbalanced in favor of large, established organizations and methods. It puts burden after burden upon any new enterprise, punishing it asymmetrically for any potential perception of new dangers while not giving offsetting reward for reduction of other dangers. New systems must prove that they are at least as safe as existing systems in every possible way, and bear the risk and cost of any exceptions.
Existing systems can be deeply damaging, but are grandfathered in.
One can also add things like illusion of fairness to this list.
A classic way to demonize an existing system or product is to point out this grandfathering: that if it were a new system or product, there is no way it would be permitted. I recently saw this used to argue against bicycles in New York City. But it would be even easier to use this against cars in New York City. Or cars in general, or many other central aspects of life.
Mazes provide the illusion of security, of a reliable and blameless path in life. Mostly people care primarily about this blamelessness. Getting people to care less about that illusion (and realize it is an illusion) would help a ton.
Mazes produce things that provide the illusion of safety. Where they do provide safety, they do so in particular ways specified by metrics, which tend to not be where much true risk lies.
Those products also provide blamelessness. This risk aversion and worry about blame extends to even minor decisions.
It would be good to get people to care less about such things. Make that a celebrated virtue.
Solution 7: Change Consumer Behavior
One can say ‘it’s the incentives’ all one likes. People constantly defy those incentives.
Ever seen those bumper stickers that say “Support Small Business”? Or local business? People make that choice all the time. Many livelihoods depend on the generosity of those around them. If you tip your taxi driver or waiter, you’re voluntarily paying more to support those around you. The better people treat those around them providing valuable real services, and the more we prioritize making sure they get the profits rather than extractive corporations, the easier it becomes to provide valuable real services.
Give your business to those around you that are adding value to your life, in the ways that help them do better. Encourage others to do the same. Make it a celebrated virtue. Don’t let stores designed to skim off the most profitable sales from those around them by being one block closer, rather than adding real value, get your business. If the local place helps you figure out what to buy, don’t then go online to find it half a percent cheaper. If an internet service is taking a huge cut for arranging a transaction, consider picking up the phone.
That story is about public goods, and paying your share for those goods, including those that can’t be directly monetized. In some cases this will have such a big payoff that you alone will net benefit. But if that is everyone’s threshold, that’s obviously far too high.
There are also good self-interested reasons to favor the local and small over the large.
Exploration and variety are often undervalued, although there are contexts and people where they are overvalued. Story value is important and importantly undervalued, as is learning and experimenting, as is preventing one from ‘wearing out’ the default options.
Local or less popular options tend to be less easy to get started, and less engineered to get you to choose them. Mazes have big data and are experts at steering business their way. Locals are not, and the best ones show a disdain for such operations.
Thus, you will by default tend towards choosing the ‘default’ or ‘easy’ option even if you can’t point to how this is happening. Your instinct towards doing a non-blameworthy thing is also going to overly push one in that direction. It is important to correct for these and other similar biases. A good general life rule that should be its own post is, when in doubt, take the option you believe you are naturally inclined not to take when the decision should be close.
Local or less popular options also are relatively safe from Goodhart’s Law, and are more likely to care about illegible aspects of their offerings, or about quality in general even when it does not cash out into profits. If you don’t account for these unknown illegible advantages, and for them valuing you and your experience in the future for their own sakes, you’re not giving them proper credit.
Consider what is likely to happen over time. A maze will become more of a maze, and their offerings reliably get more customer-hostile both over calendar time, and as users use them. They will keep climbing hills. A smaller operation is under less pressure to do so and gets more rewards from not doing this. You also have opportunity to make the smaller operation stronger and better for what you care about through offering feedback and with your dollars. Thus, getting used to and relying on smaller operations is good long term planning even if they are slightly worse right now.
The more customer behavior can shift in these ways, the better the playing field for those offering alternatives to mazes.
Solution 8: End Maze Legitimacy and High Status, and/or Raise Real Work Legitimacy and Status
Two sides of the same coin.
We currently give unusually high status to ‘winners’ and those able to extract resources, especially via predictable rents. It shows they are ‘smart’ and ‘successful’ and ‘reliable.’ Instead we could strive to uphold the status of those who do ‘honest work.’ We could value those who have the virtuous version, who honor and choose to hold onto that at personal cost, rather than mocking them as chumps.
We could make it clear that ‘selling out’ or ‘gaming the system’ was a bad thing, rather than a good one, and recognize what it meant to do so. Some free riding, zero-sum activity and compromise of principles is inevitable. Keeping it to a minimum requires frowning upon it rather than praising it, wanting to move away from rather than towards those who participate. Which in turn means moving towards those who uphold this, and away from those who do not, as in any other norm.
It is one thing to say that making compromises to win big still gets you praised, because winning big enough eclipses the compromises. It is another thing to say that the compromises are praiseworthy in and of themselves because that means you’re the type who wins big, and that you are more worthy than someone who accomplished the same thing without compromising. Think of how much more they could have accomplished.
This of course all leads to endless arguments over what activities, jobs, groups, causes, and so on deserve higher or lower status. That is good. We should have those debates, while being careful not to get too distracted by them. The traditional rankings have a lot I strongly disagree with. Only some of those are because people who are seen as doing good and vital work are often instead directly contributing to mazes and rent extraction, whereas many who are seen as extractive are instead directly contributing. And details often matter, a lot.
(Let’s not litigate these here in the comments, that’s why I’m not naming anything on either end here, even examples I consider clear cut. It would be a distraction.)
Solution 9: Forcibly Break Up Large Companies
If large companies are a problem, a logical response is to use the government to break them up. This is central to the platform of a serious contender for the next President of the United States, and has been pointed out in comments of previous sections multiple times as an option, so the idea is worth taking seriously.
There certainly is a case that if the choices are this or nothing, one can consider this as a reasonable course of action. It certainly is not the first-best course of action. Before you start punishing, taxing or banning something, a good first action is to stop subsidizing and rewarding it first.
Forcibly breaking up large companies that we decide are a problem would be similar to our policy on food, where we pay farmers to produce massive amounts of high fructose corn syrup, then pay marketing people to convince consumers not to eat so much high fructose corn syrup. If you are politically well-connected and can navigate the associated mazes, you get to steal from the public. If you are not so well-connected because you are oriented towards the object-level and value creation, or you lose the fight for any other reason, the public steals from you, instead.
It is not a coincidence that rather than propose a systematic policy, the companies singled out as targets by this candidate are the relatively new companies, not politically well connected or seen in a good political light, that have best created value for us over the last decade. To the extent that life in these parts has gotten better, it is hard to think of more central reasons for this than Amazon and Google.
This is illustrative of what happens when one uses the government to enforce such things. The government is the biggest maze of all! If we tie the continued existence of organizations and the value they create and/or capture to the political whims of Washington, we shift what is rewarded even more so from the creation of value to the navigation of mazes and the playing of politics.
Breaking up all sufficiently large major corporations, or preventing them from engaging in practices that discourage competition, still might be better than doing nothing, if the problem of size is sufficiently bad and we do our best to keep this implemented reasonably and apolitically.
People, including several major candidates, have also proposed an intentionally destructive confiscatory wealth tax. What would happen under such a wealth tax is left as an exercise to the reader. I will only point out that founders are the best hope of forestalling mazes, and a wealth tax would prevent them from retaining control.
What are other options? Is there a good version of such a policy that might improve the situation, were it to be implemented, even if it seems completely unrealistic? What is the most realistic version we can come up with?
Michael Vassar makes the interesting proposal that we should impose a destructive/confiscatory tax on liquid wealth but not impose a tax on illiquid wealth. This would have the effect of heavily encouraging companies to remain or become private. If you had a large percentage of a large private company, taking it public would give you liquid assets, from which the government would then seize more than all the expected returns (e.g. if you tax at 6% annually, that’s effectively confiscating all the value of an asset to the extent it is not used for consumption.) The only reason to take a company public would be if you intended to divest, at which point you would have to figure out how to make the bulk of your resulting assets illiquid again.
This would be hugely destructive of value. Liquidity is valuable and highly valued. Intentionally creating illiquidity destroys that value, and likely involves additional huge destruction of value. So does reducing the market price of liquid assets. We would be back to the world in which you were paranoid that if you got anything useful to a bandit that bandits would come and seize it (or worse). Think Apocalypseburg from The Lego Movie 2, where everything and everyone is super dark and grim in order to not provide any potential value to outsiders. Anything that isn’t super dark and grim is instantly destroyed by “aliens” whose attention is drawn to them.
There is also the problem that defining what is liquid versus illiquid is tricky. If it is a matter of taxing things that list on exchanges than all you did was ban transparent exchanges that could be efficiently used by outsiders and the public, and replace them with maze networks that take advantage of the public and give the profits and deals to those with good connections while not properly allocating capital. If it is a matter of trying to figure out what someone actually can’t sell, or otherwise gets complicated, then the primary way of retaining wealth becomes convincing the government that your assets are illiquid.
One thing that seems likely, on top of the inevitable regulatory capture and carved out exceptions, is a bunch of shell corporations designed to be illiquid, whose ownership is divided in hard to measure ways, which then hold the liquid assets.
Thus, I do not think such plans survive contact with the enemy.
Any solution to these problems must be strictly formulaic. It must merit no exceptions and minimize the amount of game playing. This means keeping it simple. It also would ideally protect new companies and their founders.
As stated above, I would not start on this response without first doing everything I could to implement solution three. Once that was exhausted, I might consider something like a tax, escalating with size, on large organizations that have existed for a minimum amount of time and are no longer controlled by their founder.
The next post will consider the ninth and final method, which asks “what could one determined person with resources do without resorting to politics?” and answers this with “actually they could do quite a bit.”
They could Create a Full Alternative Stack.