Friday, August 25, 2017

Can we intentionally improve the world? Planners vs. Hayekians

Can we intentionally improve the world? Planners vs. Hayekians

(This post is part of a series of Open Questions, in which I describe important questions about which thoughtful people disagree)
The Planner looks at the world and says, “What are the most important problems that need fixing?” and then comes up with a plan for how they might make a dent in some of those problems.
Effective Altruists are Planners. So are lots of other groups that don’t necessarily identify with Effective Altruism’s utilitarian principles, such as the environmentalist or animal rights movements.
You could argue that the value of Planning is just common sense — surely, we should expect better outcomes if thoughtful people actually try to help the world than if they don’t try? But Planners can also bolster their case by pointing to examples of governments, companies, or charitable foundations intentionally creating a lot of social good.
For example, governments and global charities have funded vaccination campaigns that have wiped out major diseases from entire countries (e.g., polio). And the Rockefeller Foundation funded a program to improve wheat production in Mexico; while working on that project, biologist Norman Borlaug developed a new strain of wheat that saved over a billion people from starvation worldwide.
But there’s another type of person who also cares about helping the world, and is wary of the Planner approach. They argue:
  1. It’s very hard to predict in advance how a plan will affect the world.
  2. Most plans to improve the world have failed, some catastrophically (see: Marxism).
  3. Most improvements to the world were not the result of planning, but rather the result of some mixture of serendipity and people pursuing their own ends.
  4. If we all limited ourselves to projects whose social value can be justified, then we’ll be stuck exploring a narrow slice of project-space, and will be missing out on some of the highest-value projects simply because they didn’t seem valuable from within our current, limited worldview.
  5. Therefore, the optimal approach to improving the world is for each of us to pursue projects we find interesting or exciting. In the process, we should keep an eye out for ways those projects might yield opportunities to produce a lot of social value — but we shouldn’t aim directly at value-creation.
This camp is sometimes called “Hayekian,” because their view of value-creation is similar to Friedrich Hayek’s: any individual firm has limited foresight, so the way we increase innovation is to increase the number of firms. The more different things we try, the greater chance of us hitting upon a few big wins. In other words, given our limited ability to “exploit” known strategies for creating social value, we should focus on boosting exploration instead of exploitation.
The lines between Planners and Hayekians start to blur in some interesting grey-area cases, such as Bell Laboratories, which produced some of the 20th century’s most valuable innovations (lasers, transistors, information theory, etc.). On the one hand, Bell Labs was funded by AT&T with the explicit goal of producing valuable innovations, which makes it seem like a point for the Planners. But on the other hand, one thing that made Bell Labs distinctive was how much free rein its researchers were given to explore projects that were interesting to them, without having to produce short-term results or justify their work in terms of a bottom line. Point for the Hayekians?
Relevant open questions:
How efficient is the market for creating social value? (coming soon)
Relevant reading:
  • Beware Systemic Change, by Scott Alexander (see especially the hypothetical dialogue between Bob and Alice, though Scott has apparently changed his mind since he wrote this post)
  • The Republic of Science, by Michael Polanyi, is a Hayekian argument applied to scientific innovation
  • The Idea Factory, by Jon Gertner, explores the unique culture of Bell Labs
  • Theory of Change, a post by Aaron Swartz on the value of planning

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