I should note that I'm not very confident about the strategy here. (I'm speaking in stereotypical more-confident-than-I-have-right-to-be-rationalist-voice that gets criticized sometimes. But I'm, like, less than 50% confident of any of my claims here. This whole model has the pluratity but not majority of my confidence)

I think there are probably ways to build a pocket of power and trustworthiness, which does get absorbed by powerful empires which rise and fall around it, and doesn't lose it's soul in the absorption process. Rather than try and compete with empires on their own terms, make sure you either look uninteresting or illegible to empires, or build good relationships with them so you get to keep surviving. (Hmm. The illegible strategy maps to the Roma, the good-relationship strategy maps to the Amish?)

Then, slowly expand. Optimize for lasting longer than empires at the expense of power. Maybe you incrementally gain illegible power and eventually get to win on the global scale. I think this would work fine if you don't have important time-sensitive goals on the global scale.

Towards optimal play as Villager in a mixed game

by Benquo 3 min read7th May 201940 comments


On Twitter, Freyja wrote:

Things capitalism is trash at:
Valuing preferences of anything other than adults who earn money (i.e. future people, non-humans)
Pricing non-standardisable goods (i.e. information)
Playing nicely with non-quantifiable values + objectives (i.e. love, ritual)
Things capitalism is good at:
Incentivising the production of novel goods and services
Coordinating large groups of people to produce complex bundles of goods
The obvious: making value fungible
Anyone know of work on -
a) integrating the former into existing economic systems, or
b) developing new systems to provide those things while including capitalism's existing benefits?

This intersected well enough with my current interests and those of the people I've been discoursing with most closely that I figured I'd try my hand at a quick explanation of what we're doing, which I've lightly edited into blog post form below. This is only a loose sketch, I think it does reasonably precisely outline the argument, but many readers may find that there are substantial inferential leaps. Questions in the comments are strongly encouraged.

Any serious attempt at (b) will first have to unwind the disinformation that claims that the thing we have now is capitalism, or remotely efficient.

The short version of the project: learning to talk honestly within a small group about how power works, both systemically and as it applies to us, without trying to hold onto information asymmetries. (There's pervasive temptation to withhold political information as part of a zero-sum privilege game, like Plato's philosopher-kings.)

Some background: post-WWII elite institutions (e.g. corps) are competitive to enter, but not under performance pressure, because of US government policy. This strongly selects for zero-sum games, which mimic but wreck discourse. (See Moral Mazes for more, especially the case studies that make up most of the book, starting around chapter 3.)

This creates opportunity in two ways.

First, institutions are mostly too stupid to model their environment beyond the zero-sum games they specialize in, so a small group that's able to maintain information hygiene and not turn on each other should be able to take & hold territory. "And not turn on each other" turns out to be really hard, because all our role models and intuitions for how to survive in this world involve doing that all the time. But we're learning!

(A mundane example of a decisive advantage due to information hygiene: Paul Graham writes about how his startup did better because it used an elegant programming language. That's only information hygiene on the purely technical level, but that was enough to outmaneuver huge corporations with a strong perceived incentive to ruin them, for quite a while. For a less mundane example, the story of how Elisha outmaneuvered multiple ruling dynasties is a personal favorite - 2 Kings 5-10. The narrative distorts the "miracles" a bit but it's not hard to reconstruct how he actually did it.)

Second, because most supposed productive activity is done in the context of huge stable corporations, people are trying to maximize the number of jobs and complexity per unit of output. This implies that many things can be done much more easily.

So that implies that if we can have good enough information hygiene and group cohesion not to fall victim to the perverse impulse to do the kind of make-work or artificial scarcity that creates much of cost disease, we can learn how to build a nearly full-stack civilization in a small city-state. Obviously there are many steps between here and there, but since lots of them involve getting collectively smarter, a detailed plan would be inappropriate.

What does good information hygiene and group cohesion look like? The game Werewolf is a good example. Players are secretly assigned the identity of Villager (initially the majority) or Werewolf (minority). Each round all players vote one player out, and Werewolves secretly do the same. There are other details that allow villagers to make some inferences about who the werewolves are. But they have to play the first few rounds right or they lose.

Optimal play for Werewolves involves (a) targeting whichever villagers are the most helpful to public deliberation, for exclusion, and (b) during public deliberation, being as unhelpful as they can get away with while appearing to try to help at other times. I realized a lot of things about how social skills feel from the inside when I finally figured out how to play correctly as a Werewolf.

Optimal play for Villagers involves creating as much clarity as possible, as soon as possible, and being willing to assume that people who seem to be foolishly gumming up the works are Werewolves if there's no other clear target.

With optimal play, Villagers usually win, but in practice, at best one or two people try to create clarity and are picked off in the first round by the Werewolves. The other Villagers are resigned to trying to die last, so they lose.

The thing I said about elite culture favoring zero-sum games can be recast as: the social environment favors playing Werewolf over playing Villager. In case it's not obvious, optimal real-world play for Villagers can often involve leaving the Werewolves alone. In real life there are better things to do than murder your enemies, like hang out. Villagers just need to defend themselves if and when they're actually threatened.

We're trying to learn how to play the Villager strategy successfully, in a context where we've mostly been acculturated to play as Werewolves, especially among elites. This has to involve figuring out how to do interpersonal fault analysis (identify when people are being Werewolfy) without scapegoating (assuming that fault -> blame -> exclusion).

In other words, justice seeks truth, but intends to leave no one behind; people who can't contribute need to feel safe admitting that, and people who hurt the group need the option to repent & heal the breach.

We don't have great finesse yet but optimal play in our world seems to be some fluid integration of talking about politics, healing personal trauma, and intersubjective openness.

Havel's The Power of the Powerless describes a similar (but less self-aware) strategy which he calls "dissidence." He (accurately, I think) predicts that the situation in Capitalist countries will be more difficult than the situation in Communist ones, because Capitalist ideology is more persuasive because it's more plausibly true.