This post attempts to summarize the key points of the Immoral Mazes Sequence, which begins here, so they can be referenced without asking readers to get through an entire book first. 

Due to the change in format, the posts will be summarized slightly out of order.

Note that this summary, and especially the summary of the summary, represent a not only an abridged and simplified but also sanitized version of the central points. Brains do their best to continuously round down and not fully see these concepts. 


Core Ideas (Summary of the Summary)

The book Moral Mazes, by Robert Jackall, is a detailed exploration of middle manager hell. Managers must abandon all other goals and values, in favor of spending all their time and resources on manipulations of the system. They must learn to view such actions as intrinsically good and worthy of reward. Only those who let this process entirely consume them can survive. 

The Immoral Mazes sequence is an exploration of what causes that hell, and how and why it has spread so widely in our society. Its thesis is that this is the result of a vicious cycle arising from competitive pressures among those competing for their own organizational advancement. Over time, those who focus more on and more value such competitions win them, gain power and further spread their values, unless they are actively and continuously opposed.

Once things get bad in an organization they tend to only get worse, but things in general get better because such organizations then decay and are replaced by new ones. Unfortunately, our society now slows or prevents that process, with these same organizations and their values increasingly running the show. 

Investment and flexibility become impossible. Even appearing to care about anything except the competition itself costs you your allies. Thus things inevitably decay and then collapse, flexibility returns, cycle repeats.

Involvement with such patterns is far more destructive to humans than is commonly known. Employment or other involvement with such patterns should be avoided or ended, even at seemingly high cost in money and superficial status. If one wishes to accomplish something other than competition for advancement, one must be vigilant to punish maze-promoting behaviors, and to keep out or cast out those whose values align with mazes.

This is a special case of the principle that sufficiently intense competition along a single axis destroys all. Exit costs to any situation are almost always non-zero, so situations that otherwise look like they are ‘perfectly competitive’ are instead what I dub ‘super-perfectly competitive,’ where profits are negative, and all participants unfortunate enough to have entered continuously lose ground and eat their seed corn. 

Eventually such systems collapse and are replaced. This is why the world has nice things and often greatly improves over time, even when specific things seem to mostly tangibly decay. 

Dangers of Perfect Competition

A long time ago, Scott Alexander wrote Meditations on Moloch. Moloch represents the inevitability of competitive selection pressure, given a long enough time horizon, completely binding all behavior, and thus destroying all value, then all life. 

This hasn’t fully happened yet. But it will. Unless we use this one opportunity offered to us by our technological progress before that happens, and stop it.

A less long time ago, I introduced the (pre-existing) concept of Slack. Slack is the absence of binding constraints on behavior. Metaphorically, slack is life. Literally, slack is also life. Without slack, life is unable to both survive and retain the ability to adapt, and thus loses one, then the other, and dies.

Recently, Scott wrote Studies on Slack, which made a lot of this more explicit and easier to understand, especially the point that slack is life.

A few months ago, I wrote the book-length Immoral Mazes Sequence. This was my attempt to understand the facts described in the important and very hard to get through book (not because it’s badly written, but because the things in it are hard to look at) Moral Mazes. The book describes the lives and experiences of middle managers in major American corporations. 

Why are things so bad for these managers? Why aren’t they as bad for everything and everyone else?

The Molochian nightmare is not how most of the world works. We have nice things. Over time they improve. Systems do not automatically collapse to the elimination of anything that shows the slightest inefficiency. Most places and times and groups get a lot of genuine cooperation towards worthy goals, and avoid or mitigate any race to the bottom. Our lives are full of slack. The question is why.

The reason is because perfectly binding constraints need only arise in the presence of perfect competition. If and only if everyone and everything is identical and standardized, all constraints must bind and behavior must be only that which maximizes short-term measured competitive results. Even worse, there is what I called super-perfect competition. Perfect competition allows everyone to break even (make zero economic profits), but that is because participants are allowed to exit. Super-perfect competition has costly exit (and in reality, all exit has some cost), and thus everyone competes with everything they have and still loses. The “good” news is that such systems, when they arise, over-compete and over-optimize, eat their seed corn, and thus quickly collapse.

The cycle repeats. It repeats with the rise and fall of civilizations, and also the rise and fall of individual groups and corporations. Large organizations are doomed. We need them, but should be cautious about creating things that are inevitably doomed. Over time, things almost always get locally worse in these ways rather than better, until it is disrupted from outside and replaced by the new. We thus should not weep too much when this occurs. 

Our society has chosen, to a large extent that has been laid even more bare by recent events, not to allow these failures and this renewal. Hence the term ‘Too Big to Fail.’ Our institutions of all kinds are becoming increasingly dysfunctional, increasingly concerned with politics in its broad sense, and incapable of useful action. Thus, people increasingly have the instinct that Moloch inevitably wins everywhere. We are disarming the forces that keep Moloch in check. And Moloch wants us to think its victory is inevitable, so we will actively support it rather than oppose it, so we can form an implicit alliance with others doing the same, in the hope the process will kill us last.

Mazes as Super-Perfectly Competitive Battle Between Managers

Despite this trend, when we look around at markets in practice, we instead mostly see highly imperfect competition on lots of different levels. Behaviors are a long way from fully optimized for anything. Market participants enjoy high degrees of differentiation between each other. 

Middle managers at many major corporations, as reported in the book, face a different situation. They are trapped in the Molochian nightmare of super-perfect competition between different managers. The protections against this process that most people have, are gone. Too many managers seek too few promotions, with too level a playing field. Everyone was assumed, past a certain level, to have the same skill at actually managing and getting things done. 

This includes self-modification to seeing this competition as inherently good, and instinctively rewarding and allying with those who do the same, while punishing those who do otherwise. Dedication to the firm and to work and to personal success are the virtues. Valuing other things becomes vice. Morality, like family or religion or a hobby, is one more thing that can distract from your journey to success. If you’re distracted, you’ll lose, so you’d be a bad ally, so you fail. 

These second order effects, combined with the optimization around getting ahead, allow mazes to spread and take over anyone and anywhere they are allowed a foothold.

Big business does not hate your family, but its managers and bottom line see you as composed of things it could profit from, so effectively? It kind of does.

The self-modifications managers do, and the fact that many skills and connections, and much knowledge, and all their local privileges and status that they have become attached to, would expire worthless if they left, heavily discourages exit.

What is their life like? Their whole life is dedicated to “success” within the hierarchy, but awaits them there is another struggle for more “success.” Slack is non-existent, especially in terms of time. Anything that makes you unique, anything else you care about, is stamped out. They choose their activities, their friends, even their family, aiming at this, so all of them rely on the quest for this “success.” Mostly they are failures by their own metrics.

The few who rise through this, and even become CEO, still lose. Their “success” does not bring happiness, or provide reproductive fitness, or improve the world. The fruits are hollow. The game is rigged. Yet even for those who realize this, it is often seen as even worse to stop playing. 

Maze Origins and Damage Mitigation

To avoid or oppose moral mazes, we must identify them. The best known ways to do this are to look for too many levels of hierarchy, for people to not primarily describe their jobs as working for a particular person, and the absence of skin in the game, soul in the game, diversity of acknowledged skill levels, and slack. And of course, to pay attention, and see how things are done. Don’t only check off boxes.

If someone does find themselves trapped in a maze, it is imperative to escape. If at all possible, quit and do something else. That’s easier said than done, but is easier done than those in the position to do it think it is. You’re already doing something hard, and you have the skills to do a different hard thing that won’t make you miserable, even if the pay starts out lower. You’ll adjust. People around you will understand and sympathize more than you’d expect, especially if you tell it to them straight – you were unhappy, the job was toxic. If they don’t sympathize, and demand that you devote yourself to the illusion of security, be sympathetic to that, especially if they love and/or depend on you, but do what you must. If you actually can’t leave, try not caring about “success” or taking bold risks to achieve it.

What has made these mazes so much more powerful than in the past?

Some factors are real and inevitable. We need more large organizations for our civilization to function, than did prior civilizations, and in many ways they get to better leverage big data. machine learning and the internet, giving them an edge. As we grow safer and wealthier, our demand for the illusion of security rises, and mazes are relatively better positioned to provide that illusion.

There are many other reasons that are less real, and less inevitable. We protect organizations from disruption, especially in times of crisis. We see rent seeking of all kinds as increasingly legitimate. Mazes have gotten sufficiently powerful to cause a vicious cycle, as mazes reward and support other mazes and structure things to favor mazes. Our laws and regulations favor mazes over non-mazes, far beyond what is necessary due to civilizational complexity. Our educational system trains people for the maze, so much so that the people have largely forgotten what mazes are and what the alternative to them might be. We have been so atomized, and their ordinary human needs so delegitimized, that we do not see what we are giving up. 

What might we do to change things for the better? Regulatory reform, health care reform, tort reform, ending corporate welfare or even forcibly breaking up large corporations would help. So would educating people on what mazes are and the dangers they pose, especially to their employees. We could work to change consumer behavior, to lower the status and aura of legitimacy of mazes and those who work for them. And we could work to lower demand for the illusion of security.

For a given project, the best defense is to focus on the core elements, and thus do less things and be smaller, while minimizing interaction with other mazes. One should also seek separately to minimize levels of hierarchy, provide skin in the game and soul in the game, and be extremely careful with people. Hire, promote, evaluate and fire them with a keen eye. Anyone making you more like a maze needs to go, no matter how painful that is. You must fight for your institutional culture. 

If someone with several hundred million dollars or more to spend wants to help, my best suggestion is to create a full alternative stack, to allow people to sidestep maze incentives entirely and to actually get things done. 

This only scratches the surface. I encourage you to follow the links to the original posts.

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2 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:56 AM

A summary tag seems like it would be useful. (It doesn't seem to exist.)

Thanks. i previously found it difficult to follow the sequence, and this post has helped me wrap my mind around the concept, and i suspect will also help me when i go read the full posts.