Create a Full Alternative Stack


Moral Mazes

Last time I proposed nine strategies for fighting mazes. All of them were either systemic solutions requiring coordinated and/or political action, or cultural shifts that happen one person at a time.

Now for the tenth and final proposal for how to fight mazes. The tenth is a proposed strategy that one dedicated person with sufficient resources could implement on their own.

If you are in a position where you have the resources to implement this, please make an effort to take this proposal seriously. And please contact me if you are potentially interested and wish to discuss it further.

Solution 10: Create a Full Alternative Stack

In some ways this is the most ambitious solution here. It may seem Utopian. 

In other ways, it is the least ambitious, and most practical. It could be implemented by a single sufficiently wealthy and committed individual or organization. All other known solutions can be implemented locally, and would help locally, but need general adaptation to succeed in general.

The full alternative stack offers a contract. 

Disengage entirely with mazes and traditional distortionary incentives, competitions and signals of all kinds, and discard all zero-sum activity, in favor of doing the thing. Whatever the thing in question may be. Make no compromises to make oneself legible or attractive to outside sources of funding. Tolerate no maze behaviors of any kind. Hire and fire with this deeply in mind.

In exchange, if you keep your end of the bargain, the stack will fully fund you and your operations, at fair prices that do not take advantage of the hold-up opportunity presented by your giving up of other opportunities. Evaluation will be fully on the object-level merits, and the generative processes involved. 

This is a form of tenure for the people. If they continue to act with integrity and work to accomplish positive-sum things relevant to the stack’s interests, and spend responsibly, they and their family will have strong financial security. 

Think of this as similar to tenure at a university, or to the system of universal employment for partisan hacks. If you are promising the stack gives you the opportunity to prove yourself. Once you have proven yourself, we take care of you, even if you don’t bear as much fruit as we would like, provided you continue to play by the rules of the stack and honor its values. Unlike many tenured professors nowadays, we would not then force you to seek grants, outside investments, or other outside funding for your work. On the contrary, you would be agreeing not to seek outside funding, so as to protect your incentives from corruption.

This is also a form of secured financing for corporations and other organizations. While they need funding to reach maturity, they will be evaluated on whether they are succeeding at doing the thing. Traditional signals, and anticipation of future traditional signals, will be not only disregarded but punished – it’s fine to look good naturally, but if you are doing things in order to look good or successful to outsiders rather than be good or successful, then that breaks the compact. 

We call this a full alternative stack because the ideal version is literally a full alternative stack. It recreates civilization. Those involved would not need or depend on outside goods or services. There would be a local area fully owned by and given over to the project.

That is the full version. The full version is ambitious and difficult, but likely far less ambitious and difficult, and far less expensive, than it appears. We would soon find out how much of current activity is rent extraction or otherwise unproductive, and how much is necessary to keep things running. 

A lesser version, built around a particular cause or goal, or to give this freedom to select individuals and corporations, would still be extremely valuable. 

The MacArthur grant is a template for what this looks like on a personal level, with a shift in focus from creativity to integrity, and a bump in compensation – $625,000 is a lot of money, but that money is designed to be seed money for an activity rather than financial security. Those getting a MacArthur grant still face the specter of future financial needs. One needs an order of magnitude more than that over a lifetime to be secure while not compromising one’s interactions with society. 

For startup corporations, this can be similar to the standard method of funding a biotechnology company to pursue a new drug of unknown efficacy. Milestones are set. If they are met, funding is unlocked at pre-negotiated levels, locked in for both sides in advance. There is no reason to worry about signaling in other ways unless the company is about to fail. We would add the condition of not then selling out to a maze (in the biotech example, a big pharma company, or taking the company public) when successful, instead keeping the operation privately owned by its founders to prevent it from being eaten and transformed or killed. Public markets exert strong pressure towards maze behaviors, so such companies would need to commit to staying away from them.

I believe there is a strong opportunity for a venture capital fund that promises committed, full funding to projects in this way in fields outside biotechnology. Projects that are freed from having to gain strong negotiating positions regarding raising capital could be much better at pursuing actual success and production. To succeed, such a fund would need to honor its commitments carefully and be credible at every stage. This includes its commitments not to respond positively to things that would on the outside be viewed as good news, if they are not in fact relevantly good news. Its word would be its bond. It would also need to be highly skilled at choosing superior evaluation techniques. There are many terrible things about current systems of venture funding, but naive replacement models threaten to be easily gameable or otherwise create new and perhaps much worse versions of the same problems. 

Most people nowadays are forced, both within an enterprise and overall in their lives, to structure and censure everything they do in light of their potential future need to look legible, comfortable and successful or valuable to mazes. The prospect of having this option cut off fills them with terror, whether or not this should not be the case. Even when they do not fear it, those around them who rely on them fear it, which has a similar effect.

I am unusually immune to these pressures. I have skills that can earn money on demand, without getting a formal job or the approval of a maze, if I need that. I also have robust savings and a family and community that would save me if I fell upon hard times. This terror is still one of the things I have often struggled with.

Freeing a select group to do things without regard to such concerns, and people knowing they have the option to join this group, would be a major cultural change. Ideally this would then become the ‘city on a hill’ that shows what is possible, and gets emulated elsewhere. Regulatory and other legal issues would still have to be navigated, which would often be most of the difficulty of any worthwhile operation. This is why typical versions of this type of proposal go to places like seasteading. Mazes will instinctively attempt to crush whatever is being built.

If one is sitting on a large pile of money and wishes to do good, or simply wishes to increase production, deploying that money effectively has proven a very hard problem. This is to be expected, under even the best/worst conditions, as such problems are anti-inductive. Any easy answers get utilized until they stop being easy answers. Once others find out your criteria for spending or granting money, some of them will Goodhart and/or commit fraud to extract those funds. 

The closer you attempt to stick to specified metrics and use criteria you can explain and justify that looks consistent, the more you are optimizing over time for those who Goodhart and commit fraud, in order to grant the appearance of having the appearance of attempting to help in the approved ways, rather than optimizing for actually helping. This is certainly a danger to the full stack operation as well, and the best reason to keep the operation relatively small. 

The closer you do not stick to such methods, the more illegible you become, the more blameworthy you appear, and the more likely you are actually buying things that make you feel good about them as your metric. Which, in turn, is even easier to Goodhart or commit fraud on. 

Sticking to ‘do the right thing,’ as this solution suggests, and rewarding those who do right things is a rather crazy ask without rich contextual knowledge. The larger you scale, the more universal you attempt to get, the crazier it gets. Goodharting or committing fraud on ‘right thingness’ is as much a threat as Goodharting or committing fraud on anything else, if you’re not staying a step ahead. That very freedom from mazes, Goodharting and fraud is the precious thing you’re trying to get in the first place. 

The project has to cash itself out purely on its own terms. It has to care more about doing things its own way than getting things done or looking effective, where that own way is a ruthless focus on what will actually work. Everyone’s instinct, even that of the best possible additions, will be to abandon this at every step. Everyone will face constant pressure to do so. 

But without sufficient scale to complete the stack, how do you break free from, and securely break the right people away from the need to worry about, mazes and other outside forces?

Threading that needle is going to be very difficult, even if the other impossible problems are solved. I do not think any one person or formal group can be the head of the entire stack without it getting too large. One must form a distinct subset, and hope others form the required other parts, and until that happens purchase what one needs from the outside using capital, and trust those in the project to continue interacting economically in some ways outside of the stack. 

Ideally one does not need to literally go to Mars to be allowed to complete the project. However, if one does need to literally go to Mars, then there is a fair argument that literally going to Mars is a reasonable price to pay to be allowed to complete the project.

The next post asks what we should do when we have a project that would benefit from a large organization.

Moral Mazes1