Intentions and Power

November 18, 2022

I had a few long drives in the last couple weeks, so I decided to actually get all the way through Balaji’s epic 8 hour podcast interview with Lex Fridman. I’m glad I did - Balaji spins out ideas at an alarming rate.

One of the more impressive parts of the talk is around the nature of regulation, risk and safety in organizations. Balaji talks alot about the FDA and the power of their regulatory process. He compares what the FDA does to the far more in-your-face and well known security theater of the TSA and airport screening. He rails against the absurdity of everyone taking their shoes off twenty years after 9/11. It does nothing, he says, except promote the facade that the government is doing something.

His point is that effectiveness isn’t what is being measured. It’s all about intention, and the intentions are good. It’s hard to take a stance against a government organization trying to make us all safer, just like it’d be hard to take a stance against a charity that’s trying to feed the children.

Intentions matter. You can do anything you want if your intentions are good. You can make people take their shoes off before flying for 20 years. You can enforce masks. Heck, even murder is judged differently based on intention. If you “intended” it (first degree), it’s “worse” than if you didn’t. Even if the result is the same, someone dead.

Politicians work to take full advantage of this. The other side of a political argument never simply disagrees. And they aren’t only inept either. Instead, they’re evil, repugnant, machiavellian, and plan to take you down to scorched earth. Politics is all about the idea of intentions. There’s a side with good intentions and a side with bad. If you fall into a group that listens to left-leaning sources, intentions go one way. If you listen to right-leaning sources, it’s the other way.

And this works! It works really well, because humans are built to believe in the good and bad in people. And we’re built to protect and believe those in our tribe. Our tribe is trying to be good. The other tribe is bad. It’s not that complicated, except this is a horribly bad, no-good way to measure anyone. The road to hell, as they say, is paved in good intentions.

“The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.” -George RR Martin

Nobody grows up wanting to be the evil dictator in the world; everyone thinks they’re the purveyor of good. This is a troubling idea. Stephen Kotkin was asked recently what all his decades of study and reading in the Soviet archives revealed about the Soviets. “They really were all Communists,” is what he said. The Nazis were Nazis. The terrorists are terrorists, with a certain idea about Islam and the world. And Grindelwald was trying to serve the greater good.

I was blown away the first time I heard someone say that business ideas are worthless - that the only thing that actually matters is execution. Paul Graham proved it by pointing out that there’s no marketplace for ideas. If there was value in ideas, he said, someone would have created a market for them. But business headlines still measure entrepreneurs and companies by their idea instead of their execution. In the same way, political headlines measure people and organizations by their intent instead of their execution. These are the functional equivalent.

We need to limit how we think about our intentions. It’s an exceptional tactic for forecasts but a horrible one for hindsight. Intent matters for judgement, but not for impact.

This has implications for how to run organizations and setup incentive structures. In the case of the FDA they get all sorts of passes because their goals are good. They’re trying to protect and help the public! But they’ve expanded their power and influence and bureaucracy in all sorts of negative ways. Balaji has tons of examples: the 3500B form, unelected and tenured employees able to unilaterally make massive research and drug decisions, the lack of voluntary test programs for the COVID vaccines, the budget and schedules of regulation and policy departments of big pharma companies. This leads to a tremendous power imbalance that’s very difficult to counteract. Even the government itself and the Executive branch can’t really change much in the FDA.

Corruption in a market environment can lead to extreme inequality. But corruption without a market leads to extreme power imbalances with no recourse. This is why markets win so often. Markets rely on selfish interests and feedback loops to approach efficient solutions to problems.

Let’s say you start an organization to help poor people. That’s good! There’s plenty of poor people in the world. So you start building and growing and fundraising and you can help people in your local town. In fact, it’s going really well and a lot of people are able to more comfortably feed their families because of your efforts. So you expand and head to the next town over. And then the next town, and the next state. And you raise more money and campaign to grow awareness. More and more people get calories because of your group and you keep going. You lobby governors and legislatures and you go national. Pretty soon you have tens of thousands of people working for you. And there are still millions of poor people out there, and now they rely on you. You meet regularly with wealthy donors and senators and control a multinational organization doing good in the world, feeding people.

What’s the incentive of this charity now? At some point, if you are successful, shouldn’t you start shrinking? There should be less poor people because of your success. Hopefully one day there will be none! But effectiveness isn’t measured this way, the impact is gone and the original intent at some point morphs into something else.

Christopher Hitchens had a scathing critique of Mother Teresa that’s always stuck with me. “She didn’t love the poor” he said, “she loved poverty.”. If your incentives get restructured such that your original goal would put you out of business, then it’s a bad incentive. A single noble individual may be able to do that. Organizations, especially at large scale, can’t. Intentions lead us away from effectiveness and towards feel-good stagnation.

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. -CS Lewis

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