Best Cause: New Institution Field Trials

“Altruist” is not one of my core identities, though many identities that I cherish (e.g., “accurate”, “innovator”) have altruistic effects. But over the last decade I’ve met many who identify directly as altruists. If you are such a person, this post is for you. In it, I will make the case for a particular altruistic cause, a cause that combines two big altruism levers: innovation and institutions.

Innovation: If you care about helping people, you should care a lot about the future, because most of the people you could help live there. In addition, typical interest rates put less weight on future consequences, compared to consequences today, which means that all else equal you can buy future help at a much lower cost.

The main reason that our world today is better off than past worlds is innovation; we have accumulated more better ways to do many things. This strongly suggests that innovation is the main way that people today will help the future. Which suggest that this is how you should also try to help. In addition, there seems to be too little innovation today because many innovations are hard to own, and even when owned most of their value leaks out to folks who pay little for them.

Many steps are typically required for successful innovation. A problem must be perceived, solutions invented, trials test, and winners diffused out to new contexts. Usually a lot of adaptation detail is required to enable a simple elegant idea to actually be useful in complex contexts, and also to readapt solutions that worked well in some contexts to new differing contexts. The most effective way to help innovation is to subsidize the steps that are now currently neglected. Our world typically offers larger rewards for generating simple ideas, and for adopting into ordinary practice well adapted and tested solutions. Thus one can help most by subsidizing the neglected efforts to adapt and readapt, especially in contexts where it is hard to own or sell an innovation. Such as:

Institutions: We each make many choices in our lives. And you can help others by advising their choices. However, when people are directly subject to the consequences of their choices, they tend to have good incentives to figure out their best choices. You can help more by subsidizing the individual choices that tend more to benefit others. This can include the choice to collect more decision related info, when that info could benefit many others with similar choices.

Most individual choices are made within larger social equilibria over which each person has little personal influence. For example, we each drive on the right side of the road mainly because everyone else drives on the right. That is, we tend to take larger equilibria and systems as given when making our individual choices. Yes we can try to coordinate to change these systems, but coordination is hard, most of benefits go to others, and it is hard to own most systems.

Collecting info to advise an effort to coordinate to change equilibria is especially neglected, as we tend to neglect both info and coordination. Info collection efforts are especially neglected when it is hard to claim person altruistic credit for the info that one has contributed, either because that effort gets mixed up with the efforts of others, or because non-altruistic motives are plausible.

Each social equilibria can be thought of a combination of a set of visible and relatively formal rules, together with other less visible “cultural” factors that produce matching expectations and behaviors. That first more visible part we call “institutions” or “mechanisms”. Useful changes of social equilibria require not just changes in visible institutions, but also well-matching changes to local culture.

It is easier to change systems when the new system that one might want to create is already working well in other social contexts. In such cases, we must only work to adapt existing systems into our new context, via some combination of analysis and trial and error, and also work to coordinate to actually make this change. It is easier to work explicitly and analytically on the more visible institutional parts; for the less visible cultural parts one is forced more to rely on simple trial and error. It is hardest to change systems when the desired new system is not already working well somewhere, and so it must be invented, adapted, and tested before it can be applied.

Innovating Institutions: You can gain especially strong altruism leverage by combining these two levers, innovation and institutions. That is, you can help to collect and share info to allow innovation of shared social systems. As the most neglected step in the innovation process is context-specific adaptation and re-adaptation, that is the highest leverage place to help. As social systems are very important but hardest for individuals to own or choose, innovators neglected these the most. And as institutions are the visible part of social systems that one can actually work on, that is where visible efforts must focus.

Back in 1993, at the age of 34, I started a Ph.D. program to study institution and mechanism design, exactly because I had come to this conclusion, that institution innovation had a huge neglected potential. I spent many years studying this academic area, and I can tell you now with confidence: academics know many useful things about institutions, and have many good elegant simple ideas for institution change, ideas that they have explored in math and lab experiments.

Some say that while past social innovations were important, future ones are not, because there is little left to learn about social systems; we know most all worth knowing. But that’s just very wrong. The space of possible social systems is vast, and we’ve hardly explored but a tiny corner of that vast space.

I can also tell you with confidence: academics usually drop the innovation ball after they’ve extracted the academic rewards that they can from an institution idea. Academics can be rewarded for studying existing social systems, including both institutional and cultural elements. They can also be rewarded for proving theorems about new institution ideas, and for testing predictions of these theorems in highly-abstracted lab experiments. Sometimes even in simple well-controlled field experiments. But academics are not rewarded for further efforts to adapt promising ideas to messy social worlds, and so they do little of this.

Business people are often willing to take a social innovation that has mostly been adapted well and do the last few adaptation steps, if those last steps are cheap enough and if they think they can own something about it (e.g. software), or if they can gain direct value from its application. However, business people are far less eager to contribute to earlier steps of the innovation process. Thus it is the intermediate innovation steps, of adaptation and re-adaptation, that are neglected by both academics and business.

As charities claim to be altruistic, you might think they would step in to pay for these key high leverage missing steps. But while many charities pay for academic research, and some pay to apply mostly-worked-out new institution ideas in charity contexts, almost none pay for the neglected adaptation of social innovation ideas in other contexts. Charity patrons either don’t understand why that would be helpful, or don’t think that the audience they seek to impress with their charity efforts would understand. But if you really are a direct altruist, who cares more about helping than about getting others to think you are helping, then this cause might be the one for you.

While money can help, the key resource needed for institution adaptation efforts is actually real organizations willing to risk disruption and distraction to work on adapting promising institution ideas. This is where I’m stuck with decision markets. There’s lots of money for abstract academic work, and many businesses ready to apply mostly-proven mechanisms. But organizations willing to do trial and error to search for less disruptive variations, those are hard to find. If you have or can create such an organization, you are sitting on altruism gold, if only you will dig it up.

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