Managed Competition or Competing Managers?

Competition and cooperation [as] opposites, with vice on one side and virtue on the other … is a false dichotomy … The market-based competition envisioned in economics is disciplined by rules and reputations. … Just as competition is not a shorthand for “anything goes,” the quick and thoughtless inference that cooperation is necessarily virtuous is often unjustified. In many cases, cooperation is a tool for an in-group to take advantage of those outside the group. …

Competition refers to a situation in which people or organizations (such as firms) apply their efforts and talents toward a certain goal, and they receive results based substantially on their performance relative to each other. … Cooperation refers to a situation in which the participants seek out win-win outcomes from working together. (More)

Raw unconstrained competition looks scary; lies, betrayal, predation, starvation, war; so many things can go wrong! Which makes “managed competition” sound so comforting; whew, someone will limit the problems. Someone like a boss, police officer, sports referee, or government regulator.

However, raw unconstrained management also looks scary; that’s tyranny, which can go wrong in so so many ways! Such as via incompetence, exploitation, and rot. And so we can be comforted to hear that managers must compete. For example, when individual managers compete for jobs, firms compete for customers, or politicians compete for votes.

But who will guard the guardians? If we embed competitions within larger systems of managers, and also embed managers within larger systems of competition, won’t they all sit within some maximally-encompassing system, which must then be either competition, management, or some awkward mix of the two? This is the fundamental hard problem of design and governance, from which there is no easy escape.

Many of our strong moral intuitions are twisted up with this issue. Human foragers were proud to have used weapons and language to explicitly repress simple physical competition for control of their bands. Via gossip, prestige, and collective decisions, foragers enforced norms, shared food and protection, and made big choices together. And they strongly saw such management as the moral ideal.

Of course, in fact this band management was embedded in larger competitions. In a much larger world, and over long timescales, bands competed to make more descendants, even if neighboring bands generally had peaceful relations. And within bands, foragers also competed for more descendants, and to influence coalitions by which they controlled collective decisions. But these forms of competition were much less visible, and mostly not explicitly acknowledged. The dogma was clear: competition must be managed.

During the farming era, ambitious leaders often justified their campaigns of conquest by saying that they sought only to ensure that their whole world had a central manager, who could then prevent destructive competition. Even so, farmer-era folks got used to the idea of competition as the usual largest visible context, and cultures came more to celebrate the winners of such visible competitions, and the habits and attitudes which enabled winners. Farmer era monotheistic religions comforted people by postulating invisible gods who supposedly managed all this visible competition, even if such gods seemed to compete with devils in strange ways.

Our industry era has been caused primarily by the introduction new larger social organizations, which more explicitly manage many things. And rising per-capita industry-era wealth has induced a reversion to forager attitudes in many ways, such as regarding fertility, democracy, religion, leisure, slavery, travel, and inequality. Lower costs of long distance travel and talk has allowed much larger scale governance structures, and in many ways we now even have world governments, sometimes explicit but more often mediated by global elite regulators.

So during the industry era we’ve revived and even strengthened the forager norm for wanting our largest encompassing systems be ones of management, not competition. This has driven centuries-long trends toward higher levels of regulation and larger scales of governance. Furthermore, for the relatively democratic parts of future world governance, I predict we are likely to add more “management” of electoral competition, such as regulation of who is allowed to run, what people are allowed to say about policies and elections, and what policy changes politicians are allowed to induce.

This strong norm favoring management over competition helps explain the widespread and continuing dislike for the theory of natural selection, which explicitly declares a system of competition to be the largest encompassing system. This view not only threatens religions, wherein a managing God is supposed to be that most encompassing system, it also threatens secular views, wherein human “values”, such as those promoting management, are just obviously correct moral truths, needing no further explanation.

Evolutionary psychology, by far the most hated associate of natural selection, instead suggests that common human intuitions result from context-dependent strategies of competition, which can thus not fundamentally oppose such competition. The desire to resist this conclusion pushes people to make common but false claims, such that evolutionary psychologists are craven and incompetent, and so should be ignored, or that our human ability to make conscious deliberate choices implies that humans are no longer subject to natural selection.

For rich comfortable industry era folks, evolutionary competition may not feel very constraining. But its effects become larger and clearer over longer timescales. People eager to reject the relevant of this competition are thus pushed to reject the relevance of long timescales. Some say that we’ll all be dead then anyway, so who cares, while others say it is impossible to forecast anything on long time scales, and so there’s no point in trying. Some even declare confidence that world government will take full control over fertility and individual genetics before the long run, directly ending the regime of natural selection.

These strong feelings also help to explain the widespread and fierce opposition, at least among elites, to the idea that real alien civilizations might be aggressive or acquisitive. After all, if there is no galactic or larger federation constraining such aggression, then we and aliens would be embedded in an unmanaged regime of competition. Furthermore, communication and commitment problems would make even modest cooperation with aliens difficult.

People are thus eager to embrace even quite implausible assumptions that could prevent this conclusion. Such as that a) no aliens exist anywhere, b) interstellar travel is impossible, c) advanced aliens could collect no concrete gains from distant colonization, d) any inclination of a civilization toward competition or expansion quickly and reliably leads to its self-destruction, e) a “zookeeper” federation rules a galaxy full of activity, but tricks us until seeing it as empty, or f) our AIs could make peace via “acausal trades” with their AIs.

I hope this helps you now better understand why world governments may be a big obstacle to expansive futures, and how much can be at stake emotionally with our “grabby aliens” model. Yes, we wouldn’t meet them for many millions of years. But that offers little comfort to those for whom it is a moral imperative that the largest encompassing context must be one of managed competition, not competing managers. Cosmology matters to people, especially when it involves conflicting agents.

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