Moloch: Briefly Explained
An ancient Canaanite deity, “Moloch” is a term re-purposed by Scott Alexander in his essay “Meditations on Moloch” to personify situations where everyone is unhappy, but no one person can change the status quo.
It also happens to be one of the scariest things I’ve ever come across.
Take global warming as a real-world example. From each country’s perspective, they’d like to avoid the tail-end risks of global warming. But it costs money to mitigate carbon emissions, be it through policy or technology. So each country does best if everyone else pays the cost (but they don’t), so they can reap the benefits and avoid the costs.
Sitting out may be the best choice from each individual country’s perspective, but the problem is that we don’t actually mitigate climate change if everyone sits out (because then nothing gets done), and then everyone suffers terribly. (In game-theoretic terms, Moloch can be seen as a perverse incentive structure that leads to non Pareto-optimal outcomes.)
What’s so fascinating to me is how prevalent Moloch is:
It rears its ugly head across all of society. In the school system, we see students and educators bemoaning the efficacy of testing and grades to represent people; yet, no one school or student is incentivized to stop taking tests or halt grading. It’s useless to make a change unless everyone else does so as well; otherwise you’re just setting yourself back.
On the highway, each driver is best off if they drive faster than everyone else, but if everyone attempts to speed, we are left with an increased accident rate and a traffic jam. No one gets anywhere any faster (except maybe their grave). What we see in these kinds of situations is a “Red Queen Race”, where every participant tries their hardest to maintain the same relative or worse position.
For example, say that I am a paint manufacturer. I realize I can make more than my competitors by illegally dumping my waste product in the drinking water. But as soon as everyone else catches on, they also dumps their waste into the water. As a result, they catch up to my profit margins. We’re back where we started, except the drinking water is now tainted and everyone gets sick.
Or consider the toxicity of online discussions. As humans, our negativity bias means we respond more to unpleasant words. When someone criticizes us, it feels so good to attack them back. Which, in turn, lead them to do the same. Rinse and repeat. Our discussion has gone nowhere, except now both sides feel emotionally violated and angry.
Why does Moloch frighten me so much? Because it’s not an evil corporation or a villainous leader— it’s the very nature of optimization processes, left unchecked. Whenever we create competition, or have an incentive structure that promotes individual behavior, we see these kinds of unfair situations arise. It’s not something in our world; it’s how our world works.
How do we attempt to tackle Moloch? One potential solution to Moloch is to get everyone to just agree and do whatever needs to be done at the same time.
Coordinating this, however, is often logistically challenging (or people may double-cross one another). So we will often turn to agents that are outside of our system, like arbiters or governments, which have different incentives than us individuals. Or we impose group punishments on those who try to double-cross the rest of us, which usually takes the form of laws.
Still, as we’ve seen with far too many governments, Moloch is still alive and kicking; it’s too easy to get trapped into these traps. We can still do better.
Conquering Moloch is an endeavor that brings together game theory, politics, ethics, and optimization. I see it as the embodiment of the challenge of our times— that which we fight, after we’ve resolved all of our own personal disagreements.