Doing things in a populated world

Link post

The world has lots of peo­ple and things in it. And they are or­ga­nized in such a mish­mash that chang­ing a thing will of­ten make large num­bers of peo­ple bet­ter off or worse off. And for a big thing—even a very good big thing—the num­ber who are worse off is very un­likely to be zero.

This means that if you want to do big things, you will ei­ther have to make some peo­ple worse off, or re­ar­range the gains to make ev­ery­one bet­ter off.

If there are only a small num­ber of peo­ple in­volved, you might be able to make ev­ery­one bet­ter off with a care­ful choice of things to change. But if the group is large, you will prob­a­bly need some sort of generic value fluid, that can flow be­tween the par­ties and fill in the holes such as to make ev­ery­one a bit bet­ter off, in­stead of some peo­ple much bet­ter off and some peo­ple worse off. Money and so­cial re­spect both fill this role, as­sum­ing that there aren’t other im­ped­i­ments to us­ing them, but a gi­ant bar­rel of com­pen­satory apri­cots might also work.

This sug­gests that whether big changes are made de­pends on the availa­bil­ity of work­able value fluid, along with the propen­sity of the pow­er­ful to make the less pow­er­ful worse off with­out com­pen­sa­tion. The availa­bil­ity of work­able value fluid might for in­stance change ac­cord­ing to so­cial or tech­ni­cal tech­nol­ogy for main­tain­ing it, as well as im­ped­i­ments to us­ing that tech­nol­ogy.

For in­stance, if a large group of peo­ple were already headed to restau­rant A, but the group would on net pre­fer restau­rant B, they might not make this switch, be­cause some­one who prefers B would have to raise the is­sue, and it would feel a bit too much like con­flict (and an­noy­ance of ex­tra ne­go­ti­a­tion for ev­ery­one). How­ever if a cou­ple of the peo­ple who pre­fer B ac­tu­ally own B and can offer drinks on the house to the group—and that is enough for ev­ery­one to pre­fer B, in­clud­ing the B own­ers—the switch can hap­pen more eas­ily. (I’m re­ally think­ing of things like shifts in leg­is­la­tion or gi­ant in­fras­truc­ture pro­jects, but much more of my own ex­pe­rience is with groups go­ing to restau­rants.)

Is this right? Is it a big fac­tor? (The­o­ret­i­cally salient mechanisms can be pretty minor in the real world.)