(cross-posted from my blog)

This is another one of those posts I use to define a term.

The “unilaterialists gift” is intended to be the opposite of the unilaterialist’s curse and denotes a situation where unilateral action makes others better off. Things blighted by the curse are often blessed by the gift, so it is important to consider how these factors balance out when determining where to focus one’s efforts.

This applies to many public goods. Consider open-source software, it is very easy for someone to independently create better software and publish it for others to use. It is quite hard to prevent people from doing this, and it is quite hard to independently make everyone’s software worse, since people can choose to use better functioning software written by someone else. Of course, the costs to producing quality O.S.S. are still high, and due to a lack of public goods funding, it is under-supplied. However, thanks to the unilateralist’s gift, we don’t live in a world with awful public software.

We can categorize public goods based on whether they lean towards the gift or the curse and whether unilateral action has a lot or a little impact:

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While the curse is typically driven by self-interest, why might a person give the gift? Altruism, intrinsic motivation, reputation, and personal benefit can all encourage beneficial unilateral action.

We can do a lot of good in fields benefiting from the gift, since there are few barriers to enacting positive change. But, for the same reason, these areas are also likely to be improved by someone else, diminishing the value of working there. Focusing on neglected areas or those with few altruistic actors can be more impactful. Over time, the quadrant a field is located in can change since routes for unilateral action can get “used up”.

Since there are typically more altruists than greedy actors, there needs to be strong incentives to act selfishly for an area to be susceptible to the curse. This is often the case in highly competitive environments. Competition also means that it is hard to unilaterally benefit others, since altruistic actors are soon weeded-out.

But competition is not all bad, there are many competitive environments which are strongly biased towards the gift. Like the O.S.S. example above, if people are free to choose which product to use, it is easy to produce a new product, and it is hard to restrict the use of a product, then the environment will be dominated by actors producing better products for everyone. This applies to entertainment, innovation, and idea generation. Governance systems like the Archipelago explicitly incorporate these elements in order to obtain the benefits of competition.

In many cases, unilateral action has little influence on outcomes, and change can only come about via coordinated action. The results of these actions can range from globally beneficial (e.g. internet standards) to globally harmful (e.g. OPEC).

Generalizing, we can think of societal problems in terms of how many people are needed to bring about significant change, the natural asymmetries between doing good or bad, and whether pivotal groups tend to act in a harmful or beneficial way. In some situations, we can trust that the structure of the problem and kindness of others is sufficient. In others, strong unilateral action is required to bring about positive change. Importantly, there are some problems where no one can act alone; our only recourse is to work together.

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