Healthy Competition

by Raemon2 min read2nd Nov 20194 comments

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(formerly a shortform post, see also discussion on LessWrong)

A few years ago, the EA community was small, and it was hard to get funding to run even one organization. Spinning up a second one with the same focus area might have risked killing the first one.

By now, I think we have the capacity (financial, coordinational and human-talent-wise) that that's less of a risk. Meanwhile, I think there are a number of benefits to having more, better, friendly competition.

Reasons competition seems good

Diversity of worldviews is better.

Two research orgs might develop different schools of thought that lead to different insights. This can lead to more ideas as well as avoiding the tail risks of bias and groupthink.

Easier criticism.

When there's only one org doing A Thing, criticizing that org feels sort of like criticizing That Thing. And there may be a worry that if the org lost funding due to your criticism, That Thing wouldn't get done at all. Multiple orgs can allow people to think more freely about the situation.

Competition forces people to shape up.

If you're the only org in town doing a thing, there's just less pressure to do a good job.

"Healthy" competition enables certain kinds of integrity.

Sort of related to the previous two points. Say you think Cause X is real important, but there's only one org working on it. If you think Org A isn't being as high integrity as you'd like, your options are limited (criticize them, publicly or privately, or start your own org, which is very hard. If you think Org A is overall net positive you might risk damaging Cause X by criticizing it. But if there are multiple Orgs A and B working on Cause X, there are less downsides of criticizing it. (Alternate framing is that maybe criticism wouldn't actually damage cause X but it may still feel that way to a lot of people, so getting a second Org B can be beneficial). Multiple orgs working on a topic makes it easier to reward good behavior.

In particular, if you notice that you're running the only org in town, and you want to improve you own integrity, you might want to cause there to be more competition. This way, you can help set up a system that creates better incentives for yourself, that remain strong even if you gain power (which may be corrupting in various ways)

Concerns re: Concentration and Monopolies

Some types of jobs benefit from concentration.

  • Communication platforms (or, more broadly, "attention allocation platforms") sort of want to be monopolies so people don't have to check a million different sites and facebook groups.
  • Research orgs benefit from having a number of smart people bouncing ideas around. (This must be traded off against there also being a benefit to different research orgs pursuing the same goal from different angles,

This suggests it'd be pro-social to:

  • See if you can refactor a goal into something that doesn't actually require a monopoly.
  • If it's particularly necessary for a given org to be a monopoly, it should be held to a higher standard – both in terms of operational competence and in terms of integrity.
  • If you want to challenge a monopoly with a new org, there's likewise a particular burden to do a good job.
  • Look for ways to offset the degree-of-monopoly you're being. (For example, LessWrong makes our API public, so that greaterwrong can exist)
  • I think "doing a good job" requires a lot of things, but some important things (that should be red flags to at least think about more carefully if they're lacking) include:
    • Having strong leadership with a clear vision
    • Make sure you have a deep understanding of what you're trying to do, and a clear model of how it's going to help
    • Not trying to do a million things at once. I think a major issue facing some orgs is lack of focus.
    • Probably don't have this be your first major project. Your first major project should be something it's okay to fail at. Coordination projects are especially costly to fail at because they make the job harder for the next person.
    • Invest a lot in communication on your team.

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4 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 6:52 PM
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Fwiw, I think there are often a lot of benefits of having more than one org (rather than just one org with more resources) working in the same area which are unrelated to competition of between orgs any kind and these have often been neglected in the EA community. ("Neglected" is under-stating it, since I think the tendency has been for people to be very strongly of the opposite view i.e. committed to the position that there are very large harms for there being more than one org working in an area). Of course, sometimes there are benefits to there only being one org.

Diversity of views, as you mention is one, but diversity of approaches increasing experimentation and learning value is another, as is community members who need the services the orgs provide having options if, for whatever reason, the one org doesn't work well for them. However, I think one of the biggest benefits is having a backup, in case the one org can't or doesn't for whatever reason provide what is needed by the community in a given case.

Nod. I had "more experimentation" as part of what I meant to imply by "diversity of worldviews" but yeah it's good to have that spelled out.

This article reminded me that I sometimes wish for a competitor to 80K. 80K tries to do a lot: research and write good career advice, coach people, create advanced and accessible EA-related content (via the podcast), network with and connect extremely high-impact people... It is not obvious to me that these activities should all be grouped together. Maybe they should. They have some synergies.

But, for instance, my impression is that it is difficult to receive coaching from 80K, unless you are especially impressive. Perhaps there could be a career-coaching-focused organization with a lower bar for providing coaching. This could offer some 80K competition, but not be too competitive. Maybe it could be cooperative-competitive, if that makes sense.

I believe that regional talent pools could also be another factor in favor of the multiple organization scenario. For example, something I think a lot about is how the USA could really use an institution like the Future of Humanity Institute (FHI) in the long run. In addition to all of the points made in the original post, I think that such an institution would improve the overall health of the ecosystem of "FHI-like research" by drawing on a talent pool that is at least somewhat non-overlapping with that drawn upon by FHI.

I think that the talent pools are at least somewhat distinct because a) crossing borders is often logistically challenging or impossible, depending on the scenario; and b) not all job candidates can relocate to the United Kingdom for a variety of personal reasons.

If anyone is interested in discussing a "FHI-like institution in the USA" further, please get in touch with me either via direct message or via ben.harack at visionofearth.org.