TLDR: Eventually, we want higher and higher levels of worthwhile delegation. This will take work.
Rigor: Very quickly written rant. I want to experiment with getting more pieces like these out there, as opposed to focusing more on polish. Feedback is appreciated.
Example 1: Bricks
- Low delegation: You assemble bricks for your house
- Medium: You hire a team to put together your house
- High: You tell an assistant that you want a house. They go about choosing a plan and selecting a team.
- Very high: You tell an assistant to “make your life better”, they decide that a house is the best approach, and then they go about figuring it out.
Example 2: Charity
- Low delegation: You give food to a homeless person
- Medium: You donate to a nonprofit feeding the homeless
- High: You donate to a nonprofit fund that re-grants to nonprofits that help the homeless
- Very high: You donate to a fund to “do useful stuff”, and they sometimes decide that helping the homeless is ideal.
If delegation can be well managed, it’s incredibly useful. There’s always more and more stuff to do and be concerned about. We clearly want to hand off as much work as possible to others and then for those tasks to achieve economies of scale.
Those who can delegate well, often win. This is exactly the job of CEOs/entrepreneurs/managers. Companies with great teams that can be given bold projects with little oversight, or nations with very low political corruption or infighting.
Right now in the US, we don't trust the government much, so it's relegated to a low delegation level. This means it just simply can't do that much.
The higher level you delegate, the more agency you (typically) sacrifice. When you choose a house construction crew, you’ll have a bit less control over your brick types. When you choose some highly-meta-nonprofit-fund, you give them incredibly broad authority to handle your money.
Typically delegation breaks down somewhere between levels 1-4. Sometimes this is due to undertrust; you expect the authority will be corrupt or poor, even if they won’t be. Sometimes it’s overtrust; you mistakenly expect things to go well, then they abuse or misuse the agency.
To work well:
- There needs to be significant amounts of justified trust between client and provider
- The costs of delegation must be lower than the benefits
Most altruists seem to be in either the “medium” levels, or the unjustified “very high levels” (for example, donating to a single politician or cult to fix all of one’s problems). Some are in the low levels and just go out and try to help people personally (with widely mixed results).
On one hand, you have literal cult leaders, and on the other, you have millionaire altruists literally laying bricks to build houses.
Right now in EA, we have some “high” levels of funding delegation (EA Funds, GiveWell), but it's limited.
There’s a ton of value at hand on moving towards more delegation and increasing the amount of justified trust. “Everyone trying to do all of the necessary analysis on all things” themselves clearly doesn’t scale, and it should be clear that very few people are strong at this.
I don’t see that much literature at this level of abstraction, but I often see arguments like,
“We can’t trust the authorities”
“It’s important to think for yourself”
I get that, but it seems like it’s arguing on the wrong axis. We really want to push forward the Pareto frontier of delegation potential. That’s much more important, in the long run, than small decisions of where on that frontier we want to be right now. The frontier right now is bad and I think we could do much better.