Government Seen from the Tech Lens, and Notes on Zero Sum Games
This essay’s Twitter thread origin
I’ve had a lot of conversations with people in private industry (tech especially) since starting Maximum New York, and their general comments about the project’s subject, the New York City government, could be summed up like this:
They don’t understand why the government doesn’t do things as well as they do, as fast as they do, or why it doesn’t pick all the low-hanging policy fruit that seems to be lying around.
My general response about the same thing: private industry and the NYC government are different systems with different natures, and the government is suffering from a severe lack of talent (which MNY wants to fix). There are three modalities to consider when comparing the two:
Capital: Political capital is scarce, and the price for political action is high. Venture capital is abundant, and the price for private action is low.
If you are a private actor, you’re used to having more capital and cheaper prices for action. Imagine if you had neither: getting people to work with you would be harder, and would cost you more.
Authority: governmental authority is generally diffuse, and action cannot be taken without a broad coalition of actors. Private authority is generally concentrated, and action can be taken on an owner or manager’s word.
Private actors can often change their domains unilaterally, or close to it. Governmental actors cannot—in the American system, unilateralism was deliberately engineered out of the system.
Games: politics is a zero-sum game, and markets are a positive-sum game. This doesn’t mean that politics are bad, and markets are good (or vice versa). There’s nothing inherently good or bad about zero- or positive-sum games as such. They are merely the natural modes of politics and markets, respectively. You gotta play both, or at least you should!
Tech has a desire to avoid zero-sum games when you have the option of treating a scenario in a positive-sum fashion—which is great! Unfortunately this has turned into a cultural rule of “don’t play zero-sum games at all, they are some sort of failure mode.” This is a bad heuristic, because politics is society’s fundamental zero-sum game! In the political game, tech has voluntarily disarmed.
Government is the substrate in which markets grow, because government defines and enforces the basic components of markets, property rights and contracts chief among them. If you abandon government because you refuse to play the zero-sum game of politics (or regard it as “lesser than,” rather than “prerequisite”), then you lose that zero-sum game. You hand the substrate of your positive-sum games to someone else.
Concluding note: I could write a separate essay on each of the three modes above, especially zero-sum games. The point of this essay was just to get the ideas out quickly, but I plan to revisit these in a more in-depth way and link them to the ideas in this essay.