Many supposedly simple solutions only work if you have a czar, Scott Alexander notes:
For example, take the problems with the scientific community, which my friends in Berkeley often discuss. There’s lots of publication bias, statistics are done in a confusing and misleading way out of sheer inertia, and replications often happen very late or not at all. And sometimes someone will say something like “I can’t believe people are too dumb to fix Science. All we would have to do is require early registration of studies to avoid publication bias, turn this new and powerful statistical technique into the new standard, and accord higher status to scientists who do replication experiments. It would be really simple and it would vastly increase scientific progress. I must just be smarter than all existing scientists, since I’m able to think of this and they aren’t.”
And I answer “Well, yeah, that would work for the Science Czar. He could just make a Science Decree that everyone has to use the right statistics, and make another Science Decree that everyone must accord replications higher status. And since we all follow the Science Czar’s Science Decrees, it would all work perfectly!”
Why exactly am I being so sarcastic? Because things that work from a czar’s-eye view don’t work from within the system. No individual scientist has an incentive to unilaterally switch to the new statistical technique for her own research, since it would make her research less likely to produce earth-shattering results and since it would just confuse all the other scientists. They just have an incentive to want everybody else to do it, at which point they would follow along.
Likewise, no journal has the incentive to unilaterally demand early registration, since that just means everyone who forgot to early register their studies would switch to their competitors’ journals.
And since the system is only made of individual scientists and individual journals, no one is ever going to switch and science will stay exactly as it is.
I use this “czar” terminology a lot. Like when people talk about reforming the education system, I point out that right now students’ incentive is to go to the most prestigious college they can get into so employers will hire them, employers’ incentive is to get students from the most prestigious college they can so that they can defend their decision to their boss if it goes wrong, and colleges’ incentive is to do whatever it takes to get more prestige, as measured in US News and World Report rankings. Does this lead to huge waste and poor education? Yes. Could an Education Czar notice this and make some Education Decrees that lead to a vastly more efficient system? Easily! But since there’s no Education Czar everybody is just going to follow their own incentives, which have nothing to do with education or efficiency.
There is an extraordinarily useful pattern of refactored agency in which you view humans as basically actors playing roles determined by their incentives. Anyone who strays even slightly from their role is outcompeted and replaced by an understudy who will do better. That means the final state of a system is determined entirely by its initial state and the dance of incentives inside of it.
If a system has perverse incentives, it’s not going to magically fix itself; no one inside the system has an incentive to do that. The end user of the system — the student or consumer — is already part of the incentive flow, so they’re not going to be helpful. The only hope is that the system can get a Czar — an Unincentivized Incentivizer, someone who controls the entire system while standing outside of it.
I alluded to this a lot in my (warning: political piece even longer than this one) Non-Libertarian FAQ. I argued that because systems can’t always self-improve from the inside, every so often you need a government to coordinate things.
Reactionaries would go further and say that a standard liberal democratic government is not an Unincentivized Incentivizer. Government officials are beholden to the electorate and to their campaign donors, and they need to worry about being outcompeted by the other party. They, too, are slaves to their incentives. The obvious solution to corporate welfare is “end corporate welfare”. A three year old could think of it. But anyone who tried would get outcompeted by powerful corporate interests backing the campaigns of their opponents, or outcompeted by other states that still have corporate welfare and use it to send businesses and jobs their way. It’s obvious from outside the system, and completely impossible from the inside. It would appear we need some kind of a Government Czar.
You know who had a Government Czar? Imperial Russia. For short, they just called him “Czar”.