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Tech Policy and the Principle of Least Effort


The Principle of Least Effort, originally articulated by Harvard linguist George Zipf, goes something like this:

It’s the belief that for any human action, people will always aim for the expenditure of the least amount of effort to accomplish a task.

The Corollary of the Principle of Least Effort is that we should be deeply skeptical of any proposed human endeavor that requires an inordinate amount of effort and coordination to accomplish.

This isn’t to say to humans don’t occasionally do hard, extraordinary things. We do! But they are rare, particularly with endeavors that require both significant effort and extensive coordination among human agents. Absent some external galvanizing force, such as an external existential threat or a great depression, such coordination is usually a complete barrier to completion. And the more effort and coordination something requires, the more skeptical we should be that it will happen.

If you look at the greatest human accomplishments that required effort and coordination in history, you can usually trace back the effort back to some perception that one’s very existence was at stake. For example, the United States went to the moon in large part because of a fear that if the US didn’t get there first, the Soviets would, and then they might drop nuclear weapons on the United States from outer space. Similarly, travel to the new world from Europe was largely motivated by intra-European competition. Find all the gold, silver, and other resources before your rivals in Europe do, or you might not survive.

All this is to say that when less is on the line (or at least we perceive less to be on the line), we should expect less to get done. Particularly from our government and our leaders.

I think it’s useful to judge any policy proposal through this lens. To think about it through the lens of the Principle of Least Effort and its Corollary.

How much coordination does it require? How much political capital? How much effort and attention from regulators?

To use a tech policy example, I recently read a law review article that argued for the benefits of Universal Basic Income. The article suggested that with increased automation and artificial intelligence, that we could be facing massive job losses within the next generation, and that UBI might be necessary to soften the effects of those losses.

The first few pages started to convince me, until I read the following:

“Multiplying $6000 per year by 313 million gives us a total annual cost for a UBI of $1.878 trillion. Clearly, a UBI would be expensive. Setting aside programs administered by the Social Security Administration (to which we will return momentarily), the primary federally funded cash and near-cash transfer programs include SNAP ($70 billion in 2018), TANF ($16 billion), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children ($5 billion), unemployment insurance ($32 billion), and Section 8 rental assistance ($34 billion). The earned income tax credit and child tax credit will cost a combined $196 billion in 2018. So far, that sums to $353 billion, leaving a funding gap of $1.525 trillion remaining to be filled.”

THE ARCHITECTURE OF A BASIC INCOME Miranda Perry Fleischer, Daniel Hemel

$1.878 trillion is almost half of the annual revenue collected by the US government each year.

It’s unlikely that any of the people who benefit from these programs will want to give them up without a fight. To get all of the people who benefit from them all to give them up would require an enormous amount of coordination, sacrifice, and political capital. Even leaving aside the $1.525 trillion shortfall that the government would face after eliminating these programs, it’s hard to imagine a world where it would be possible to make all the beneficiaries of these programs give them up as a starting point. While it is true that some of the beneficiaries of those programs would also benefit from UBI, it’s not a complete match. Some will lose out by switching from existing programs to UBI. Those people aren’t going to be happy.  

With that in mind, the amount of effort required to enact UBI seems a complete non-starter. I’m sympathetic to the idea. But it violates the Corollary of the Principle of Least Effort. Perhaps it’s the most efficient way to eliminate deep poverty and the most humane way to redistribute wealth. But I just don’t see a way where we get from here to there.

By contrast, when looking to explore new policy ideas, if there is a relatively easy way to accomplish the task, I am always inclined to prefer that simpler solution.

Does another country have a law that we could borrow from or copy in its entirety? Has a state enacted a regulation or adopted a practice that has proven successful? If there’s an existing model that doesn’t require us to invent the wheel, I am always prejudiced in favor of that solution. It’s like a forward-looking Occam’s razor.

All this makes me optimistic that the United States might pass a federal privacy law over the next few years. Both the EU and California have passed laws that could serve as starting points for a new federal law. There seems to be some bipartisan support for the idea. The costs associated with implementing such a law would appear to be relatively modest. Even those who will be subject to the regulation seem to be open to the idea. 

It all seems very doable.

I recognize that this may come off as cynical. I’m all for dreamers and idealists who push for more than just incremental changes. Sometimes, that’s what society needs. My point here is not to discourage or cast aspersions on those idealists. It’s just an observation that in terms of real-life probabilities for government policies, big changes rarely happen without a black swan-type event to inspire them.

With all that said, the Principle of Least Effort is a pragmatic way of looking at policy. And, if the goal is to convert well-intentioned ideas into reality, it might be the most useful approach to policy that there is.

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