i hate moloch

By Laura Gao • 3 min read
October 2022

It's 2012. I'm cross-legged on the rugged blue and brown carpet as Ms. Vulic tells us that transportation emits one-fifth of global CO2. Sitting amongst fellow 7-year-olds, I wonder, why can't we all take the bus instead of driving? If most people take public transit, the bus would be Santa's reindeer dashing through empty streets.

I try asking, but I hear, "It's not that simple." "You'll understand when you're older."

9 years later, I get an answer. In Meditations on Moloch, Scott Alexander writes about how God can tell everyone to take the bus. God can tell everyone to walk to the local grocery store. But the bus takes me 1.5x longer to get to work, and the Costco 20 minutes away sells groceries in bulk. If everyone else is polluting the air, why should I lose out? These situations—where we’re collectively worse off by each person doing what makes sense for themselves—are called collective action problems.

It’s August 2022 and I'm at the Atlas Fellowship summer program. I'm sitting on the living room couch as yellow flows in sideways from night lamps. Aaron tells me he won't defect in the last game of iterated prisoner's dilemma, which seems antithetical to every piece of utility-maximization game theory I've heard. But I think about Kantian ethics—following principles as ends in themselves. In the absence of God-imposed coordination, perhaps [not defecting / taking the bus] must be a categorical imperative, or else it won’t be done consistently.

After a couple of seconds, I tell Aaron I think I wouldn't defect either. It would be hypocritical if I want a world where other people cooperate. I tell him I think perhaps it should be a categorical imperative to not follow the stream of incentives into a collective action problem. The lights start clicking. When you can override a principle to maximize utility, the temptation to defect is alluring, which is why I must follow my principles as ends in themselves.

Aaron thinks. Then, he says he agrees with the categorical imperative. I stare at him for a few seconds.

He points to a stack of stickers on the coffee table. "Against civilizational inadequacy," they read. Oh, that’s what it means. The next morning, I sneak one onto my laptop.

September. I’m walking down Front Street West in downtown Toronto. Every 30 meters is a homeless guy—an eye shut, a cardboard sign with frayed edges, a coffee cup with several quarters.

"Any cash?"

A woman shakes her head. A three-piece-suited man walks faster. My coins alone won't buy bread, so I walk by. Avoid eye contact.

But I want a world where each person gives $1 to each homeless person they encounter. A trivial cost to each individual, but combined from hundreds of daily passersby, would be prosperous food funds. I think about my laptop sticker.

I sigh. I turn around, fumbling with my wallet. Perhaps, after seeing me donate, someone else will be more likely to.

Today, I obey my categorical imperative