Imagine, just for a moment, that you happened upon a magic lamp and rubbed it. As the stories go, a genie popped out and offered you three wishes-

-warning you sternly that no shenanigans will enable you to gain infinite wishes-

and asks you for your first wish.

Being a virtuous sort, you wish for homelessness to be solved (with all the required caveats so the solution goes well for everyone).

The genie waves their arms around and - poof! - homelessness is solved. Nobody is homeless anymore.

(Maybe new houses magically appeared, in the names of homeless people, and they were all transported to their new houses, and all the issues that rendered them homeless to begin with were magically fixed. It doesn’t really matter what the solution is, only that you observe that homelessness in society is durably done with.)

The question then is:

What happens to all the charities and nonprofits and companies that have fixing homelessness as their aim?

Institutional Commensalism

In biology, commensalism is defined as:

an association between two organisms in which one benefits and the other derives neither benefit nor harm.

If we think about an institution (here defined as “an organization created to solve a problem or address an issue”) as one organism, and the problem or issue that institution was created to solve as another organism, I claim that the relationship between the two is not adversarial, but commensal.

Why Not Adversarial?

In the above hypothetical - a genie magically solves an issue or problem - what happens to the institutions that purport to address that problem?

Do they stick around? Are they still funded?

Who is going to donate money to a homeless shelter, if literally no one was homeless anymore? What government bureaucrat or elected leader will spend time or political capital on a solved problem?

If a problem gets solved, the institutions addressing that problem must either pivot to a different problem, or die out.

Institutions need their problems to justify their existence, and they need a justification to survive. They can’t actually be opposed to the problems they profess to solve, or they would be for their own destruction.

If you doubt this, simply ask yourself: when was the last time you saw a first-world commercial, pledge drive, donation box, for-profit venture, charity, nonprofit, or politician that addressed rickets, scurvy, or smallpox?

Why Commensal?

The Institution Benefits

An institution benefits from its problem.

For one, it literally only exists because of that problem, and if that problem goes away, the institution is in peril.

For two, an institution gets more resources the bigger its problem is perceived as. Homelessness gets a certain amount - in the US, a recent budget proposal earmarked $3.6 billion of the federal budget to this problem. Climate change, in the poorly named Inflation Reduction Act, got $783 billion.

If the climate was magically fixed tomorrow - perhaps by the same genie from above - how much money would governments spend on it the next day? What about private donors?

So institutions benefit from their problems, but that’s only half of commensalism. The other half is that the problems derive neither benefit nor harm from the institutions created to solve them.

The Problem Is Neither Benefited nor Harmed

There are more than 11,000 homeless shelters and other associated housing centers in America.

Homelessness is still a problem.

Environmental groups have been around at least since the 1960s, and the environment is still in peril (at least according to said groups).

The War on Drugs has raged for decades, and drugs have not gone away.

All the charities and nonprofits and government agencies and companies targeting these problems have not vanquished them.

The Caveat: Some problems have been solved - smallpox, for instance - but whenever a problem is solved, it tends to be reframed (if it wasn’t framed that way to begin with) as a mere battle in the larger war. Smallpox was eradicated, but there are many other infectious diseases. Acid rain was stopped, but pollution or deforestation or climate change endures. This can be seen as an example of institutions pivoting to new problems if their old one goes away.

The Implications

So what are the implications, for those of us who want effective institutions to genuinely solve problems?

We can see that institutions thrive the bigger and more salient the problems they’re supposed to solve are. This means the institution is incentivized to never actually solve its problem.

Thus if we want genuine solutions we have to create institutions that are incentivized to solve their problems.

This is a difficult task, but not an impossible one.

A first step might be to create institutions with a built-in expiration date - a time some years in the future at which the institution is automatically disbanded. That way the institution will be less concerned with ensuring its own survival, and might actually focus on permanent solutions to the problems it was created to address.

The Caveat: expiration dates could be gamed by people just setting up a new institution with a different name the next day. Periods when institutions expire could also be tumultuous, with negative consequences for people depending on them.

Another possible avenue could be to reward the institution, not for how big or important its problem is, but for how solved its problem is. Imagine, for instance, if a charity for the homeless was funded based on how many people in its locality weren’t homeless.

A formula could be devised measuring the progress of the institution towards its problem being solved, and it gets paid for that progress.

The Caveat: Goodhart’s demon could run rampant. Any metric can be gamed.

The Conclusion

If I had access to such a genie and used it to solve homelessness, I would expect all of the institutions that address homelessness to die out.

Institutions need their problems the way that superheroes need their supervillains.

Who would Batman be without the Joker?

Superman without Lex Luthor?

And so on.

If we want the problems and challenges facing our societies and our world solved, we need institutions to solve them - but we fail to design our institutions in such a way that they’re actually incentivized to solve the problems they’re created to solve.

Fixing this - coming up with a better way to design institutions - could make humanity far more effective at addressing the challenges in front of us today.

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Great point. I wish we had more ideas about how to improve this. So many places we might try to fix this: philanthropists might redirect funding. We might try to provide career paths for these institutions' employees that spanned the space of current problems and not just the one problem they work on.

The Shirky Principle: “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.”

Yep. I wanted to lay out a somewhat more detailed accounting of it, as a basis for future work on how institutions are designed - and how they should be designed, if we want them to be more effective.