Victus Spiritus


Celebrate or Vilify Social Parasites

31 Mar 2011

The relationships between organisms are categorized as symbiotic when species cooperate, and parasitic when one organism feeds off the energy, labor and life-force of another. Nature is not inclined to morally judge the tactics of life, the only law is survival and procreation. Over time ecosystem and environmental instabilities shift even the most successful life forms and relationships into chaos, rewarding only the most fit and fortunate with another sunrise. Parasitic organisms have survived for hundreds of millions of years, and there is little doubt that their presence plays a vital role in maintaining healthy ecosystems.

As rational beings, humanity has erected volumes of our own laws to complement those of nature. We have developed complex systems of governance and ownership to manage the flow of resources and reward labor based on its perceived social value. For us fitness criteria extend well beyond physical, mental, and social health. 

Our success and very survival are tied to an increasingly important ability to navigate complex social structures far removed from close personal bonds. I'll label these meta-traits systematic perception and influence or manipulation, depending on the situation^. This combination of talent and skill reveals countless opportunities to profit from others' labor with limited personal effort*. It also enables manipulation of the existing social hierarchy to extract optimal personal value. 

The result is a parasitic relationship, where one party enjoys a disproportionate share of value from the majority of their exchanges. This is not merely a case of huge leverage and fees. Even if the discrepancy is minute per exchange, when scaled to millions or billions of transactions, a significant margin is recognized.

The Counter to Parasitic Growth is Competition

Beyond direct competition, which only leads to more efficient parasitic behavior, there's a force which diminishes market wide systematic opportunities, and efficient markets naturally trend towards this state (not to be confused with equilibrium). 
Commoditizing the complement is a well understood tactic for startups and mature businesses, at least Joel and Chris seem to think so. Why not extend this strategy to dissuade parasites from specific fields by decreasing their margins to zero. If your market is paying an 8% liquidation tax (relative size of financial industry to the US GDP) or a loan with a 10,000% interest rate over 5 years, it's a perfect time to collaboratively create and contribute to low cost alternatives. Ultimately the market will judge the quality of your labor without hesitating. Is it beneficial, additive, multiplicative, or a necessary parasitic force.

I'm not suggesting that life should be fair, and that everyone should enjoy equal wealth and health. 
I don't belief value is equitably created or distributed, nor is wealth creation a zero sum game. Our time may be spent on creating nascent value through directed effort or siphoning value from others. 

That said not all efforts are productive, and even the best intentions don't guarantee the creation of value, let's not forget gratuitous errors in judgement or lady luck.  

^= Trek fans can just call it being a Ferengi

*= Personal effort is an admittedly subjective term. I would discount the herculean effort of sitting up all night dreaming up schemes and chatting online, while your team hosts painstakingly breathe life into a business that fulfills a real social need. Yet I have profound respect for leaders and hustlers who get their hands dirty.