Big is beautiful. On the dangers of too much distrust in big institutions and high-tech solutions.

Imagine a covid19 pandemic without big institutions such as governments, tech companies and pharmaceutical companies. We would rely on personal, voluntary behavioral change such as social distancing and washing hands, added with low tech solutions such as face masks. These personal voluntary measures could not control the pandemic. With Big Government, imposed lockdowns could curb the pandemic, but these come at high societal and economic costs. Luckily, the costs are mitigated thanks to Big Tech: new information and communication technologies such as online video conferencing made the lockdowns and quarantines much more bearable. But still, government interventions remain costly. Enter Big Pharma: they can create a solution that makes personal behavior change and governmental lockdowns superfluous. Who would have thought that within one year after the beginning of the pandemic, there are already five covid-vaccines on the market after being developed and tested on thousands of volunteers, and first evidence (of Israel) appeared of plummeting new infections after vaccinations? Without Big Pharma, this would not have been possible, because only Big Pharma has the capacity and capital to do the necessary research and development of vaccines. Within a year, vaccines became likely by far the most cost-effective measure to fight the pandemic.

Distrust in big institutions

However, as the antivaccination movement demonstrates, we see an increasing distrust in big pharmaceutical companies. Within the environmental movement, there is a similar distrust in Big Agri and Big Tech, as demonstrated by the opposition against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) sold by big agribusinesses (e.g. Bayer-Monsanto) and nuclear power plants owned by big energy corporations. The anti-capitalist, anarchist, degrowth and localist movements criticize Big Money, Big Finance and Big Government.

As written almost 50 years ago by Ernst Schumacher in his book Small is Beautiful, the criticism against big institutions is not unjustified. There is a positive correlation between the size of an institution and its monopoly market power. In absence of free competition, big institutions earn a monopoly profit or economic rent, which is both unfair and inefficient. Big institutions have also financial means to influence other people, including scientists, which results in financial conflicts of interest. However, positive economies of scale can make big enterprises more efficient. And also small organizations are susceptible to lying, cheating and creating serious conflicts of interest.

Rationalization and the excess in arguments against an issue

The criticism against big institutions is not always rational. One indicator that a criticism is rather a rationalization instead of a rational position, is the excessive number of claims and arguments presented against the issue. The more arguments are given, the more suspicious we should be, because normally, when something is problematic, it has only one or a few real problems. It is unlikely that something can be criticized on dozens of fronts.[1] It is unlikely that a toxic chemical causes dozens of different diseases. It is unlikely that a government policy fails in dozens of different ways. Hence, the fact that many arguments and claims are made against an issue, is cause for concern.

Consider as a first example the many arguments and claims made against the covid19 policy: lockdowns are bad because they cause massive suicides from social isolation, PCR-tests are too unreliable because they have false positive test results, vaccines are unnecessary because chloroquine medicines and vitamin D supplements are better alternatives, vaccines are unsafe because of unknown long-term side-effects, mainstream media is unreliable because of political influences, scientists such as epidemiologists and virologists are untrustworthy because of conflicts of interest, philanthropes such as Bill Gates who invest in vaccines are bad because they desire to control the population, mobile phone warning apps are dangerous because they violate privacy, face masks are unhealthy because they increase CO2 inhalation, hand washing is unhealthy because that makes our immune systems lazy, government policy is ineffective because governments do not properly campaign for healthier lifestyles that prevent covid19,…

Next, consider the many arguments against nuclear power: it creates radioactive waste, it causes nuclear disasters, it distorts incentives for investments in renewable energy, it requires depletable uranium as a fuel, it causes human rights violations in uranium mines, it is too costly, it cannot be insured against risks, it causes high electricity prices, it increases the probability of nuclear wars with atomic bombs, it is incompatible with decentralized small-scale energy production,…

Third, consider the many arguments against GMOs: they increase pollution from pesticides, they genetically contaminate wild plants, they exploit farmers by making them more dependent on big agribusiness, they decrease farmers profits, they increase litigation and lawsuits against farmers, they have unknown dangerous consequences for biodiversity, they decrease crop diversity, they cause farmer suicides in developing countries, they are unnecessary because organic solutions already exist, they are unhealthy because they contain toxic chemicals, they cause allergic reactions, they are improperly tested, they are sold by money-hungry companies,…

For each of the three examples above, I could easily collect at least ten claims made by people who are against vaccines, nuclear power and GMOs. Not unsurprisingly, almost all of the claims and arguments can be debunked or countered (see e.g. about vaccines, nuclear power and GMOs).

The more arguments are presented against a problem, the more likely we have a situation of rationalization. People perceive something as a problem and present a first argument against that problem. If that first argument is debunked, one may look for another reason why the thing is bad, because the gut feeling that it is bad is still present. This second argument is usually weaker and more easy to debunk, because if it were stronger, it would have been more likely that one would have given that stronger argument in the first place. If the second argument is debunked, one might look for a third reason that is even weaker. And so on. These extra reasons are rationalizations: attempts to justify the premise that the thing is bad. That premise is based on underlying processes (feelings, perceptions or intuitions) that are not easy to express in moral arguments or principles. In the above examples of vaccines, nuclear power and GMOs, the underlying process could (partially) be a sense of distrust in big institutions.

Why distrust in big institutions can be harmful

Concerns of monopoly power and conflicts of interest may be justified, but do not generally warrant the observed high distrust in big institutions. Economist Tyler Cowen argued in his book Big Business that big corporations are underrated and under-appreciated. I am also worried that a distrust in big institutions can be dangerous or counterproductive. The reason is that high technological solutions (that can only be efficiently produced at large scale by big corporations) are often more effective than e.g. individual behavioral change measures or small-scale low-tech solutions. When it comes to vaccines and covid19, the distrust in Big Pharma is clearly dangerous, but the same goes for other technologies such as GMOs and nuclear power.

In the future, we may face similar opposition to new technologies. Consider animal rights and animal welfare. In the past, I volunteered at vegan outreach street actions, which involved talking to people in the hope to persuade them to go vegan. For me it was easy (not costly) to go vegan, but investing resources in persuading others to voluntarily individually change their behavior happened to be much more difficult and less effective. As a comparison, what would have happened if instead of government interventions and vaccines, people tried to stop the covid pandemic by individually talking to strangers and asking them to voluntarily change their behavior (such as not giving hands, keeping 1,5 meter distance from others,…)? Imagine street activists offering face masks to passers-by to persuade them to voluntarily wear those masks in public places. That would not be effective at all to fight the pandemic. A more systemic change such as government intervention (e.g. a lockdown) is more effective, but most effective are technologies such as vaccines. Similarly, government regulation against animal farming would be more effective than street activism, but probably most effective would be the development of meat alternatives such as cell-based (clean) meat. However, even in the animal rights movement there is opposition against cell-based meat. Reading the Clean Meat-Hoax-website, I guess this opposition is largely due to a distrust in Big Food, as big food companies are likely to sell the most cell-based meat to customers.

Recently I wrote about my personal paradigm shift from soil-based low-tech food to air-based high-tech food. People offer many arguments against conventional farming and propose small-scale low-tech organic farming as the better alternative. However, as explained above, an overdose of arguments against conventional farming is cause for concern. Organic farming has its own downsides and many of the presumed benefits of organic farming are absent. Even if everyone voluntarily chose to eat organic food from small-scale farms, we would will still cause a lot of harm to e.g. wild animals. It might even cause more harm, by having a less efficient food production. Only with very high-tech food technologies can we drastically reduce harm and improve human and animal health and welfare. Similarly, but more generally, instead of sticking to low-tech solutions, some transhumanists are looking for very high-tech solutions (such as genetic engineering and nanotechnology) to eliminate all unwanted suffering of sentient beings. This ambitious ‘hedonistic imperative’ goal to abolish suffering will never be achieved with low-tech solutions or individual behavioral change.

If a technology is very effective (in terms of minimal costs and maximal benefits), there will be a very high demand. For many technologies, that means high production rates are required to meet that demand. Only big companies are able to massively produce and sell those technologies. And small start-up companies that produce technologies that are highly sought after, are likely to grow fast and become very big. All Big Tech, Big Agri and Big Pharma companies started small but produced and sold a technology that was high in demand. Think of personal computer software, high yield crops, and lifesaving vaccines. That is why we see a positive correlation between the size of a company and the desirability of a technology. That positive correlation explains why a distrust in big institutions can be harmful.


[1] After a long search, I only encountered a few problems that are problematic in many ways: animal product consumption, unwanted pregnancies, migration restrictions and privatized economic rent.

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