The Politics of Effective Altruism
The new utilitarianism is becoming increasingly influential - where does it go next?
The crypto billionaire and “effective altruist” Sam Bankman-Fried on stage earlier this year with Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.
With British politics on hold for ten days during the Queen’s mourning period, I thought I’d turn to a longer-term topic. Or rather the idea of long-termism itself. The upsettingly young Scottish philosopher William MacAskill has been everywhere over the summer. You’ve probably seen at least one review of his book “What We Owe the Future”, or one of the many profiles of him such as this in the FT. As Scott Alexander put it “If the point of publishing a book is to have a public relations campaign, Will MacAskill is the greatest English writer since Shakespeare.”
If you want an overview of his ideas there are plenty of good pieces out there which I’m not going to repeat (such as Alexander’s review or this profile in the New Yorker). The very brief version is that we should give the same weight to future people as we do to those alive today when making decisions, and there’s a lot more of them than there are of us. Which means we should focus much more on how to make the world long-term sustainable and pay a lot of attention to tail risks that could wipe out humanity at some point. It is, essentially, an extension of the utilitarian ethics that Peter Singer and Derek Parfit revived in the 70s. Singer focused on people living in far off countries, and on animal rights. MacAskill focuses on the as yet unborn.
But my interest is less in the philosophical quandaries that utilitarianism leads to, but the politics of a set of associated movements clustered round MacAskill and those with similar ideas. As well as long-termism he is also known for establishing institutions for “effective altruism”, the belief that the impact of philanthropy can be significantly improved through the better use of data and logic. With his fellow Oxford don Toby Ord, MacAskill founded “Giving What You Can”, whose members pledge 10% of their lifelong income to effective causes. He also founded “80,000 Hours” which is designed to help people make career choices that will add the most value to the world. And the “Centre for Effective Altruism” as an umbrella body for these organisations and to represent the wider movement.
Over the past decade, as these institutions have grown and developed, effective altruism has quietly become more and more influential. A number of tech billionaires, notably Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and crypto-entrepreneur Sam Bankman-Fried, have donated large sums of money to develop the movement. Rationalism, an adjacent grouping with a lot of overlap, has had an increasing impact on intellectual discourse, via writers such as Scott Alexander. Julia Galef’s “Scout Mindset”, which I’ve mentioned before in several pieces, is a core rationalist text. (My introductory guide to all this was Tom Chivers’ “The Rationalist’s Guide to the Galaxy”).
I’ve also written before about Progress Studies, another offshoot movement that started in 2019 with an article by economist Tyler Cowen (who interviewed MacAskill about his book) and another tech billionaire, Stripe founder Patrick Collison. This faction seeks to apply the rationalist approach to economic growth and scientific progress, rather than philanthropy.
So far these adjacent movements have tried to stay apolitical – though, and I appreciate I’m simplifying hugely here, effective altruism feels like a left-coded version of rationalism and progress studies a right-coded version. But in many ways their rise feels like a response to the failure of political systems in the UK and US to respond to the varied global crises. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that effective altruism emerged in the years after the financial meltdown of 2008, or progress studies in the era of Trump and Brexit.
While memberships of all these groups are small they are exceptionally elite. Demographic surveys of members on the effective altruism forum in 2019 and 2020 found them to be very young, with a median age of 27, and very highly educated, with more than half of over-25s having postgrad degrees. 20% had studied at one of the top 20 universities in the world. Membership is also 70% male and oriented around those with degrees in Computer Science, Maths, and Economics. In previous generations a socially and ethically minded elite such as this one would have seen politics as an outlet for their talents and frustrations, but with the rise of populism on the right and identity politics on the left they have instead tried to create non-partisan outlets for improving the world.
But of course if you really want to change the world you can’t ignore politics. Nor, if your ideas are capturing so much elite press attention, will politics ignore you. The direct influence is probably clearest in the UK, our smaller and far more centralised system allows a more rapid transition of ideas into politics. Dominic Cummings, who was briefly one of the most powerful people in the country, is a disciple of rationalism (when it suits him) and, had his plans not been hijacked by covid and Boris Johnson, we would have seen a government programme fixated on science and progress. In his brief period in government Cummings did manage to get ARIA (the Advanced Research and Invention Agency) off the ground and commissioned a National AI Strategy, which is a preoccupation of rationalists and long-termists.
The new Truss government is heavily dependent for intellectual ballast on alumni of a handful of right-wing think thanks like the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA), the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), and the Adam Smith Institute (ASI), some of whom are at the forefront of the progress studies movement. Sam Bowman, former executive director of ASI, is now the editor of the progress studies journal “Works in Progress”, which is funded by Stripe. He wrote a much commented on piece over the summer, on his personal blog, about Boosters and Doomsters, which was quoted by the interim Chancellor of the Exchequer, and is the clearest exposition of the Truss approach I’ve seen.
If progress studies has purchase on the UK right, then effective altruism is increasingly infiltrating thinking on the centre-left. MacAskill has, for instance, advised Gordon Brown. In the States Bankman-Fried and Moskowitz are two of the Democrats biggest financial supporters. And increasingly there is a shift towards trying to get effective altruists directly into Congress. Bankman-Fried gave an activist called Carrick Flynn $10m to run in a Democrat House primary in Oregon. He lost but the crypto billionaire seems undeterred and has discussed the potential benefits of political funding on the 80,000 hours podcast, with Director of Research Rob Wiblin.
“Rob Wiblin: As I mentioned in the intro, you were one of the biggest public donors to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. And I’ll just quickly run through the reasoning, because I think listeners to this show are not going to be shocked by it. During each president’s term, about $20 trillion is spent by the US government, and yet the amount of money that is spent on each presidential campaign is about $1 billion. And there do seem to be substantial differences between the candidates and what they want to do, and how they’d like to spend that $20 trillion, as well as the military and the regulatory state and all of these other things that the president has influence over. So this ratio of the $20 trillion, say, plus a whole bunch of other stuff, to $1 billion is about a 10,000-fold multiple. It seems like maybe there’s a lot of leverage from adding something to that $1 billion. That’s the broad reasoning. And obviously you also need to think that Joe Biden would make a better president — which I suppose you evaluated the situation and drew that conclusion. How do you feel about that giving in retrospect?
Sam Bankman-Fried: I basically agree with that logic, and I do have some regrets — I think the regrets are mostly not having given more.”
And this logic is why, ultimately, if effective altruism, long-termism, and progress studies, want to achieve their goals, they can’t stay out of politics, even if it seems grubby and irrational. But this leads to a new set of problems exemplified by Cummings. He may have wanted to apply rationalist ideas in office but as a campaigner he shamelessly exploited the emotions of voters, and was quite happy to use fact-free arguments. He built the Leave campaign around two of the most emotive issues in UK politics – the NHS and immigration – and it was enormously effective. You could construct an utilitarian argument that it’s acceptable to unethically trick voters if the payoff is worthwhile, but a true rationalist would surely think increasing the amount of disinformation in the public sphere is a long-term net negative.
But voters aren’t rationalists, they tend to be operating with relatively low information and a fair amount of short-term self-interest. Most, especially at the moment, do not have the levels of economic security to worry about the poor and dispossessed in their own or other countries, let alone the unborn. Foreign aid, which in rationalist terms is by far and away the most valuable element of public spending given the huge impact it can have in very poor countries, is the first thing most voters would cut. And indeed the Johnson government did cut it with zero political consequences.
As Stephen Bush astutely noted in his piece on MacAskill’s book:
“The long-term risks we can actually do more to address are, almost by definition, the ones whose contours are the most obvious to us in the present. Giving greater weight to the rights of those yet to be born doesn’t really illuminate these problems any better than illustrating the real risks they carry today. A better way to convince people to tackle long-term problems is to point out the short-run risks — not try to sell them on a thought experiment that even its author doesn’t wholly endorse.”
Climate change is the obvious example of this. Likewise effective altruism works as an approach to philanthropy because, thanks largely to the tech boom, there are enough extremely rich like-minded people to provide significant funding. But as a political strategy it has little going for it. Nothing turns the public off a politician faster than them reeling off a series of statistics, whereas a well told story will persuade, even if the underlying data is bunk. Moreover, in politics you have little option but to find ways of improving the world that appeal to self-interest, rather than altruism.
Progress studies has a similar problem with political framing that I think we will see repeated time and time again during Truss’s time in Government, at least if they keep pursuing their current approach. Of course voters want economic growth in the abstract, but they don’t want a lot of things that might, in theory, help that growth. A good example is fracking, which the government lifted a moratorium on last week. It doesn’t matter if it would be helpful for the economy or not, it’s never going to be popular because of safety and environmental concerns. It looks like we’ll get a string of similarly contentious growth policies from removing the planned rises in corporation tax to reducing employment protections and allowing bigger bonuses for bankers. Again the point is not whether these things will help growth – that is disputed – but that even if they did the public would still oppose them.
The average voter in the UK is still left-wing economically and right-wing socially, despite the fact there is no party targeting this group (the Tory party made a vague attempt to do after the success of the Leave campaign but has now very much given up on pretending to care about economic inequality). This is not much use to any offshoot of rationalism. The effective altruists and long-termists are pushing an exceptionally liberal philosophy – treat everyone, even the unborn, the same. The progress studies crowd tend to focus on policies that help businesses at the perceived expense of consumers, or removing regulations that people feel provide them with key protections.
Maybe the increasing number of graduates, who are both more liberal on social issues and, in the classical sense, on economics, will, over time, offer a more favourable electorate for these ideas. Though a new piece of research from Elizabeth Simon suggests universities are not actually making people more liberal, but simply recruiting those already aligned.
But in the meantime if effective altruists, long-termists, and the progress studies crew, want to truly succeed, they need to find a way to engage voters with their ideas in terms that will appeal. To avoid doing so is to give up on the most powerful way to change the world, while also giving succour to the critics who attack them for pretending to avoid ideology while pursuing an inherently political agenda.
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Story. Even mythology.
You made a good point about the trade offs between rationality and short term stories. The French Revolution is a good example of the rationalists having the upper hand (reforming the calendar) and then it all collapsing.
What’s noticeable in UK politics at the moment is the lack of a good story arc. Who are we - where are we going?
Putin has created a rather horrible one in Russia - and is proceeding to undermine it.
An arc that captures the place of the British in the world, that allows for right and left wing interpretations, provides a useful home for the long term thinking you’ve been describing.
In my work with startups - making money (GDP growth) - doesn’t make a compelling vision for investors, staff or customers. It’s necessary. Not sufficient.
The Queen, god bless her, totally failed to articulate any answer to that. Bevan’s a land fit for heroes was time bound, and Thatcher’s vision caused atomism and anomie.
Empire is irrelevant, and as much as Truss still sees France as a Threat to the European balance of power - we are still more than an Island in a silver sea.
The challenge then with the long termism is to be able to articulate a story, one that isn’t too twee involving Arthur, armadas and agincourt, that reaches far beyond the individual.
That reaches back into our rich past and forward into a richer future.
With that vision the number crunching and rationality then provides structure and texture to the dream. Without them it’s pretty hollow, elitist and fruitless
And I want apples.
I realise this is essentially a theoretical piece but was nonetheless surprised that you don’t mention the Welsh government’s Future Generations Act. Was this because you are unaware of it? I realise the legislation has had little concrete impact to date, especially given the limited powers of the Welsh government, but it provides the theoretical underpinning to opposition to the M4 relief road and the current move towards a 20 mile an hour speed limit in towns. It also helps explain the current cooperation in long term planning between Plaid Cymru and Labour, trying to move beyond always looking no further than the next election.