Effective altruists love systemic change

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Effective altruists are out in the world every day fixing the underlying causes of society’s problems. It’s time to definitively rebut the claim that we don’t care about systemic change.

Yesterday we put to rest the idea that 80,000 Hours, and effective altruists more generally, are only enthusiastic about ‘earning to give’. While some people should earn to give, we expect the right share is under 20%, and think that ‘earning to give’ is now more popular among the people who follow our advice than it ideally would be.

Today I want to put to rest another common misunderstanding about effective altruism and 80,000 Hours: that we are against working on systemic change.1

Despite being the most widespread critique of effective altruism, the idea is bizarre on its face. We are pragmatists at heart, and always looking for any ways to more effectively make the world a better place.

Why couldn’t pursuing broad-scale legal, cultural or political changes be the most effective approach to making the world a better place? The answer is simply that it could!

So there is nothing in principle about the idea of maximising the social impact of your work that rules out, or even discourages, seeking systemic change.

What about in practice, though? Here are some people who identify as effective altruists working on systemic change:

  • Most recent Open Philanthropy Project research and grants, on immigration reform, criminal justice reform, macroeconomics, and international development, are clearly focussed on huge structural changes of various kinds.
  • The OpenBorders.info website collates research on and promotes the option of dramatic increases in migration from poor to rich countries.
  • A new startup called EA Policy, recommended for financial support by my colleagues at EA Ventures, is testing the impact of making submissions to open policy forums held by the US Government during this summer.
  • Our colleagues at the Global Priorities Project research what should be the most important reform priorities for governments, and how they can improve cost-benefit and decision-making processes.
  • One of GiveWell’s main goals from the beginning, perhaps it’s primary goal, has been to change the cultural norms within the non-profit sector, and the standards by which they are judged by donors. They wanted to make it necessary for charities to be transparent with donors about their successes and failures, and run projects that actually helped recipients. They have already significantly changed the conversation around charitable giving.
  • Giving What We Can representatives have met with people in the UK government about options for improving aid effectiveness. One of its first and most popular content page debunks myths people cite when opposing development aid. One of the first things I wrote when employed by Giving What We Can was on the appropriate use of discounts rates by governments delivering health services. Until recently one Giving What We Can member, who we know well, was working at the UK’s aid agency DfID.
  • Some 80,000 Hours alumni, most of whom unfortunately would rather remain anonymous, are going into politics, think-tanks, setting up a labour mobility organisations or businesses that facilitate remittance flows to the developing world.
  • Several organisations focussed on existential risk (FHI, CSER and FLI jump to mind) take a big interest in government policies, especially those around the regulation of new technologies, or institutions that can improve inter-state cooperation and prevent conflict.
  • 80,000 Hours alumni and effective altruist charities work on or donate to lobbying efforts to improve animal welfare regulation, such as Humane Society US-FARM. Other activists are working for dramatic society-wide changes in how society views the moral importance of non-human animals.

It looks to me like it’s more accurate to say that effective altruists <3 systemic change.

We’re not done though. I’m working on 80,000 Hours’ research. Here are some other systemic changes that I and some of my colleagues think would have real potential if they could be easily achieved:

  • Significantly more spending on development aid, assuming it is being spent in ways that work, such as delivering primary health care.
  • Improved regulation to crack down on illicit financial flows from the poor to rich world.
  • Changes to financial regulations to prevent banks from deliberately externalising the cost of systemic risks to governments by being ‘too big to fail’.
  • Putting a price on all greenhouse gas emissions emissions, ideally coordinated internationally to have a consistent price across the developed world.
  • More international funding for contagious disease control, and better coordination between countries to stop emerging diseases from spreading, likely through the WHO.

This is a hot-take rather than an official research conclusion, but I wouldn’t be surprised if in the future we recommended pursuing changes of this kind as one of the best career paths for someone with the necessary opportunities and skills. Our career profiles on politics and policy careers are already positive; we just haven’t done enough research to confidently recommend them over all the alternatives. The Centre for Effective Altruism, of which 80,000 Hours is a part, has published blog posts or reports on three of these issues and also raised them in meetings with members of the UK government.

Discussions with my colleagues and other effective altruists, both in person and online, constantly turn to the question of what institutions, social norms or government policies might be most valuable to work for. I’ve had half a dozen discussions this year with fellow effective altruists about the merits of a ‘guaranteed minimum income’. These conversations are not just intellectual play: one of the people was considering dedicating the next few years to working on a start-up in that cause area.

Now, you may disagree with the proposals I or others are working on above. Any of them might actually be lousy ideas. Some are very challenging to sell to politicians or the electorate. Maybe none of them allow us to do the most good with our careers.

But the overall picture is completely inconsistent with 80,000 Hours or our effective altruist collaborators being hostile to working for systemic change.

What might people be getting at when they say we are skeptical of systemic change? I have some ideas about how this false perception may have formed:

  • As discussed elsewhere, ‘earning to give’ was one of our most media friendly and viral ideas, and has dominated coverage of 80,000 Hours and effective altruism among the general public, to our growing consternation. Earning to give is usually perceived as anti-systemic change.
    In fact, someone who ‘earned to give’ in order to pay the salary of someone else working for systemic change is working for systemic change themselves. In that sense ‘earning to give’ is simply neutral on the systemic vs non-systemic change issue. Communist revolutionary Friedrich Engels is a classic example of this approach, though my guess is he personally did more harm than good.
    I would also argue though that creating a social expectation that to be decent people, the rich should give away a large fraction of their wealth to others, is itself a form of systemic change.
  • Effective altruists are usually not radicals or revolutionaries, as is apparent from my list above. My attitude, looking at history, is that sudden dramatic changes in society usually lead to worse outcomes than gradual evolutionary improvements. I am keen to tinker with government or economic systems to make them work better, but would only rarely want to throw them out and rebuild from scratch. I personally favour maintaining and improving mostly market-driven economies, though some of my friends and colleagues hope we can one day do much better. Regardless, this temperament for ‘crossing the river by feeling the stones’ is widespread among effective altruists, and in my view that’s a great thing that can help us avoid the mistakes of extremists through history. The system could be a lot better, but one only need look at history to see that it could also be much worse.
    However, even this remains only an empirically founded belief – if I find evidence that revolutionary change has been better than I thought, I will reconsider working for revolutionary changes.
  • Effective altruists prefer to pursue systemic changes that are more likely to be achieved, all else equal. Sometimes we view existing attempts at systemic change as more symbolic or idealistic than realistic, and so push back against them. For example I wrote a post years ago about why it’s not a good use of time to work on US gun control. Of course this is nothing to do with systemic change specifically: we frequently also push back against non-systemic approaches that we don’t expect to help others very much. And I try to apply my pragmatism to the systemic changes that in my heart I would love to love: enthusiastic as I am about opening borders, it may be an impossible ask in the current political climate.
  • We have been taking on the enormous problem of ‘how to help others do the most good’ and had to start somewhere. The natural place for us, GiveWell and other research groups to ‘cut our teeth’ was by looking at the cause areas and approaches where the empirical evidence was strongest, such as the health improvement from anti-malarial bednets, or determining in which careers people could best ‘earn to give’.
    Having learned from that research experience we are in a better position to evaluate approaches to systemic change, which are usually less transparent or experimental, and compare them to non-systemic options. This is very clear from the case of the Open Philanthropy Project, which is branching out from GiveWell and is more open to high-risk and ‘unproven’ approaches like political advocacy than GiveWell itself.

So, in case you missed the message above:

Are effective altruists, or effective altruism, in favour of pursuing systemic change?

Yes, yes, yes. A thousand times, yes!

We don’t want to burn the existing system to the ground, but almost all of us want to make enduring improvements to national and international systems to ensure the future is better than the past. The only question, which we and others are investigating right now, is how best to do that.

Author: Robert Wiblin

Rob studied both genetics and economics at the Australian National University (ANU), graduating top of his class and being named Young Alumnus of the Year in 2015.

He worked as a research economist in various Australian Government agencies, and then moved to the UK to work at the Centre for Effective Altruism, first as Research Director, then Executive Director, then Research Director for 80,000 Hours.

He was founding board Secretary for Animal Charity Evaluators and is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community.