Systemic change becomes non-systemic change and vice versa

As you might have heard, there is an active debate among the 80,000 Hours community about the effectiveness of attempts to change societal systems – such as laws, institutions or social norms – versus so-called “non-systemic” approaches, such as funding health treatments directly, or becoming a teacher.1

Sometimes these debates become quite heated.

To put my cards on the table, I lean towards systemic change being a more promising approach, at least given my skills. Hence, I’ve studied public policy and worked in a Government think tank myself. I also see one of the major long-run impacts of 80,000 Hours to be changing social norms about how people think about how they spend their working life.

But I find it hard to get too passionate with those who lean the other way. One reason for this was well explained in a comment by my friend Catriona Mackay:

I think that people on the whole are biased towards against non-systemic change (i.e if you did a survey asking whether it’s best to treat the causes or the symptoms of poverty, almost everyone would answer ’causes’, even if there were strong evidence that both were effective in terms of increasing net well-being), and so it’s likely that non-systemic causes are more underfunded, so I can contribute more.

On the other hand, I think that scaling up proven health solutions and cash grants and so on are also ways of contributing to systemic/revolutionary change. I’m a big old Social Justice Warrior type who thinks that systemic and revolutionary change can’t really be imposed from above, but has to come from those who lack privilege under the current systems, and so my role is more to facilitate that, by giving such people cash and/or better health so they have more time and energy to lead systemic change.

In short, non-systemic change should lead to positive systemic change, which leads to non-systemic change, and so on. For example, if you elect a better government, they will likely run a better health system, which means longer lives and a healthier population. But then when people are healthier – or richer or more educated – this again affords them better opportunities to improve the social norms or laws that surround them. This looks like a virtuous circle that has occurred for centuries in places like the United Kingdom. I think these ‘ripple effects’ are quite significant, and mean that the best ‘systemic’ intervention won’t be more than a few-fold more effective than the best ‘non-systemic’ intervention.

This debate is definitely worth having: a 3x difference is a big difference! But let’s not get up so in arms at people who disagree.

Notes and references

  1. I find the distinction between the two categories to be a lot more blurry to start with than most seem to. But I’m happy to run with this dichotomy for the sake of argument.