Why might safeguarding liberal democracy be a pressing issue?
Liberal democracies seem more conducive to intellectual progress and economic growth than other forms of governance that have been tried so far, and perhaps also to peace and cooperation (at least with other democracies). Political developments that threaten to shift liberal democracies toward authoritarianism therefore may be risk factors for a variety of disasters (like great power conflicts), stagnation, or for society generally going in a more negative direction.
More speculatively, it might be especially pressing to maintain liberal democratic norms in countries like the US, where the ideals have an established history, and there are important technological developments happening (like advanced artificial intelligence) that could impact the long-run future.
For example, science and technology seem to be less thoroughgoingly tied to government and military operations in liberal democracies than in authoritarian regimes (though it’s a matter of degree). If scientists and other civilian actors are more likely to prioritise AI safety vs military operations, e.g. because they are less influenced by national interests, this could be helpful.
There are counterarguments to this: e.g. an authoritarian regime is also less subject to commercial incentives and might have more ability to shut down dangerous projects vs a liberal government working with private companies and scientists.
But in general, because AI safety is in the public interest (and could become a widely supported cause), developing it under a regime that is, by definition, less accountable to its people seems worse.
Moreover, the goals and uses of AI seem likely to be shaped to some extent by its political and moral context. If liberal democracies are more conducive to values like impartiality, peace, and human rights (which we take to be good), supporting liberal democracy could mean the future of this transformative technology will be more influenced by these values.
Again, the argument here involves a lot of uncertainty. But it still seems to us to be more likely than not that shoring up liberal democratic norms will be good for both people alive today as well as the long-run future.
A great deal of effort — from political scientists, policymakers and politicians, historians, and others — already goes into understanding this situation and protecting and promoting liberal democracies, and we’re not sure how to improve upon this.
However, it seems like there could be some promising interventions in this area that are currently relatively neglected, such as voting reform or improving election security in order to increase the efficacy and stability of democratic processes. A variety of other work, like good journalism or broadly promoting positive values, also likely indirectly contributes to this area.
In general, we’re not sure what would be most useful here, or if individuals can contribute as much as they can in other areas we highlight, but it seems similarly promising to some other areas like economic growth, which are also less neglected but possibly underexplored from the perspectives of effective altruism and longtermism.
Listen to our podcast episode with Mike Berkowitz, Executive Director of the Democracy Funders Network, to learn more.
Learn more about safeguarding liberal democracy
Want to learn more about global issues we think are especially pressing? See our list of issues that are large in scale, solvable, and neglected, according to our research.