Beware Systemic Change

[Epistemic status/edit: After reading comments, no longer sure I agree with Part I. Part II still seems right but possibly a cost that can be outweighed by other factors. I continued to be worried about this without necessarily thinking it is a knock-down argument. I’m still not sure how to balance my support for some systemic change causes against my concern about others. Buck’s comment on morality seems important.]


One of the most common critiques of effective altruism is that it focuses too much on specific monetary interventions rather than fighting for “systemic change”, usually billed as fighting inequitable laws or capitalism in general. For example, Amia Srinivasan, in her review of Doing Good Better,

What’s the expected marginal value of becoming an anti-capitalist revolutionary? To answer that you’d need to put a value and probability measure on achieving an unrecognisably different world – even, perhaps, on our becoming unrecognisably different sorts of people. It’s hard enough to quantify the value of a philanthropic intervention: how would we go about quantifying the consequences of radically reorganising society? […]

Effective altruism, so far at least, has been a conservative movement, calling us back to where we already are: the world as it is, our institutions as they are. MacAskill does not address the deep sources of global misery – international trade and finance, debt, nationalism, imperialism, racial and gender-based subordination, war, environmental degradation, corruption, exploitation of labour – or the forces that ensure its reproduction. Effective altruism doesn’t try to understand how power works, except to better align itself with it. In this sense it leaves everything just as it is.

This same point has been made again and again and again. In response, many effective altruist leaders have gone on to say that they love systemic change and that the movement is entirely in favor of it.

I am not affiliated with the organized effective altruist movement and my opinion has no relation to theirs. They have spent a lot of work trying to convince everyone that they are entirely in favor of pursuing systemic change, I believe them, and nothing I say here reflects on that.

But I, personally, worry a lot about pursuing systemic change.

“Worry about” is not the same as “totally oppose”. This post’s Hansonian title is “Beware Systemic Change” rather than “Against Systemic Change.” But I’m pretty serious about bewaring of it.

First, what do I mean by “systemic change”? Traditional charity, like healing the sick, is almost universally viewed as good or at least neutral. Everyone agrees the sick should be healed; if there are unhealed sick people, it’s because we don’t have the resources to pursue our universally held goal. The same is true of feeding hungry children. It’s true of weird causes like AI risk – some people think it’s silly, but they’re happy to let other people work on them if those people want. It’s even true of things like cutting carbon emissions, sort of. When the Koch brothers say they oppose cutting carbon emissions, they mean they oppose laws mandating such cuts, or budgets that spend communal resources to enforce them. If a private donor offered to pay for scrubbers on every smokestack at zero cost to the rest of the economy, the Koch brothers would have no objection.

Some political issues are kind of like this. People from all over the political spectrum agree that corporate welfare is a bad idea; if we still have corporate welfare, it’s because there’s not enough attention and organization to force politicians to abandon it. In other cases, we all agree something is good but disagree on whether it is an optimal use of resources: for example, most people agree that aid agencies like UNICEF that help children abroad are doing good work, but not everyone agrees with funding them from the federal budget.

Other political issues are not like this. Some people believe that increasing the minimum wage is a laudable goal; other people believe it will hurt the economy or that it violates important moral rights. The reason we don’t have a higher minimum wage isn’t because passing laws costs a lot of money that no one has raised yet, or because no one is paying attention to the issue. It’s because a lot of people oppose it and so far those people are winning, or at least holding their own.

In terms of Freshman English Plot Devices, traditional charity like healing the sick is “man versus nature.” Political issues like the minimum wage are “man versus man”.

When I think of systemic change, I think of man versus man. Even if effective altruists helped governments increase their foreign aid budget, I don’t think Amia Srinivasan and Jacobin Magazine and the rest would think we were participating in “systemic change”. I think at the very least they’d want altruists out in the street demonstrating for higher minimum wages, and at most trying to eliminate global capitalism.

Which is a problem, because a lot of people like global capitalism. A dialogue:

Bob: Man vs. man conflicts raise some thorny issues which man vs. nature conflicts manage to avoid. I think we should be very wary about opening the door to political discussions.

Alice: What? Come on, Bob, you talk about politics all the time!

Bob: I watch porn all the time too; that doesn’t mean I’m proud of it, or think it’s the most good I could do with my resources. Suppose effective altruists get involved in the 2016 US presidential election – which isn’t prima facie a bad idea; think about how easy it would have been to make Gore win in 2000 and how much would have changed if he had. Lots of people work very hard and raise $10 million for the Democrats. Lots of other people work very hard and raise $10 million for the Republicans. Now the Democrats and Republicans are at exactly the same position vis-a-vis each other as they were before the effective altruists got involved, but we have wasted $20 million that could have gone to healing the sick or feeding the hungry. And I’m using money to make things obvious, but the same goes for donating time or advocacy or other resources. If this sort of thing started happening, we would want to promote a general cultural norm of “never spend resources on man vs. man conflicts”. If both sides were equally likely to follow the norm, then the conflicts would remain unaffected but everyone would have more resources to spend on the sick and hungry.

Alice: But effective altruists are very unlikely to donate to both sides of a political issues equally and cancel out. Political views are heavily shaped by demographics, and EAs are likely to skew left just like most other highly-educated groups. Even aside from this, their similar moral assumptions and thinking styles will lead them to converge onto the same side of an issue. Half of Americans are creationist, and almost as many oppose gay marriage, but I would expect fewer than 5% of EAs to hold either position. The idea of donations cancelling out is totally unrealistic. Instead, we should predict that on most issues, most EA donations will go to the same side. We end up not with a wasteful neutrality, but with a large sum of money going to one side, detracted from only slightly by a much smaller sum going to the other. If the cause is important enough, it might still be the most good we could do – the net benefit of (good from giving large amount of money to one side) minus (harm from giving small amount of money to the other side) would still be higher than the benefit of giving all the money to a traditional charity.

Bob: That just kicks the problem one meta-level up. Suppose that on each given issue, effective altruists converge dramatically around one or the other side. If half the time they converge around the right side, and the other half around the wrong side, then over a large number of issues their contributions will gradually even out and sum to zero.

Alice: That’s a ridiculous way of looking at it. We don’t just flip a coin to determine which side to back. We exhaustively study the argument for both sides, the evidence base, et cetera. Then we focus only on those issues where we can be most certain we’re in the right. The odds there are a heck of a lot better than fifty percent!

Bob: But you could make the same argument about picking stocks, couldn’t you? Do lots of research, focus on the ones where you’re most certain that they’re overvalued or undervalued, and then you have great odds of getting rich! But of course, we know that doesn’t work. Everyone else is trying the same thing, and the current position of the stock market reflects the consensus results of that process. You run afoul of the efficient market hypothesis.

Alice: Now you’re just being silly. There’s no efficient market hypothesis for politics!

Bob: But why shouldn’t there be? A lot of people mock rationalists for thinking they can waltz into some complicated field, say “Okay, but we’re going to do it rationally“, and by that fact alone do better than everybody else who’s been working on it for decades. It takes an impressive level of arrogance to answer “Why are your politics better than other people’s politics?” with “Because we want to do good” or even with “Because we use evidence and try to get the right answer”. You’d have to believe that other people aren’t even trying.

Alice: What you’re saying makes a certain kind of sense in Weird Platonic Spherical Cow Perfect Rationality Outside View World. But think about this from the Inside View perspective. Once again, half the country is creationist. Almost half oppose gay marriage. It’s like a stock market where half of the investors are throwing everything they have into the perpetual motion industry. Surely you can admit that even a little bit of intelligence, education, and rationality can actually take you a long way in politics?

Bob: Half the country is creationist, but there’s almost no easy gains from fighting them; any curriculum that federal politics can conceivably affect is evolutionary by this point, and it’s unclear we get any real benefits by going after the last few Alabama middle school students. As for opposing gay marriage, I think you’re going beyond your supposed reliance on evidence here. The strongest conservative case against gay marriage is that it reinforces a centuries-long redefinition of marriage from a strategic partnership focused on child-rearing to a ceremonial acknowledgment of romantic infatuation, potentially leading to a deep shift in the way people think about issues like who to marry, when to have kids, when to get divorced, and how to treat their family. That argument hasn’t been rigorously evaluated by statisticians and found wanting. It’s been found annoying and left untouched. Your differences are foundational assumptions and methodological disagreements about what sorts of issues to focus on, not simple “he made an arithmetic error when calculating the effects” style obvious superiority.

Alice: Really, Bob? You really want to go there?

Bob: Yes. In fact, I worry that this plays into exactly the potential flaws of the effective altruist movement. I can count up all the harms of banning gay marriage: exactly 1.13 million gay people regret not being able to marry, they rate their distress at 3.2/5 on the Likert Scale, that comes out to X QALYs lost per annum, but you have no way of easily quantifying the potential harms of gay marriage, therefore your argument is invalid. A lot of these issues involve trading off easily quantifiable harms on one side versus less quantifiable harms on the other: social trust, cultural cohesion, moral credibility, “freedom” broadly defined, ability to innovate. Highly educated people used to studying science might just be more likely to fall for the streetlight effect and go with the side that promises more quantifiability, rather than the side more likely to be right.

Alice: I…think you’re being deliberately annoying? It seems like exactly the same kind of sophisticated devil’s-advocate style argument we could use for anything. Sure, nothing is real and everything is permissible, now stop playing the Steel Man Philosophy Game and tell me what you really think! It really should be beyond debate that some policies – and some voters- are just stupid. Global warming denialism? Mass incarceration? Banning GMOs? Opposing nuclear power? Not everything is a hard problem!

Bob: I really do sympathize with you here, of course. It’s hard not to. But I also look back at history and am deeply troubled by what I see. In the 1920s, nearly all the educated, intelligent, evidence-based, pro-science, future-oriented people agreed: the USSR was amazing. Shaw, Wells, Webb. They all thought Stalin was great and we needed a global communist revolution so we could be more like him. If you and I had been alive back then, we’d be having this same conversation, but it would end with both of us agreeing to donate everything we had to the Bolsheviks.

Alice: Okay, so the smart people were wrong once. That doesn’t mean…

Bob: And eugenics.

Alice: Actually…

Bob: ಠ_ಠ

Alice: Fine then. For the sake of argument, the smart people were wrong twice. That still doesn’t…

Bob: It does! A quick run through the history books shows that smart people trying to effect systemic change have an imperfect track record. I won’t say that they’re unusually bad compared to other demographics, but certainly nothing as stellar as the “let’s just not be morons” theory might lead one to expect. You like quantifiable things and specific examples, so let me give you one. I’ve sometimes thought that Friedrich Engels can be considered one of the fathers of effective altruism – at least of the earning-to-give variety. Wikipedia says:

Once Engels made it to Britain, he decided to re-enter the Manchester company in which his father held shares, in order to be able to support Marx financially, so that Marx could work on his masterpiece Das Kapital. Engels didn’t like the work but did it for the good of the cause.

And in one sense, Engels-as-altruist was utterly brilliant. He effectively zeroed in on the most influential thinker of his era, funded an otherwise-impossible level of output from him, and his work directly led to revolutions in a dozen countries with radical change in the lives of billions of people. But in the more important sense, the net effect of his contribution was global mass murder without any lasting positive change. If we count him as an effective altruist – and under the circumstances I’m not sure we can do otherwise – then the net contribution of the movement throughout history has been spectacularly negative. That should make us really concerned. Not “nod sagely and promise to think about it” level of concern, but more “run away screaming” level of concern. That’s why I’m so reluctant to accept your otherwise-reasonable points about the seemingly obvious issues.

Alice: On an emotional level, I get your point. But on a rational level, wouldn’t it be astounding if smart people trying to figure out the safest ways to do the most good consistently made things worse?

Bob: There are many more ways to break systems than to improve them. One Engels more than erases all of the good karma created by hundreds of people modestly plodding along and making incremental improvements to things. Given an awareness of long-tail risks and the difficulty of navigating these waters, I’m not sure our expected value for systemic change activism should even be positive, let alone the most good we can do.

Alice: So don’t go poking around super-complex systems with lots of variables as complicated as “capitalism” versus “communism”. Stick to well-understood things with fairly predictable effects. If we have a little bit more humility than Engels, maybe we won’t fall into the same trap he did.

Bob: All nice and well, except that I do not see even the tiniest sign of supra-Engels levels of humility in the effective altruist movement as it exists today. Recently I have had to deal with lots of our Facebook friends joining and sharing images from a group called “Muh Borders!” which exists to post memes making fun of anyone who opposes Open Borders as a stupid bigot who is not worth talking to:

In terms of “political causes that we can be totally sure won’t backfire and devastate entire countries for generations”, I would place open borders…well, let’s say somewhere in the bottom quartile. A thorough analysis by one of its strongest and most intelligent advocates concludes with “doubt that the American polity could survive and flourish under open borders” but has been mostly ignored in favor of constantly retreading the same old streetlight-illuminated ground of whether immigrants do or don’t affect native wages. And this is the community that is supposed to have solved the hard problem of getting mind-killed by politics, and can now be sure it’s genuinely pursuing the side of Good rather than the side that looks like Good but actually kills tens of millions of people?

Alice: That’s not fair. Yes, there are some people who reflect poorly on the open borders movement, but they’re not all effective altruists, and even humble people who try their best to think about things rationally are allowed to let off steam on Facebook once in a while. The open borders movement has also done a lot of really impressive analysis, and even though there are risks, given the potential benefits it really can be thought of as a no-brainer.

Bob: I am a coward and will stick to buying bed nets, thank you.


There’s another problem with man vs. man: the people we want to recruit are men, and the people we want to make our movement out of are men.

(That came out sounding more sexist than I intended. You know what I mean.)

Several people have recently argued that the effective altruist movement should distance itself from AI risk and other far-future causes lest it make them seem weird and turn off potential recruits. Even proponents of AI risk charities like myself agree that we should be kind of quiet about it in public-facing spaces.

As someone whose own views on open borders are mixed (I should probably write a post), I am really turned off by memes like the one above. And since only seven percent of Americans fully support open borders, that’s a lot of potentially turned-off people. They’re going to go on effective altruist sites, see that a big part of the movement is arguing for a policy that they abhor, and notice their potential colleagues talking about how people like them who oppose that policy are stupid and parochial and hate foreigners. “We think you’re wrong and stupid, come join our movement” makes a really crappy recruiting pitch. But it is the pitch we are sending to anyone who isn’t a Silicon Valley libertarian, George Mason University economics professor, or journalist – the only three groups from which I have seen a level of open borders support much beyond the lizardman level.

If effective altruists are split on an issue, then they’re working at cross-purposes, like the people above who donated $20 million to both the Democratic and Republican campaigns. But if effective altruists are not split on an issue, then they’re projecting a unified Effective Altruist Consensus on it which is going to look pretty intimidating to anybody who disagrees. And if there are enough of these issues, then a randomly selected person is almost certain to disagree with at least one of them. The more different from the EA stereotypical demographic they are, the more likely such a disagreement will be. Politics is the mind-killer and quickly takes over from everything else; I do not think political disagreements can stay quiet and harmless for long. If two people are both committed to healing the sick and feeding the hungry but one believes in open borders and the other in a more Bernie Sanders style approach to immigration – not even conservative, just a Bernie Sanders style approach! – they can peacefully coexist in an effective altruist movement focusing on traditional charity, but one focusing on systemic change is likely to get pretty heated.

If you think this is overly pessimistic, think back to the issues with the most recent EA Summit, which advertised fully vegetarian meals but added non-vegetarian options at the last second. This became a big enough scandal that I, who was two thousand miles away from the conference, got inundated with arguments about it on Facebook, Tumblr, and this blog. Several people threatened to quit effective altruism entirely, though I don’t know if any of them followed through.

This is a community that can literally almost tear itself apart over the question of what to have for lunch. I think there might be too much dynamite around to risk shooting off sparks.

And I also think effective altruism has an important moral message. I think that moral message cuts through a lot of issues with signaling and tribal affiliation, that all of these human foibles rise up and ask “But can’t I just spend my money on – ” and effective altruism shouts “NO! BED NETS!” and thus a lot of terrible failure modes get avoided. I think this moral lesson is really important – if everyone gave 10% of their income to effective charity, it would be more than enough to end world poverty, cure several major diseases, and start a cultural and scientific renaissance. If everyone became very interested in systemic change, we would probably have a civil war. Systemic change is sexy and risks taking over effective altruism, but this would eliminate a unique and precious movement, in favor of doing the same thing as everybody else.

If effective altruism became more political, it would likely fade seamlessly into something like the Brookings Institution (a top-tier think tank whose $100 million yearly budget is by my calculations well above what the entire world combined spends on deworming) or the Cato Institute (another top think tank whose $30 million budget is likely more than all AI risk charities and all effective animal rights charities combined). Probably the staff of the Brookings Institution go into work each day thinking “How can I best improve the world by giving it better policies?”, and I admire that, but they don’t have the same sort of moral mission as effective altruism and it would be disappointing to see the latter collapse into an annex of the former.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

871 Responses to Beware Systemic Change

  1. Tiago says:

    ‘Alice: Now you’re just being silly. There’s no efficient market hypothesis for politics!

    Bob: But why shouldn’t there be? A lot of people mock rationalists for thinking they can waltz into some complicated field, say “Okay, but we’re going to do it rationally“, and by that fact alone do better than everybody else who’s been working on it for decades. It takes an impressive level of arrogance to answer “Why are your politics better than other people’s politics?” with “Because we want to do good” or even with “Because we use evidence and try to get the right answer”. You’d have to believe that other people aren’t even trying.’

    There is no efficient market hypothesis for politics. The cool thing about markets is that you only need a few people with access to resources to have markets reflect the best available information – even if the vast majority of people are completely clueless. If a share is selling for less than someone may rationally infer it should, you buy as many shares as you can up until the point where it is no longer undervalued.

    This doesn’t work with politics. If I think that Alex Tabarrok would be a much better president than any of the candidates, how do I buy “Tabarrok President” shares? I don’t. I come to this blog and say what I think, and hope for the best.

    With respect to “You’d have to believe that other people aren’t even trying.”, that is exactly true. The vast majority of people isn’t even trying to do rational politics. Of that vast majority, a vast majority isn’t trying because they have nothing to gain out of it (see Bryan Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter). A minority of the first majority isn’t even trying because they have different priorities, like get reelected or pass some regulation that favors their company.

    Now you have the minority that is trying. Many of them are just wrong about what will achieve better results, like the person you quote in the beginning of the post. Now you may say “who are you to judge who is right or who is wrong” but if you go down that path, you will put in doubt the whole rationalistic approach. Why apply that reasoning to systemic change only and not to charity in general, or to psychiatry, or to astrology? There are ways to tell when people are wrong and right. It is messy as hell, but the alternative is relativism.

    So you have this minority that is trying and actually has the tools to know whether or not something will be effective. How should they spend their altruism? Well, in the most effective way. And that may be systemic change or not. You have to look at the theory and the evidence. My reading of the evidence is that violent attempts at systemic change have an awful, awful record. But steady promotion of enlightenment values has an outstanding record.

    I was reminded of this post after reading John Cochrane’s essay on growth. He talks about the US but I think the recommendations there are widely applicable. I think that that is what effective altruists should be focusing on. Theory and evidence indicate that welfare would significantly increase if those systemic changes were implemented. Risks would not come anywhere close to those of a revolution, since none of the changes are disruptive. Too much fear of promoting that kind of policy seems to be based more on superstition than on rationality.

  2. dlr says:

    I don’t know about the Koch brothers, but I’m ethically opposed to reducing carbon emissions. But why, you ask?

    Well, the future is difficult to predict, but, if we speeded up global warming a bit, Canada would probably soon become a country of 500 million people, perhaps through immigration, perhaps through increased birth rates due to vastly expanded opportunities. Think the US circa 1850, with a limitless frontier and endless opportunity.

    On the other hand, third world countries like Nigeria and Bangladesh would become basket cases, even worse places to live than they already are. Their population levels will fall, due to war, famine, lower birth rates, increased childhood mortality, and/or emigration.

    In short, supporting global warming gets you a world with lots more Canadians and lots fewer Nigerians. This sounds like a preferred option to me.

    It’s a no-brainer if the transition takes place via immigration/emigration. What sentient being would rather live in Nigeria than Canada and be ruled by the government of Nigeria than by the government of Canada? Millions of Nigerians and Bangladeshis lives dramatically improved.

    But if your not a racist, it should be a no-brainer if the transition takes place via changing population levels as well. A happy healthy Canadian exists that wouldn’t have existed. An unhappy, oppressed Nigerian doesn’t exist that would have existed. Net gain.

    And think about Sweden, Norway and Finland, not to mention Greenland. All are ENORMOUS in terms of land area (look at a globe). And all would experience dramatic population gains if global warming took off. And all countries worth living in. Siberia, another enormous geographical that is also vastly underpopulated, is a harder case, since Russia isn’t high on the list of desirable places to migrate to. But I bet anyone living in some third world hell-hole would jump at the chance. I bet the quality of life of the average Russian is 10x of the quality of life of the average Somalian.

    So, opposing global warming is opposing a world where more people live in well run, ordered, functioning societies, like Sweden, Canada and Finland, and fewer people live under oppressive third world regimes. Net gain.

  3. Martin says:

    Alice a straight-up bitch.

  4. viking says:

    Does everyone agree healing the sick or feeding hungry children is a always good thing? I look at the Projected African population demographics and think liberals have for all intents and purposes had 800,000 million african children in the past 50 years that they have no way or plan to support, these foster children are on track to increase to 4 billion over the next 50 years. These are a people not able to feed themselves, let alone govern themselves,the average IQ is below 65. The ad hoc solution seems to be to bring as many into western countries for as long as possible, this is of not simply suicide of the european/diaspora; but since we are the engine of human existence as we go so goes the entire species. Before that happens there will obviously come a time when some wake up from this madness and begin to fight for their lives, causing what will surely be the the bloodiest most hateful war man has ever seen. In the meantime the worlds great cities and artistic treasures will be destroyed, Africans fauna will be eaten, rape will be pandemic etc. Its so horrible and so sure to happen yet apparently intelligent people seem so incredibly short sighted some have to wonder if there is some plot not seen. But what white moron thinks they will survive this and be allowed to rule? Can they be simply wreckers bent on wiping out humanity? Or are they really just that stupid? Or maybe they were so sure feeding the hungry children and healing the sick was the right thing to do it couldnt possibly be wrong.
    The answer was either to let nature take its course or possibly, continue colonization whereby civilization was traded for natural resources and the phasing out of the indigenous populations at least to manageable levels

  5. “Alice: On an emotional level, I get your point. But on a rational level, wouldn’t it be astounding if smart people trying to figure out the safest ways to do the most good consistently made things worse?”

    Have you still not read Hayek-1945-“The Use of Knowledge in Society”?

    And then, having digested that, Hayek’s 1974 Nobel Prize acceptance speech “The Pretence of Knowledge”:

    These are, as far as I know, still the best answers to Alice’s question.

  6. Late to the party, but I don’t see why Buck’s objection is persuasive to you. He can accuse others of virtue-signalling with their local charities, but it is pretty clear that making a big deal about leaping over those categories to show how morally balanced one is is an even more extreme version of virtue-signalling. He didn’t help himself by insisting that he has thought about this more than Those Others, so you know he’s right. Screwtape pointed out how easy it is to love those at a distance and take credit for it, but actual icky human beings – family, co-workers, neighbors, coreligionists, are much harder. Which is why we should be suspicious of all the elevated moralities which are such an upgrade on the cheesy and degraded traditional virtues of kindness, generosity, compassion, etc.

    Further statistical notes: it may be you or it may be just Alice, but half the country doesn’t actually believe in creationism in the sense I think you (she) are using it. There’s very much a continuum and variety there. Many people believe in both, and the wording of the questions can mislead.

    It bears mentioning that Fascism had a large following among intellectuals as well, especially the philosophers and artists. At any point in time and space in the 20th C, you could count on the European intellectuals to be wrong.

    As for more-educated people skewing left, when you take out those who get advanced degrees in Education (and there is ample reason to remove them from consideration of the educated), there is actually a slight tilt rightward at each level above “didn’t finish high school.” HS, some college, Bachelors, some graduate, and graduate degrees, all a bit more conservative than liberal. I’m a psychiatric social worker and conservatives are thin on the ground at my hospital among the social workers and psychologists. Psychiatrists – more mixed, but largely liberal. But those are hothouse flowers.

  7. Dave says:

    Who says there’s no efficient market hypothesis for politics?
    I don’t find it very credible myself, but I’m a bit skeptical of the *market* version, too.

  8. Asher says:

    It seems pretty obvious to me that the fastest and most efficient way to eliminate poverty is to simply sterilize everyone with an IQ below some threshold. Not sure how this is even debatable

  9. Abel says:

    That last paragraph seems really really good, congrats.

  10. multiheaded says:

    Given “Man versus man” and “Man versus nature”, what would be the EA equivalent of “Man versus author”? (

    All the transhumanist stuff that people like Dylan Matthews are trying to tone down at the moment?

  11. David Byron says:

    In trying to identify where that essay went horribly wrong it seems there are two points. First, that you have an anti-Communism fetish (this needs no further explanation), and second that you think there is such a thing as “man vs nature” cases. There aren’t. The reason you’re considering all this is that people politically objected (“man vs man”) to what would otherwise have been “man vs nature” tactics. Your example of a “man vs nature” is laughably awful. I spent a fair while trying to figure out if it was sarcasm or some sort of joke. I refer to the issue of corporate welfare which you say only exists because politicians haven’t got around to stopping it. Not because the corporations that get billions of dollars actively oppose removing their welfare (“man vs man”).

    Since you pretend there is such a thing as “man vs nature” you skip over the hard work of thinking about which “man vs man” issues (ie all issues) are more or less worthy of supporting, in fact you pretty much dismiss all of them with a comparison to Communism (your ultimate bad).

    I think you just need to rip this one up and start again. It’s that far below standard.

  12. Beezus says:

    Nah, I’m going to rush headlong into systemic change, thanks very much. 🙂 I see a couple problems here; you seem to be assuming that systemic change = revolution (and that, by extension, that revolution will be violent and catastrophically destructive). Systemic change happens all the time, though, through reform, through certain ideas spreading and gaining critical mass. Slavery ended here because of a violent, terrible war, but in most other places it was legislated away. The oppression of women (and the exploitation of their labor), not to mention children, was part of a system that has been (mostly) discarded. The form of capitalism that existed before the Great Depression was significantly changed by the New Deal, with effects that last until today, minus the various areas that have regressed.

    As for the whole “Engels was the seed that grew the Gulags” – that’s imagining a clear line of causation where there is none. Even if it were true, it would only be true of that one case; one could also say that Adam Smith is responsible for the extinction of human society, because Climate Change.

  13. Eli says:

    You want to “beware” systemic change? Fine, but there’s a necessary trade-off hidden there as well. The real world does not have a comfortable, stable status quo you can actually defend: anything and everything you actually see was the product of careful planning and decades of effort to make it that way. Yes, this includes the corner store.

    History can be pushed one way or pushed another, but it can’t stand still. The Right is as much of an ambitious force for change as the Left, and the Left as the Right, at all times. So really, if you take a stand against systemic change from the Left, you’re standing in favor of systemic change from the Right: when you attack social democracy, for instance, you’re aiding neoliberalism.

  14. DensityDuck says:

    Advocating for Systemic Change avoids the basic failure of altruism: The fact that we’re never sure whether we’re assisting or enabling (and all the problems that depend from that uncertainty.) Systemic Change is a giant money-laundering scheme for altruism.

    I see a bum with a sign saying “Hungry, please help”. When I give him five dollars, is he *actually* gonna go buy a Big Mac? Or is he gonna go buy a big bottle of Thunderbird? Did I actually improve his life or did I just let him keep skating along in the gutter?

    But if I give five dollars to the Systemic Change Fund, then I don’t have to worry about that. Systemic Change helps *all* the bums equally, so I don’t have to worry about what any one individual bum will do with my individual five bucks.

  15. David Krueger says:

    I think the main weakness of the OP’s argument is in lumping all “systemic change” together, and trying to argue about how we should feel about it, as if it were a meaningful category for the purpose of this kind of strategizing.

    I don’t think it is. I don’t think we should run screaming, or beware systemic change. I think we should be very clear with ourselves and others about our beliefs and our justifications for them.

    I think the strong argument here is against arrogance. Let’s not act like we know what the effects of open-borders would be. Let’s also not let that stop us from thinking about it, taking positions, and debating it.

    And most importantly, let’s not drift into FGCA-land and stop trying to brainstorm for systemic changes that seem unambiguously good.

    Of the examples that are meant to be obvious that Scott gives, only mass incarceration really sticks out to me as something that really is obvious (and I’ll acknowledge that I’m actually quite ignorant about it, so I wouldn’t spend too much effort promoting it without studying it more). The other examples are to dependent on some degree of scientific knowledge that I do not possess. I agree on those issues, as well, but I wouldn’t automatically consider someone who disagrees as suspect.

    I think we could come up with better examples, given some serious time and effort. Which is something worth considering.

    Writing off systemic change for the reasons Scott gives to me seems like writing off 3rd world charity due to colonialism (or writing off broad-based AI safety outreach due to articles with terminators at the top). Yes, it may be hard to get it right, and there are risks to getting it wrong. But that doesn’t mean we should give up on it categorically. That’s such a n00b move.

  16. Max says:

    Well Ill give you communism. Smart technocrats (Lenin, Trozkiy ) failed to see that whatever system they built would be overtaken by manipulating bureaucrats. Stalin killed practically all old communists and only left politically agnostic functionaries who accepted him as absolute supreme being

    History proves that in games of “greater good” and “power above all else” power wins every time.

    “Effective” altruism is impotent cop out. It does not change anything . You can say whatever you want about Che Guevara his methods and ideas, but fact is with will, action and determination he achieved way more than millions of “donations” (aka “please leave me alone” tax). History and change is driven by people of action, not by those who hide in their safety zone

    • Allan53 says:

      I see, and how are we to effectively distinguish Che from any of the other, oh, let’s say hundreds, of communist revolutionaries that killed dozens of people each out of ideology?

      And given that Che helped bring Castro to power, which was pretty serious in extending the Cold War and was generally a pretty crappy place to live (granted, there were a lot of other factors, but I don’t think we can seriously claim Castro’s reign as a positive for the world), his impact wasn’t great either.

      So, maybe the caution of EA is the way to go, instead of bloody revolution after bloody revolution?

  17. John Ohno says:

    It’s an oversimplification to claim that Marx’s only major lasting impact (and thus Engels’ only lasting impact) on the world was communism. Capitalism in the sense that we think of it begins with Marx, who systematized it to a degree nobody had done before because he wanted to articulate both its value and the ways in which some other system might be preferable (i.e., Marx invented capitalism in order to invent communism to oppose it, although in reality he was trying to describe what was going on in England at the time and his mostly-correct description became self-fulfilling). Sociology also begins with Marx, who studied and analyzed societies on various scales and the way systems of power interact with masses of individuals in order to articulate his feelings about the impact of these new forms of industrial capitalism and how they differed from both feudal mercantilism and his proposed alternatives.

    (It’s also kind of unfair to pin bloody revolutions on Marx, who believed that capitalism would just peter out and collapse by itself and that communism would rise out of the rubble without any help from leaders. The idea that communism should be helped along and that capitalism should be eliminated by force was purely a Bolshevik one, and originated half a century later. So, don’t blame Marx for communist revolutions — which he would be against; instead, blame Lenin for being impatient.)

    • LHN says:

      “The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution.”

      That sounds rather a lot like favoring helping things along to me.

    • “Marx invented capitalism in order to invent communism to oppose it, although in reality he was trying to describe what was going on in England at the time and his mostly-correct description became self-fulfilling”

      Marx invented the term. In what way did he improve on the theory as created by Ricardo?

      So far as “mostly correct,” Marx made predictions–the poor getting poorer, the middle class getting squeezed out. What happened was precisely the opposite.

    • Tracy W says:

      Sociology also begins with Marx, who studied and analyzed societies on various scales and the way systems of power interact with masses of individuals

      On the contrary. Such analysis dated back to Aristotle. And if you read Adam Smith he also covers that, particularly in the context of how merchants will use political power to try to benefit themselves.

  18. Marc says:


    Could you add a bit more detail to the epistemic update? Taking the statement as is, and reading the first 30 comments, it’s somewhat ambiguous in how your views have shifted. I could imagine you now think that communism wasn’t so bad, or perhaps you think systemic change is more predictable? Or probably something else entirely.

  19. Oliver Cromwell says:

    The observed (not predicted) expected value of being a revolutionary anti-capitalist is wildly negative. An effective systemic change alturist would be extremely pro-capitalist. Almost none are. The conclusion isn’t so much that systemic change altruism is useless but that it’s highly ineffective.

    • Mark says:

      “value of being a revolutionary anti-capitalist is wildly negative. An effective systemic change altruist would be extremely pro-capitalist. ”

      No, that doesn’t follow.

      As Nita says above:

      “Roughly, there are four positions:
      – conservative: don’t change the system or yourself, and don’t let others do it either
      – revolutionary: change the system right now, all means are good means!
      – apolitical: don’t touch the system, change yourself, perhaps others will join you eventually
      – reformist: change the system, but only in small steps, to minimize risk”

      Just because revolutionary anti-capitalism doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean you must then become a revolutionary capitalist.

  20. Allan53 says:

    So, I’ve finally gotten off my lazy butt and started looking into what charities would best affect/effect the world I would like to live in, and after some thinking, I’ve kind of locked onto developing world education programs, on the reasoning that as noble and worthy as things like bed nets are, improving education seems like it’d have a longer-term payoff and allow the countries to improve themselves, all else being equal (also bed nets seems to garner plenty of attention already).

    However, from what I’ve read, the actual effectiveness of these types of programs tends to be limited, although GiveWell has noted one as being pretty good within that field.

    What I’m wondering is, would it be better to give (say) $50/month to this charity, which is more value-consistent and one of the few in the area noted for being kind-of effective, or is that post-hoc rationalising my own preconceived bias? I’m also thinking if more work goes into it, then more effective interventions might be found, which wouldn’t happen (or at least would happen slower or less effectively) without donations.

    Or maybe I should split, and give $25/month to the DVE charity, and $25 to the certain-effectiveness-but-not-as-values-congruent AMF?

    Looking for guidance/thoughts.

    • Linch says:

      One possible compromise is donating to Deworm The World Initiative:

      Deworming has ridiculously high returns on future years of schooling:

      “Incorporating the costs of delivering and
      administering the treatments, J-PAL estimates that each year of additional
      schooling gained through the PSDP cost only US$7.19. That works out to
      almost 14 additional years of education per US$100 spent”

      Deworming is also robust to other values involved with cost-effectiveness. For example, it is less likely to avert death than malarial bednets, but subjective reports of happiness are significantly higher for people without parasitic worms crawling through their digestive system, so if you value well-being more than life it could be a good sell.

      Plus, DWI is a GiveWell top charity, so if you give to it, you’re in good company! 😛

      • Allan53 says:

        I considered that, but I neglected to consider the flow-on effects to a schooling/education side. I’ll do some poking, see what I can find out. Thanks 🙂

        I was originally looking at the ionising-salt idea, on the basis that it’d help cognitive development (with usual flow-on effects), but the effectiveness was a bit shaky for me to feel entirely comfortable with that as a choice.

        • Linch says:

          Yeah deworming’s marginal effectiveness in terms of years of additional schooling is ridiculously high compared to “traditional” developmental education interventions like textbooks and school uniforms.

          Please keep us updated! If there’s a better charity than DWI for well-being and long-term outcomes, I’ll want to know too!

          • Adam says:

            My ex-wife got deployed to a humanitarian mission in Djibouti back when she was in the reserve. She came back making jokes about unloading connexes full of old computer science textbooks intended for programs to teach poor Africans to read. That was amusing.

            On the other hand, she came back with an award claiming she saved an entire village of 80 people by acquiring bleach to purify their water supply.

          • Allan53 says:

            Apparently, the malaria-bed-net thing has greater economic impact that I originally considered


            Building economy (or preventing losses, whichever) seems like it’d be something that’d have good flow-on effects for education/employment/infrastructure/whatever?

          • Allan53 says:

            Yeah, it seems the economic impact of malaria is pretty severe, and *may* potentially be a major contributing factor to ongoing poverty in particularly severe areas.


            Which, if true, would seem to imply that reducing the malaria load of an area would go a long way to improving peoples ability to engage with their economy, raising their earning power, as well as lessening the cost burden on the local governments.

            Plus, you know, that whole ‘saving lives’ thing. Which, as a side benefit, is probably one of the better ones.

            Particularly given the debated extent of the de-worming thing on school attendance and such.

            Course, now I’m back to the idea of splitting my donations, because both seem good…

            Is that bad/inefficient? I don’t see them working at cross-purposes, and they’re both pretty solidly established as efficient and good, so I’m, in a sense, hedging my bets. But, on the other hand, I’m not helping either as much as I could than if I focussed.


      • Anon. says:

        “New analysis of a landmark paper on the health and economic benefits of eliminating worm infections in children has found little evidence that it does any good”

        “Their analysis has now been replicated, using the original data, by a team from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which published its findings in the International Journal of Epidemiology.
        3 They found a number of rounding and coding errors that, when corrected, eliminated the claimed
        indirect effect on children in neighbouring schools and that made the effect on school attendance of treated children no longer statistically significant.”

    • Shenpen says:

      Please look up Nassim Taleb on education. Antifragile etc. The correlation is almost entirely the other way around: rich people / nations simply like to consume education, and thus buy more. But the other way around, education making people / nations richer, almost no correlation. Shocking I know.

      The problem is partially that things are invented by tinkerers, not academics. Partially for the practical purposes things like hands on apprenticeship, internship, actually learning a work that way helps more.

      Switzerland used to be famous for it and they were always rich. Even bankers did not necessarily need a college degree. They just apprenticed, interned at the bank and learned things in-house.

      I mean, consider something as simple as food. How would education help Africa feed itself? Is it so difficult to buy and spread fertilizers or drive tractors? Not really. It is the problem of affording it, and having a legal system where it is not insane to own things that can be stolen, and suchlike.

      And then there is the bullshit that “education it not just for jobs but making a better quality democracy” heh. Meaning that if education is used to make kids believe leftie stuff, they will also vote so. Which is certainly true, but it is not exactly an empirical truth.

      My way of helping Africa would be through a strict rule of law where people can safely engage in economic activity, without much fear of theft or fraud.

      • Allan53 says:

        I was more drawing on James Shikwati and his ‘stop helping us and let us help ourselves’ ideas, and education seems as good a way to do that as any.

        I mean, take the ‘bed nets’ option (not intended to imply that that is not a totally valid option, it obviously is, I’m just explaining my perspective): best-case scenario, you save a whole bunch of lives. Yay! However, you haven’t actually done anything to improve those lives, or helped the people of the area make their own bed nets, or whatever, so my thoughts on the long-term effects are mixed (no, I haven’t done definitive research).

        Education may or may not help, but deworming has been shown to have a correlation with improved wages and work outcomes, which helps address poverty, even if we ignore the effects of education – which, to be frank, I’m very hesitant to do.

        Also, your ideas are fine. Exactly how can I help that without doing exactly what you were accusing education of doing – enforcing our values upon them?

        Besides, education is pretty strongly negatively correlated with participation in crime, so all else being equal you’d imagine improving education would improve the ability of people to be safe etc.

  21. jaimeastorga2000 says:

    I think this moral lesson is really important – if everyone gave 10% of their income to effective charity, it would be more than enough to end world poverty, cure several major diseases, and start a cultural and scientific renaissance.

    Scott, you keep making this claim. Are you ever going to make a post defending it? Because right now, I’m skeptical.

    • Bugmaster says:

      FWIW, I’d like to see a more detailed writeup on this, as well. For example, who is “everyone” ? Does that include every person on Earth ? Because if so, then I suspect that some people’s 10% would be multiple orders of magnitude greater than others’…

    • Linch says:

      Scott’s/Sach’s “end world poverty” figures are wrong, but by less than an order of magnitude.

      “In 2013, according to the CIA’s World Factbook, the GWP totalled approximately US$87.25 trillion in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP), and around US$74.31 trillion in nominal terms.”

      10% of that is a nominal 7.4 trillion. As I’ve noted above, for under half a trillion you can literally eliminate extreme poverty (as defined by $1.50/day in 2015 dollars) in the most direct means possible.

      If you want the premium suite, you can have a $1/day basic income for every man, woman and child on Earth. This costs roughly 2.5 trillion assuming 100% efficiency. If GiveDirectly is anything to go by, we can be sure that 3 trillion is enough (note that I expect expenses/person to decrease as it’s scaled up, not increase).

      This will leave over 6% of world GDP for R&D, which is significantly more than 2x what the world spends on research and development right now(public and private).

      Diseases can be cured out of R&D and poverty funding.

      Bugmaster: You’re of course right. “Across 131 countries worldwide, the richest 3% of residents hold 20% of the total collective household income — as do the poorest 54%. ”

      This means that if we in the global 3% do our share, that’s not quite enough to create a $1/day basic income, but it’s more than enough to end extreme poverty, and still have enough left over to greatly increase research.

      Alternatively, we can get 80% the effect of everybody donating 10% just by asking the top 46% to do it.

      This thought experiment was interesting but I’m not quite that idealistic. Thinking on the margins is almost certainly more accurate.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        This seems to ignore the impact (and cost) of infrastructure. Not just monetary cost, but cost in terms of time. And not just physical infrastructure, but also organizational infrastructure.

        At the extreme end of examples, trying to give everyone in Syria right now a GBI won’t be possible, for obvious reasons. And even if you could, it wouldn’t solve the problem.

        Slums in India or favelas in Brazil or almost anywhere in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, etc. all have individual issues that that prevent the distribution if GBI in a manner that actually has the money getting to and remaining under the control of the intended recipients. Sanitation, water, electricity, building codes, etc. are as much connected to political power as money.

        • Linch says:

          HBC->Mobile banking is developing *extremely* quickly. I’m willing to bet that 95% of the world will have a phone in ten years, and a GBI will only accelerate the mobile banking revolution.

          Outside of the monopolies in the West, it’s demonstrably easier to get a telephone network running than a working sanitation system.

          There might be more cost-effective ways to tackle poverty than just giving money, but I think it’s a pretty good baseline to operate on for general approximations.

  22. Hedonic Treader says:

    if everyone gave 10% of their income to effective charity, it would be more than enough to end world poverty…

    Only if economic growth is permanently higher than population growth. And in that case, even 0.1% charity would eventually be enough to end world poverty at some point (totalitarian nations excluded).

  23. P. L. says:

    The *dream of a better tomorrow is achieved by smoothing away the destructive social systems of today – donate now* message appeals to a particular demographic, and can be used easily for the common good by man v. nature charities. This article (particularly the 7% segment) makes me think that this type of marketing becomes more acceptable as we begin to self-select the advertisements and political views that reach us through social media, etc.; the more we self-select our advertising, the less likely that contemptuous fans of streetlit-paths are likely to offend outsiders. These outsiders can also be pushed toward the social good with advertising targeted to their internal drives to donate, within their own isolated social networks. In this way, the obstacle that the “systemic change” motivator places in the way of real progress is impermanent, and shrinking with the current trend of technology to isolate people with differing viewpoints (not counting the psychos who seek eachother out to do battle in Youtube comments).
    TL;DR Circlejerking within social groups is actually making the idea of “systemic change” safer to use as one of many marketing tactics by charities. Does that seem right?

  24. SUT says:

    I’ve actually argued that the overthrow of Saddam was the most valuable form of foreign aid given in the past 20 years.

    If you could convey to Alice, that people like me actually have that inclination, she might be horrified enough into de-politcizing her own EA agenda.

  25. PJ says:

    A dichotomy that completely changed the way I think about a lot of things is: Value Creation vs. Politics. Value Creation is a positive sum game and politics is a zero or negative sum game. Some examples:
    Create value for company vs. Play office politics.
    Learning vs. Credentialing.
    Making yourself worthy of being in relationships with people you respect vs. Convincing people to like you.
    Trying to learn from someone with a different perspective vs Trying to prove them wrong.
    Trying to change yourself so you are less annoyed by your partner vs Trying to change your partner
    Trying to improve you and your partner’s net happiness vs. Making sure your partner is doing their fair share in the relationship
    Economic value creation vs. Fighting for fair distribution
    Making the social system better for everyone vs. making it more fair
    Many others I’ll let you think of.

    They way I see it, in life, you can choose to be a value creator or a politician. If you choose value creation you will always be taken advantage of. You will always be undervalued and you will always add more than you take. You will never get your fair share. This is because many other people will be focused on politics. In exchange you won’t feel like an impostor. You will have more pride as you see and understand the value you are creating. Most importantly you can, without guilt, surround yourself with and join the teams of other value creators. Don’t try to change a politician into a value creator or get sucked into their game. Just avoid them. Some small amount of politics is obviously necessary in certain cases but I still find this to be a helpful lens to apply to the world.

    When it comes to formal politics you may concede that there is such a thing as making the economic pie bigger vs. making sure people get their fair share, but argue when it comes to certain social issues, particularly social justice, this does not apply. In social justice there is a set amount of status so won’t status increases to some people necessarily come at the expense of others? I would argue no. Status is a social construct and people can feel like they have more or less than they really do.

    There is something I call the Law of Conservation of Shame. It’s not really a law; shame can be created and destroyed but in most cases it is just transferred. When someone shames you, you can feel better by shaming someone else. This is usually what I see happen. Boss yells at dad, dad yells at mom, mom yells at family scapegoat, family scapegoat engages in some kind of self harm or finds a way to externalize. Some groups carry lots of shame and others carry an excess of confidence/self-perceived value. Many mentally ill people or victims of bullying perceive themselves as lower status than others actually see them. They always feel they are being judged even when they are not. Many bullies perceive themselves as being higher status than others see them. Remember when you shame someone that shame will be passed around until someone (who probably does not deserve it) internalizes it or forgives and lets go. I think you can create social value when you give a random stranger a complement or smile at someone who looks like they are feeling down. Please think twice before shaming someone, even if you think they deserve it.

    I think the world would be a much better place if more people focused on value creation and less on politics.

    • LTP says:

      But see, you’re making political claims in this very post, but saying only your opponents are political. This seems to be a common fallacy, the whole “let’s put the politics aside…” trope.

    • Bugmaster says:

      I think some of your examples are too broad, because they appear to be focused on avoiding conflict altogether, not just avoiding politics.

      For example, sometimes a person “with a different perspective” is actually wrong (of course sometimes, that person is you). But there’s often some sort of a semi-objective way to discover who is wrong and who is not; this way is called “science”, and without conflict, it wouldn’t exist.

      Trying to change yourself for the better is a noble goal; but if your partner’s pack-a-day smoking habit is what annoys you, then changing your partner is not a bad idea, either.

      Resource distribution will never be “fair” in the sense of “everyone gets the same amount”; but it’s still a good idea to keep it “fair” in the sense of “everyone pays taxes to offset the cost of services they use”, or “there’s some sort of a negative feedback mechanism that deters fraud”.

      All politics is conflict, but not all conflict is politics.

      • PJ says:

        I would consider science value creation. I see it as people vs. problem not people vs people and a positive sum game. I left fair intentionally undefined to try to keep my post non-political. My point is if you have 50,000 people spending all their time and money trying to make the distribution of money fair and there are 25,000 on each side the outcome might be better for both sides if they all spent the same time trying to grow the pie.

        If you help your partner stop smoking then you helped improve the health of your team. This is what I consider value creation. The key is to notice when you are playing zero or negative sum games and to think if there is a better way to spend your time.

        I don’t think we should stop politics all together but we should at least notice when we are playing zero sum games.

        Say Hillary and Jeb get the nominations. Assume they each have 50 million in pack money and are planning to spend 25 million on attack adds against each other. I’m saying why don’t they meet with each other and say: “Look, after we spend this money both of us will have a worse reputation. Why don’t we donate it to starving children in Africa instead and we will be in the same place in terms of winning the election.”

        This is obviously unrealistic but individuals can make similar kinds of lower stakes agreements in their real life. I’m not saying it is realistic to never play politics I am just trying to give people glasses so they notice when they are playing zero or negative sum games.

        • Bugmaster says:

          Science is all about people vs. people. I mean, yes, these people are all scientists who are interested in understanding the world; however, the way this process works (when it goes as planned, that is) is that one scientist publishes a paper; and then a bunch of other scientists do their best to knock it down.

          I am on board with you regarding value creation vs. zero-sum games; but the problem is, zero-sum games often look like value creation scenarios to the players.

          For example, imagine that I am an avid supporter of Jeb Bush. I think all of his policies are pure gold; furthermore, I believe that, should Hillary Clinton be elected, she would plunge America into one thousand years of darkness. Could I really say to myself, with clear conscience, “yeah, perhaps Jeb Bush is the Holy Ronald Reagan reborn, and Hillary is the Antichrist, but politics is a dirty business so I won’t donate to either campaign” ?

          If we had access to some sort of an oracle that says, “scenario X is a zero-sum game but scenario Y is not”, things would be easy, but we don’t have access to such an oracle at the moment.

  26. LTP says:

    Somebody may have made this point, and maybe I’m missing Scott’s point, but I’m going to be That Guy and say that the idea that the current EA agenda is somehow apolitical betrays a lack of self-awareness. It seems to me that effective altruism smuggles in a great many gray tribe political views and opinions, such as the ineffectiveness or lack of necessity for institutional or political changes. Further, EA is making claims about what we as people should do with our money, i.e. that we should donate our money and live our lives in service of goals determined by a utilitarian framework that prioritizes international charity to the third world over other causes, which is inherently a political claim.

  27. Alphaceph says:

    > It seems very unlikely that dark-side epistemology and systematic suppression of evidence is to blame for open borders advocacy.

    What about supression of legitimate scientific inquiry into human biodiversity? We repressed that because it suited us to maintain a lie that all people are equal, now we are advocating nonsense policy because people on the left and “respectable” right have come to unquestioningly believe that lie?

    • Adam says:

      Nope. Pretty sure it’s not that. In fact, a majority of Americans seem to not support open borders in large part because they suspect the people who would come are inferior people and I don’t think they need hbd research to convince them of that.

      Any proposal that the world has been mind-killed into supporting open borders has to deal with the reality that there is very little actual support for open borders and almost all of it meets with tremendous pushback from every corner of every political spectrum.

      Edit: I’m adding this since you mentioned, which has a page on all of the polling data regarding this topic. It’s a bunch of polls, but a few highlights are 44 of 47 countries wanting more restriction on immigration, 23% of Americans wanting more immigration versus 35% wanting less, 68% saying better control of the border to halt illegals being either extremely important or very important, 61% of Americans concerns that illegal immigrants unfairly burden schools, hospitals, and governments.

      • What the masses think doesn’t really matter. If there is no serious legitimate inquiry into HBD, then the elite educated classes have no basis to oppose open borders.

        The thing that scares people about open borders is that everyone knows that a society can’t survive if it can’t exclude outsiders, but open borders is very obviously on the agenda because the elites don’t know that or pretend not to know that, and no one can call them out on it because anyone who tries to look into the relevant questions in a legitimate way is subject to social and legal coercion to maintain the narrative.

        • How did the U.S. survive for the first century plus of its existence? It’s true there were some restrictions on oriental immigration but on in the 1870’s, but aside from those it was pretty much open borders until the 1920’s.

          • Jaskologist says:

            Immigration law may have been more open, but the natural barriers to immigration were a lot higher. You had to spend months on a dangerous, expensive boat ride. Now you have to spend a safe but boring day on a plane (or cross the Mexican border). I don’t think we can ignore that when comparing the two.

          • In the period just before WWI, about a million people a year managed it.

            And, of course, Mexico was just as close to the U.S. then as now, with no intervening ocean.

  28. Wrong Species says:

    This post is supposed to be about EA but I think you just made a great defense of conservatism in general.

  29. Sean McCarthy says:

    What’s Bob’s justification for the “efficient market hypothesis” for politics?

    The reason the EMH is a thing (to the extent that it is) is that – for markets specifically! – the act of making them more efficient (i.e. arbitrage) has a negative cost (i.e. you net money). That money feeds back and gives the people who are correct more power to influence prices than the people who are wrong. The hypothesis then is that, given sufficient information, the people who are making the market more efficient will inherently out-muscle the people who are making it less efficient.

    What’s supposed to be the corresponding mechanism in politics?

  30. Brawndo says:

    Reposting a comment that got stuck in spam after I edited it.

    This post is correct that all of the political agendas suggested for effective altruists are a bad idea. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t good political arguments.

    If strong political arguments exist, they could have pretty serious implications, and failing to act on them could be really costly for humanity. Trying to be apolitical merely supports the current state (which was produced by yesterday’s politics), and surrenders to the winds of present-day politics.

    Lots of deaths were caused by man-vs-man conflicts. What if these disasters were predictable and preventable? What if history will repeat itself until we learn from it?

    What if it is possible to get answers on at least some politicized questions with enough research and historical background?

    What if part of the reason that politics is so bad is that the epistemically humble people stay out of it, not because politics is inherently inscrutable?

    You say that to suggest a political stance in EA, you would have to believe that other people aren’t even trying. That’s actually not a ridiculous belief! Politics is full of signaling, status-seeking, and spin. Most people involved in politics are not actually trying to find the truth and create good governance. They don’t read history and they outsource their opinions and values. Is this really the best humanity can do?

    For instance, take your example of open borders. It isn’t actually very hard to figure out that it fails the basic Chesterton’s Fence sanity check. (Short version: open borders advocates haven’t shown how it’s an acceptable risk to import large numbers of people from countries with high corruption, high crime, low trust, or conflicting political views, often without background checks. They have not shown that the net benefit will be positive to either the natives or the immigrants when all externalities and risk of conflict are considered. They haven’t adequately grappled with the possibility of large-scale ethnic conflict between groups with different religions and levels of clannishness.)

    Open borders and communism were both terrible ideas that attracted contemporary critics, and they were only accepted due to moral hand-waving and ignoring contemporary evidence that things weren’t going well. In both of these cases, it is possible to figure out which side has the better arguments; maybe it’s also possible on other political questions, too.

    Making this argument might start a debate, but it’s really hard to honestly address this topic without going object-level. Rather than a debate, my recommendation would be those who are interested in the issue seek out a variety of sources from different perspectives, and look up video footage that the mainstream media isn’t publishing. People need to go a bit further afield than, Caplan, and (the latter is the best, because it summarizes perspectives on the anti-side, but it doesn’t quite dispel all of them).

    I disagree with the systematic change crowd on the issues (and how is it that a magazine named after the Jacobins expects to get taken seriously by EA? Really?). But they are correct that EA will eventually need to grapple with political and moral issues to make an impact. It would get messy to hash out a better political approach, so I understand why people might not want to jump into that effort, but it’s premature to give up on political reasoning altogether. There is a cost to trying and getting it wrong, but there is also a cost to not trying while humanity plays around with communism, open borders, Jacobinism, or whatever is currently fashionable.

    Also, +1 to everything Shenpen said.

    • The target audience of this post is not people who are going to actually try at politics, it’s people who are going to “try” at politics but actually just pursue insane and evil things for signalling reasons. The point is that politics is about summoning and making deals with with demons, and that EAs, despite their hubris, actually don’t know anything about how to stay safe and sane when summoning demons. To the extent that EAs touch politics, demons will take their souls and coopt their movement, so it makes sense for EA as such to just completely avoid anything that has serious opposition. EAs should focus on undervalued interventions that everyone would agree with, like preventing X risk and preventing disease, because they simply don’t have and shouldn’t spend time developing the expertise to play the game beyond that kind of thing.

      For people who actually are interested in the EA ethos applied to systemic change, the movement for them would look completely different and would have very little in common with EA as such, because it would have such a different theoretical emphasis. If you actually wanted to do systemic change that wasn’t insane, you’d have to have a serious theory of history, which would mean studying history, disconnecting from contemporary myth and “morality”, serious strategic thought, serious non-retarded non-utopian theory of social science, etc. IMO, EA applied to politics is basically NRx, which illustrates just how different it is.

      NRx actually studies in a serious way how to do non-evil systemic change, and I dunno if y’all will believe us as experts on the matter, but our conclusion is that politics is extremely hard and dangerous and should not be approached casually. Our advice to EA is that politics should be firewalled away from EA where it can’t corrupt the real good that EA is doing.

  31. It seems to me that systemic change via the experimentation approach qualifies as man vs. nature, not man vs. man. Think Seasteading or Startup Cities.

    It’s something essentially everyone could support as long as nobody is forced to pay for it or participate in it. The new systems are created only in some areas where everyone is on-board with the experiment and they are adopted on a wide scale if and only if they are proven to be successful.

    • Christopher Chang says:

      Yes, I also mentioned Seasteading and similar projects in an earlier comment.

      It is possible to support open borders in a manner that avoids the man vs. man conflicts Scott correctly warns effective altruists to stay away from. If you look through e.g. old comments, you will see that this has also repeatedly been suggested to them in the past.

      The problem is not really with the open borders cause (at least when interpreted as a direction to move in, rather than a mandatory destination); it’s with the unnecessarily repulsive political behavior of open borders advocates to date. As soon as they stop trying to force unwanted changes on major Western countries and redirect their focus to non-redistributive experimentation, I think they’ll stop deserving their “bottom quartile” rating.

  32. gbdub says:

    Was Oskar Schindler a bad man (or at least a lousy altruist), because he chose to save 1,200 lives within a corrupt system, expending most of his personal wealth to do so? Was he just enabling Naziism by running factories within the Nazi system? Should he have renounced his Nazi Party membership, bought up bombs, and run a guerilla movement? Those arguing for EAs to focus on systemic change seem to be saying yes.

    • Shmi Nux says:

      No one is saying an equivalent of “Schindler was a bad man”, the EA point of view is roughly that he could have been more efficient if he spent his fortune on higher-leverage activities, whatever they might have been.

      • Adam says:

        If he had stuck to Jews as lowest-cost labor model and not gone sentimental, he could have made a fortune as a war profiteer and donated all of it to AI risk, although I guess that wasn’t a thing back then so can’t fault him for being born into the wrong era.

  33. Joe Teicher says:

    “if everyone gave 10% of their income to effective charity, it would be more than enough to end world poverty, cure several major diseases, and start a cultural and scientific renaissance.”

    I call BS. How would EA cure poverty in North Korea? Wouldn’t giving NK more money just make Kim Jong Un richer and more powerful? And NK is not the only poor country run by a despot. Any really sizeable attempt to end world poverty would mostly end up being a program to enrich 3rd world dictators.

    • Linch says:

      “*Any* really sizeable attempt to end world poverty would mostly end up being a program to enrich 3rd world dictators.”

      That’s a very strong claim.

      • Linch says:

        Well there are less and less dictators in the world now, and there’s no particular reason to believe that the trend will change. Ofc this is not saying that aid decreases dictatorships…

        I’ve heard it argued that the net improvements from global health alone is enough to outweigh the (far more dubious) disincentive effects of aid. I don’t have the numbers with me but I remember it being very plausible at the time. Further, maybe I need more epistemic modesty, but it seems like if you’re committed, it’s not too difficult to design mechanisms where more than 75% of the money goes to the population you’re trying to serve (GiveDriectly has over 90%+).

        I guess I personally just don’t care how rich third world dictators get. All else being equal, I guess it’s plausible that the world will be better off if more billionaires are so because they productively added to society instead of being rent-seekers, but it just isn’t that big a deal to me. It seems like a lot of third world dictators just get deposed with golden parachutes and everybody’s better off. Arguably unfair, but I don’t believe in desert, so w/e.

        If I was being uncharitable, I would say that complaints about “programs to enrich 3rd world dictators” aren’t substantively different from complaints about charity CEOs making 6 figures. All else being equal, of course effectiveness should incorporate efficiency concerns, but god forbid if, in the course of saving lives and improving the well-being of the least well-off, I accidentally improved the lives of the upper class as well!

        • FacelessCraven says:

          Dictators have many, many more bad effects for the countries they inhabit than Charity CEOs do. These effects can be bad enough to outweigh whatever value the aid provides. It’s not a matter of equality, it’s a matter of enabling active, destructive evil.

        • Linch says:

          Yes, I was mindreading too much in my previous reply. Of course there are practical reasons why people would prefer not having dictators to having them, and there is some empirical evidence for a “foreign aid” variation of the “resource curse.”

          I think people do tend to over-estimate the impact of “active, destructive evil” vis a vis. “permitting evil to happen, business as usual” though.

        • FacelessCraven says:

          @Linch – “I think people do tend to over-estimate the impact of “active, destructive evil” vis a vis. “permitting evil to happen, business as usual” though.”

          In the case of the Dictators, though, it’s both. The worst part about them isn’t that they murder and rape and plunder, it’s that they deform their societies in order to maintain power. Good is punished, evil is rewarded, and the social capital of the nation is burned away. Even if you bring the dictator down, what do you replace them with? Most of the decent, intelligent, model citizens are dead or gone, and the population that remains is accustomed to brutality. It seems to me that is strictly worse and much harder to fix than, say, an area that has just historically been dirt poor.

  34. PGD says:

    I can’t tell whether this point has been made somewhere among the zillion comments above, but the contrast between ‘man vs. man’ and ‘man vs. nature’ in the post seems way overdone. What makes a conflict ‘man vs man’ is whether it involves serious redistribution of social resources. If it does then people mobilize to defend or oppose various interests that would be affected by the change. The example Scott gives of ‘healing the sick’ should alert you to that right away. As I recall there was and is quite a lot of ‘man vs man’ debate concerning health care reform. There isn’t that much debate around charity for health care because such voluntary giving is relatively small potatoes in the scope of the overall health system and doesn’t really have much effect on distribution or power relations. If you were seriously going to try to ‘heal the sick’ on a universal basis people would be having fistfights about whether and how to do it soon enough.

    So what distinguishes ‘man vs man’ ‘systemic’ change and ‘man vs nature’ non-controversial non-systemic change is not the problem you are talking about, but, well, whether the scope of your proposed solution to the problem involves a lot of changes in current arrangements of power and wealth. From that perspective, some parts of this post seem like a sort of peculiarly dogmatic don’t-upset-the-applecart conservatism. But I guess I do agree that when applecarts are upset then things do tend to get messy.

    • ” What makes a conflict ‘man vs man’ is whether it involves serious redistribution of social resources. ”

      Perhaps I am misreading you, but you seem to be assuming that all disagreement is due to a conflict of interest, that everyone sees the consequences of a policy in the same way, but those who are helped by it approve and those hurt disapprove.

      An alternative possibility is that some people believe a policy will have consequences almost everyone approves of, others consequences almost everyone disapproves of.

      Consider the policy of raising the minimum wage. The argument for it is that it helps poor people. The argument against it is that it hurts poor people—prices unskilled labor out of the market. Or consider arguments over macro policy. If the result of running a deficit is that unemployment falls sharply, GNP rises, increased tax revenues pay off the incurred debt in the up side of the cycle, hardly anyone would disapprove.

      Am I misunderstanding your view?

      • PGD says:

        You are giving a rather caricatured version of my view. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that a community reaches a broad consensus over a policy that redistributes resources and hurts the short-term material interests of some, but which all agree benefits the community as a whole. But it’s enormously difficult to reach such consensus in the face of actual short-run conflicts of interest.

        Certainly people almost never make public arguments of the form ‘X will help almost everyone and will have large net benefits, but it hurts me so I’m against it’. Besides being very ineffective as propaganda, it doesn’t really align with human nature to argue that consciously. But it is very frequently the case that people come to believe that policies that are bad for them are also bad for everyone else.

        • “But it is very frequently the case that people come to believe that policies that are bad for them are also bad for everyone else.”

          Even more frequently that policies that benefit them also benefit almost everyone else. I suspect that most people who support a tariff to protect their industry believe that keeping their industry healthy is good for America. That farmers who support agricultural subsidies believe that if we don’t maintain a healthy farm sector Americans might starve. University professors mostly believe that the government expenditures on their industry are good for the country.

          There’s a reason for the asymetry between concerns about benefits and concerns about harms. The political system generally benefits concentrated interest groups at the expense of dispersed interest groups, for familiar reasons. So a policy that provides a large and visible benefit to a small number of people in exchange for a small (per capita) and hard to notice cost to a large number is much more likely to pass than one that imposes a large cost on a small number and a small benefit on a large.

          Getting back to my initial point … . In the context of interest groups lobbying for favors, I agree that what you support depends largely on the effect on you. But in the context of more general arguments, such as minimum wage or size of government or environmental policy, left vs right and the like, while there will be a few people who are affected directly and base their views on self-interest, I think most of the disagreement is based on different views of the consequences.

          But on the third hand … the interest group members are more likely to actually spend resources getting what they want, which supports your argument.

          And on the fourth hand, as Dan Kahan has argued, there are certain issues which get linked to group membership, where the rational individual believes what will make him popular with the group that matters to him, independent of both good reasons and self-interest.

  35. HeelBearCub says:

    Why do I feel like Bob was absolutely certain that cardiologists are terrible people?

  36. Shmi Nux says:

    Let me play a Multiheaded for a moment here.

    You write about Engels: ” the net effect of his contribution was global mass murder without any lasting positive change,” which is factually incorrect, since we all live in that “lasting positive change,” where one can work for hire (be a part of the “proletariat”) and still have a good living, not at all the case in 1800s and early 1900s. The Red scare is generally agreed to have started or significantly accelerated the improvement in the wages and working conditions in the First World.

    Further, the whole communist movement and ideology was masterfully hijacked and irrevocably tainted by one Joseph Stalin, who repeatedly squashed any attempt by Lenin and his buddies to allow state capitalism in Russia, delaying it by 50 years until Deng Xiaoping reintroduced it in China. The latter seems to work reasonably well, Tiananmen and general bureaucracy and corruption notwithstanding, contradicting the popular assertion that central planning necessarily leads to “global mass murder”.

    Incidentally, the general EA movement and especially the x-risk part of it seems rather vulnerable to this kind of hijacking. It uses ideology of rationality to divorce your intuition (help those who appear to need help) from your actions (help those who have been calculated to need help, even if they haven’t been born yet). This is little different from the Russian communists asking the populus to make sacrifices for the brighter future, as convincingly calculated by the authority. Once your intuitions are out the window, and if your own calculational capacity is limited, you have to trust the authority doing the math for you, or at least charismatically presenting their argument as having done the math. Since without some form of Raikoth simulation running, it’s nearly impossible to test this assertion, you end up trusting others and happily donating to THE CAUSE, having been duped into thinking that you are being both rational and virtuous.

    • Shmi Nux says:

      It was certainly real communism, the only one that was. No one knows what could have been. Maybe it would have turned out differently if Stalin did not kill off all his bolshevik buddies. Or maybe not. The last 30 years of the “Chinese model” could have been one possible scenario, or it could have ended up in a cult of a different personality and the same totalitarianism. Who knows. I wish there were reasonably accurate simulations of what could have been, but that will have to wait for a real-life Hari Seldon.

      • maznak says:

        But the “Chinese model” is not any kind of communism any more. Trust me, we had a course named “scientific communism” at the university, in the 80’s Czech republic. The Chinese model is total negation of communism. Don’t be misled by the guys running it still having the nominal label of “communists”. They simply don’t dare (or care) to change the party name.

    • “The Red scare is generally agreed to have started or significantly accelerated the improvement in the wages and working conditions in the First World.”

      That may be your opinion but it is certainly not “generally agreed.” You seem to be imagining a world in which wages and working conditions are determined by a conspiracy of the ruling class rather than as a market outcome.

      Or am I misinterpreting you?

    • “contradicting the popular assertion that central planning necessarily leads to “global mass murder”.”

      I recommend to you How China Became Capitalist by Ronald Coase and Ning Wang. Chen Yun, the second most powerful figure in the post-Mao party, believed in central planning. What happened was more nearly in spite of that than because of that. His part was not to block the shifts to a market system that were happening on the fringes of the system.

      Central planning does not always lead to mass murder. Sometimes it just leads to poverty. Since China abandoned it, per capita real income has gone up twenty fold (from Mao’s death to 2010—I don’t have a current figure).

      • multiheaded says:

        Since China abandoned it, per capita real income has gone up twenty fold (from Mao’s death to 2010—I don’t have a current figure).

        Yeah, and what about between 1948 and Mao’s loss of power? The life expectancy had increased by like 20+ years, according to WHO data, so I imagine a similar dramatic growth is hardly out of the question.

        • Linch says:

          Considering that health is one of few things Mao did right, this is really doubtful:

        • Adam says:

          We need at least a causal analysis there. My hunch for any rise in life expectancy in the late 40s is Japanese stopped invading and slaughtering everyone.

        • “The life expectancy had increased by like 20+ years, according to WHO data”

          It might be true, but where do you think the WHO data came from? It isn’t as if neutral scientists from outside of China were in a position to collect mass demographic statistics.

          For per capita income in the period under Mao, we have the obvious contrast between mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong. In terms of natural resources per capita, the PRC was far and away the richest. In terms of how well off the people were, it ended up by a large margin the poorest. That was part of the reason that after Mao died and members of the leadership were able to go abroad and see conditions for themselves, they concluded that they were doing something terribly wrong and started trying to figure out what.

    • E. Harding says:

      “The Red scare is generally agreed to have started or significantly accelerated the improvement in the wages and working conditions in the First World.”

      -Uh, no. Correlation is not causation. And Trotsky would have been worse than Stalin (whom Trotsky considered to be not hard enough on the Kulaks), as he was more committed to pure Communism and World Revolution.

      • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

        >And Trotsky would have been worse than Stalin (whom Trotsky considered to be not hard enough on the Kulaks), as he was more committed to pure Communism and World Revolution.

        Someone argued, in a previous thread, that Communism was worse than fascism, because the latter was insular and self-destructed quickly. That could apply to Trotskyism as well: His commitment to pure communism and World Revolution could make him fail all the sooner, sparing us decades of widespread communism. Of course, this is merely arguing hypotheticals.

    • Tracy W says:

      . The Red scare is generally agreed to have started or significantly accelerated the improvement in the wages and working conditions in the First World.

      Generally agreed by who? In my experience economic historians tend to rather ignore good news entirely, I’ve read a fair number of histories that go from disaster to disaster and leave me wondering when and how a country like France actually got to a state with nice houses and most people owning cars.

  37. 27chaos says:

    I’m not sure why you’re characterizing the communism vs capitalism debate as uncertain. I think 98% of economists would say that communism doesn’t work well because of the economic calculation problem. Beware stupid systemic change would be a more accurate way to think about it. If the communists in the United States were verging on a major coup, donating money to oppose them would become extremely important for effective altruists.

    Also, your argument seems inconsistent. When it comes to gay marriage, the proponents of gay marriage are able to quantify their support for it and the opponents are unable to quantify their opposition. When it comes to other issues like open borders, the opposition has strong support for their ideas, and it’s the proponents who are forced to appeal to unknown possibilities to justify the claim.

    I don’t think there’s any consistent relationship between the type of proof available for a policy and whether or not that policy is about a large scale change.

    • Mark says:

      In actual reality, communism/central planning was really successful at doing things that weren’t related to consumer demand. I’d say that is one in the eye for the economic calculation problem – or perhaps the economic calculation problem isn’t referring to any existing historical situations?

      • Urstoff says:

        Like what things?

        When consumer demand encompasses things like eating and being clothed, it seems like leaving that up to state planning is a pretty bad idea.

        • Mark says:

          Perhaps I should say consumer choice.

          Industrialization, construction of transportation links, war production, space race, nuclear bombs.

          In wartime UK, guaranteed prices for food were established by the government and the distribution and supply of food was centrally planned. They say that was the time when people had the best nutrition…

          • Urstoff says:

            In that communist governments tend to overproduce all of those things at the expense of the populace, you are correct. I don’t see any reason to think that communist governments produce more optimal levels of those goods than democratic market states.

          • Mark says:

            Hmmm… as far as I am aware the point about the economic calculation problem is that it should be impossible for a centrally planned economy to compete with a market one because of the difficulty of calculating which inputs should be used without the benefit of a market price mechanism.
            But if centrally planned economies can successfully industrialize, can send rockets to the moon, can feed their populace to a higher (nutritional) standard than they are fed under the free market doesn’t that raise a bit of a question mark as to whether the point is true?
            It seems to me that while the market mechanism is necessary to get information about individual consumer preferences and satisfy them, the broader criticism that it is necessary for *any* economic system is unsupported by the historical evidence.

          • DrBeat says:

            Scott has a review of a book called “Red Plenty” that addresses this: the jist of it is that without markets and prices you lose all sorts of information about how to allocate resources and every substitute measurement you come up with is way worse and way more prone to abuse.


          • Communist governments didn’t “successfully industrialize.” Both the USSR and China were much less successful than countries that started at similar levels and followed something closer to a market approach.

            What they did do was persuade people in the West that they were making great progress. For something like twenty years, every edition of Samuelson claimed the USSR was catching up with the US, sometimes with a date at which it would do so. And in every edition the ratio of GNP between the two was about the same. And that was GNP by Soviet figures.

            For the Chinese case, compare the mainland to Taiwan. Prior to Mao’s death Taiwan was a much more successful economy. Since China abandoned communism as an economic system it has been catching up.

            The calculation argument was that a socialist system could not figure out the allocation of inputs to outputs that maximized welfare due to the lack of price signals.

          • E. Harding says:

            @David Friedman

            -The USSR (or, at least, Soviet Russia) was richer than any Latin American country by the late 1980s (but that doesn’t mean its people were; they had an even harder time buying high-quality imported goods!). Admittedly, Cuba is no great industrialization success story (though North Korea conceivably could have been, had Kim Il-Sung better planners, though never as great as the South). The USSR’s industrialization performance was better than that of Latin America, but worse than that of even the poorest non-Communist European countries (though better than or similar to that of Turkey).

            So the USSR was hardly unique in never successfully industrializing, by your standards.

            Comparing the mainland with Taiwan is pretty much legitimate; Taiwan was poorer than the USSR in 1960 and richer in 1989. Also, compare Slovenia and Austria, West and East Germany. Communism was clearly inferior to the most developed forms of Western Capitalism, but hardly a total failure.

  38. ad says:

    Alice: Fine then. For the sake of argument, the smart people were wrong twice. That still doesn’t…

    I’ve always wanted to see a film about the heroic, noble, nineteenth century effort to ban the use of female labourers in coal mines. I want to see an audiance cheering the enlightened liberals fighting for this reform, and denouncing the evil, selfish mine owners arguing against it. After all,clearly it is wrong for monen to work down mines…

    Or a film about the peace movement in 1930s Britain that denounced the warmonger Neville Chamberlain for pouring all that money into the RAF while so many people went underfed.

  39. Trevor Blake says:

    Karl Popper wrote about the seemly inevitable negative unintended consequences of system-changers in his 1945 books “The Open Society and Its Enemies” volumes one and two. Recommended.

  40. Kevin says:

    Obligatory xkcd (surprised it hasn’t been posted yet):

  41. The Voracious Observer says:

    I think it is a valid argument that political-EA has a lot of dangerous failure modes that could cause more money to be wasted than if political-EA was avoided. Politics is risky, and bets with lots of risk rarely pay out.

    However, I think there is a counter-argument that should also be considered. Effective Altruism that avoids politics also faces another, less obvious political trap. If EA can be counted on to send aid to foreign countries, buying mosquito nets, providing potable water, etc, then the USA/first-world-countries may note this aid in economics forecasts, count on this aid, and subsequently cut back on governmental foreign aid. EA could risk becoming part of the establishment, and if that happens, EA will be expected, counted on, and included in decision planning by central bureaucracies. Instead of EA losing out in risky political in-fighting, EA could lose by accidentally privatizing existing government roles.

    • I assume that the purpose of most “foreign aid” is to buy support from the governments it goes to. Charity isn’t a substitute.

    • David Byron says:

      The elites are adept at extracting resources from the workers. If for any reason they see the workers have more resources than the elites think they need (eg from charitable donations) they should extract the excess resources. Thus charity does nothing but feed more money and resources to the elites.

      For example a lot of welfare in the USA just goes to corporate welfare by enabling companies such as WalMart to pay their workers below the level they would otherwise have to pay for the workers to continue to exist and work.

      • “below the level they would otherwise have to pay for the workers to continue to exist and work.”

        Does it alter that opinion if I tell you that the average per capita income of the world at present is about ten times what it was through most of history—twenty to thirty times for the developed world?

        I suspect that your view of what it takes to keep people in existence is a result of having grown up in one of the richest societies that has ever existed.

        • David Byron says:

          I mean of course in existence and not slitting the throats of the elites. In existence as compliant workers that is.

          • FacelessCraven says:

            Your message about the inherint exploitation of all workers by the elites has been delivered to me via my connection to our global telecommunications network, and I am currently reading it off my magical moving picture display, which is roughly the size of one of those royal portraits that poor people in the past couldn’t afford. Next to this display sits an entertainment console that is gathering dust, because it is my ninth dedicated entertainment option and the eight options ahead of it keep me too busy to bother with it. Next to that is the magic box that cools my office to the bracing arctic tempurtures I prefer to the triple digit tempurtures outside. Sometimes I crank it too high, and it gets a little TOO cold, and then I take a hot shower using my on-demand running hot and cold water and feel much better, and then spend an hour or so luxeriously brushing out the three feet of hair I can keep clean and tidy with modern lotions and cleansers.

            I have actually worked in a factory. Have you? I’ve actually been an illegal immigrant working under the table. I’ve dropped out of college twice, and made bad life decisionsthat left me so poor I had to rely on church pantries to stay fed. At one point, the only food I had was a 10-pound sack of onions, the smell of which was coming out of my skin before I got enough money to buy more food.

            I’ve also applied myself, acquired valuable skills, and am now financially comfortable. What I’m basicly trying to say here is that I am having a hard time reconciling your description of our economic reality with my own life and that of the people around me.

      • Mary says:

        “For example a lot of welfare in the USA just goes to corporate welfare by enabling companies such as WalMart to pay their workers below the level they would otherwise have to pay for the workers to continue to exist and work.”

        So you think we should cut the benefits of all those who are employed?

        We tried your tactic. It does not result in high wages. It results in bloated welfare rolls.

        Therefore, the corporations are subsidizing YOU, by letting you pay less in benefits, not you them.

        • David Byron says:

          I think we should bill the companies for the benefits, yes.

          Why on earth would you attack the workers for what the companies did? Oh I see you were attacking a strawman. Do better.

          • Mary says:

            The Constitution forbids ex post facto laws. And if you make it going forward, they will just fire the workers. Then you will have to pay more.

            And if you think taking the job was something the company did, you’re the one erecting a straw man.

          • brad says:

            FWIW the ex post facto clauses only applies to criminal penalties.

  42. maznak says:

    Well I really enjoy this blog! And coming from a post-communist country, having spent half of my life under communist rule, I still cannot enjoy freedom and capitalism enough. Not because of the relatively comfortable living I was able to create for myself and my family (well that too of course). But because of the freedom, lack of bullying from all kinds of institutions, and mainly the fact that the world I live in is 1000% more (of course not perfect) meritocracy than it used to be before.
    Let me say this: Bob is right! Bob is absolutely right. Any movement that “owns all the right truths” and will get enough power will be eventually hijacked by fanatics and/or opportunists and will turn into a monster. Only certain type of intellectuals can be blind to this inevitable outcome. The less brilliant people know it all along, because they have more of the street smarts, don’t tend to live in ivory towers and have much better common sense all around.

  43. NZ says:

    FWIW I thought that was a very elegant summary of the rational anti-gay-marriage position, or at least one of its main tenets. Good job.

  44. Tom Scharf says:

    “think about how easy it would have been to make Gore win in 2000 and how much would have changed if he had.” I know this was just a hypothetical for discussion.

    Always the assumption that if my side won the results would have been better, with zero evidence to support it except “look some bad things happened”, inferring had the right side won it would have been butterflies and rainbows all the way down.

    If Obama would have won, think how much better off the Middle East would have been.

    Presidential determinism of the economy and global geopolitics seems to have a very low SNR if you ask me. My theory is people are very uncomfortable with the fact that the world is mostly chaos and we don’t really have a good understanding of how to control man, or nature. But it is comforting to pretend we do.

    • Adam says:

      This is actually why I don’t vote or engage in politics. I don’t believe who ends up being president contributes more than an infinitesimal amount to the arc of history on the world stage. There are probably a few exceptions, like George Washington for setting the two-term precedent and actually stepping down, but even there it isn’t clear that another founding father wouldn’t have done the same thing.

      • Who wouldn't want to be anonymous says:

        I am not sure this is true. You just lack historical perspective.

        It might be an instructive example to consider Edward the Confessor. He almost certainly had less influence over affairs of state than any president, but his glib comment that he should like to see William the Bastard inherit set in motion what is probably one of the most important events of the last thousand years.

        If I were in the mood to coin a phrase, I might talk about The Exponential-Chaos Theory of History. The consequences of any historic decisions starts small and localized, but grow exponentially with time. But they also interact with each other chaotically so that sometimes even small consequences blow everything out of the water.

        Consider, say, Draco. If he hasn’t done whatever it is he did in wherever, Athens I guess, the immediate consequences would be very small. Primarily confined to who is pissed off at whom in an obscure city state. But over time they grow so that now, three thousand years since, it is impossible to tell what shape the world would take. There could have been Greek colonies on mars for 500 years by now, for all we know. Trying to predict the difference between a Bush/Gore presidency is fundamentally limited by what time frame you are talking. Sure, *now* the difference wouldn’t be very large. Iraq II was an incredibly inconsequential war by most measures. But in three thousand years?

        • Adam says:

          You haven’t convinced me I should vote for president on the basis of what I expect the effect to be in 3,000 years.

        • “There could have been Greek colonies on mars for 500 years by now”

          A Choice of Destinies by Melissa Scott (quite a good author). The fork there is Alexander deciding not to go to India.

          • Deiseach says:

            Sweet Cosmic Spirit of Sagan, if anything drives me to contemplate murder, it’s this kind of “We coulda had our flying cars and Martian colonies by now if only the Greeks/Romans had stood in charge of things!” (“instead of them lousy Christians” often but not always the corollary).

            No. We couldn’t have. It took us exactly this long to work out the technology, the materials, the mining, the science and make the mistakes and kill people in coal mine explosions and figure out what the heck made things work. No short cuts to the Industrial Revolution; Rome had plenty of cheap slave labour, it didn’t need anything better than what it managed (and it managed pretty damn much, e.g. concrete) to discover and invent; ditto Greece, where things like the model steam engine were toys and amusements for the rich and used for special effects in theatres. Again, plenty of cheap labour, who needed machines to work your fields and mines?

            It wasn’t lack of smarts that held us back (Leonardo may indeed have been nearly as big a genius as his inflated pop culture reputation) but the lack of plain old worked-out-in-spit-and-sweat “Ah, this is how we make steel that is strong and light enough for the purpose”.

            And that only happened by trial and error and making mistakes and making better models and better efforts and time.

          • LHN says:

            There are no shortcuts, and I certainly have no brief for “Classical civilization was on its way to science till Church obscurantism set us back a thousand years.” But there’s no reason to think we took the absolute shortest possible distance to the Industrial or Scientific Revolutions. (Though I think the former is more likely to have conceivably hit in, e.g., Song China than Rome.)

            Science in particular seems pretty contingent– you need paper (or the equivalent), decent long distance communication, enough surplus wealth to support that kind of tinkering, etc. But those clearly aren’t sufficient. And with only one example, it’s hard to know what’s required to get people to share knowledge rather than hoard it, value experiment and observation over other sources of knowledge, etc. It at least seems like something that could have taken off centuries prior in someplace else with the right conditions, or held off for centuries more, or forever.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Hellenistic civilization really was on its way and Rome really did set us back 1500 years. (In the second century BC. I’m not blaming the Church. But it didn’t help.) Both science and engineering.

            The Roman era Greeks Hero, Ptolemy, and Galen were not the pinnacle of ancient science, but archaeologists trying to reclaim from books the glory of centuries earlier. They understood a lot more than Rome, but that’s not saying much.

            I don’t know much about China, but Vaclav Smil says that Song China, despite its industrial productivity, had little progress in science and relied on the accomplishments of the Han dynasty.

          • Matt C says:

            Douglas, I’m interested in the comparison between Greek and Roman science and engineering that you’re talking about. Do you have references that go into more detail?

          • Douglas Knight says:

            The most extreme account is by Lucio Russo in his Forgotten Revolution.

            The most dramatic evidence is the Antikythera mechanism, a 150BC clockwork of a quality and sophistication not matched until the 14th century. In particular, it shows that much of their engineering accomplishment has been lost to time.

            Even what is extant of Hellenistic engineering is at least as good as Roman engineering. A key misconception is that when people think “ancient Greece” they think of classical Athens. But the great scientists, including names everyone knows, like Euclid and Archimedes, lived in the Hellenistic period outside of the Peloponnese. The great centers of learning were in Alexandria and Pergamon. Again, everyone knows of the Library of Alexandria. The Roman aqueducts are copies of Hellenistic aqueducts in north Africa. I suspect Christendom has forgotten this because Egypt became Muslim so early.

            Euclid and Archimedes were just the beginning of Hellenistic science. From the century that followed, we know many names, but almost no work survives, so it is hard to assess how far it advanced. Extrapolation is the axis on which Russo is extreme. But without any guesses, we know the names of many Greek scientists, but no Roman scientists. Pliny and Seneca wrote books of pop science and they seem to be drawing entirely on Greek sources. Varro’s book on farming claims to be a distillation of 50 Greek books. Pliny and Seneca are very confused and suggest a regress. Varro, less so.

            Another reason that the Hellenistic period is neglected is that literature declined. Its philosophy was uninteresting and it stopped writing new plays, but instead performed the classics. Yet it progressed in other areas. Famous Greek visual art is generally Hellenistic.

          • Matt C says:


  45. Nornagest says:

    @nil — You can delete your posts by blanking them as long as you’re inside the edit window.

    @urstoff — Threading for comment trees breaks when their root node gets deleted for whatever reason. Should still work fine for intact trees.

  46. Bugmaster says:

    I don’t think it’s reasonable to lay blame for “global mass murder” solely at the hands of Marx and Engels. Yes, it’s true, their political philosophy helped foment revolution; but lots of things help foment revolution. Until Lenin picked up their writings and ran with them, they were pretty much the tumblr of their day: popular, controversial, perhaps even somewhat influential, but ultimately of little consequence.

    Speaking of Lenin, this guy got smuggled from exile back into Russia by Germans, who wielded him (arguably successfully) as a memetic weapon. If you’re going to blame Engels for all the horrors that followed, surely the clever German infowar officers who came up with this scheme deserve some blame, as well ?

    • Nornagest says:

      Hitler was a low-ranking soldier attached to the Reichswehr’s political corps who got assigned to infiltrate what later became the Nazi Party, yes. He appears to have decided to sign up for real sometime in 1919, and left the army in 1920; I assume he’d have stopped passing information back to them at about that time.

      • Bugmaster says:

        I feel stupid for saying this, but — I did not know that, thanks !

        Also, I think this rather reinforces Scott’s point about systemic change: we’ve now got two more examples of an attempt to engage in man-vs-man conflict leading to some seriously negative unintended consequences.

      • Adam says:

        This is what’s going to end up happening to Jorah Mormont on Game of Thrones. Get sent to infiltrate the Targaryen rebellion, but end up falling for the allure and supporting it instead, then returning home to burn it to the ground with dragon fire and spreading greyscale.

  47. Wow, Scott, thanks again for this post, it got me thinking. The issue about what to do if you think the current socio-economic system is fundamentally corrupt and incompatible with human flourishing has been vexing me for years (I wrote a series of posts about it some time ago: but ended up mostly discussing with myself what it was that made the infamous “system” -more like a collection of individuals trying to balance their private interests with a more or less spirited committment with leading a morally good life- so bad in the first place, and to what extent there was no system at all but plain ol’ human nature).

    I think in the end I also concluded that attempts at systemic change do not pass a risk/ benefit test, so setting for incremental improvements was wisest. I’m not that familiar with EA, and what caught my fancy then was voting for a Universal (unconditional) Basic Income, but then got dismayed by seeing the kind of people that stood behind the idea (…

    Be it as it may, I’ll be decidedly giving a look at EA in my corner of the world

  48. It’s very different to advocate for policies and to play the political game of “elect my team”. I’d go so far as to argue that they are almost orthogonal enterprises, except for the short term (and even then, politicians don’t always live up to their promises).


    An successful vegetarian campaign against any subsidies for meat production would probably have more impact on overall meat consumption than most proselytizing. Without subsidies, meat calories would be much more expensive than vegetable ones, which would make people eat less meat.

    It would probably even make more people stop eating meat on “moral grounds”.

  49. onyomi says:

    Re. open borders, I think it is different from communism in that there is a very good ethical case to be made for it (I’m sure proponents of communism can make an ethical case, too, but they are wrong):

    That said, I will agree that the issue is still divisive enough and the outcome of achieving it uncertain enough that mosquito nets are still probably a safer bet.

  50. onyomi says:

    Excellent post: why spend money on divisive issues when there is still a lot of uncontroversial low-hanging fruit for eliminating human suffering (by say, improving access to clean drinking water)? The only reason I can think of is personal preference (reducing suffering in my life is more valuable to me than reducing a similar amount of suffering in a far-off person I’ll never meet), but that is a very different argument. If the goal is indeed “do the most good for the most people,” avoiding the man-v-man issues until everyone has clean drinking water seems the way to go (though there are conceivably cases where the politics of an area is SO bad that it effectively stymies and undoes all efforts to solve man-v-nature problems, but I think working around governments is still probably better in such cases than toppling bad governments, given all the added suffering and uncertainty the latter course is given to cause).

  51. I don’t believe that two donors contributing to two different politic parties will cancel each other out. Even in the US where the two dominant parties are usually opposed. Even in the case that they are contributing to two sides of the same issue.

    It’s not completely irrational to donate to the current Bernie Sanders campaign and the current Carly Fiorina campaign (to pick two examples) and to vote in their respective party primaries. I don’t think anyone would be discouraged from giving by a bystander pointing out that their are only two parties and that someone is almost certainly canceling out your contribution so please don’t waste your time. Or to give equal amounts to two groups, one that wants to build a border fence in Texas and one that fights the construction of border fences in Texas. It’s questionably effective but, if nothing else, will signal boost the issue around closed borders.

    When it comes to political causes, the pool is too big to claim that contributing to some two is a waste because those contributions will help distinguish those two from their peers. You’d have to claim that contributing to politics as a whole is wasted money and that’s a very different conversation.

  52. Ilverin says:

    Except that the man vs nature causes have had all kinds of advocates for hundreds of years (e.g. Catholic church).

    The Catholic church has urged billions of people to donate more to charity and has failed at it. Do we really think the effective altruism movement is going to succeed in convincing people to donate enough money to actually eliminate poverty?

    To eliminate poverty, it’s really looking like politics is going to have to be involved. I’m personally in favor of trying ‘the least risky thing that has a real chance of working’, which I personally think is:
    slowly increasing marginal consumption taxes to enormous levels. (and if that doesn’t work, try ‘the second-least-risky thing that has a real chance of working’).

    Economic theory: Consumption raises resource prices. High resource prices keep people in poverty. Decreasing consumption will lower resource prices and get people out of poverty. The easiest way to decrease consumption with the least negative effects is by slowly increasing marginal consumption taxes to enormous levels.

    (E.G. if you buy a car that currently costs $100,000, 100 years from now you would have to pay $500,000 in consumption taxes, or a 10,000 square foot house for 5 million requires paying 25 million in taxes 100 years from now, but there are no taxes on reasonably priced bicycles or bread).

    Note: this tax would need to be implemented on a global level otherwise the rich people will just move to another country to buy their mansions.

    • Asher says:

      Back in the 80s and early 90s there was this thing going around about how liberalism was really about one-world government. Such advocates were roundly mocked as kooks.

      Not so kooky, after all, eh?

      • Nornagest says:

        I don’t think the guys in my hometown with paranoid bumper stickers on their pickup trucks were worried about one guy on the Internet with a half-baked economic theory.

  53. ButYouDisagree says:

    This reminds me of Michael Huemer, In Praise of Passivity:

    When it comes to political issues, we usually should not fight for what we believe in. Fighting for something, as I understand the term, involves fighting against someone. If one’s goal faces no (human) opposition, then one might be described as working for a cause (for instance, working to reduce tuberculosis, working to feed the poor) but not fighting for it. Thus, one normally fights for a cause only when what one is promoting is controversial. And most of the time, those who promote controversial causes do not actually know whether what they are promoting is correct, however much they may think they know.

    Huemer gives several reasons not to attempt to engineer society: we know very little about how society works, even experts are often overconfident, institutions through which we might act collectively (e.g. governments) have bad incentives in their decision-making, there are many more ways to make society worse than to make society better, engineering society requires a curtailment of liberty, and if we engineer society poorly we may be morally responsible for the bad outcome in a way we are not morally responsible for failing to fix social ills.

    • LTP says:

      The difference is Huemer’s argument is also an argument against effective altruism. After all, we are ignorant about the potential unintended consequences of charity.

      (I don’t buy Huemer’s argument, by the way)

      ETA: I just read Huemer’s argument, and… ugh.

      It strikes me as naive, rife with confirmation bias on the issues I would expect from a libertarian, and he contradicts himself. For instance, he says we can’t really trust the experts, but then cites economic studies when he claims that regulations have been bad for society. He says we are ignorant of moral and political truths, but then smuggles in his own assumptions about these things.

      • ButYouDisagree says:

        I think your take on the essay is quite uncharitable. Regarding experts, it seems to me that he’s saying, experts and social science are not very reliable, but even if there are a few simple things we might know (e.g. that trade barriers are generally bad) we can’t count on political decision-makers to use this knowledge. This argument doesn’t depend on economists turning out to be correct on trade.

        You’re right that he makes use of moral principles. But he’s not saying anything dramatic: if we can’t really expect our best-intentioned, most-informed social engineering to have good consequences (and in fact may expect it to have bad consequences), this is a reason to not engage in social engineering.

        I’m not sure how this counts against effective altruism. Huemer would want us to be skeptical about charities’ effectiveness. But of course so are EAs. He might suggest that direct transfers of cash or bed nets to the poor are better than attempts to restructure poor communities. But this is a reasonable line for an EA to take.

  54. “Bob: That just kicks the problem one meta-level up. Suppose that on each given issue, effective altruists converge dramatically around one or the other side. If half the time they converge around the right side, and the other half around the wrong side, then over a large number of issues their contributions will gradually even out and sum to zero.”

    I think this is a bad argument. So long as you tie the support to a specific policy position, this can be effective. Businesses often donate to both left and right wing parties (at least in my country). I’d be fairly surprised if that money didn’t achieve any utility.

    Think of it like rationalists influencing both sides of politics to generally raise the standards.

    • Rome had a welfare system—bread and circuses. It isn’t a 19th century invention. England had poor laws long before Marx.

      The main change is that modern societies are much richer and so can afford much more generous redistribution.

    • “Businesses often donate to both left and right wing parties (at least in my country). I’d be fairly surprised if that money didn’t achieve any utility.”

      I don’t know about your country. In mine, I expect what they achieve is favorable treatment from the government for that company.

      Whoever wins the election.

      • Linch says:

        That part always confused me. If I was a selfish politician I would only be nepotistic to businessmen who gave me more net donations than my opponents, or who I would expect to net benefit my campaign more in the future.

        • The point occurred to me, but it assumes that the only thing in the politician’s utility function is probability of winning. There’s also quality of life while doing so, which can increase for both sides with additional money for both. And losing a race with lots of publicity may give you better odds of future political success than losing a race with little publicity.

          Of course, it also assumes that donations are public knowledge, which isn’t always the case.

        • onyomi says:

          I feel like elections and all the wasteful, canceling-each-other-out spending that goes on on both sides, have come to serve, or perhaps always have served as huge entertainment events whereby the seething tensions and contradictions inevitable among any large group forced to live with each others’ leaders decisions are aired and dissipated: wasn’t that fun! Your guy didn’t win this time? Well there’s always next time! And the midterms! Better luck next time! Please don’t rebel over the fact that we will continue to take large amounts of money from you do things which are inimical to your values!

          The richer our society becomes, and with more educated people with more free time and access to 24/7 news, the bigger the event becomes (like the Olympics, only every 4 years, so you get a little break), but not because a bigger event is necessary the actual picking of leaders. Rather, a bigger event is necessary to provide the above-described entertainment-cum-fighting-it-out-in-a-controlled manner function.

        • Adam says:

          I always figured if I was a politician, I would honestly try to implement what I thought were the best policies after a whole bunch of research, staff meetings, constituent town halls, whatever, but since at least half the people would disagree no matter what I did, they’d probably think I was just doing it to appease donors. And, of course, the people who agree with me would probably be the ones donating to me.

          • If the same people are donating to two opposed parties, it seems unlikely that the money is flowing as a simple attempt to support the party with the correct policy. I’d vote for you though, if your policies were good (which they might be if you researched like that).

          • Adam says:

            Of course, I’m still not convinced even the marginal really good legislator makes much of a difference alone. Nancy Pelosi would just put a hit out on me or something as soon as I went against the party line.

  55. njnnja says:

    You say in your update that you no longer are sure that you agree with part I. But that is exactly the kind of humble statement that someone who really believes the logic of part I would say. It’s humility all the way down!

  56. Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

    >I think you can delete a comment if you submit an edit with no data?

    You can, but what’s going on with nesting right now?

    EDIT: OK, seriously, I can’t be the only one for whom the comments are incredibly fucked up, right?

  57. DataShade says:

    Would the act of attempting to convert all the current systemic-change activists over to EA count as systemic change?

    Maybe you could convince the EA people who want more systemic change that the most effective systemic change would be proselytizing campus protesters and abortion clinic picketers over to raising money for world hunger and malaria prevention.

  58. Frank says:

    Dang, I thought this piece was great and sorely needed, why the note at the top about having changed your mind?

  59. Alphaceph says:


    The problem is that a lot of positive changes have been systemic. Political changes in China lifted more people out of poverty than all the charity in the 20th century. AI risk work and X-risk work is systemic change.

    Bed nets are not going to change the world. I think Eliezer made the point that the people of 2300 looking back on the 21st century will not be screaming “if only there had been more bed nets!”. Bed nets are a cop-out if you are trying to be maximally effective.

    It is plausible that they’d be screaming “if only there had been open borders”. Of course it’s equally plausible – if not more – that they’d be screaming “if only there hadn’t been so much immigration!”, as they get executed for Apostasy from Islam or stoned to death for adultery.

    Clearly, what we need is more high quality information on whether open borders is actually a good thing. People in the EA movement need to stop advocating in favour of open borders and start advocating for more high-quality research on the question.

    • In defence of bed nets, it’s important in EA to take into account the ability to alter the problem as well as the problem’s overall magnitude. I wouldn’t be too quick to rule them out as effective before reading the arguments for them, especially as our intuitions on them may be informed by the fact of the people most needing them being too obscure and too dead to tell us about it.

      • Alphaceph says:

        Yes, there are a lot of people who need bed nets. They are a good cause. There are many good causes. Amongst them, bed nets are at the top of the ones that don’t involve some kind of “big” “systemic” change.

        But I would say open borders – if things turn out well – could solve the mosquito problem as well as all the other problems that people who need bed nets have.

        • The counter argument seems to be that its pretty hard to know that will be the effect, or to rule out disasterous side-effects. I’m somewhat undecided on the abstract point. It seems to warrant some caution at least.

      • Tyler Hansen says:

        In defense of systemic change and x-risk in particular, you also have to consider the difference in total-ability-to-alter-the-problem between you working on it and you not working on it. If there are exactly three thousand people who can get the honor of handing out bed nets and well more than three thousand people who want to do it, then being one of them does exactly zero good for the world.

        • Thanks was trying to communicate this. I don’t neccessarily rule out systemic change could be effective (?), just thought the bed nets needed someone to make their case 🙂

    • Shenpen says:

      There will be people in 2300?

  60. Kaj Sotala says:

    > But in the more important sense, the net effect of his contribution was global mass murder without any lasting positive change.

    That doesn’t sound quite right. At least the standard narrative around here is that the Nordic welfare states with their strong social security protections trace their roots to Marxist thought, with a social democratic ideology having split off from Marxism and communism and then creating successful and prosperous states.

    • stillnotking says:

      The Nordic “welfare states” are closer to Milton Friedman than to Karl Marx.

      They have more redistributive taxation than most other contemporary market economies, but that’s less taxonomically salient than the fact that they are market economies.

      • Shenpen says:

        Given that government spending is always centrally planned, 60% of GDP spent by the government is 60% central planning. Soviet systems had about 80-90% central planning given that there was some amount of hobby farm and mom and pop shop level of private industry.

        The reason you don’t notice it, or it looks so different, is that Sweden puts basically all of its actually productive economy in that 40%. So you see IKEA. While for the Soviets obviously most of the productive economy was in the 80-90%.

        • stillnotking says:

          The Swedish government does not give IKEA production targets, nor coerce people into working for it. I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to say that Sweden’s economy is X% centrally planned; their private sector is not planned at all, and the “planning” they do in public-sector spending is very different from the Soviets’ Five-Year Plans.

          • Shenpen says:

            My point is that IKEA alongside with the rest of the productive part of the Swedish economy is in the 40%. So the unproductive part, which is not actual business, is the 60%.

        • Anon. says:

          >Given that government spending is always centrally planned, 60% of GDP spent by the government is 60% central planning

          I don’t think that’s right. Government can spend money in different ways. If you collect $100 in taxes and then just redistribute it in the form of welfare benefits, that’s completely different than if you use the money to buy or produce something and then distribute the goods.

        • Tatu Ahponen says:

          Nordic governments do not have 60% of their GDP spent by the government. The ratio that’s usually bandied around here and the related confusion is explained here:

          The actual share of public expenditure in Finland, in 2014, was 21 per cent of GDP.

          • Shenpen says:

            …. and I don’t understand it any better. What is the difference between “share of” and “ration of” ?

            I admit there was a confusion in my post as well, because I should be seeing the government as a consumer, not as a producer.

            So. Simplified model. Say Finnish factories make 100 widgets a year. Say there are no exports, and all 100 are bought domestically. Does the government buy 58 and the people 42, or 21 and 79? And if the later, then what does the 58 figure actually mean?

      • Tatu Ahponen says:

        While the Nordic welfare states are, at their basis, capitalist, they share many features that are the result of the existence of a strong socialist movements with their origins in Marxism – not only as a result of directly Marxist-inspired programs but also ones that originate in attempts to seek a compromise between the socialist labor movement and the bourgeois movements and employers’ interests.

        When trying to figure out the influnce of Marx and Engels in the world, it cannot be done only by looking at governments that have claimed the mantle of Marxism but the general influence of the socialist movement as a whole, whether in the government or outside of it.

        • stillnotking says:

          Sure, it’s a compromise. I’m just saying the compromise is one that would be more acceptable to Friedman than to Marx. Under a Marxist view, Swedish workers are still being unacceptably exploited, cradle-to-grave safety net or no.

          Marx was, in fact, an outspoken critic of welfare capitalism, as @Peter pointed out below. Friedman would only disagree as to where the line should fall.

          • Tatu Ahponen says:

            The point was that it’s a compromise that would probably not be there without the influence of the socialist movement.

    • Peter says:


      Disentangling all of the socialism and social democracy and welfare state stuff is complicated. My general impression was that there was a considerable amount of pre-Marx socialism, trade unionism etc. out there, and especially in England the origins of the Labour party weren’t particularly Marx-based. “Socialism in Britain owed more to Methodism than Marx” and all that. So a fair amount may have got mixed up with Marxism, some things may trace their roots through Marxist thought to the pre-Marx socialism it was based on, but I think you’re overstating the role of the beardy guy himself.

      And on a little reading up, it seems that the welfare state was more-or-less invented by Bismark. On the wikipedia page, Marx makes his appearance as a critic.

  61. Ever An Anon says:

    Comment removed in courtesy to Scott.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I think this is unfair and would prefer fewer posts like this in the future.

      Everyone agrees that causes need to meet a certain burden of scrutiny.

      Symbolism is a pretty big deal; if for some reason you needed to beat up a puppy to get into a conference, that’s probably not a whole lot of suffering in the grand scheme of things, but I wouldn’t go to that conference.

  62. Psmith says:

    1. I’ve been thinking something along the lines of Communism:1920s::Open Borders:2010s since that Malcolm Muggeridge post, and it’s pretty neat to see that I’m not the only one. (Speaking as a former open borders advocate, mind you.).

    2. Completely agree with the general points of this article. There was also a Robin Hanson piece some time ago that made a similar point about voting–in any reasonably close election, you probably don’t have sufficient reason to believe that your favorite side is actually right to make it a good idea to vote. (Or it may have been in David Friedman’s micro text, now I think about it.).

    3. Also completely agree with Sastan’s point above that intelligence, possibly beyond a certain minimal threshold, doesn’t make you more likely to believe true things. Also heavily influenced by Dan Kahan’s work here. Unlike Sastan, I take this to be the antecedent of the conditional in a valid modus ponens argument, and endorse conservatism as a result.

    4. “Is there suffering in fundamental physics?” cf tumblr user hyper-traditionalist–horseshoe theory, anyone? FALSE COINAGE IS BUT A BOURGEOIS DISTRACTION FROM THE TRUE DEGENERACY OF FALSE VACUUM.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I don’t think I agree with the strongest version of the thesis that intelligence doesn’t make you more likely to hold true beliefs. It’s hard to differentiate intelligence from education from liberal-culture, but I can think of a lot of things more intelligent people get more right afaict (creationism, gay marriage, vaccinations, atheism, etc) and comparatively few going the other direction. Further, the ones going the other direction seem to be vaguer and harder to analyze (communism), which makes me think that if an issue is sort of straightforward factually based intelligent people do have an advantage.

      Also, I think effective altruists probably have complicated advantages over normal intelligent people in the sense of some sort of carefulness and evidence-basedness. As I said above, it’s not perfect, but it’s not nothing.

      • FJ says:

        You just implied that “Does Communism work?” is a vaguer and harder question than “Does God exist?” “Vaguer” seems clearly wrong: we’re more likely to come up with consensus definitions of “Communism” and “work” than “God” (not that reaching consensus would be easy for any of those definitions). And as for “harder”: you previously warned against overconfidence on the God question. If there’s a 5% chance that you’re wrong about God, what do you think the odds are that you’re wrong about Communism? 10%? 50%?

      • Psmith says:

        1. “It’s hard to differentiate intelligence from education from liberal-culture, but I can think of a lot of things more intelligent people get more right afaict (creationism, gay marriage, vaccinations, atheism, etc) and comparatively few going the other direction.”

        “As far as I can tell” is doing a whole lot of work here, it seems to me. We might unpack that as “to me, a member of group W, it looks like group W’s majority positions (arrived at via the inside view) on issues A, B, and C are probably correct, from my inside view.” Well, you would think that, wouldn’t you.

        On the other hand, some people ITT have (correctly, I think) pointed out that you can’t just take the outside view on everything–not as a matter of maximizing accuracy, but as a matter of something like psychological predisposition. We have to take the inside view, because we’re inside. I think there may be parallels here to Peter Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment”, e.g. “The human commitment to participation in ordinary inter-personal relationships is, I think, too thoroughgoing and deeply rooted for us to take seriously the thought that a general theoretical conviction might so change our world that, in it, there were no longer any such things as inter-personal relationships as we normally understand them; and being involved in inter-personal relationships as we normally understand them precisely is being exposed to the range of reactive attitudes and feelings that is in question.”

        And some brief object-level quibbling: Bob’s remarks on gay marriage in your article above strike me as at least a somewhat compelling reply to claims that intelligent people are more likely to be right about gay marriage. In re atheism, distinction between instrumental and epistemic rationality. CDC doesn’t appear to publish vaccination rates by smaller than state, but vaccination rates among the wealthy coastal elite in West LA appear to be noticeably lower than national averages, see

        2. I think effective altruists have an advantage in knowing what their goals actually are. Regardless of whether those goals are the right ones, EAs at least have a clear idea of what they want to accomplish and how they’re going to measure it.

  63. I think make a good point that political activity has a significant zero-sum component (man-vs-man) that means systemic change has a higher “disagreement” cost than is intuitively obvious.
    I didn’t realise many EAs advocated open borders (seems like a bad idea to me), so that was interesting to hear. However, I think the article’s central thesis goes too far for a number of reasons that I’ll try to present:

    1. Effective altruism exists thanks to a number of systemic changes.
    a) Effective altruism relies on widespread high levels of education. Such levels were achieved by deliberate systemic change.
    b) Effective altruism relies on not-tyranny (including far-left, far-right and apolitical), because tyranny seizes spare resources. Not-tyranny is a deliberate state achieved by systemic change.
    c) Effective altruism relies on science, evidence and access to true information. All these are a result of deliberate systemic changes including freedom of speech and the enlightenment.

    2. Systemic change is less like a minefield or dark wood, where you’ll be safe if you just avoid it entirely. It’s more like being on a ship in a perpetual storm surrounded by hidden rocks. Sure, its really easy to make a wrong turn left or right and sink the ship, but you don’t fare any better when there’s no-one at the wheel. Even worse, a complete idiot could seize the wheel. It’s better to study the rocks as best you can, post lookouts, and ask everyone on the ship what they know about the ship’s condition and the waters in which you sail, then make cautious, prudent, turns to keep the ship off the rocks as best you can. Systemic change happens whether people plan it or not, and the unplanned type can spell the end of your civilization just as much as the planned change can (see Roman Republic, Roman Empire).

    3. In some places the article seems to conflate systemic change with far-left revolutionary ideas. We can reject the latter while remaining neutral on the former. I take systemic change to include a whole variety of political, economic and social ideas from all over the spectrum – Adam Smith’s ideas overcoming mercantilism would be an example of systemic change, or JS Mill’s arguments in support of freedom of speech, for example. Engels is not a good example of rationalist attempts at systemic change, because Marx is not a rationalist; imo most fundamentally because his position is characterised by a rejection of the is-ought distinction, though also because he saw no need to gather empirical evidence that supported the idea that the government/system he proposed was actually good and not a massive disaster, as we can now see it was in most cases.

    4. We can identify specific types of systemic changes that are harmful. Revolutions cause chaos and seem to give tyrannical or totalitarian regimes the opportunity to take root. Emotionally based systemic change allows important principles to be undermined without proper debate or consideration. Systemic change without empirical trials leaves the door open to unexpected or perverse results. This for me is the big one – most systematically bad political stuff can be shown to be bad if it’s tried on a much smaller scale.

    5. Regarding the external presentation of systemic change and the debates involved results as harmful to effective altruism, I think this can be addressed by:
    a) Quarantining politics and systematic change to certain parts of the movement, which don’t include newbie areas.
    b) Enforcing rules of discussion that discourage mind-killing, intimidation, ad hominem, and all the other things that rationalists, regardless of political position, know to be bad.
    c) Clearly labelling effective altruism as politically pluralist and resisting any efforts to normalise alignment with any specific political camps.
    If people find those measures unacceptable, I wonder if that isn’t a reasonably good filter for people that need to put more work into rationalism before they participate?

    • Aegeus says:

      Systemic change is less like a minefield or dark wood, where you’ll be safe if you just avoid it entirely. It’s more like being on a ship in a perpetual storm surrounded by hidden rocks. Sure, its really easy to make a wrong turn left or right and sink the ship, but you don’t fare any better when there’s no-one at the wheel. Even worse, a complete idiot could seize the wheel. It’s better to study the rocks as best you can, post lookouts, and ask everyone on the ship what they know about the ship’s condition and the waters in which you sail, then make cautious, prudent, turns to keep the ship off the rocks as best you can.

      In that analogy, incremental but guaranteed-beneficial changes would be like getting the lifeboats ready or patching leaks in the ship. It’s something that will be good regardless of where the ship goes. If you believe systemic change is inevitable, better that we face it with a population that’s happy, not impoverished, not dying of malaria, etc.

      • I don’t disagree that they’re useful or good. But I think there is a worthwhile return from spending a few resources keeping the ship off the rocks (thinking about cautious systemic change). I imagine the optimal position is a balance in this case, rather than abandoning one or the other.

  64. Banananon says:

    For people who might not have come across this poem before (alluded to in the final paragraph):

    Fire and Ice, Robert Frost

    Some say the world will end in fire,
    Some say in ice.

    From what I’ve tasted of desire
    I hold with those who favor fire.
    But if it had to perish twice,
    I think I know enough of hate
    To say that for destruction ice
    Is also great
    And would suffice.

  65. bean says:

    When I started in on the section about politics, it didn’t go the way I expected. What I expected was that you were going to suggest some sort of market where people on opposite sides of issues could pair off, and instead of donating to politics, they’d both take their political contributions and send it to bed nets or the like. There are obvious problems with enforcement (and political imbalance) but it seemed an amusing idea.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’ve proposed that before. I think some people tried it and it didn’t work for some reason.

      • bean says:

        I’m not really surprised that it’s been tried, and I’m not surprised at all that it didn’t work. Leaving aside the issue of people breaking the rules, it seems that the equilibrium outcome would be the conservatives ‘giving everything’, and the liberals ‘giving’ what the conservatives do, plus however much they’d normally give to politics. And based on that, it seems the conservatives wouldn’t get involved in the system in the first place. (This assumes that there is a ceiling on how much people want to spend on politics. If politics is the number one choice of both sides, and they would give 100% normally, then it does makes sense for the smaller side to participate.)
        Of course, this is sort of an artifact of the political balance among those who would do this sort of thing. If the sides are relatively evenly matched, then cancellation makes sense.

      • Nornagest says:

        Enforcement mechanisms seem like the obvious weak link in an idea like that.

    • Jack LaSota says:

      If Xanthia believes the most effective cause is Blue politics, and Yevgeniy believes the most effective cause is global poverty and that the second most effective cause is Green politics, Yevgeniy might be tempted to pretend to believe that the most effective cause was Green politics, and make an agreement with Xanthia so that both of them donate to relieve global poverty, and Xanthia doesn’t donate to Blue politics.

      I’m not actually sure this would be a bad thing if universalized though, because its net effects are (A) moving more money to relieve global poverty, and (B) moving political influence to people who think that political issue is less important/tractable/uncrowded than global poverty.

      (B) probably sounds scary in a “we could be wrong like Engels!” way, but like, reversal test: would you like to shift political influence the other way? Do you have a reason to think that this particular power balance is the at the best point it “could” be?

      Also I think this whole style of arguments “we could be wrong like Engels!” is rooted in omission bias and vulnerable to the reversal test.

    • Julia Wise says:

      Toby Ord has a paper on this, “Moral Trade.”

    • Anaxagoras says:

      Yeah, I thought it would go in that direction too. Seems like a nifty idea, though there might be ways the incentives get screwed up.

  66. Just to provide one data point, that fight about the vegan/non-vegan meals did make me feel like I never want to hear anything about the EA movement again.

    • The Anonymouse says:

      Seconded. Manage your own affairs without a shitshow erupting, then you can come advise me how to manage mine.

  67. Albatross says:

    Completely agree. There is something rational about gradual change. Lots of examples.

    1. I’d like a single payer system. But I advocate a few wealthy US states trying it out for a few years. I also like Obamacare, but in hindsight we can see that transition can be very rough and cause all sorts of problems. State level pilot programs are wise. Systemic change at the federal level is premature and dangerous. Most advocates don’t want to hear that.

    2. All fifty states now have conceal carry laws. These laws make it illegal to carry firearms without a license and training except in a few rare times and places like private property and shooting ranges. They are gun control. And crime statistics tell us these laws are crime neutral at worst. Even most rationalists can’t get past pushing for systemic change like Japan. Turning Chicago into Houston would save hundreds of lives a year and cut gun violence in half. But most advocates would rather keep the status quo if they can’t turn Chicago into Tokyo. People are very irrational in these man vs man conflicts. If we use Houston laws to cut gun violence in half, it seems like giving up on Japanese utopia. So instead Chicago just stays the same. Note: there are legitimate arguments that laws alone won’t change Chicago into Houston or Japan. But the same principle applies to cultural change as well.

    3. When I tell people that wind and solar renewable energy is really awesome I get lots of push back. Texas gets 9% of its energy from wind. On a recent windy evening it spiked to 30% and the price of electricity briefly went negative. Lots of states and companies are no doubt very interested in cheap, clean energy. I don’t have to win the argument. Texas has already done that. In other words, I don’t need to advocate for renewable energy because all sorts of capitalists have already read enough science fiction to know how cool it is.

    • Orphan Wilde says:

      Wind and solar energy are, in their present incarnations, terrible. They consume vast amounts of real estate, require reserve capacity pretty much equal to their contributions less a tiny percentage, and the next-best option, nuclear, can’t serve in a reserve capacity role. It’s not cheap – you need double the infrastructure, once for the renewables, and again for the reserve capacity. Once you remember that natural gas is the best reserve capacity fuel, it’s not clean, either.

      • Adam says:

        One of the great things about Texas is there’s a hell of a lot of real estate here, much of it is in the middle of nowhere, it’s both very windy and very sunny, and putting a wind or solar farm on the land doesn’t even stop you from grazing cattle or drilling for oil on the same land.

        Of course, this doesn’t generalize to every state.

      • Tom Scharf says:

        If you really want to understand the intricacies of wind power, find it here in a recent series of posts:

        Still more expensive, but makes sense in some areas. The problems get larger as more intermittent power is installed. Transporting wind power to populated areas is very expensive. Think $T, not $B.

        There are big problems that most people don’t consider, such as if a massive well engineered wind farm produced large amounts of power, that it will still likely fall below 10% of power needs around 5% of the time. Thus you need to keep around a 100% backup system in place. Pay twice for infrastructure. But a lot of natural gas plants actual long term costs are fuel so….

        Gets pretty complicated. There are legitimate reasons this isn’t being embraced beyond politics.

    • Jiro says:

      All fifty states now have conceal carry laws. These laws make it illegal to carry firearms without a license and training except in a few rare times and places like private property and shooting ranges. They are gun control. And crime statistics tell us these laws are crime neutral at worst.

      This is factually incorrect, and the reason why it’s factually incorrect is revealing. You probably read some version of which does state that concealed carry has grown–as a step in the liberalization of gun laws. Five states don’t require a permit for concealed carry.

      Also, some states which require concealed carry permits allow open carry as well. shows 25 states that allow open carry of guns without a permit or license. Needing a permit for concealed carry isn’t the same thing as needing a permit to carry at all.

  68. Anon. says:

    >What’s the expected marginal value of becoming an anti-capitalist revolutionary?

    Are we supposed to take this question seriously? Assuming that your anti-capitalist revolution had some probability of succeeding, it’s obviously negative.

    • Adam Casey says:

      Please be super super careful about that word “obviously”. It’s obvious to you and to me. But it’s not obvious to a huge number of very smart people. There are a huge number of people who think that capitalism is positively destructive, like slave-trade-level destructive. I have very strong arguments about why they’re wrong, so do you. But it’s overconfident to think that the probability of them being wrong inside those arguments is the same as the probability outside those arguments.

      • Murphy says:

        Capitalism is a better stable(ish) system than most of the simple alternatives though I get the feeling that there’s almost certainly a far better alternative to having a very well compensated nobility who’s main/only contribution to the economy is as meatsacks legally able to hold title to property.

        • Adam Casey says:

          > I get the feeling that there’s almost certainly a far better alternative to having a very well compensated nobility who’s main/only contribution to the economy is as meatsacks legally able to hold title to property.

          I get that feeling too, I think such a system is called capitalism.

          • Murphy says:

            And yet modern capitalism has no shortage of rent-seekers and people who contribute nothing except their ability to legally hold title to property.

            Nobles born into fantastic wealth who’s total contribution to the economy between their birth and death would only be increased if shortly after their birth they were magically transformed into a potato while retaining their legal right to own property.

        • I believe that actual statistics on the top one percent of the income distribution show that most of them are doctors and lawyers and such, not coupon clippers living on inherited wealth.

          • Vorkon says:

            While I agree with your sentiment here, I don’t think I’ve ever heard trust fund babies living on an inheritance referred to as “coupon clippers.” Anecdotally, I’ve always thought the stereotypical person living on an inheritance and doing nothing else productive would be too careless with their money to bother clipping coupons.

          • notes says:

            Bonds, once, had physical coupons to be exchanged for the interest payments: the phrase is old, and the implication is that someone is living off of the interest.

            You see another residue of this in zero-coupon bonds, so-called because they pay nothing until maturity.

          • Murphy says:

            Where did I mention the 1%?

            The bottom 9/10ths of that 1% are mostly doctors/lawyers/executives, I have no beef with them, they contribute.

            The top fractions are far more likely to be living on inherited.

          • I think the very top fraction are likely to be people who inherited money and then turned it into much more money. That’s clearly true of Bill Gates, but I believe also of the Koch brothers.

            That’s in the U.S. Elsewhere in the world I think it also includes people with control over governments who use it to make themselves rich. Some of whom may be self-made kleptocrats.

    • Shenpen says:

      Careful, there are critiques of capitalism on the Right too – see Distributism. Basically the problem is that Capitalism has multiple meanings. If it means “free market”, nobody sane has a problem with that. If it means “the concentration of capital into ever fewer hands”, then yes. Chesterton got the _conservative_ critique of it down saying “too much capitalism means too few capitalists, not too many”. I.e. understood capitalism as the force that drives towards ever fewer capitalists. It is better to have more.

      Today the conservative-Distributist lineage of critiques of Capitalism is maintained by Medaille:

    • Tom Scharf says:

      Obviously this all comes down to your definition of “marginal value”. Once someone defines what that means to them, it is pretty obvious what side of the argument they will fall on. Most people who think this will be a net benefit either magically believe GDP will be unaffected by the death of capitalism or believe living on a commune and being one with Gaia is the goal. Curiously we find very few who actually take the initiative to go live in a non-capitalist society.

  69. Peter says:

    I found that Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve The Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott gave me my very best arguments against systemic change.

    • PJ says:

      I second this recommendation. This book changed the way I think about complex systems in which any model is bound to be a vast oversimplification.

    • What I found amusing about that book was that it was making arguments that, on the whole, appealed to libertarians and the author, apparently aware of that fact and unhappy with it, went to some trouble to make it clear that he wasn’t a libertarian. To the extent of making sure that when he wrote a footnote agreeing with Hayek on something, it included an (irrelevant) negative comment.

      • Peter says:

        Yeah, I see that as an effort to distance himself from any ideological perspective.

        The author spends the entire book saying ‘hey, communism is a cool idea- here’s how it broke down from the very start with an absurd number of extremely specific examples. No, I’m not saying capitalist high modernism is better- here’s specifically how it breaks down from the very start’ etc.

        So he needs the footnotes to avoid being labeled an anarchist or libertarian with an agenda after an entire book spent shooting down each of the high modernist statist perspectives.

        • Somewhere he has a comment about Jane Jacobs’ objection to city government planning projects (by memory from a while ago, so I may have the details wrong), put in a way that implies that that shows she wasn’t a libertarian. Which made me wonder how familiar he was with the views of actual libertarians.

          But an interesting book.

  70. Shenpen says:

    An addendum to my above “what if it is man vs. man but good and evil reversed” idea: I am not proposing Alice is evil. I am proposing someone who is evil feeding manipulative propaganda to Alice. In other words, I am proposing smart and pure hearted Alices are particularly susceptible to a specific kind of propaganda and some evil folks noticed that market gap (that is how there is a Left). Decoding how exactly that propaganda works and why is it so incredibly effective at specifically misleading smart and good people, while simple, curmudgeonish plumbers are unaffected by it, is one of the main goals of the Reactionary project. I am not 100% sure exactly how it works, what I know is that it is extremely, extremely good at vilifying counter-propaganda. Thus smart and good people, while they see the propaganda is only borderline sciencey and has rationality failures, see it as the less bad option. In other words, it seems smart and good people are especially susceptible not to a specific kind of positive propaganda but a specific negative one: that tells them the opposition is idiotic and evil.

    I don’t know how this works.

    When we watched Star Wars, we were not 100% sure Han or Leia are really good people or their cause is good – maybe the just want to be the next rulers. But we were 200% sure Vader and Palpatine are really really evil. Right? People are easier to convince who is evil, not what is right and true.

    But why?

    • stillnotking says:

      Most likely because the cost of being exploited by someone is sharp and immediate, but the benefits of reciprocity are diffuse and deferred. There’s probably also an element of coalition psychology — it’s important to know right away if someone is not in your tribe. Hence Vader and Palpatine’s distinctive “othering” via black masks, strange voices (Palpatine’s accent is really interesting; I could write an entire post just about that), and physical disfigurement.

      In other words, I am proposing smart and pure hearted Alices are particularly susceptible to a specific kind of propaganda and some evil folks noticed that market gap (that is how there is a Left).

      There is a Left because people have basic intuitions about fairness — intuitions which are completely sincere, albeit susceptible to parasitism by destructive ideas (distinct from deliberately manipulative propaganda).

    • Viliam says:

      People are easier to convince who is evil, not what is right and true. But why?

      Well, “evil” doesn’t mean “evil all the time”. Even the greatest mass murderers don’t literally spend 24 hours each day murdering someone.

      Seeing that someone murdered dozen random innocent people during one day is pretty strong evidence about their character. Observing someone for one day and seeing that they didn’t murder anybody, that’s very weak evidence.

    • suntzuanime says:

      Because Good people rarely try to come off as evil and Evil people often try to come off as good.

    • Nornagest says:

      As a general rule, I tend to throw out as implausible any theory which requires big chunks of politics to be driven by a cabal of evil people insincerely feeding propaganda to the masses — not because there are no evil people or because effective propaganda doesn’t exist, but because people are really good at detecting insincerity. Conspiracies thrive in settings like corporate or backroom politics, where everyone expects a steady diet of bullshit and so insincerity signals are no great disadvantage. They’re very hard to maintain in the context of demagoguery, where any hint of it sets off instant red flags.

      It follows that sincere people who’ve managed to convince themselves utterly that they’re doing good, are still capable of wreaking huge amounts of destruction. Which they’ll then turn around and try to blame on somebody else, or on their plan not being sufficiently well implemented.

      • Shenpen says:

        >but because people are really good at detecting insincerity

        I have no idea what you base that on… People are really good at detecting “ha ha I am SO going to screw you over” type of lies, but such lies are extremely rare. They are not very good at detecting the far common kind of lie when the liar first lies to himself, and then just projects it.

        Look at the history of scientific frauds, such as the ones related to climate alarmism. What happened is that the scientist first convinced himself that it is for the greater good of protecting the environment anyway, and besides even if this or that measurement does not show it, the whole climate thing is still true, so when publishing falsified results, they are still supporting Truth and Goodness. Having convinced themselves first, it was easy to appear sincere in public.

        In other words, your model sorely lacks the huge human capacity of self-delusion, that people can delude themselves first into sincerely believing things they knew aren’t true and then they project outward that sincerity with confidence.

        This thing is hard to catch. The way I usually try to catch is actually by a certain sense of overconfidence or fanaticism. As usually they are not able to delude themselves 100% and have lingering doubts, there is an edge in the speech directly inwards, to shutting up doubts. This edge is aggressive, shrill, triumphant, whiny, vilify disagreement, and work up quite a fanaticism. This is how I usually detect it.

        Compared to peopel who really believe things. Real beliefs are formed by an intimate understanding of something and it means knowing details and it means understanding just about everything is complicated. This has a different tone, roughly “sorry, no simple answers”.

        • Nornagest says:

          Oh, sure, self-delusion happens all the time, though climate probably isn’t the best example if you’re looking to convince people across the aisle. I’m just not comfortable calling self-deluded people evil.

  71. stillnotking says:

    I’m not affiliated in any way with EA and thus have no dog in the fight, but I will make a prediction: EA will, in the near future, be taken over by political interests. Charitable organizations have to be extremely vigilant and dedicated against that to have any chance of preventing it. (Or operate entirely in realms where politics rarely obtrudes, as Scott mentioned, e.g. children’s hospitals.) The widespread attitude within EA seems to be that rationalism is a magical anti-politics vaccine — a theory that could only be farther from the truth if it somehow incorporated phrenology.

    • Viliam says:

      Exactly this. When people with some political opinion will start connecting their cause with EA, people with other opinions will hesitate to join, or even leave. Which will increase the proportion of the people with the dominant political opinion. If you don’t stop this at the beginning, it only becomes more difficult later.

      Then at some level someone will “go meta” and say that the most effective thing to do — in long term — is to destroy (metaphorically) the people with the opposing views. And suddenly most of the “altruist” resources will go to a political faction X fighting against a political faction Y, feeding the Moloch.

      And the more money you succeed to collect (which is kinda the point), the more attractive target you become.

      For example, at some point (more or less, when you become a topic in mainstream media, which again is what you want) you will either donate a large part of the EA budget to feminist organizations — not chosen by you, but by people with media power, so it would be someone like Anita Sarkeesian instead of someone like Malala Yousafzai — or the media will call you a misogynist hate group. That is the most trivial form of attack — if I had a popular twitter account and an evil mind, I could literally start it today — so you need the strongest precommitments you can find to defend against it.

      More generally, when people start to talk about you, it will not be just inside pressure to join a political faction, but a combined pressure from both outside and inside. At the beginning, there is the luxury of debating these things among insiders.

      • Tom Scharf says:

        “Then at some level someone will “go meta” and say that the most effective thing to do — in long term — is to destroy (metaphorically) the people with the opposing views.”

        Welcome to environmentalism in the USA. They have taken something with pretty much universal appeal and forged it into a one sided political weapon. Yea team! There is no way a conservative could ever be comfortable in a Sierra Club meeting.

        This was a very bad error on their part in my view, and there seems to be no reversing it (or any desire to reverse it).

        • Adam says:

          I almost feel like part of the problem with environmentalism is it worked. We got wetlands preservation, endangered species protection, national parks, ended acid rain, solved many, though definitely not all, of the problems associated with invasive species, and pretty severely curtailed most of the really bad forms of air and water pollution. We even got reforestation passed. This leaves environmentalism as a movement with only the fringe element still giving a shit, because all of the uncontroversial goals were accomplished and support of them isn’t considered ‘environmentalism’ any more.

          Just take the Sierra Club itself. Basically everything John Muir wanted happened.

          • Tom Scharf says:

            Totally agree. A perfect example of a victim of their own success.

            The best thing for global environmentalism would be to export all the USA’s environmentalists to China, ha ha.

          • Urstoff says:

            Seems to be the trend of lots of (all?) progressive causes. The low-hanging fruit are picked and you’re left with a core fighting over safe spaces and fur coats.

          • Linch says:

            Not a lot of resources are being put into geoengineering or the other plausible solutions to alleviate the dangers of climate change. Environmentalism may have succeeded a lot, but it may arguably have succeeded a lot because it targeted the wrong things.

          • Adam says:

            Depends on your perspective, I guess. I kind of appreciate clean air and water, lakes that fish can still live in, and still having forests, and think those are even meaningful social goods. It’s not like geoengineering was even a feasible thing when John Muir was around, or even back when Rachel Carson was agitating about pollutants and probably even when E.O. Wilson came up with the idea of biophilia. It really hasn’t been feasible to even think about until pretty recently, and at this point, the IPCC, NOAA, NASA, National Academies of Science have all pitched in, but they largely get ignored. Some schemes are even within the reach of single wealthy individuals, so it’s not like they even necessarily require popular support.

          • Linch says:

            I’m ambivalent about nature for complicated reasons, but yeah, I would rather breathe in the US than in China.

            OTOH picking the low-hanging fruit is a *very* rational thing to do. Hopefully people can move faster to other causes after the low-hanging fruit in X cause has already been picked, but all in all it’s not a terrible state of affairs.

          • Randy M says:

            Or put another way, it was able to succeed because it targeted problems people felt affected them tangibly, or at least emotionally.
            If they had instead of going after air pollution or endangered species gone first after global warming, I think they would have had even less success at global warming mitigation than they are having now.

    • Adam says:

      Maybe as a website or an organization that holds conferences, but as an idea? I don’t know. I tried to evaluate charity performance measures and the impact of a marginal dollar well before I’d ever heard the phrase ‘effective altruism.’ It’s not like this is some revolutionary idea and you don’t need to have any affiliation with a named organization or talk to other people who self-identify in a particular way and collectively strategize with them to employ the idea.

    • Deiseach says:

      Yes, that’s a very likely risk. As soon as EA gets big enough to be noticeable, to start making enough of a difference to be counted, then it will have to deal with the existing structures, which includes politics. Even on a simple level like “We need to liaise with the state body on [water quality or what you will]” or “For PR purposes, we got our photographs taken handing over a cheque to the local hospital and of course the local councillors/member of parliament/Minister for Health was in it too smiling and handshaking”.

      People may vigorously argue over “Should we be seen even in a photo op with [member of this political party]?” and that’s where the wrangle over ‘stay small but virtuous’ versus ‘getting big enough to be effective means some compromise’ begins.

    • Vorkon says:

      I’m not saying that Magical Anti-Politics Vaccines CAUSE Rationalism, just that parents should have the option to spread them out a little further, if they want to… :op

  72. A says:

    I refer anyone thinking about systemic change to:

    Not that it will help, as the book itself explains.

  73. John Sidles says:


    Wittengenstein’s solvent  A central tenet of Wittgenstein’s philosophy affirms that philosophical problems are not solved, they are dissolved (e.g., “A philosophical problem has the form ‘I don’t know my way about”, and “The clarity we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity; but this simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear”, and “By means of what criteria shall we judge that that a philosophical problem has been dissolved?”).

    Seeking dissolution  It is natural to wonder, by what solvents are present-day moral problems being dissolved? Political problems? Even mathematical problems?

    Solvent solution I
    A rising tide of mathematical understanding

    One starting reference is Colin McLarty’s The rising sea: Grothendieck on simplicity and generality (2007)

    The unknown thing to be known appeared to me as some stretch of earth or hard marl, resisting penetration. … The sea advances insensibly in silence, nothing seems to happen, nothing moves, the water is so far off you hardly hear it … yet it finally surrounds the resistant substance.

    Solvent solution II
    A rising tide of political understanding

    One starting reference is Thomas Corns and David Loewenstein’s survey The emergence of Quaker writing: dissenting literature in seventeenth-century England (2007)

    “Their manuscripts flye thick as Moths up and down the Country”

    Solvent solution III
    A rising tide of moral understanding

    One starting reference is Donald Knuth’s elenchus Interactions between faith and science (2007).

    Q  “If God asked you to do something dire, would you do it?”
    A “There’s the story of Abraham being asked to kill his son, and he decides to do it. […] I probably don’t have that much faith, as he did, to do something like that.”

    Knuth goes on to speak of his article “The Dangers of Computer Science Theory” (Studies in Logic and the Foundations of Mathematics, 1973)

    Further readings  Solvent works by Jane Goodall, Fred Rogers, and Wendell Berry are commended as compatible in both methods and objectives to Knuth’s.

    Conclusion  The modern Enlightenment is pursuing its objectives, not by the perilous process of systemic change, but by ingeniously conceiving and adaptively implementing a rising tide of solutions that dissolve moral, political, economic, and even mathematical problems.

    Implication  Cthulhu’s not swimming left, but rather the foundations of reactionary conservatism are dissolving.

  74. Adam Casey says:

    It’s amazing how overconfident at least some people are in topics like this (I don’t in principle know *who* unless I know the right answer of course). Saw a great example of this on some EA’s FB wall. The topic of colonialism came up, the question was asked if it was good or bad.

    Someone gave a instrumental variables study that argued for “good”. The response was “IV studies are crappy, and so we should stick with the common sense prior”. Which was followed by the question what the common sense prior said.

    The common sense prior, (or so some claimed), states that colonial regimes were exploitative, hence colonialism is bad and that this is obvious. The common sense prior (or so some others claim), states that civilization exists, hence colonialism is good and that this is obvious.

    I bet the person reading this has a very strong view about which one of those two claims is utter nonsense right? Well. at least some of us are overconfident.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I kind of agree that between twenty million dead and an instrumental variables study, the prior leans towards the twenty million dead.

      • Adam Casey says:

        hmm, let me be clearer about my point. My claim is not that the IV study was good, it’s not. My point is that people are overconfident about what the prior is.

        If you’re confident that “the prior leans towards the twenty million dead” I suggest you beware of the seen and the unseen.

        You see the 20 million dead, you don’t see the gains from trade and infrastructure. (More concretely: Suppose that colonialism makes Borlaug’s saving a billion lives just 2% more likely. That has wiped out the 20 million dead.) I have no idea if these things balance out the obvious costs, but I’m not confident they don’t.

        • Adam says:

          Of course, just by normal population growth, you can go into any random continent in the 1600s, kill 20 million people, and at some point several hundred years in the future, there were will be a billion on the same continent, and since it’s 400 years later and we have science and better technology, they’ll probably be better off people, too. That kind of calculus justifies anything. Hitler was good, because WWII forced Europe to stop fighting more wars and now it’s a prosperous international union of peaceful well-off nations, not a collection of terrible places full of artillery impact craters experiencing depression, hyperinflation, and negative population growth (at least for now).

          • Adam Casey says:

            I don’t claim at all that my calculus justifies colonialism. I’m only trying to claim that the result is not obvious. This is not one of those questions where we are many orders of magnitude away from changing our minds.

          • Adam says:

            I’m more just pointing out that it’s not fair to use as justification for something far in the past that it saved a billion lives in the future. There are more lives to save now, and you can always save more by just waiting until there are even more people. This makes anything at all look good in retrospect so long as it doesn’t wipe out all of humanity.

    • Ghatanathoah says:

      I bet the person reading this has a very strong view about which one of those two claims is utter nonsense right? Well. at least some of us are overconfident.

      I am actually horribly torn between these two claims. On one hand I recognize how hard it is to impose civilization by force. On the other hand, I really want the benefits of civilization spread to everyone.

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      I think that ‘colonialism’ was a lot of different people in different times and places doing different things for different reasons, and some of them turned out better or worse in different ways.

  75. Anonymous says:

    think about how easy it would have been to make Gore win in 2000 and how much would have changed if he had

    Bob is clearly delusional.

    • PDV says:

      Significantly more advocacy for anti-global warming, very low chance of the second Iraq War, Afghanistan War substantially less probable but the chance of its being replaced by a different war would take up a lot of the slack (not necessarily called a war; it might have been an insistent ‘internal police action’ in Saudi Arabia or something). Unclear what the non-war response to 9/11 would have looked like; it would probably be large, but the direction is unclear. Existing response was large and negative, so either reducing the magnitude or changing the direction would most likely be an improvement.

      So no, Bob isn’t delusional. George W Bush had outsize influence on the country compared to most presidents, and the things he did with it were not good for the country or the world. It doesn’t take a ton of confidence in counterfactual Al Gore to be reasonably assured that, in expectation, things would have been a lot better.

      (Things that would not have changed: The financial crisis would probably not be averted, and there’s no reason to predict it would have been less severe (though on an eight-year timescale, it would have been butterflied to be *different* in severity). Wealth inequality would probably not be affected significantly either way. Mass incarceration and the war on drugs would have continued more or less unchanged.)

      • nil says:

        I doubt even Afghanistan would have gone differently, and I’m moderately skeptical of the idea that the AGW situation would be any better–but Iraq wouldn’t have happened, and that’s enough.

      • I think things would have gone about the same, with differences in detail. The big difference is that the blame for the results would have been on the left instead of on people who believe in the things Bush claimed to believe in.

        So Republicans back in the White House until the next time they messed up.

  76. P. George Stewart says:

    gaun yersel’ son. As you say, systemic change is “sexy”, and that’s the problem: it gains adherents because virtue signalling for systemic change is sexy, not because everyone’s sagely thought it through.

    • Sastan says:

      And kids always think they know better than the last hundred billion smart people over the last fifty thousand years.

    • moridinamael says:

      This really deserves to be hammered home. I have friends who describe themselves as various forms of “radical” or “revolutionary” who talk (on Facebook) about how other people are being “insufficiently revolutionary” in complicated ways. And to me, it always seems like “good revolutionary behavior” is perfectly synonymous with “horribly antisocial and destructive behavior.” I feel like I could successfully troll these people by just linking to news articles about bank robberies and hit-and-runs and adding a caption describing the perpetrators as revolutionaries, and my friends would just eat it up.

      I’m still not sure what the difference is between me and them. They’ve probably read a bit more Marx and Chomsky (or Ayn Rand as the case may be) but I’ve been exposed to all the same radical ideas, and if it came down to revolution, I think I would easily be on the side of the counter-revolutionaries. The “break everything and remake it better” tactic has essentially only worked once, with the foundation of the U.S. government, and the fact that all my revolutionary friends loathe the U.S. government does not inspire confidence in their models.

      • Who wouldn't want to be anonymous says:

        I think you overestimate how revolutionary the Revolution was.

        • moridinamael says:

          After thinking about it, I decided to retract my assertion that even that revolution was necessarily a net good. The UK lost control over most of its colonies not too long after the American War for Independence anyway, so it’s possible that the war was just a waste of life.

          • Nornagest says:

            The French Revolution would probably have looked pretty different if there hadn’t been a successful American Revolution twenty years before, too. It’s hard to say if it would have happened anyway — many of the demographic etc. pressures leading up to it would still have been present — but without war debt from the Americas and without a recent major revolution in the national memory, the sequence of events would probably have changed substantially.

      • Vorkon says:

        Actually, I’d argue that the American Revolution isn’t a successful example of the “break everything and remake it better” model at all. The colonies already had stable governments and their own homogenous cultures and social constructs, completely separate from the British, thousands of miles away. The revolution didn’t break down those structures. Functionally, it was no different from an existing country repelling some foreign invaders from another continent. The fact that they were descended from those “invaders” a few generations back is mostly immaterial.

  77. Sastan says:

    In these moments of brief intellectual humility, I always like to urge people, if they want to learn something about themselves and “smart” people, to read the research done by Dan Kahan and others at Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project. It makes for sobering reading.

    I can summarize most of their findings thus:

    Smart people are no more likely than anyone else to be “correct” about any issue we can factually measure. What they are better at is justifying their position, and resisting evidence to the contrary. In this manner smart people are actually worse at real world correction than dumb people. Dumb people know they’re dumb, and can be convinced of their factual errors if someone manages to hit all the right buttons.

    For a fun exercise, think about all the people you know who are “right”* on things like Global Warming. Are they also right on Nuclear Power?

    The people who are right on Evolution, are they also correct on racial IQ averages?

    The people who are right on mass incarceration, are they also correct on gun control?

    All of us are politically motivated, perhaps most so when we think we aren’t. We define ourselves into our positions and resist any and all evidence to the contrary. And if we’re very, very bright and very, very altruistic, we are very, very incapable of seeing how badly we are screwing up.

    *for the purposes of this argument, “right” will mean “in congruence with the vast majority of specialist scientists in the field”.

    • Anonymous says:

      >For a fun exercise, think about all the people you know who are “right”* on things like Global Warming. Are they also right on Nuclear Power?

      >The people who are right on Evolution, are they also correct on racial IQ averages?

      >The people who are right on mass incarceration, are they also correct on gun control?

      You clearly think you have the right position on all of these, so why can’t that be more common? Or are you less sure than you sound?

      • Adam Casey says:

        >”You clearly think you have the right position on all of these”

        I think Sastan clearly claims *not* this. That’s like, the whole point of the comment.

      • Sastan says:

        I clearly do (with certain caveats), but I am probably wrong on a whole raft of ideologically linked things that don’t spring readily to mind. It so happens that my tiny ideological sphere is well placed to exploit the differences in the dominant left/right paradigm. So, as a libertarianish sort, I have no trouble with the motes on the one side and the beams on the other. I’m sure I’m missing some of my own though.

        There are two components to any political position, a factual judgement and a value judgement.

        I can share a factual judgement with someone without sharing their value judgement, but most people do not make this distinction. And very intelligent people usually try to redefine their way into making their value judgment seem like a factual one.

    • Alphaceph says:

      > The people who are right on Evolution, are they also correct on racial IQ averages?

      Hey, no race or gender in the comments please.

      There is no such thing as race anyway, it’s a social construct.

      And IQ doesn’t actually measure intelligence because intelligence is complex, ineffable and multi-dimensional, really intelligence is impossible to measure because every human is a unique individual and you can’t reduce that to a number.

      But all races definitely have equal intelligence on average, because if you believe otherwise you are just enabling racism. BTW, are you a cis white male? I think this conversation is being dominated by cis white male voices and you should be banned.

      • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

        >Hey, no race or gender in the comments please.

        That’s actually just for the Open Threads, because Scott doesnt’ want them to become “All race, all gender, all the time” and because Ozy used to do simultaneous “Race & Gender” threads.

        • Alphaceph says:

          Apart from pick-up, which is banned everywhere. (Gender).

          And how well would it go if someone started an off-topic discussion on race as the top comment in the next post? Realistically?

          (I am not saying I disagree with this, I am just pointing out that that is the way we operate – we complain about the dangers of getting our epistemology wrong whilst at the same time doing things that are contributing to bad epistemology, like banning discussion of unpopular but probably true topics, relegating them to much less viewed spaces, etc)

          • Randy M says:

            The norms are “No off-topic posts, and on open threads, nothing about race and gender.” If a topic touches on race and gender, discussion usually turns to it, though if that isn’t always your go to example that will probably help.

      • Nita says:

        I think this conversation is being dominated by cis white male voices and you should be banned.

        Well, thanks for demonstrating just how thoughtful and non-mind-killed meta-level discussion can be.

        • Dahlen says:

          I don’t want to be known as the Poe’s Law guy around here, but I have to ask yet again: was that not an obvious caricature?

          • Nita says:

            Obviously it’s a caricature. But I don’t see how posting (rather crude) political caricatures of your opponents adds anything positive to the discussion, so to me this is an example of a bad meta-level comment.

          • Alphaceph says:

            There was a thread in the effective altruism facebook group where someone found some comments that were against open borders. These comments were low quality, not well-reasoned, and could be construed as racist and islamophobic. This person pointedly remarked that the low-quality poster was white and male, and asked for him to be banned.

            I don’t have to go to the effort of making this up; it’s not a caricature.

          • Nita says:

            I’m sorry you had a bad experience on Facebook, but does turning SSC into the mirror image of that really make things better?

          • Alphaceph says:

            > but does turning SSC into the mirror image of that really make things better?

            I have to be honest here and say that I posted my comment because it amused me not because I first calculated whether or not, all things considered, it was the best thing to do. I would probably hold myself to a higher standard if I were writing a top-level post on a blog.

      • Sastan says:

        Funny, but derailing. I used the example advisedly, because it is roughly as mindkilling for each side as the other. I have no desire to litigate it.

        • Alphaceph says:

          I admit that I mostly posted that because it amused me, but every single line has actually been used against me in these debates.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I think yes. Effective altruists seem to mostly have the right position (or more right than population average) on all of these issues, defining “right” as some nebulous combination of “agrees with me” and “agrees with the scientific consensus as best I can tell”.

      • Sastan says:

        EA types tend to what you called the “grey” tribe of politics, yes? And as such, they can see clearly the contradictions in the left and right, as I can. But what they can’t see, and I can’t see, and none of us can see, is how those positions blind us to other problems exactly as the blue tribe is blind to nuclear power and the red one is blind to evolution.

        There is no special quality to EA types, only a different tribal affiliation.

    • Ghatanathoah says:

      I actually make an effort to find and remember examples of people I think are right on some issues, but wrong on many others.

      I suspect that this is because I like morally complex characters in fiction, and want them to exist in real life too. I similarly enjoy reading about real-life badass soldiers.

    • On the subject of Dan Kahan’s very interesting work.

      1. He has an explanation of his results, a theory of rational irrationality. What I believe about evolution or global warming has almost no effect on the world, which is a big place. But it has a large effect on me, because those are issues that have become linked to group identification. If I live in a rural town dominated by fundamentalists, announcing that I believe in either evolution or AGW will have sizable social costs. If I am a university professor, announcing that I don’t believe in either will have sizable social costs. So it’s rational to persuade yourself of the position your social group believes in, and the smarter you are the better you are at doing so.

      2. There was recently a post on FB linking to a (partisan) page that referenced Dan’s work with the title:

      The Republican Brain: Why Even Educated Conservatives Deny Science–and Reality

      I put up two comments. The first was an explanation of Dan’s argument. The second:
      I want to see if I can persuade you that your comment about the conservative brain applies equally to your brain.

      I have a blog post which, I claim, shows that a prominent figure on your side of the climate arguments has lied in print about his own work. Logically you have no reason to be sure it isn’t true–even if your view of AGW is correct, there might be some dishonest people supporting it.But admitting that someone on your side is a deliberate liar feels like treason to your side, just as admitting that there are good reasons to believe in evolution would feel like treason to my hypothetical small town fundamentalist—even if he could think of ways of squaring it with the Bible.

      There are two possible responses you could have to my post if, as I believe, it actually provides very strong evidence for my claim. One is “looks as though it’s true. That’s too bad, but it doesn’t mean AGW is wrong even if one of its supporters is dishonest.” The other is “there must be something wrong with the argument, let me see if I can find it.”

      I predict that if you read the post, you will find yourself taking the second position. If you want to try the experiment, here it is. You will note that all of the evidence is where you can look at it, conveniently provided by the person I am accusing of dishonesty.

      Spotting the pattern in yourself is more important than spotting it in other people.

    • David Byron says:

      That really sounds unlikely. In my experience smart people are right more often, not less; how else would you know they were smart? Maybe they are worse at changing their minds (from being wrong I assume you mean – since changing your mind from being right is no virtue), but given the poor quality of your example issues I have to strongly doubt that the selection of issues used in the research was very good at finding issues with known answers. After all if smart people have different views on something then how can you tell if it’s right or wrong?

      The examples you give look like bait and switch set ups.

  78. Nathan says:

    Thinking about the central problem underlying Scott’s post in a little more depth. Namely, how do we know what the right thing to do is, if smart people get things wrong a lot?

    I think that the essential answer to the question is trial and error. In my view the essential reason science has given us so many awesome things is not because scientists were really smart, it’s because they tried lots of things. (as a corollary, I have a high degree of scepticism of any academic field where you can’t realistically try out an idea and see what happens)

    I mean think about it. Suppose every one of us is perfectly capable of making a powerpoint presentation if we actually tried (likely). But unless you regularly use powerpoint, I bet you couldn’t sit down and write step by step instructions for constructing one without reference, and not miss anything or get anything wrong. Once you try and see what went wrong you probably could quickly figure out what you missed – but you would most likely have to try first. And that’s for something as simple as powerpoint! For remaking the world’s economic or political system, there’s a *slightly* higher chance of missing something.

    There’s tremendous value in testing ideas. For that reason, we should be highly sceptical of really smart, well thought through but utterly untested systemic changes. We should also highly value experimental changes of limited scale.

    • Sastan says:

      I think you are very correct, but also that this is a very conservative argument. Everything we have has been tested. Maybe the test was a failure, but it was tested. If we’ve had something and it has been working for a very long time, this logic dictates we should resist changing it.

      • Nita says:

        The logic dictates that if we want to improve what we have, we will have to test some ideas, and, since we can’t tell how good they are without testing, some of them will inevitably fail.

        And many people do want improvement, since they consider some aspects of the current situation intolerably bad.

        Therefore, the challenge is to figure out how to test ideas in a way that would maximize informative value and minimize risk.

        • Sastan says:

          All of this is true Nita, and I agree. But consider problems with this we can’t avoid. People’s perception of what is “intolerably bad” can change wildly over time. At one point, “intolerably bad” didn’t include mass rape, genocide, and torture. Now it includes not calling someone by their preferred (and possibly just invented) personal pronoun.

          • Nita says:

            At one point, “intolerably bad” didn’t include mass rape, genocide, and torture. Now it includes not calling someone by their preferred (and possibly just invented) personal pronoun.

            Not sure how true that is. I think the people experiencing the rape, torture and genocide did find them pretty intolerable. Meanwhile, others were thinking “ugh, who cares about those people, anyway” or “this is the price for avoiding a much greater evil”, or “hey, what if we can do better? what if torture is always bad, and we can get by without it, somehow?”.

            And what exactly is the problem with change? The goal of reform is not necessarily to arrive at a perfect system that should be preserved without change for millennia — at this point, we don’t even know if such a system is possible.

            Perhaps societies change, and their infrastructure has to change with them.

          • Sastan says:

            Once again, I agree. I’m just saying that human beings are always roughly as discontent with what they have as every generation has been. We should try to continue the process of civilization, but retain a sense of scale. This gets easier with age, but as you age, there is a new cohort just bound and determined that they are the first people to every be smart and altruistic, come along to “revolutionize” everything.

          • sweeneyrod says:

            I don’t know that calling people by non-preferred pronouns is in fact intolerably bad. It is legal, and I have done it without being ostracised.

        • Sastan says:

          As a very practical matter, I like the idea of sunsetting laws. You pass a law for a number of years, if it is working, you reauthorize. If not, you let it go away. Now, it’s not perfect, politics never is, but we know it is possible, and it gives those of us with an academic bent a good source of data!

          • LHN says:

            I don’t hate the idea, but politicians being lazy and reasonably clever, I don’t see how you avoid most of it ultimately being rolled into the omnibus reauthorization bill that gets passed without comment.

            (And if that gets stalled by grandstanding over some provision or other, you can bet that before murder becomes legal by default we’ll see the “temporary continuing resolution” that does pretty much the same thing.)

            It seems really hard to force a legislative body to deliberate over things it decides that it doesn’t care to deliberate about. The US Constitution, framed by people who distrusted standing armies due to their British inheritance, carefully specifies that “no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years”. How well has that ensured frequent reconsideration of whether we should continue to maintain land forces?

      • Nathan says:

        @ Sastan

        It is, which is a little depressing from my perspective because I actually want to replace our economic system with an alternative that has never been properly tried but sounds *really good* in my head, honest! So from an objective perspective I guess that means people would be well advised to be wary of ideas like mine. 🙁

        • Sastan says:

          Actually, I don’t think there are any alternative economic systems. There are economic policies, and some are better than others, but the only parts of any economy that work at all are either violent exploitation or capitalism*.

          I think of people who want to change economic systems to be a special sort of history and science denialist. There are no alternatives. You can debate the economic policies all you like, and I’ll join the scrum. But trying to replace capitalism as a system for distributing goods and services is like trying to replace oxygen as the gas we breathe.

          I saw it in Russia, in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union. Totally communist, right? No! In law, you want a plumber, you call a plumber, he comes fixes your free apartment for free. In reality, you call the plumber, he puts you on a wait list stretching back to the Romanovs. If you want the work done, you go down there, and you pay the man, he then comes out and does the work. You exchange goods for services. In a completely socialist economy! Imagine that…..

          All communism did was change the titles of the activities, and impede them somewhat. What we would call payment, they call bribes. And you could go to jail…..unless you pay the cops too!

          I do not claim capitalism is the best of all possible worlds. It just happens to be the only one we have.

          *capitalism in the broad sense, not as in any nation’s specific policies, which all incorporate some level of capitalism, and a lot of stuff that isn’t.

          • Mark says:

            People respond to incentives – you’ve identified that they can be either a carrot or a stick (“violent exploitation or capitalism”) – but I don’t think that what you are talking about really is capitalism at all – its a market (or, more generally, the provision of positive incentives).

            Anyway, looking at the specific example you give of the plumber … you go on to say “What we would call payment, they call bribes. And you could go to jail…..unless you pay the cops too!”

            Well, yes. In my (vaguely functioning) country, when I call the police, I don’t pay them. When I go to the doctor, I don’t pay them, either. So, what is going on there?

          • Sastan says:

            In the case of the police, violent exploitation*. In the case of the doctor, capitalism*.

            *Both highly modified by whatever country you happen to live in. A high enough level of societal trust allows for deferred payment and for violence to be implied rather than performed. Both violence and capitalism can be hidden. I presume, however that your country pays its police and its doctors?

          • Mark says:

            Yes, the government pays doctors, but what does that have to do with capitalism? Capitalism can’t just mean “giving people incentives to do work” can it?
            If it does, then you wouldn’t have to look to the black market for examples of capitalism in the Soviet Union. They paid the workers within the system too.

          • Dahlen says:

            Well, if you like it well enough, you probably won’t rack your brains for alternatives, but this notion that capitalism is the only mode of acquiring resources is well in the realm of fanboying.

            There are about five of them. Exchange (capitalist-like systems in the broadest sense) is one. Predation is another. But guess what, it doesn’t end here! Then there is self-sufficiency, which doesn’t scale. Also, allotment, which maps somewhat onto historical socialist states, the Inca Empire, and every economic unit considered in isolation; you may also call this one centrally planned production. Finally, there’s communism, or communalism, or sharing or pooling of end products without keeping track of the hands they pass through – that fabled unicorn of the economic left. But no worries, it happens often enough on the family scale, among others.

            All of them are present in any given economy, in varying degrees. All of them will not necessarily produce a Western industrial nation-state when dominant, but that’s not the same as saying they don’t “work”, whatever that may mean. Remember, history is still young, and modernity even younger. We shouldn’t let our civilisational specifics blind us to what might be.

          • Sastan says:


            So, you’ve listed “exchange”, which I think is a fair enough proxy for what I’m calling capitalism.

            “Predation”, which I called “violent exploitation”. This is quite obviously not a generalizable economic system. Every predator need prey, and not everyone can be a predator. It works in small groups, or even relatively large ones, but requires an actual productive system to feed it. So, we’re back to “exchange”.

            Self sufficiency may allow people to live, but isn’t really an economic system. By definition it isn’t a means for distributing goods and services. Also completely incapable of technical progress, so apart from a few hermits, we’ll scratch this one as a legitimate contender.

            “Allotment”, which I think encompasses the more totalizing monarchies and socialist countries. All of them still contain bits of capitalism, exchange is still a big part of the society, but certain goods may be alloted (food, health care, etc.). So, partially capitalist at the very least, and the parts that aren’t I argue are usually much worse than the exchange alternative. And in order to override the basic exchange, you need some violent exploitation to get there. You’ve got to execute a lot of Kulaks and sacrifice a lot of people to get this even started.

            “Communalism”, which is, as you note, a “unicorn”. Communes have been tried over and over, and they never work in the end. Communes dedicated to a religious ideal work better for a while, because the only thing that can concievably replace economic self-interest is tribal altruism. This doesn’t scale well either.

            So you’ve got the two systems I mentioned, one that isn’t a system, one that can’t be scaled to nation size and fails anyway, and one that does scale, but requires violence and still uses exchange for much of its economy. Oh, and its track record is terrible.

            Yup, thesis stands.

    • Emp says:

      This thread is full of alarming misconceptions.

      No matter how much you ‘try out’ things, you won’t be able to solve this because:

      a) There is no consensus on what the good is


      b) You don’t get to see the alternative.

      • Nathan says:

        Sure you (sometimes) get to see the alternative. You just try different policies at different times or in different places. Yes, it’s pretty difficult to isolate specific causes and effects in many cases, but others are easier.

        A recent example from the Australian experience is refugee policy (which has clear implications for the situation in Europe). When large numbers of people are risking their lives trying to reach your country by boat, what should you do if you want to minimise drownings? One option is to go and try to rescue people when their boats sink, proactively find and intercept incoming boats that are unsafe and bring their passengers to land, etc. Another is to refuse to take any refugees that come by boat (to avoid incentivising risky behaviour) and to instead settle other refugees in their place. We tried both of these policies over the course of the last 5-10 years and one was a clear and obvious winner.

        So to the extent that EAs should be politically involved, we should probably be doing things where there is a demonstrated “correct” answer, like agitating for Europe to learn from the Australian experience.

        (note: Essentially the same number of refugees were resettled in Australia under both policies on an annualised basis – the number of drownings was the only real difference, and I think we’re all on board with less death = better)

  79. E. Harding says:

    An entire post on systemic change, beginning with descriptions of complaints of people not “fighting inequitable laws or capitalism in general” and zero people have mentioned China? Or at least Chile? This is ignoring the elephant in the room!

    • Ronald Coase’s final work was a book coauthored with Ning Wang on the Chinese transition. Its central claim, as I read it, was that the transition worked because Deng did not know what systemic change should happen and knew he didn’t know it. The other top person, Chen Yun, did know, was wrong, but was sufficiently modest to revise his view on the basis of evidence. What both of them agreed on was that China had somehow gotten things terribly wrong. It had what they believed was the world’s best economic system (Marxist socialism), yet the income of a trash collector in London was six times the income of a vice-premier of China.

      Reform proceeded in two ways. One was an attempt to fix what they thought was wrong. It met with at most mild success. The other was tolerating changes not initiated from the center that they disapproved of but were willing to be proved wrong about, such as the (illegal) introduction of semi-private agriculture. The latter set of changes were chiefly responsible for the spectacular success–real per capita income increasing twenty fold from Mao’s death to 2010.

      Part of what I found interesting about the book is that Coase, as I read him, not only thinks China would have done worse if Deng had followed Chen’s advice (central planning primary, market secondary) but would have done worse if China had followed the advice of some Chinese equivalent of Chile’s Chicago boys—that change by trial and error works better than change by even relatively good economic design.

  80. Brawndo says:

    My original comment got marked as spam for some reason after I edited it… could it be rescued?

    multiheaded (my comment seems to have ended up above in the threading):

    The burden of proof for large amounts of immigration should be pretty high. I don’t think it’s been met, because the crime, political change, security risks, and ethnic conflicts have not been adequately addressed by open borders advocates, to name just a few of the problems. Open borders advocates focus on economic and moral arguments. Nobody should take my word on this; do your own research from sources on both sides, watch the videos in my previous comment, and see whether Chesterton’s Fence should really be kicked down here.

    • suntzuanime says:

      It’s poor form to argue the object level example in the comments of a meta-level post.

      • Nita says:

        Is it? Why?

        • jaimeastorga2000 says:

          Meta-level discussion is a low-entropy state that decays all too easily into object-level discussion. Object-level discussion is less abstract and more political; hence requires less thinking, is more enjoyable, and leads more readily to mind-killing. There are a lot of other places to discuss object-level issues (if nothing else, just wait until the next open thread and make a comment), so please allow this meta-level discussion to exist unmolested.

          • Nita says:

            The object level is the only level that can be grounded in reality — and outside of mathematics, that’s the only reliable anchor we have.

          • Mark says:

            Where does the term “object level” come from?

          • Urstoff says:

            Logic/linguistics: the metalanguage is used to talk about the object language.

          • Ghatanathoah says:

            Object-level discussion is less abstract and more political; hence requires less thinking, is more enjoyable, and leads more readily to mind-killing.

            I actually find meta-level discussion much more fun than the object level for some reason. Maybe it’s that it seems to transcend parochial conflicts. Or maybe it’s because since it’s more abstract I don’t have to look at as many statistics.

        • Adam says:

          It isn’t what Scott wanted to talk about and quickly drowns out everything else because we all have reflexive positions that won’t change for years, if ever, but certainly won’t sway one direction or another thanks to a comment thread, so we just end up rehashing exactly the same arguments five times a month.

          It violates Effective Blogging, basically.

  81. Sammy says:

    I agree with you about ‘systematic change’, mainly because it’s a characteristic of EA that it doesn’t focus on those kind of issues, and that’s a valuable unifying factor it would be a shame to lose. Even though I don’t think it affects the validity of your argument much, there was something about the dialogues’ tone that caused me disquiet. What was it you said?

    ‘Also, I like Jonathan Haidt, but I’m starting to think he’s gotten too into the whole “Liberalism isn’t 100% perfectly obviously correct provable by universal reason with conservatives merely being those who are too stupid to understand this incontrovertible fact, THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING.” I mean, yeah, a lot of intellectual people eventually have this experience, and it’s scary and requires a lot of soul-searching, but Haidt’s doing it so publicly and so protractedly that it’s starting to be a little embarrassing.

    Why can’t he just feel vaguely anxious, and occasionally read some Moldbug while loudly declaiming he doesn’t believe any of it, like everyone else?’

    Are you sure you haven’t just had an attack of Haidt-itis? I know we all get it from time to time, but your own advice is good.

    • Anonymous says:

      I’d rather Scott continue to focus on being right than worry about appearing unconventional or not fitting in with standard liberal viewpoints.

      • Sammy says:

        Hey, I’m certainly not a standard liberal (certainly not in the american sense of the word), but EA organizations like Givewell already examined the costs and benefits of things like advocating for climate change mitigation (, and in the article is the assumption that climate change is real and the government has a right to do something about it, assuming what they did would be effective. That’s automatically excluding many libertarian and conservative viewpoints.
        And that counts as systematic change that might be really effective, but if you’re so keen to not be seen making assumptions, like bob in Part I, you might shirk away from it.
        Now, the quote I took off Scott’s tumblr did say you couldn’t prove liberalism universally true, and that although that should influence your thinking, you shouldn’t run away with the idea, like Haidt. So I’m fine with advocating for systematic change for things like climate change and woman’s rights, but not actually controversial stuff or stuff that’s the specific domain of the left, for example a higher minimum wage.

  82. Alex says:

    Isn’t Bob’s argument against the Engels model sort of like saying “You think saving the lives of babies is good…but what if someone saved a baby’s life and that baby grew up to be HITLER??” Any action can always have totally unpredictable negative consequences. That isn’t really a great rationale in and of itself to avoid actions that are otherwise reasonable. (Also, it’s a questionable premise that if Marx hadn’t written his books that a similar movement to Communism, or at least a number of political upheavals with similar consequences, would not have started.)

    • multiheaded says:

      >(Also, it’s a questionable premise that if Marx hadn’t written his books that a similar movement to Communism, or at least a number of political upheavals with similar consequences, would not have started.)

      Indeed. As previously suggested by our generous host!

      (I am not interested in arguing for the massive positive externalities of communist revolutions as of now; let’s just swap Engels with [generic evil systemic change person]?.)

    • The original Mr. X says:

      Given the track record of attempts at sudden systemic change over the last two hundred years or so, I don’t think “ending in a massive bloodbath” can really be called a “totally unpredictable” consequence.

      • albatross says:

        Does that include the industrial revolution, electrification, and the computer revolution? How about the huge changes in public health and sanitation that caused infant mortality rates to fall so low? Those are all examples of huge systematic change, though not mainly mediated via political means (wars, elections, revolutions).

        • Adam says:

          I can’t speak for everyone who would advise not investing in politics, but I would advise that. I would also advise investing tremendously, if not exclusively, into technology.

        • The original Mr. X says:

          No, I was speaking of politically-driven systemic change, a la the French Revolution or Soviet Russia.

    • haishan says:

      “Smaller” actions are less unpredictable than “bigger” ones, though. If I’m working on a computer program, changing a couple of lines in one function is more likely to work than trying to rewrite the whole thing from scratch.

      • Adam says:

        Also easier to undo. Not with software because of version control, but human societies can’t just git revert.

  83. Sam says:

    I feel that the question should not be ‘Systemic change: yes or no?’ but rather ‘how can systemic change be done well?’.
    Two arguments for thinking this:

    In my mind the argument Bob makes is unconvincing and somewhat similar to aid-sceptic arguments. ‘Providing aid sounds good but is really difficult and look at these anecdotes of smart people getting it horribly wrong so let’s conclude that aid is not a good idea.’
    The EA response to the aid skeptic is to agree that change through aid is difficult but that we should not dismiss it out of hand but be looking into how to do it well.

    The research of the EA movement largely helps altruistic people be effective at improving the world. Lots of people are keen on systemic change, finding good evidence about how individuals can push for systemic change in the ways that are most likely to be positive, means we can help more people achieve more good in line with their own goals.

    I imagine this involves someone looking at questions like: Are there areas of significant systemic change where we can find consensus? What size of systemic change (between repealing ag-gag laws and funding the next Karl Marx) is likely to have the biggest impact? What ways are there of safely experimenting with systemic change? Are there areas where the EA movement is best placed to push for change?

    • Shenpen says:

      >Are there areas of significant systemic change where we can find consensus?

      – No rent control. Find other ways.

      – Tax consumption and land mostly.

      – Shift welfare towards actually paying the poor instead of paying the welfare bureaucracy.

      – No corporate welfare.

      – Huge rich countries should engage in free trade. Small poor ones can be excused if they have some protectionism so that they are not entirely dependent on imports in strategic industries and thus get too vulnerable to blackmail.

      – Find a way to let nominal wages drop during recessions. Even intelligent lefties like Keynes wanted this, just could not find a way how.

      • Jaskologist says:

        People do not agree that corporate welfare is bad; people believe that certain kinds of money transfers to corporations are bad, and then they call those things corporate welfare. Start calling them Green Initiatives, Diversity Initiatives, or Infrastructure Investment and the agreement vanishes.

      • Mostly agree except for the nominal wage drop during recessions. If you meant “real wages”, then you’d be correct (Keynes is outdated because he wrote in a gold standard, we have fiat money now which is better).

        I also agree with Jaskologist on corporate welfare, most of it is actually defended by a lot of people.

      • Brian says:

        #3 is the only one where there’s any real consensus (and even then, it’s a consensus as to the goal, not the method. There’s no consensus for “stop putting conditions on welfare,” even though those conditions are what creates a need for bureaucracy).

        1, 5, and 6 have a consensus among economists, not among ordinary people. The average person is opposed to 5 and 6, and there are a lot of people who think rent control is necessary to get affordable housing.

        2 doesn’t have any consensus, except maybe that consumption and land taxes are on net more efficient. Most people think a progressive income tax’s fairness outweighs the efficiency of a consumption tax.

        4 has the same kind of consensus that gives Congress an 80% disapproval rating and a 96% reelection rate. We all agree businesses shouldn’t get welfare, and then make exceptions for our preferred businesses (sure, I’m against corporate welfare, but I’m for giving grants to businesses to build local plants!)

      • lmm says:

        There is absolutely not a consensus on consumption taxes.

  84. chaosmage says:

    What about scrutinizing the big intransparent megacharities and pushing them to be verifiably effective, rather than self-perpetuating networks of people paying themselves with altruism budget money to do relatively unsupervised jobs?

    Is that sufficiently directly related to the actual work of getting money where it is needed, or is it political and we should just let them go on like they do?

    • Randy M says:

      A worthy goal that would quickly turn to political.
      “You spend a lot of donations on fancy cars for yourself instead of on people in Africa” is a valid complaint against a church budget.
      “You spend a lot of money on people in Africa talking about Jesus instead of malaria nets” is a difference in belief about certain values (and disputable facts) that would likley quickly be disguised as a critique of corruption.

  85. Thanks, good post. Two points:

    1) I agree it’s very important to retain the moral message. In fact, policy advice from an organization that has a moral credibility is likely to have more of an impact, than the same advice coming from a pure expert organization like the Brookings Institution. So even those who think that EAs should do more policy work, like myself, should agree that it’s important that the EA continue to be associated (though not exclusively so) with giving to effective charities.

    2) I agree that one problem of the EA movement getting involved in politics is that that large parts of politics is a conflict game, where opposing parties waste lots of resources fighting each other. That is part of the reason why I work on evidence-based policy and “political rationality”, instead of doing conventional political work. Most people should want politics to become more evidence-based and rational, regardless of their political view. (I also think there are other reasons to work at this “meta-level”, as opposed to doing “object-level” policy work – a subject I talked about on EA Global Oxford.) See, e.g.:

    The political bias test, which was recently covered here, also falls under political rationality. (I made it with Spencer Greenberg.)

  86. Winter Shaker says:

    Can I flag a typo?

    If two people are both committed to healing the sick and feeding the hungry but believes in open borders and the other in a more Bernie Sanders style approach to immigration

    should have ‘one’ between ‘but’ and ‘believes’.

    Please feel free to delete this comment.

  87. Shenpen says:

    Interesting that you mention only left-wing systemic change in the first sentences. How about right-wing systemic change: invading Africa, replacing corrupt dictators with honest colonial administration?

    I think “man vs. man” is OK – just these guys get it the wrong way around: capitalists, Western colonial admin etc. GOOD, revolutionaries, third world dictators etc. BAD.

    In other words, I feel drawn towards a Carlylean worldview – it IS good vs. evil, but the roles reversed.

    I mean at least one has to consider it as an alternative – that there are two potential answers to left good, right evil: either that it is better not to see people as evil, which is your view, or consider the option what if the left is evil. For example, gaining power, status and influence, and gaining “holiness” and warm fuzzies, while only sowing violent chaos and disorder, is evil. Essentially one should at least consider that it is the sweet-talkers, the folks who speak the language of ethics and nice intentions, are the evil ones. In other words, the first thing to consider at hearing any proposition isn’t “is this really true?” but “is this guy a liar?”

    • suntzuanime says:

      There is a fourth view, which is to see everyone as evil. That’s the view I feel best reflects the facts.

      • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

        >There is a fourth view, which is to see everyone as evil.

        “And when everyone’s evil… no one will be!”

      • Doug S. says:

        “Let me give you some advice, Captain. It may help you to make sense of the world. I believe you find life such a problem because you think there are the good people and the bad people. You’re wrong, of course. There are, always and only, bad people, but some of them are on opposite sides.”
        — Lord Vetinari, Guards! Guards!

    • Dahlen says:

      In other words, the first thing to consider at hearing any proposition isn’t “is this really true?” but “is this guy a liar?”

      Wait. Finding out whether someone says true things is kind of a prerequisite for knowing whether that person is a liar. (Then you’d have to know whether the untrue things are said knowingly / maliciously.) What’s the rationale for favouring the second question? Is it more worthy to tag people with characteristics than to sort statements into true and false?

      • Shenpen says:

        Yes, because the manipulators / liars have a HUGE advantage over truth-seekers. It is possible even to lie / manipulate while every statement is technically true, just filtering facts selectively. Like always showing the EU migration crisis as crying women and children, and ignoring the 70-80% angry young men. All the photos of crying women and children are technically true – they were made there, then, of those folks, technically not manipulated. Just the _selection_ makes the message manipulative and something of an unspoken lie, as it gives the impression this is what the majority is.

        Beyond filtering facts selectively, one can employ emotional mind tricks that are literally true, such as noncentral fallacy.

        And in a stream of facts, there is not always time to check all so some literally false ones can slip in.

        Therefore, most debating cultures and most discussions are based on trust that at worst the other party is making honest mistakes.

        This is why it is crucially important to detect liars and manipulators and exclude them from discussions because checking every half-truth, decoding every emotional trick, pointing out every selective filtering is just too much effort wasted.

        • Dahlen says:

          Alright. I suspected the answer was along those lines. My real worry is probably the shifting of debate norms towards false positive accusations of being a liar, after no longer making false negatives. Because that creates a climate of paranoia and hostility wherein a person can’t be just wrong, but necessarily a liar.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Dahlen
            My real worry is probably the shifting of debate norms towards false positive accusations of being a liar [….]

            This. And to weed out falsities in the accusation, you’d have to look way back to what the accused person is accused of lying about in the past. You might as well just argue the current issue with whatever evidence we have now, correcting everyone’s current errors as usual.

          • Christopher Chang says:

            It is usually* easy to distinguish between people who, when proven wrong, acknowledge it, never make the wrong claim in the future, and sometimes even refer to the disproof later; and those who try to get away with the same false claim later when they don’t think anyone smart enough is looking.

            It’s reasonable to publicly and permanently ostracize people in the second class. (If they’re an adult, anyway. If it’s your six-year-old kid, welcome to one of the classic challenges of parenting…) In the past, this might have been impractical, but nowadays you can find enough intellectually honest people on the Internet to afford this without completely isolating yourself.

            *: technically it’s possible to exhibit unusual honesty/humility in some areas to gain trust, and then try to abuse that trust, but that’s rare; it’s normally more efficient for a liar to surround themselves with more gullible people.

          • “It is usually* easy to distinguish between people who, when proven wrong, acknowledge it”

            The problem is that it’s easy to conclude that someone who disagrees with you has been proven wrong when he has no good reason to agree. Consider Scott’s comments on “debunked” research in one of his old posts. Most of us have a bias in our own favor.

          • Christopher Chang says:

            The problem is that it’s easy to conclude that someone who disagrees with you has been proven wrong when he has no good reason to agree. Consider Scott’s comments on “debunked” research in one of his old posts. Most of us have a bias in our own favor.

            That is a good point.

            An additional diagnostic that helps reduce the classification error rate is to see whether they preferentially engage with stronger or weaker critics/criticisms. Genuine truth-seekers engage with the strongest apparent counterarguments they can find, and are likely to revise their position at least a little bit over time as a consequence; charlatans systematically ignore them, while of course trying to pass themselves off as truth-seekers by refuting flawed counterarguments when they get the chance. It takes multiple data points to draw a conclusion here, since there’s lots of room for disagreement re: what counterarguments presented on a given day are worth engaging and which ones can reasonably be ignored, but usually a pattern emerges. (Sadly, as you’ve noted, the pattern is frequently not a good one.)

        • My version of Shenpen’s point is that a critical intellectual skill mostly not taught and sometimes anti-taught in our system is the ability to judge sources of information on internal evidence. From the way this book/article/web page/blog post is written, is the author an honest and intelligent person doing his best to say what he thinks is true or is he either dishonest or badly biased.

          Scott’s posts provide a good example of one end of the range, most FB posts on climate topics, on either side, of the other.

    • Frank says:

      It’s interesting how left-wing positions seem to map to attempts at short-term altruism and right-wing positions seem to map to attempts at long-term altruism. For example, left wingers want to redistribute earnings. Right wingers want to avoid redistributing earnings so people will be incentivized to work. Left wingers want open borders to help poor people. Right wingers want to keep borders closed in order to preserve the institutions that make some countries nicer places to live in. Left wingers want gay marriage to make gays happy. Right wingers want to preserve traditional marriage to avoid messing with parental investment etc.

      • Tatu Ahponen says:

        “Right wingers want to keep borders closed in order to preserve the institutions that make some countries nicer places to live in.”

        That doesn’t sound very altruistic towards the people who don’t live in those countries either in the long or the short term, no?

        • Ever An Anon says:

          Institutions aren’t like natural harbors or coal deposits: people in other countries are perfectly capable of adapting Western institutions to their own circumstances.

          Why can’t we encourage Syria or Guatamala or wherever to go down the path of Atatürk’s Turkey or Deng’s China rather than letting them all crash on our national couches?

          • birdboy2000 says:

            Neither place has an Ataturk or a Deng running it, and when the people living in Syria say they want better they have a habit of winding up dead. When they got pissed enough at that situation to start fighting back they got barrel bombs rained on them. And now there’s a civil war.

            Getting a Deng or Ataturk out of this mess is much, much easier said than done. And those two had their own severe failings – consider the nostalgia for Mao in much of China, or the Kurdish conflict which can be traced directly to Ataturk.

          • Tatu Ahponen says:

            The closest analogue to Atatürk in Syria would be Bashar al-Assad, and it could be said that the whole thing starting this thing was that a large number of countries, including the US, have wanted to get rid of him.

          • HlynkaCG says:

            Because when we do that it’s called imperialism, and imperialism is worse than Hitler.

        • The original Mr. X says:

          One of the arguments I’ve heard against open borders is that the people who leave a country to seek better earnings are disproportionately likely to be young, motivated and hard-working, i.e., exactly the people who’d be needed to build up the country they’re leaving.

          • Saint_Fiasco says:

            They are, in fact, helping to build the country they are leaving.

            Mostly through remittances. I know lots of people who could only afford College because one or both of their parents emigrated and sent them money, for example.

        • Frank says:

          Having powerful, benevolent nations with high-quality institutions (like the US) is arguably good for the rest of the planet. Americans give more to charity than citizens of any other nation. The vast majority of EAs are from developed nations that let them get high quality educations and high paying jobs which allow them to donate to charities working in the third world. High quality Western educational institutions educate the smartest of the third world, who then get sent back to their home nations to develop things. For the past few decades, we’ve had a unipolar distribution of world power with the US being the world’s sole superpower. This (along with the previous unipolar US vs USSR period) has coincided with a period referred to as the “long peace” where there’s been much less war than in decades prior. This might have something to do with the US spending a massive amount on its military and playing the role of benevolent world police officer.

          If the West doesn’t maintain high quality institutions other countries will. Japan is very xenophobic and is not likely to open its borders any time soon. They’ve got a history of viciously attacking their neighbors. I would prefer populations with a long history of altruism, like say the British who ended slavery within their empire and accelerated the economic development of their colonies and were arguably the most benevolent empire builders in history, keep the top spots in terms of world power. People will copy whatever the winning nations are doing. That’s why nowadays the vast majority of countries at least pretend to be democracies and today’s global youth are growing up watching American movies and listen to American music. If the USSR had won the cold war, the vast majority of countries would at least pretend to be communist and global youth would be consuming USSR media.

      • xq says:

        Don’t think this is systematic. Left-wingers want to address long-term risk of climate change, right-wingers are concerned about immediate economic effects. Left-wingers wants to reduce “root causes” of crime, right-wingers want to put more people in prison.

        • @xq:

          Your general point is probably right, but the prison example is a poor one. You could equally well say that right wingers want to put more people in prison in order to deter future crime, left wingers are against because they are pained by the immediate costs to people of being in prison.

        • Frank says:

          FYI, I am concerned about long-term risks of climate change (though it’s not something I have looked in to in depth so my beliefs are not held strongly). I agree this example defies my pattern. I’m in favor of addressing root causes of crime, but I’m doubtful of left wing solutions there. (Also doubtful of right wing solutions but less doubtful.)

      • Ghatanathoah says:

        What I’ve noticed is that there are two tiers of right-wingers. The top tier believes in right-wing positions for the reasons Frank gives. The lower, and much more common, tier, believes right-wing things for reasons that are even less intellectually sophisticated and more short-term than the reasons that left-wingers believe in things.

        They want to avoid redistributing earnings because it’s their money that they earned, they want to close borders because foreigners are scary and taking our jobs, they want to ban gay marriage because buttsex is gross. In other words, if you accept the top-tier right-wing arguments as true, the bottom-tier right-wingers believe the right things for the wrong reasons.

        • @Ghat:

          Don’t you think the same pattern exists on the left? The sophisticated left winger supports an increase in the minimum wage because he believes the elasticity of demand for low wage labor is small, hence the main effect will be to make poor people better off and other people worse off, and he doesn’t have any less inefficient way of doing that that’s politically viable. The mass of left wingers take it for granted that raising the minimum wage means poor people being better off, possibly some very rich people making less profit, and a general improvement in the economy due to the higher wages being spent.

          Similarly for most other issues. Consider the contrast between the actual IPCC projections and the widespread images of drowned cities and the Earth burning up.

          • Wrong Species says:

            But do you think the left winger supports the minimum wage because of that argument, or uses that argument because it supports his already held belief that the minimum wage is good? I bet most of the smart progressives never seriously questioned this belief, they just spent more time looking for a convincing argument. The same could probably be said for smart conservatives and gay marriage. I’m sure there are smart groups on both side who have seriously questioned their beliefs but they are a minority of a minority.

          • Ghatanathoah says:

            You’re probably right. There are probably knee-jerk liberals and knee-jerk conservatives.

    • Linch says:

      On the meta-ethical level I’m a moral relativist, but day-to-day I assume that pretty much everybody is good, or tries to be.

      I do not lock my door, and I sleep well at night.

      • Linch says:

        Damn. That sucks. I definitely agree that people with dependents should be a lot more cautious than me.

        Greater Madison area. I currently lock my front door, but it’s mostly out of respect to my roommates/landlord. I was thinking more of not locking my room (I know my roommates generally do) and also not locking doors during college (small college, different state) when I wasn’t sharing.

        As an experiment/early warning sign, I tend to leave fairly large sums of money in visible areas in my room. This has yet to reduce my faith in the fundamental goodness of all things.

        For what it’s worth, (unless you’ve tanned a lot since your picture was taken :P), I have a higher-than-yours melanin content, and one of my roommates have a higher-than-mine.

      • Adam says:

        I never locked my door when I lived in Sonoma County, CA. Never locked my door in Harker Heights, TX. Now I live in Dallas and often don’t lock my door, but it’s in an old factory converted to lofts. I’m not sure what would convince a random passerby to try out third-story doors to see if they’re open.

        Where I grew up, we definitely locked our doors, not that it was a terrible place, but you know, at least occasional visible crime. My school had a few drive-bys.

        Also, yes, my melanin content is much higher than Mark’s, probably 90th percentile here if I just had to guess, even though I’m not that dark and usually lightest in my family since I barely ever go outside.

      • Ghatanathoah says:

        I can understand the value of assuming the goodness of others if you are engaging in behavior that increases your own security at others’ expense (i.e. installing spikes to stop homeless people from sleeping in a public place). But locking your door doesn’t hurt anybody else, so why not do it?

        • Linch says:

          The honest answer is that I was really bored one day in college and calculated the amount of time it takes me to lock the door/find keys, plus the inconvenience of losing my key or otherwise locking myself out*probability of that happening and compared it with the perceived increased likelihood of all my material possessions being stolen*the value of my possessions. The former was several times greater. The one possibly significant number that I didn’t include (and I suspect a lot of other “rational” people might want to) is the expected mental anguish of losing possessions above their material value to replace. I didn’t do it because I don’t think I would care that much. I don’t think my current location is significantly more risky and I managed to avoid accumulating more possessions, so I have not bothered to update those calculations.

          Of course I was absent-minded then so there’s some motivated reasoning going on here…

          • One thing I did along these lines, after a neighbor reported a burglary, was to take a spare hard drive, back up my desktop to it, and hide it. That struck me as the sensible solution to the fact that the only thing in the house that I thought burglars were likely to take that could not be replaced pretty easily was the contents of my computer’s hard drive and the attached backup disk. There are other things that I would hate to lose, but they aren’t the sorts of things I would expect a random burglar to go for.

  88. DiscoveredJoys says:

    Social Justice Warrior vs Social Justice Facilitator? One who ‘fights’ for systemic change meets opposition, yet one who encourages others to improve a situation *may* make more progress. It’ll take longer though.

  89. Deiseach says:

    What’s the expected marginal value of becoming an anti-capitalist revolutionary?

    Well, that’s pretty easy to work out, thanks to the Occupy protests. My favourite is the Occupy and Trinity Wall Street kerfuffle, where right-onness of every description collided, and to nobody’s surprise the single richest parish in the entire Episcopal Church finally decided that owning a piece of property in a desirable location far outweighed keeping on the right side of a bunch of crusties.

    Revolutionary anti-capitalists did damn-all to effect any change; the damage to the system came from within, thanks to good old human vices like avarice, pride and covetousness.

    • Brandon Berg says:

      Sure, but occasionally they succeed, with disastrous consequences for humanity. So the expected value is negative, though it’s not clear exactly how negative.

      • stillnotking says:

        My thought when I read that sentence in Scott’s post: “It’s not the number that concerns me, it’s the sign!”

    • Tatu Ahponen says:

      Considering that there have been more minor consequences of Occupy protests – certain relatively effective new concepts like “99%” gaining ground, a new generation of activists being trained in activism, their effect on movements in the rest of the world – it’s really too early to tell what the total effect of the Occupy movement will be.

      • ThirteenthLetter says:

        > a new generation of activists being trained in activism,

        Oh good. More GMO fields getting burned down, more people getting harassed out of their jobs by insta-mobs, more corporations desperately wasting millions of dollars on feels. I can’t wait.

  90. Tatu Ahponen says:

    “But in the more important sense, the net effect of his contribution was global mass murder without any lasting positive change. If we count him as an effective altruist – and under the circumstances I’m not sure we can do otherwise – then the net contribution of the movement throughout history has been spectacularly negative.”

    That’s a fairly big argument to make, isn’t it? There have been far, far more people and political movements in the world affected in some way by Marx and Engels and their studies than just the Bolsheviks and the movement following in their footsteps.

    • Emp says:

      I feel this is a larger problem with calling “effective altruism” a movement. It isn’t. It’s a broad agreement about how to go about things, but not an agreement about what things ought to be achieved.

      Can this be called a movement at the point where large segments of the group are bound to have diametrically opposed goals?

    • Agreed. Even if we do the calculation against the counterfactual world (how many people die in the 20th century without communism?) it’s not clear that we can lay the responsibility for the whole sum on Engels and hold him the example of a failed intervention. Marx had a new philosophical critique of the existing, deeply flawed societal structure and, from the evidence, this resonated with many people. If we support a deep marketplace of ideas then it’s a good thing that the conversation happened.

      It is strange to make your point of intervention in limiting the damage of Communism the choice of Engels to fund Marx. Why not change the policies of Nichloas II or the Kuomintang (who certainly influenced their ideological rivals)?

  91. Emp says:

    1) Whenever I see EMH, I see red. It’s the most nonsensical idea in the history of mankind. It literally posits; everything is perfectly priced ‘because’. Extending that lunacy to ‘no one can be right about anything’ is logically consistent, but highlights the problem with the idea itself, it’s complete bollocks and this sort of issue is not the kind you can solve by slapping numbers on it, making whatever assumptions you like and then pretending the conclusion is scientific, as the creators of EMH did.

    2) If ‘Effective Altruists’ are willing to split up over trivial disagreements like not wanting people to have non-veg food (seriously an issue more suited to religious political parties in India), then they aren’t really committed to EA at all. They are committed to their egos and personal control. Being willing to splinter your movement over this or not concede ground is the literal antithesis of the ‘effective’ part of your movement’s philosophy.

    At this point you need to question whether your goals are aligned in ANY WAY at all. What I think you guys have is a philosophical agreement about how one should go about pursuing goals and unsurprisingly, NO AGREEMENT AT ALL as to what those goals ought to be in the first place.

    In plain English, the reason you’re advocating man vs nature issues is because those are the ones where you all agree about the goal. What this WILL NOT change is that for some of your group man vs man issues will be more important as a whole, and it absolutely makes sense for them to destroy the entire EA movement over such an issue rather than have it proceed with a misguided goal.

    The fact that you agree about a method is just utterly irrelevant compared to the fact that you disagree with what to do about it which is a FAR bigger issue and more in need of consensus.

    • Emile says:

      I find the EMH perfectly sensible when talking about stock prices and other similar commodities: as a rule of thumb, if someone claims to know whether such-and-such stock’s value is going to go up or down, based only on publicly available information, than chances are they are full of it.

      Don’t you agree?

      • Trevor says:

        I think I’m getting this from Fama, but I can’t find the source right now.

        It can be useful to split the EMH into two claims:

        1. You Can’t Beat the Market. Prices reflect all available information, markets are anti-inductive, yada yada.

        2. The Price is Right. Prices reflect the “true” value of the stock, markets allocate resources in the socially optimal way, yada yada.

        To many people, the first is obviously correct and the second obviously false. A lot of persistent EMH arguments go away when you realize one side is taking about (1), the other about (2), and neither has a good reason why both answers must be the same.

        • Adam says:

          Like Urstoff says below, there are two efficient market hypotheses, the strong and the weak. Neither says that prices are actually rational or optimal or ‘true’ or anything like that. The only ‘true’ price of a financial asset is the immediate book value plus all future discounted cash flows, which is unknowable because it’s the future.

          What the hypotheses actually say are:

          1) Weak: Publicly traded equity prices reflect all publicly available information, so you can’t consistently beat the market using only publicly available information.

          2) Strong: Prices reflect all private information, too, so you can’t even beat the market using private information.

          I don’t think too many economists actually believe the strong, as insider trading empirically works. The weak form is close to tautological, as if you have a strategy that actually works, eventually others will figure it out, adopt it, and it won’t work any more. But it does explain the extreme secrecy of hedge funds, as what they do can only possible work if no one else actually knows or can figure out what they’re doing.

          • Emp says:

            2) Isn’t remotely tautological.

            It basically posits that there is no such thing as excellence, because if there was. everyone would just do it.

            It’s absurd. It assumes that good trading is about that one canned strategy that you keep repeating. It’s an inherently academic conception that only someone with no practical experience could come up with.

            I defy you to explain to me how this logic doesn’t apply to baseball, or football, or any damn thing for that matter? Why the hell would everyone ‘eventually’ become as good as the best guy at anything, and doesn’t that necessarily imply that until they do, the market actually isn’t efficient?

            In reality, different strategies work at different times and markets do graduate towards what works in the short term. This explains a lot of the mania for EMH and index funds right now (it’s a strategy and thought process that’s having it’s best time for decades, until the stock market started plummeting).

            Anyone with a brain who understands the market can tell you the S&P is more likely to drop than rise over the next year, but an efficient market is incredibly convenient theory, so keep buying and reading articles about how ‘panicking and selling is worst thing to do’.

            Watch out for the change in opinion about the merits of EMH as the market continues to crash and the crash accelerates.

          • Adam says:

            Clearly, this inspires levels of caring above and beyond my own as a topic of discussion, but I was just trying to explain what the hypothesis is and why it says nothing about whether prices are correct or rational or not.

          • lmm says:

            @Emp the difference is that the not-so-good footballers play just as much football as the best. Whereas those who are best at pricing get more money and therefore get to have more input into pricing.

            I was about to suggest we bet on the S&P 500 but then I realised how dumb that would be. I trust you already have a large short position if that’s what you believe.

          • What’s your accounting of the empirical evidence for the Efficient Market Hypothesis? I don’t have the link handy but I know it’s been proved quite often that no investor, no matter how skillful, beats the market at a rate better than chance.

          • Emp says:


            I’ve already addressed this. This so-called proof ignores people who’ve actually done that by calling them outliers. It then uses data from mutual funds as a class and assumes that whatever applies to them applies to sophisticated hedge funds or individual traders who aren’t affected by the same constraints, mandates, error tracking budgets and career incentives.

            The proof isn’t worth the paper it’s written on, because the assumptions underlying both the theory and it’s proof are demonstrably false.

        • Quixote says:

          In some sense both are false. Or 1 is true when its talking about you, you the one reading this (probably). But its not true to say that no one, with lots of time, staff resources etc can. Lot’s of people have. People continue to do so.

          Everyone talks about how if enough people enter a coin flipping contest someone is sure to win. Very few people actually work out the binomial expansion numbers for the probability of getting Warren Buffet, George Soros or Renaissance Capital like return numbers.

          • Adam says:

            I really don’t think it’s meant to be taken as a concrete law of investment. An Emp is so passionately pointing out, there are clearly fund managers who have consistently beaten the market, even for very long periods of time, but as I tried to explain above before getting yelled at, the condition of the hypothesis is that in order to do so, they can’t reveal what they’re doing. Knowing all of Buffett’s or Soros’ positions allows me to just mimic them exactly. Knowing Clayton Kershaw’s exact training routine doesn’t mean I will ever throw a curveball like this.

          • Emp says:

            Adam, sorry for the yelling. I just care about the topic a lot and it’s a little irritating to see people take the wrong end of it for granted and argue as though denying it is in flat-earth territory while demanding impossible levels of evidence that essentially make the hypothesis non-testable.

            That said, a very interesting point about Kershaw. I still don’t think if Soros and Buffet explained their trading process to you, that you would be able to replicate it. Sure, if you know their exact positioning at any given time, you could copy that, but it’s not the case that knowing their process would enable you to just pick out every trade they do.

            What you’re saying might be the case with some types of mechanical strategies, but I don’t think the most successful entities rely on a particular strategy that can be programmed and just keep applying it (which is the sort of paradigm academics have in mind when they say “other people will copy what you do”).

          • brad says:

            EMH isn’t true, but it is useful. When someone comes to you and tells you that he can beat the market (or worse that you can, all you need is to watch these videos, now available for the low, low price of …) , 99 times out of 100, the welfare maximizing response to run, not walk, away while checking to make sure you still have your wallet.

          • Emp says:

            Brad, your comment is entirely true.

            In fact 100% of such offers are bogus, because market success requires hard work, time dedication, understanding AND a substantial capital base to start with. You could alternatively credential farm to get into the financial industry, but only a select few hedge funds actually have the freedom to do whatever they think is optimal, rather than be hemmed in by a gazillion institutional constraints.

            If someone told me “You can be a great neuro-surgeon if you follow this course” my response would be similar. I’ll grant that believing this will protect you against charlatans, but thinking markets can be beaten with great skill shouldn’t make anyone believe that they should be able to do it without professional dedication, skill or aptitude.

            The market is unique inasmuch as it is so scalable that there is very little scope for mid-level competence as a career option. It’s much like how you may be much better than me at Tennis, but that’s irrelevant in the sense that neither of us could have a pro career and Federer would beat both of us 6-0 6-0 6-0.

            In financial markets, the best players get to wield trillions of dollars in capital and consequently, if you’re really good, but not as good as them, you will still under-perform the market, the same way the Tennessee Titans are a ridiculously high skilled football squad, but in the universe of NFL they suck.

            The fact that over-performers are both so scarce, as well as so overly successful is actually very strong evidence of skill. It’s really important that in a zero-sum game, if all you look at is results, a game which requires enormous skill can look completely random if it’s played by a lot of participants with roughly equal skill levels.

          • Emp says:

            Also, to add on to my previous comment, it certainly cannot and should not be taken as a given that at all points in time everyone will be so high-skilled, or equally skilled that no one will have much of an edge.

            Certainly it’s possible, but it’s very unlikely to last for any length of time, precisely because so much of the money is compelled to act in particular ways by institutional requirements and because the flow of money (think sectors, strategies) are drawn by irrational human preferences and biases.

          • An important issue in interpreting the EMH is what counts as public information. If the facts I am using are public but I am interpreting them in a way few other investors will, my interpretation is in the relevant sense private information.

            Real world example. I bought stock in Apple shortly after the Mac came out. That was in part a response to a colleague (Tulane Business School) asking me why I bought a Mac instead of a PC Junior.

            I was putting together three facts, all available to others. One was the nature of a GUI—I had seen material on the Xerox Star. One was the fact that the Mac used a Motorola 68000, a processor previously used mostly for multi-user machines—because it needed the horsepower to run a GUI. One was my colleague’s comment, which I thought reflected an attitude shared with a large fraction of investors.

            My general view of the implication of the EMH for investing is that if you have an opinion relevant to the value of a stock that you are willing to bet against the world, you can assume that everything else relevant to the stock’s value is already incorporated in the price so don’t have to research that.

      • Emp says:

        No. I don’t. In fact, I myself work at markets, and my practical experience leads me to believe this theory is complete and utter bullshit.

        The only evidence of this theory is that it hasn’t been disproved according to highly rigorous standards which begin by assuming that this theory is true.

        I just don’t get how people who don’t know the first thing about the market are so sure “it can’t be beaten”. What the data shows is that no particular group AS A CLASS, beats the market. This isn’t surprising to me, but the fact that mutual funds or hedge funds as a whole don’t beat the market isn’t surprising at all. Groups that are large enough to be the market and that continue to be hamstrung by any number of institutionally mandated sizing and positional direction requirements can’t beat the market.

        The funds that supposedly ‘can’t beat the market’, have an error tracking budget beyond which they aren’t even allowed to deviate from the said market.

        There’s a reason why no academic has ever offered to lay Warren Buffet even odds of beating the market, and the same goes for Hedge Funds such as Rennaisance, Bridgewater, Medallion, Pershing Square and other top tier funds.

        There’s an ocean of difference between something being difficult and it being impossible. The problem is the theory refuses to even engage in first principle argumentation rather than relying on class-wide statistical data, picking groups wide enough that they ARE the market, and then claiming said groups can’t beat the market.

        The theory is based on assumptions that are demonstrably false, and cannot prove itself without recourse to said assumptions. It will not engage in first principle reasoning, will not subject itself to an empirical test (I identify a guy beforehand and let’s see how his positions do).

        • Quixote says:

          This guy gets it.

        • Anonymous says:

          Naive question: if there are people who reliably beat the market, why haven’t we all given them all of our money to invest?

          • brad says:

            1) A lot of people have given their money to some of them. Berkshire Hathaway has a market cap of 323B.

            2) Some of those people don’t want your money, because their strategies aren’t infinitely scalable, and they’d rather save that sweet sweet alpha for themselves than have to give 80% of it to you. If they want more money to invest they’d rather just lever up on debt.

            3) If you accept as true that some people out there can reliably beat the market, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can tell who they are. It can be kind of like an existence proof in math.

          • Adam says:

            Part of the reason I somewhat advocate the weak EMH without actually believing it’s completely true is that it’s good advice for the lay investor. Just giving all your money to the guy who can do the best doesn’t work in practice because a place like Medallion might just charge 5 and 55 and the return to a person parking their money there is significantly less than the return of the fund itself, most of which goes to the fund manager. That was John Bogle’s point in starting index funds as much as any a prior belief about the impossibility of success in active fund management. You don’t just have to beat the market, you have to beat the market plus transaction costs plus management fees plus taxes on realized gains to make it worth it.

          • Anonymous says:

            Berkshire Hathaway has a market cap of 323B.

            OK, fair, but why not more? Everyone else just isn’t savvy enough to give their money to Berkshire Hathaway?

            their strategies aren’t infinitely scalable

            Again, I am naive about this but I don’t yet buy this point. If they are consistently beating the market then there is money being left on the table, right? They should be exploiting their advantage until they have invested so much money that they have shifted the market and eliminated whatever opportunity they were exploiting. Whether they get this money by soliciting investors or by borrowing seems immaterial.

            it doesn’t necessarily mean you can tell who they are

            Emp seems to think they can? “Warren Buffet … Rennaisance, Bridgewater, Medallion, Pershing Square and other top tier funds.”

            Anyway, we should certainly be able to identify such people retrospectively, though we have to do the statistics right to ensure we aren’t just picking up people who got lucky.

          • Emp says:


            Warren Buffet said this theory was BULLSHIT in 1984. 1984. That’s 2

          • Emp says:


            Warren Buffet called EMH nonsense in 1984. That’s more than 30 years ago, and he himself has substantially outperformed the market since then, so claiming that he just got lucky till then and after being identified as a test case, beat the market over 30 years through sheer luck is just wildly improbable.

            The same is true of plenty of others.

            Please do focus on Brad’s answer number two. People who can beat the market reliably tend to have a LOT of money. If you look at the Forbes List, a startling number of the top 100 richest people in the world made their money speculating in markets. They don’t need or want your money or want you to benefit from their strategies and expertise.

            Also, yes, no strategy is infinitely scalable. When your strategy is more advanced than taking a position and holding and you want to be able to reverse fast, a lot of your edge won’t exist if your fund has more than $100 Billion AUM or you will be restricted to a very small number of markets. That’s why you can’t access Medallion or Rennaisance’s services.

            Also, C) Lots of people like you are simply mistaken and no amount of evidence will convince you that there is anything such as investment expertise, and hence that’s a lot of money not going to these people.

          • Matt says:

            brad is correct – I think scalability is the hardest part. Consider the likelihood of the market being inefficient to the tune of millions of dollars versus billions or trillions. The first is a rounding error, the second is a small percentage, and the third *is* the market.

            I will also point out that just because someone has beat the market for the last decade doesn’t mean they will continue to do so. If markets are efficient at all, I’d naively expect them to include previous market beating strategies (eventually).

          • brad says:

            Anyway, we should certainly be able to identify such people retrospectively, though we have to do the statistics right to ensure we aren’t just picking up people who got lucky.

            Not necessarily. Let’s say we build a model and it tells us that of a certain group of hedge funds, we should expect that six would outperform for ten years in a row by pure chance. We go and look at the data and see that twelve have, run some statistics and find that that is statistically significant. We reject the null hypothesis and conclude that alpha exists. That still doesn’t tell us that any particular one of those twelve didn’t get their returns by pure luck.

      • John Schilling says:

        Markets are asymptotically efficient. In order to achieve efficiency, smart people have to actually devote themselves to analyzing lots of information, which they aren’t going to do if they can’t get paid for it. But, the better these people do as a class, the harder it is for them to individually prosper. If they ever create the perfectly efficient market, they’d all be out of work.

        The stable equilibrium for e.g. the stock market is to be just inefficient enough for a clever analyst working with a share of the average mutual fund’s capitalization, can eke out above-market profits just sufficient that his share will make for a good upper-middle-class income. The places where significant above-market returns will still be possible are the ones where arcane knowledge is required for accurate analysis and the market capitalization is too small to justify more than one or two analysts devoting themselves to that arcane specialty.

        • Brian Donohue says:

          That’s right. There’s a market in analyzing securities, just like anything else. And it’s pretty damn efficient. Maybe it doesn’t look so efficient to Warren Buffett, but most people don’t have his eyes or brains.

          Not that complicated.

    • Urstoff says:

      That isn’t what EMH says. EMH is about stocks, not “everything”. In addition, there are several variants on the EMH. The weak form, according to which you can’t reliably predict a stocks future performance from it’s past performance, is almost certainly true. A stronger form, according to which information is disseminated quickly so reliable returns above average are impossible, is also very well supported; index funds (almost) always win. The strongest form, according to which prices always reflect all information, is probably literally false (although it’s hard to think of an empirical test that would distinguish it from the semi-strong form), but close enough to the truth for people who aren’t day traders.

    • Tracy W says:

      The EMH seems to have become some sort of weird bogeyman in some areas of left-wing academia. I once had a debate with the guy who wrote that book about economic zombie ideas where I wound up going back to the source material of what the economic reformers in NZ and the UK were thinking in the 1970s and 1980s and showing that there was no mention of the EMH, to which his response was that the EMH was unconsciously influencing them. At which point I gave up.
      (He also kept promising me a cite for his claim that the EMH in the form you describe was the same as Fama’s EMH. Never got that either.)

    • Matt says:

      Its a shame your first point on the EMH derailed all replies. Your second point is the most cogent description of the EA movement in this thread (including the article itself). I typed a much longer reply, but I will instead turn it into a blog post. The gist is that some institutions organized around meta-beliefs are stable. Some fractious institutions organized around beliefs proper are successful perhaps because of their nature.

      tldr: I agree with your assessment if not your conclusion. A forced consensus is not necessarily required for success.

  92. trolololololol says:

    “if everyone gave 10% of their income to effective charity, it would be more than enough to end world poverty, cure several major diseases, and start a cultural and scientific renaissance”

    If everyone tried to give 10% of their income to “effective charity”, it would go about as well as raising taxes 10%. It looks like you already know this on some level, when you talk about not wanting to be the Brookings Institution or Cato Institute. If you think that it is possible to do better than this, and OpenPhil, for example, looks like it’s doing much better, you have to be doing something different from existing philanthropists, not keeping the message simple to appeal to maximally many people.

  93. Stuart Armstrong says:

    I think the post equivocates over the position of global warming – one of the clearest positive “man vs man” (or PvP) causes out there. Just because most people would approve of a policy *if it didn’t have any downsides*, does not make that policy “man vs nature” (or PvE).

    I’m also not convinced that “If a private donor offered to pay for scrubbers on every smokestack at zero cost to the rest of the economy, the Koch brothers would have no objection.” is necessarily true. Politics is tribal, and doing anything about global emissions is tribal as well; have we checked that really, doing this for free would be accepted on a political level (imagine if, eg, the UN decided to fund the de-carbonisation of the US economy). By claiming that global warming is PvE, the post avoids facing one of the strongest PvP interventions.

    On a meta level, I’m not sure the PvP and PvE distinction is valid. “Everyone agrees the sick should be healed”; in fact there were and are many people worried about overpopulation, who think foreign populations should be left to starve or collapse, who worry about the breeding of people with certain classes of values and think we shouldn’t help these populations survive or grow. Not huge amounts of people are like this, but enough to make the theoretical distinction invalid.

    So I feel the point of the first part of the thesis is reduced to “beware change where the downside is difficult to measure”, which is not a universally effective anti PvP argument.

    The second half of the thesis – why certain interventions should be avoided for political and PR reasons – is much better. The distinction between PvP and PvE is clear here – PvP are those interventions where the opposing group is largeish, PvE those where the opposing group is tiny. I have no intellectual problem with that argument, much as it saddens me at an emotional level.

    • Martin says:

      As someone who doesn’t entirely buy into the Global Warming point of view I would say yes, if some Third Party offered to install harm reduction technology at all power stations or rolled out electric cars across the planet that this would be a good thing.

      Possibly a an inefficient use of money, but certainly something we wouldn’t want to try and stop. Why would it? It might help a problem, without doing any significant harm.

      (Why don’t I buy into AGW? Whenever I see a report on (for example) the IPCC, the report always features the worst possible outcome of all the outcomes modeled. Even when the economic model in question requires constant population growth, no technological advancement and an increase in coal power. Yes, big scary numbers make for better news, but it leaves a very sour taste in my mouth and leaves me distrustful of the entire field.)

      • Stuart Armstrong says:

        >Whenever I see a report on (for example) the IPCC, the report always features the worst possible outcome of all the outcomes modeled.

        Nowhere near. Almost nobody pays attention to the tails, and there are strong reasons (the usual overconfidence and model errors) to suspect they are far too thin. The xrisk lie in the (underestimated) >+6C warming category, not in the range everyone goes on about (now, fortunately, the xrisk seems small, but not small enough).

        The most terrifying thing you can say about global warming? “There are great uncertainties in the climate, which scientists don’t take into account.” I agree with that. Of course, most people saying that are thinking that the impact is overestimated, but uncertainties go in both direction.

        • Anonymous says:

          I think a plausible interpretation of Martin’s comment (or at the very least, a subtle shift of it to be more in line with what I’ve argued in the past) to be that it’s the overall outcome, not just the degree of warming that is exaggerated. Mostly, I think this is due to the fact that we have close to zero clue for how to model the actual outcome (this requires a good economic/political model that runs on a timescale much faster than climate change), so we assume things like constant population growth rate, no technological advancement, no changes to economic behavior, etc. all while we’re jacking up the slow parameter to it’s hundred-year value (…even if this hundred-year value is not in the tail of possible hundred-year values…).

        • Martin says:

          It is quite plausible that the media reports we see are distinct and don’t overlap.

          Actually, that would be an interesting study – measure media bias across the world by looking at the distribution of reported warming predictions.

          I would also accept that both the consequences and the numbers tend to be chosen from the disaster side of the spectrum, as per Anon’s post.

          Also, for comedy value, note that I have solar panels for the house. Not because I believe in climate change, but because it works out on a financial level. If we are ever to beat climate change as some people believe we need to do, that is going to be the way to do it.

          • Adam says:

            I’ve never actually seen any popular media reporting of climate change, but I’m not a blogger who specifically covers this stuff. I only ever see television news in hospital lobbies, and from what I can tell, they only seem to report murders and elections.

      • I have no objection to people spending their own money on carbon mitigation, choosing to live low carbon lives, or the like. But it’s a slight exaggeration to say that it couldn’t do any harm. There is at least one very low probability situation in which it could do harm—if AGW is all that is holding back the end of the current interglacial.

    • Nathan says:

      I am a rather stronger climate sceptic than Martin and agree with him: if you want to waste your own cash on CO2 mitigation, go for it. I’d rather see it spent on bed nets personally, but your cash, your choice.

      • Stuart Armstrong says:

        Since you are in the orbit of the rationalist community, I don’t think your reaction is necessarily typical.

    • Ben says:

      I completely agree with you that Climate Change falls into the PvP bracket, but I think that this actually doesn’t change the argument against messing with PvP very much. In particular, the unforeseen consequences of trying to ‘fix’ it, whether by covering the world in nuclear plants (something I broadly support but could probably be convinced I was wrong about), or large scale geoengineering projects which make me very nervous indeed, could very easily play out in much the same way as the Engels and Marx scenario where a well meaning attempt to solve an obvious problem ends up being a blood soaked catastrophe.

    • stillnotking says:

      I’m also not convinced that “If a private donor offered to pay for scrubbers on every smokestack at zero cost to the rest of the economy, the Koch brothers would have no objection.” is necessarily true. Politics is tribal, and doing anything about global emissions is tribal as well; have we checked that really, doing this for free would be accepted on a political level (imagine if, eg, the UN decided to fund the de-carbonisation of the US economy).

      We don’t even need to imagine, because rolling coal is a thing. People are quite willing to pay costs — personal, social, or both — purely to spite members of the opposing tribe. (Perhaps it’s not purely out of spite. One could make camel’s-nose arguments about symbolic acceptance, etc. But it’s mostly spite.)

  94. This is something I’ve been worried about for a while, but I’m concerned about what might happen if we just give up on politics. Surely there will be a demographic effect that will allow the anti-EAs to get their politics put into law? I’m not sure how we escape Moloch here. Maybe the answer is something like “don’t spend any more effort than your opponents” but that seems obviously susceptible to bias.

  95. Marge Simpson after failing to remove Itchy and Scratchy from television, at the end of one of my favorite half hours of television, “I guess one person can make a difference, but most of the time they probably shouldn’t.”

  96. Echo says:

    There are two brands of “low-income housing” advocate where I live. One type want to raise money to house poor people. The other want to bring “systemic change” by abolishing land-ownership and forcing everyone to live in communes (yes, I’m serious. They actually come out and say “you can’t OWN land”).

    Almost everyone supports the former. The latter is an abomination that decent people are already ganging together to exterminate.
    Do not try to be the latter group unless you think you can out-massacre everyone outside your tiny clique of tech-bubble hipsters, because that’s what this kind of thinking leads to.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Where do you live?

      • Echo says:

        Cascadia, around the kind of crunchy cultists who wrote this: >_<

        I can send you the details on bumblr if you’re interested. It’s a beautiful but crazy county.

        • Winter Shaker says:

          As an aside, Cascadia would have been a far better name for Washington state (named for a guy who, as far as I can tell, never even went there, and easily confused with an important city on the other side of the continent). Maybe if those people don’t succeed in their independence movement, they could settle for a renaming project instead.

          • KR says:

            For what it’s worth, Washington was originally going to be named “Columbia” (i.e., American Columbia as opposed to British Columbia to the north), but was changed to “Washington” at roughly the last minute. Get this though (from Wikipedia):

            “Representative Richard H. Stanton argued that the proposed name—the “Territory of Columbia”—might be confused for the District of Columbia, and suggested a name honoring George Washington instead.”

            So that didn’t quite work out.

    • Dahlen says:

      This kind of sounds like a threat.

      • Echo says:

        “We’re going to take your land” is a threat.
        “There will be consequences for that” is just a promise.

        • Dahlen says:

          You sound upset enough about this whole situation for the promised consequences to refer to some rather dire stuff. Yeah, no difference. Still sounds like a threat.

          • Dahlen says:

            Wikipedia makes it seem like a boring vanilla obviously unsuccessful secessionist movement, and unlike you two, makes no mention of anything resembling violence or a serious threat coming from their side. By your account, I’d imagine guerrilla street fights are a few months from happening, if they were to have their way. Why do you take them seriously enough to get this riled up about them?

          • Adam says:

            Ha, Mark beat me to defending himself, but he just said 1e-62 probability of secession. That’s pretty far from a few months from happening.

          • Echo says:

            Yep Mark. We get the ones who go mad in Seattle, and come up north to live in radical communes. A lot of them bring family money and connections, and they can do a lot of harm even without “taking over”.

            They used ties with local democrat party officials to get D senators endorsing their “affordable housing” plans. Ended up conning an obscene amount of grant money out of charitable organizations to build a few units in an “sustainable planned community” designed by an expensive Seattle architecture firm.
            Custom-size imported windows and leaky solar water systems, all paid for by people who thought they were helping to house the poor.

            Of course, these fancy houses don’t go to actual poor people, because it’s more important to import the Right Sort of People, who will Support Systemic Change In Our Community. That somehow always seems to mean “more radicals from Seattle”.
            You have to prioritize the long term as an activist, I suppose.

            Meanwhile actual poor people here are living in abandoned trailers, and all the grant money’s gone. We just do our best to help on an individual level.

    • Forcing everyone to live in communes is stupid. Then again, ganging together to exterminate people sounds pretty freakin ominous. I’m glad I live in a part of the world where neither of these things happen.

    • Doug S. says:

      I’ve heard that, in China, it’s true that you can’t own land outright, only rent it from the government… (Communism, and all that.)

      • Linch says:

        This is true. However, most Chinese people I know still care a lot about home ownership, indeed they care much more than the (arguably already ridiculous) amount people in the States care about.

        • hawkice says:

          True and easy to corroborate: the rent on e.g. a million dollar property is much lower in China than in America (investment properties have lower returns due to a substantial cultural difference in values related to owning your own home).

      • Having to pay property taxes strikes me as a lot like not being able to own land, just rent it from the government. There’s also eminent domain.

      • Cet3 says:

        Technically, you can’t own land outright in common law countries, either.

        • Nornagest says:

          It would be more accurate to say that allodial title is very rare and banned under some jurisdictions than to say that it’s not a feature of common law. But if Wikipedia’s page on land tenure in China has it right, then even the equivalent of fee simple is basically unobtainable there in urban areas, and restricted to agricultural cooperatives in rural.

  97. Apocryphal says:

    In my very humble and limited experience, I find that within my social circle at least, those who criticize effective altruism by citing the systemic change argument often do nothing to promote said systemic change– in fact, they hardly do any charity at all. Arguments such as “effective altruism reinforces modes of capitalism and consumption that ipso facto perpetuate present-day inequality” feel more like a bludgeon with which to beat ideological opponents and/or signal intellectual superiority for being radically opposed to current societal norms, as opposed to a genuine attempt to improve the world. It’s possible that I’m just very frustrated with people who put more effort into posturing, instead of contributing to the good. I certainly don’t see systemic change and effective altruism as diametrically opposed.

    • bartlebyshop says:

      “they hardly do any charity at all”

      How do you know? Are you helping them file their taxes?

      • Linch says:

        I don’t understand your point. Low base rate+special info from within your social circle is enough to make an educated guess. At the risk of making the same error, I can’t help but suspect that your demand for rigor is not entirely charitable.

        • bartlebyshop says:

          My point is that many people (Catholics, for instance) have a strong norm against throwing the window-shades wide and bellowing to the whole village that they just donated $500 to something. If you asked all of my friends they would almost certainly say I “hardly do any charity at all” because I don’t discuss charity with my friends. They don’t have access to any special information. My stance on this isn’t particularly rare. Maybe Apocryphal’s social group is radically different. My friends and colleagues don’t have enough information about me to determine if I do charity or work for systemic change, and I don’t have that information about them. This has been true in all real-life circles I have moved in. I find the proselytizing EA stereotype significantly rarer. I don’t think you can assume you have more information (if you have any more at all) than low base rate.

          • Linch says:

            That’s fair. I don’t see a lot of “systematic change” arguments from religious conservatives, but I wouldn’t pretend to know anything about Apocryphal’s social group.

            Personally, I’m of the strong opinion that when tactfully done, informing others of your good deeds (occasionally even just good intentions) is more likely to encourage others to do good themselves than turn them off, so on net (and for the typical situations I could be thinking of) secretiveness is probably immoral, but YMMV.

          • bartlebyshop says:

            The Catholics are just a (big) example. I am and always have been a very non-conservative atheist and so most of my social group whose beliefs I’ve been aware of.

            Tactfully is doing most of the lifting here. Some of the groups that have my stance have it because otherwise you end up in the arms race of “until we see receipts, you aren’t allowed to have an opinion!”

          • Linch says:

            That’s a fair complaint. It’s difficult to strike a balance between the annoyingness of conspicuous giving and the “empty signaling” that was a large worry upthread, while still being sufficiently vocal that enough people actually believe and alieve that EA is an option for their altruistic impulses. Sh-t’s complicated.

            OTOH, I hate status games as much as the next person, but you gotta admit a race to see who could donate the most to eg, GiveWell’s top charities is probably a better state of affairs than the current one, no?

          • bartlebyshop says:

            It’s better for the first five minutes, while 20 or so people are throwing money around. Then, when the rest of the audience decides the best way to win the game is not to play, when they otherwise might have been convinced, how can you be sure you’ve come out ahead?

            This will also lead to people doing things like 72hr straight Turking marathons. People go ballistic for competitions in a way that’s not sustainable long-term.

          • Linch says:

            I think you underestimate people’s willingness to go against their hedonic self-interest for signaling effects:


            *shrugs* Neither of us have data, so this is kinda a moot point.

            A bigger problem might be that too much signaling obfuscates substance. It’s extraordinarily hard for mechanism design to be aligned exactly right that signaling that you’re doing good could be made roughly proportionate to the actual good you do.

          • Berna says:

            I agree with @Linch that “when tactfully done, informing others of your good deeds […] is more likely to encourage others to do good themselves than turn them off”; that’s why I posted on my Facebook timeline about my donation to that I’ve finally decided to set up after reading this article.

          • Adam says:

            I’m not going to argue about the relative virtue of secrecy versus openness, but just as a data point, I’ve never personally told anyone except my wife about any personal donations I’ve made. For the most part, I just don’t talk a whole lot about routine purchases I make at all, and I also don’t even talk to people very much. I’ve never posted anything at all to my Facebook wall and don’t have a blog, don’t Tweet. Some people just aren’t sharers.

          • Linch says:

            @Berna: Congratulations for setting up your donation!! 🙂

            @Adam: bartleby(rightly!) warned us against the dangers of mindreading, but I would posit that you are unlikely to be a central member of “people who criticize effective altruism by citing the systemic change argument” Thank you for the data point, and thank you for donating.

  98. Mark says:

    It might be worth linking to Srinivasan’s review. I went out to find it after reading this post.

  99. Iglr says:

    > I am not affiliated with the organized effective altruist movement and my opinion has no relation to theirs. They have spent a lot of work trying to convince everyone that they are entirely in favor of pursuing systemic change, I believe them, and nothing I say here reflects on that.

    It’s odd to talk about “the organized effective altruist movement” setting the official ‘EA’ position, when EA is a movement comprised by a diverse range of people taking EA actions, with a diverse range of opinions – including Scott’s just as much as anyone else’s.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Yes, but the Centre For Effective Altruism, 80000 Hours, William MacAskill, and Peter Singer all have a sort of ex cathedra prestige which I don’t want to infringe upon.

  100. Ghatanathoah says:

    This probably isn’t the most mature reaction after reading this, but I am immediately struck by an impulse to somehow get a job writing a superhero comic book. Just so I can have a superhero deliver a modified version of these arguments, after the latest idiot asks the question “What good are superheroes if all they do is save people and they never use their powers to enact systemic change?”

    (For those of you unfamiliar with superhero literature, this is something that comes up constantly)

    • Linch says:

      To be fair, some of the suggested alternatives to superheroing around are pretty EAy:

      • Daniel Speyer says:

        I’ve always thought SMBC went out of its way to be depressing in those strips. I like this version a lot better.

      • Ghatanathoah says:

        That happens in comics occasionally already. I’ve read a few comics where the JLA does some kind of stunt for charity.

        There’s probably a literary-anthropic reason for this: Superheroes doing charity events is boring, so they always happen off-panel, unless a super-villain attacks the charity event at some point. I’d love it if a writer ever added in dialogue like this:

        Superman: I hate how everyone wants to interview me about my fight with Metallo last week, but nobody wants to ask me about the de-worming charity I’m promoting.

      • Jiro says:

        My response to that is that fighting supervillains is basically non-systemic change as Scott has defined it here. Everyone except the supervillain agrees that it is bad for the supervillain to conquer the world, and defeating the supervillain never has any side effects that anyone would consider worse than letting him keep being villainous. For Superman to fund after-school programs or give grain to poor countries, on the other hand, has the potential to really screw things up. (It was mentioned in this very thread that giving food to poor countries can help warlords and destroy the livelihood of the local farmers who normally produce and sell food.)

      • DrBeat says:

        If you want a comic about “what would happen if superheroes really tried to make the world a better place,” read “Superman: Red Son”. Baby Kal-el lands on a collective farm in Ukraine and uses his powers to make the world a better place by making Communism work.

        Also, if you aren’t interested in that, read “Superman: Red Son” anyway because it’s just amazing.

      • hawkice says:

        I am amazed you forgot this one, which is pretty on the nose for “alternative to being a superhero that ends up sounding a lot like effective altruism”:

    • AJD says:

      You may enjoy the webcomic Strong Female Protagonist.

    • Nornagest says:

      I haven’t read many superhero comics for a long while, but the last reasonably high-profile title I read that tried to do the enact-systemic-change thing turned obnoxiously polemical, and sooner rather than later. So this post might be the Watsonian explanation, but the Doylist explanation is that it just doesn’t make for very good literature.

      They did kill God at one point, though, and that was kind of cool.

      • anon says:

        Would that happen to be Stormwatch/The Authority?

        • Jeff H says:

          I think he’s pretty obviously talking about Preacher.

        • Nornagest says:

          Yep. It was disappointing. Juvenile revenge-fic is never a good thing, but even if we set that aside it’s still broken: “escalate, and then escalate some more” isn’t a bad plot framework for a comic book (cf. Worm), but my suspension of disbelief falls apart when some escaped caricatures from a newspaper political comic turn out to have literally had a bigger threat than Cthulhu up their sleeve the whole time.

          (I’ve read Preacher too, and I enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t call it a superhero comic nor particularly interested in systemic change in OP’s sense.)

          • FacelessCraven says:

            Oh man, the Authority. It’s hard to think of a comic that made me feel skeevier than that one did.

          • Nornagest says:

            I can think of one: Wanted. That was just juvenile revenge-fic, without even the thin excuse of a political motive; I guess the moral of the story is that I should stop reading stuff written by Mark Millar.

            (While Wanted made me feel skeevier, though, the Millar/Quitely run on The Authority probably pissed me off more.)

          • FacelessCraven says:

            @Nornagest – “I can think of one: Wanted. ”

            I’d disagree. Everyone in wanted was obviously, even cartoonishly evil. The message seemed to be “evil is fun/cool”, but it’s still, y’know, evil. The Authority themselves and their authors seemed to be under the impression that they were the good guys, and what they were depicting was at some level how the world worked.

            That, and the rape. Sweet jesus the rape.

          • DrBeat says:

            I know, right?

            I only read the early volumes of the Authority but I was ready to shout “OKAY, I GET IT ALREADY, THE BAD GUYS ARE BAD AND ARE THUS THE HUMANOID INCARNATIONS OF THE PLATONIC IDEAL OF RAPE”

            “Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E.” was basically trying to do a lot of the same things as the Authority, and it ended up a thousands times better and a thousand times more mature because it wasn’t so obsessed with defining itself as “mature”.

          • Nornagest says:

            Nextwave is fantastic, but Warren Ellis could probably have stopped the pitch at “ninja broccoli” and I’d still have read it. He’s got a way of taking concepts that in anyone else’s hands would have been ridiculous and making them awesome.

    • suntzuanime says:

      The real answer is, the ones that try to use their powers to enact systemic change get labeled as “supervillains” instead.

      • Linch says:

        Yeah. Hollywood is biased against consequentialism.

        • drethelin says:

          “The world is a mess and I just need to rule it” It’s not the first half of this supervillain quote that people disagree with.

          • Linch says:

            Hmm…if you haven’t detected a tendency for baddies to be more cerebral and calculating than the good guys in superhero/blockbuster movies, then we probably watch very different things.

          • Ghatanathoah says:


            I wonder how much of that is just an attempt to make the hero more of an underdog. For me, making the villain more calm, composed, and thoughtful than the hero has the same effect as making the villain physically stronger than the hero. I get a stronger feeling of “how are they gonna beat this guy?”

        • Matt says:

          I’d guess the majority of the human race is biased against consequentialism – at least the western world is (as well as most of its philosophers). Hollywood may display a stronger bias, but I’m not certain that’s the case.

    • Mary says:

      Writing a superhero novel would be easier to get published. I’m working on one myself where my heroine’s job is working on maintaining seashores, and occasional rescues at sea — for which she charges an arm and a leg, and follows up by pointing at the hysterical activists who say that supers are being introduced to make human society dependent on them, and then cause it collapse when they are withdraw, and point out that they do actually have a point.

      But if you want to read one now, try Wearing the Cape by Marion G. Harmon and its sequels. Lots of grip on consequences. Perhaps the biggest impact is on disaster relief. Indeed, superhero teams do not actually have an objective of fighting normal crime; they will list assisting the police in super crime as one.

  101. Dan Simon says:

    A word that’s oddly missing from this essay is “democracy”. If a “systemic change” makes America or the world less democratic, then there’s a huge moral cost, as well as potential material ones: millions of people suffer an erosion of (what those of us who cherish democracy believe to be) their inalienable right to participate in their own government. And if the “systemic change” makes America equally or more democratic than it is today, then it’s likely to be less, not more, sympathetic to the goals and methods of effective altruism (if current levels of public sympathy for those goals and methods is at all indicative).

    So which’ll it be, effective altruists? Tyranny or failure?

    • Linch says:

      That’s one way to look at it. Another (admittedly Panglossian) way is that EAs have traditionally targeted the disenfranchised, and a “true” democracy would take the preferences of those who don’t currently have a vote into account (eg a global, informed democracy with genuinue access to civil institutions a la Sen would be a good start).

      I admit that this is harder with nonhuman animals or far future issues.

    • blacktrance says:

      On the other hand, there are also some people who would welcome the erosion of democracy, and others who see it as merely instrumental for producing good outcomes (so if we can do better with somewhat less democracy, that’d be an improvement).

      • Dan Simon says:

        The obvious next question is, “who gets to judge ‘good’ and ‘better’, and what entitles them to that judgment”?

    • stargirl says:

      In my opinion Democracy has no inherent moral worth whatsoever. Though democracy seems, on average, to have quite alot of benefits in terms of increasing human living standards.

      • Agreed. It seems to me that describing the right to cast one vote out of a hundred million or more to choose your rulers as the “right to participate in their own government” confuses symbol with substance.

        • I’m not arguing that democracy isn’t useful–I expect it sometimes is. I’m arguing that if it is desirable the reason is consequences, not inherent moral desirability.

        • Dan Simon says:

          How about, say, the right of millions of Blacks to cast one vote each, out of millions, along with millions more Whites?

      • Nathan says:

        The value of democracy is not that it empowers the people, it’s that it castrates the government.

        • Murphy says:

          I’d have said that it gets buy-in from the population and pretty much guarantees a chance of change for the angry.

          It’s harder to get support for an attempt to bring down the government when half the people in the room voted to put them in power 3 years ago and there’s a good chance of them losing power to someone else if you just wait another year.

          Stability through constant minor change.

        • Adam says:

          I think Scott’s anti-neoreactionary FAQ explains pretty well the main value of democracy. It seems to do a terrific job of ensuring stable leadership transitions. Better policies are mitigated a lot by having three or four civil wars per century.

          • Dan Simon says:

            How many pre-modern European absolute monarchies had “three to four civil wars per century”? And what was so great about their policies compared to those of their modern democratic counterparts?

          • Adam says:

            I’m not saying their policies were better. I’m saying a hypothetical future government with better policies but that consistently degraded to war over leadership transitions would not be better, in spite of the better policies.

            As for the frequency of succession disputes, just read the FAQ. I don’t want to reproduce the whole thing. It’s really long.

        • The original Mr. X says:

          “it castrates the government” — Nor necessarily; in fact, I’d be tempted to say not normally. More often it leads to a tyranny of the majority kind of situation, not to mention the fact that people’s usual default response to a problem or tragedy seems to be “The government must do something!”

      • Urstoff says:

        Democracy seems like a symptom of a society that somewhat values the fundamental rights of the population. It’s not democracy, but the fact that the societies values are such that they want democracy, that makes for a good society.

        • Dan Simon says:

          Does that apply to the citizens of the Soviet-controlled East Bloc during the Cold War? Or, say, Venezuelans and Turks today?

          • Urstoff says:

            Maybe. I’m positing that democracy is a symptom, not a perfect indicator. Your society can have those values without democracy, but it’s doubtful that a democracy is going to last long without those values. In other words, those values are necessary for a sustained democracy, but not sufficient.

    • Brian Slesinsky says:

      Preventing tyranny seems more like protecting against an existential threat than it is like systemic change.

      The question is whether tyranny prevention is likely to be a good use of money and effort? I would rank the need rather low in the U.S. There are much more serious risks in other countries.

  102. Alejandro says:

    This post seemed weirdly split to me. I agree entirely with the main thesis, that EA should remain confined to “unambiguously good” charities and not involve itself in politics. The arguments in part II of the post are more than sufficient to explain why, for practical, prudential, and strategical reasons.

    But the Alice-Bob dialogue in part I goes far beyond that; it seems to imply an extreme Outside View agnosticism about political beliefs. Bob (who you seem to endorse) is saying basically that whenever there is a “live” political argument in your society you should not take sides, because both sides must have good points to be popular and you can never know if the side you support is the right one. Taken consistently, this line of reason percludes you from having any (interesting, nontrivial) opinions at all: both in your field of expertise (e.g. psychiatry for you) and in fields of general interest (not only politics but also e.g. philosophy) you can never take a controversy, do a honest Inside View analysis of the evidence/arguments, and decide for one side; as long as there are people you respect supporting the opposite side, you must remain agnostic. Do you really want to endorse this?

    • John Schilling says:

      I think the creationism example is sufficient to show that, yes, you can sometimes look at the evidence and decide that this is unambiguously the correct belief and that yes, it is harmful for this belief to inform political decisions, but that no, you probably shouldn’t embark on a crusade to impose or even support it because all the other people who saw the same evidence and came to the same conclusion already did that for all it’s worth. Which is finite.

      Yes, the error persists. There’s a diminishing marginal return to error-correction, and the costs increase exponentially as you try to achieve 100% perfection. The forces of rationality have finite resources; at some point they will rationally say “OK, it’s time for just a holding action on creationism while we focus on knocking homophobia down to size”. If you propose to focus substantially more (or less) resources on correcting any particular error than what all the other rational people are by their combined actions already doing, what’s the basis for that?

      That’s not a rhetorical question, because sometimes there will be good reason to focus unusual effort on imposing systemic change. But it would be good to explicitly understand what the criteria are, and necessary to understand that “Look, here is an provable error that is being left uncorrected in some corners of the political sphere” isn’t it.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I do not fundamentally understand how to reconcile the inside and outside views myself; the confusion is basic to the piece rather than just a poor explanation of well-understood territory.

      • Alejandro says:

        Right; I am also confused by this topic, and I’m not saying the the Inside View position necessarily is correct. But if you are uncertain about Inside vs Outside view, then why direct the Bob ultra-Outside View argument against political activism, instead of just relying on the arguments of Part II?

        My suspicion is that you are conflating two things: an abstract “efficient markets” argument for an Outside View approach to political activism (which could apply equally to philosophy or specialized topics), and a genuine Inside View quasi-agnosticism you feel about politics (you find good points supporting different sides of the political spectrum, and are truly uncertain about which direction for “systemic change” is the right one).

        • Let me suggest an argument for the outside view that I think more powerful than an analogy to efficient markets, since the latter depends on particular features of how markets work.

          I believe something. I know someone as smart, well informed, and thoughtful as I am who disagrees. Why should I prefer my opinion to his?

          (approach borrowed from something Robin Hanson wrote long ago)

          • You should prefer your opinion because of you don’t, and switch to neutral, then there are no longer two equally smart people with opposite opinions. Instead there is one person who disagrees with your original opinion, and one who is neutral. So maybe you should be a bit less neutral. Repeat.

            This argument is only partially silly. If the other person is speaking/writing/blogging a lot about his opinion, then you had better do the same, to maintain the equilibrium.

      • Bugmaster says:

        What, really ? But I was just about to thank you for helping me to reconcile the two views !

        Maybe I’m misunderstanding something, but my takeaway from your post was as follows:

        Politics has potentially huge benefits, but also huge costs, as well as huge risks. Winning a political battle is hard, because other people will oppose you just as vigorously as you oppose them. Even if you win, you may end up causing more harm than good, like (arguably) Engels. And, because you are trying to influence society rather than nature, it is a lot more difficult to measure your success rate.

        By contrast, relatively small fixes such as malaria netting or carbon filters have smaller benefits. They won’t change the entire world for the better, they will just change one piece of it. However, you can pursue these goals virtually unopposed; you can easily measure your success; and the potential for disaster is a lot lower.

        Thus, your best strategy (most of the time; this is a heuristic, not a rule) is to pursue the smaller goals, at least in the short term. Over time, you may accumulate enough good will and political power to easily topple your political opponents; or perhaps the overall political climate may change. At this point, getting involved in politics might become more attractive (though you’re still stuck with the whole unintended consequences issue); but until then, you’d be doing some real good in the world, so why wait ?

        • Let me suggest a third alternative strategy, the one I follow.

          Try to influence the system not by acting to change it directly—campaigning for candidates or ballot propositions or becoming a government regulator and regulating better—but by improving the mix of ideas which other people use in deciding how to do such things.

          That can go wrong, as in the Marx/Engels case. But only if I make a mistake in my thinking and enough other people make the mistake of being persuaded by mine.

          • Bugmaster says:

            I don’t think this is any better.

            You are still fighting against other humans, who want to change people’s minds in the direction opposite to yours; so your costs are still quite high.

            You still have the potential to change people’s minds in a way that brings about unintended consequences; so the risk is still high. In fact, the risk is higher, because politicians have a limited amount of power and a limited term in office, whereas people’s minds are legion and, once changed, tend to stay changed for a while.

            Your success is now much more difficult to measure, because now instead of something simple like “Candidate X got elected and signed policy Y into law”, you’ve got something like, “a larger proportion of people would prefer abstract philosophical concept Z over W”. The latter criterion is much more difficult to measure, and it is not entirely clear how Z translates into concrete gains toward your true goals, anyhow.

    • Christopher Chang says:

      I disagree. Continuing the open borders example, there are a few places like Sweden, Svalbard, and the UAE which already have immigration policies which are far more liberal than usual on some axes of interest, with the consent of the governed. All of these examples currently have some problems which prevent them from being models that lots of citizens of other Western countries want to copy (e.g. Sweden’s immigration policy is rapidly losing citizen support, Svalbard’s main employer is subsidized by the Norwegian government, the UAE treats its guest workers horribly by Western standards), but if open borders is anywhere near as good of a policy as most of its advocates claim, it should not be too difficult to significantly improve at least one of these implementations. Because of the preexisting consent, this problem is mostly of a “man vs. nature” character.

      Another mostly-man vs. nature approach is “create a new open-borders country”. Quite a few people are interested in this; see e.g. Naguib Sawiris ( ), Jason Buzi ( ), and less directly, the Seasteading Institute. Technically, politics can’t be entirely avoided here because islands and even patches of ocean belong to existing countries, etc., but it’s only a minor factor; I agree with Arnold Kling ( ) that the real challenge is figuring out how to build the necessary social capital and patterns of sustainable specialization and trade. But the challenge should not be impossible.

      So the principle articulated by Scott does not mandate agnosticism on open borders. It merely advises that you minimize your involvement in political battles, which happens to be totally doable for open borders, and, I suspect, for most other charitable causes which have a political dimension.

      (Yes, I’ve avoided the inside/outside question, but that’s because there’s demonstrably no need to resolve it yet.)

      • Randy M says:

        You’re saying that one can push for open borders if they are able to create a country of millions of people from the ground up (or move to one of the few already have it and like it)?

        Heck, I can get behind that Quixotic quest.

      • RCF says:

        It seems to me that there are three main extremes on immigration: treat everyone who immigrates with full equality (immediate citizenship, etc.), let anyone come but don’t give them any rights, or don’t let anyone to come in. I would assume that the Open Borders movement is directed towards the former, while UAE leans towards the second.

    • Emile says:

      But the Alice-Bob dialogue in part I goes far beyond that; it seems to imply an extreme Outside View agnosticism about political beliefs.
      as long as there are people you respect supporting the opposite side, you must remain agnostic. Do you really want to endorse this?

      I’m fine with endorsing that, with being mostly agnostic/uncertain on a bunch of political topics, until I feel like I’ve researched them to my satisfaction. That’s why I’m agnostic now on the minimum wage, on open borders, etc.

      Does that seem like an outlandish attitude to you?

      • Alejandro says:

        The key part of your response is “until I feel like I’ve researched them to my satisfaction”. Presumably Alice in the dialogue feels she has researched to her satisfaction the political topics on which she urges action. I took Bob/Scott to be arguing that even if you have done thorough research into, say, open borders, and come to a conclusion, you should still not push politically for your view if there are people who have also done thorough research and reached the opposite conclusion. (Just like according to the EMH if you research a stock and decide it will go up, you should still not buy it if enough other people have researched it that the current price reflects a market consensus). It is this more extreme agnostic position that seemed outlandish to me.

        • Adam says:

          I took it to be saying not that you shouldn’t push a view you hold, but if an equal number of equally smart, equally well-researched people disagree with you and push the opposite position, you shouldn’t expect to make much headway and the expected return to your effort is less than just snipping the remaining low-hanging fruit the world still offers.

          • Alejandro says:

            No, that’s the “practical” argument and I agree with it, but it’s not all that Bob is saying. See these paragraphs:

            Bob: That just kicks the problem one meta-level up. Suppose that on each given issue, effective altruists converge dramatically around one or the other side. If half the time they converge around the right side, and the other half around the wrong side, then over a large number of issues their contributions will gradually even out and sum to zero.

            Alice: That’s a ridiculous way of looking at it. We don’t just flip a coin to determine which side to back. We exhaustively study the argument for both sides, the evidence base, et cetera. Then we focus only on those issues where we can be most certain we’re in the right. The odds there are a heck of a lot better than fifty percent!

            Bob: But you could make the same argument about picking stocks, couldn’t you? Do lots of research, focus on the ones where you’re most certain that they’re overvalued or undervalued, and then you have great odds of getting rich! But of course, we know that doesn’t work. Everyone else is trying the same thing, and the current position of the stock market reflects the consensus results of that process. You run afoul of the efficient market hypothesis.

            Alice: Now you’re just being silly. There’s no efficient market hypothesis for politics!

            Bob: But why shouldn’t there be? A lot of people mock rationalists for thinking they can waltz into some complicated field, say “Okay, but we’re going to do it rationally“, and by that fact alone do better than everybody else who’s been working on it for decades. It takes an impressive level of arrogance to answer “Why are your politics better than other people’s politics?” with “Because we want to do good” or even with “Because we use evidence and try to get the right answer”. You’d have to believe that other people aren’t even trying.

            This argues for theoretical agnosticism, not just practical quietism. Also in the next paragraphs Bob seems to be saying that the arguments of “sophisticated” opponents of gay marriage and open borders are not of the quantifiable sort that can be easily proven wrong with math and economics, so EAs shouls be more agnostic than they are on them.

    • haishan says:

      I’m not Scott, but I’ll endorse that.

      The cold fact of the matter is that human brains aren’t built for tracking truth well; the only halfway decent predictor of which brains track truth better is whether they use narrow, domain-specific facts and models rather than big-picture ones. So if you know a lot about a domain, like Scott and psychiatry, you can probably come to some conclusions. Otherwise it’s best to suspend judgement.

    • gbdub says:

      I just took Bob’s arguments to be 100% Effective Altruist. What I mean is, he is defining the borders of effective altruism, without really commenting on how to behave when not acting as an Effective Altruist. The Effective Altruist must confine themselves to the man-vs.-nature realm, where almost all men agree man ought to “win”. If Alice wants to advocate systemic change, that’s her prerogative. It may even be very net positive for society. But it’s not within the EA scope.

      No one is under obligation to spend 100% of their time being an Effective Altruist. In fact it would be bad if too many people did so. There’s lots of stuff that needs doing (even politics) that doesn’t fall under the EA aegis. But Bob’s point, which I think is a good one, is that once you’re engaging in trying to create systemic societal change, you are in a fundamentally different realm (man-vs.-man). That time gets budgeted to Political Advocacy, not Effective Altruism, and trying to shift EA to PA ultimately undermines the goals of EA.

  103. Linch says:

    Here’s a question that has been bugging me for awhile: what’s the historical track record of utilitarians?

    My impression is that it’s ridiculously good, but obviously I’m biased here. Like, a common argument in the 20th century is that utilitarianism could theoretically permit slavery… yet the century before, the phrase “dismal science” was invented from traditionalists who weren’t big fans of Mill’s opposition to slavery.

    I literally have trouble coming up with examples of utilitarians being on the “wrong” side of history. Like the track record of utilitarians, whether academic consensus or the modal position of self-professed amateur utilitarians is just *ridiculously* clean.

    This worries me. Nobody’s right all the time!

    Can people give me examples of utilitarians being massively wrong historically so I have a better model of reality?

    • Buck says:

      Well, Bentham was against masturbation, but that seems to be mostly a factual error.

    • suntzuanime says:

      I’ve heard it said before that Bentham supported pederasty, but how would we know whether or not not he’s on the wrong side of history with that one? It’s not 2016 yet.

    • The original Mr. X says:

      Would the communist apologists who justified mass murder as a means of ushering in the workers’ paradise count?

      • Linch says:

        I don’t know…were there many utilitarian philosophers or self-professed utilitarians who were all like “yay Communism!”?

        I haven’t heard of them, but as multi demonstrated, my knowledge is sorely lacking at points.

        • Protagoras says:

          I have no idea of the proportions, but there were definitely 20th century utilitarians who were strongly pro-socialist. I’m especially weak on utilitarians in the early 20th century, but in recent times Peter Singer is pretty pro-socialist, and Kai Nielsen was more so. And for the early 20th century, I know the Logical Positivists often had utilitarian sympathies and often had communist sympathies, frequently together, though as they tended not to focus on ethics I don’t know if they should count as central cases of utilitarian philosophers. All of the utilitarian pro-socialists I’m aware of were also very pro-democracy, and so opposed to Stalinist methods, but people are of course able to deceive themselves about what those who are in some respects their allies are up to, and I know at least a few of the Logical Positivists were initially supporters of the Soviet Union.

      • Adam says:

        Seriously, though, scholars of utilitarianism may or may not have advocated communism, but the revolutionaries themselves were sure as shit not doing it on any belief about the personal virtue or deontological goodness of murder. They knew rounding up people and killing them was wrong, but justified on the ground that it was for the greater good in the overall arc of history. How the hell is that not utilitarianism?

        • Ghatanathoah says:

          That could be utilitarianism, or it could be old-fashioned statism, where the prestige of the state (or world-state for the ones who thought communism would conquer the world) is considered more important than people’s lives.

          I wouldn’t be surprised if both ideologies weren’t a factor.

        • Protagoras says:

          If I had to speculate about the thinking of the revolutionaries themselves, I think you greatly underestimate the deontological component; I think you’d see a lot more “the parasite class deserve to die” than “this is for the greater good.” Sure, Marx himself would say that’s a mistake (though he was willing to use it in his own rhetoric at times anyway), but as you say you’re talking about the revolutionaries, not the scholars.

        • RCF says:

          How many communists actually believed that they were increasing total utility? My mental model of a communist views equality as a goal in itself, not as instrumental to increasing utility. Although they may engage in motivated reasoning to argue that equality increases utility, their ideological commitment to equality comes first.

      • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

        I’m not sure of how utilitarians viewed communism.

        Marx, on the other hand…

        > But this prejudice was first established as a dogma by the arch-Philistine, Jeremy Bentham, that insipid, pedantic, leather-tongued oracle of the ordinary bourgeois intelligence of the 19th century. [49] Bentham is among philosophers what Martin Tupper is among poets. Both could only have been manufactured in England. [50] In the light of his dogma the commonest phenomena of the process of production, as, e.g., its sudden expansions and contractions, nay, even accumulation itself, become perfectly inconceivable. [51] The dogma was used by Bentham himself, as well as by Malthus, James Mill, MacCulloch, etc., for an apologetic purpose, and especially in order to represent one part of capital, namely, variable capital, or that part convertible into labour-power, as a fixed magnitude.

    • multiheaded says:

      I literally have trouble coming up with examples of utilitarians being on the “wrong” side of history.

      The paradigmatic Terrible Utilitarian Idea.

      p.s.: replied without looking at the other comments and oh wow, three separate complaints about Bentham.

      makes u think, lol.

      • Linch says:

        tou-fucking-che. Yeah, I think this is a far more egregious example of Bentham being wrong than the other two, esp. since Bentham was on the right side of history for most other sexual “offenses.”

        Damn. Connection between utilitarianism and the modern industrial prison complex. Damn. :/

      • Murphy says:

        That doesn’t seem terribly evil and seems pretty much the norm in schools now, not just prisons.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        I’m also confused. If it didn’t have a scary Latin name, would any of us be horrified about the idea of a prison where the guards could watch what the inmates were doing? Seems like a pretty good way to cut down on prison abuse (assuming non-abusive guards).

        • Urstoff says:

          It’s considered to be evil because Foucault, not because of it actually being evil.

        • LHN says:

          Seems like a pretty good way to cut down on prison abuse (assuming non-abusive guards).

          Any power structure is pretty good assuming non-abusive wielders. But that seems like a pretty heroic assumption for something you want to implement using humans.

          That said, the panopticon and Orwell’s ubiquitous telescreen network do seem to have stopped being a horror trope for a large segment of Western society the moment it started to become practical to implement.

          • Ilya Shpitser says:

            Yeah, it’s a problem. You know they have Eye-of-Sauron blimps hanging in the skies around the DC area, right?

            I wonder what Orwell would have thought of Facebook.

          • Hemid says:

            “Because Foucault.”

            He wouldn’t like the term, but panopticism might be the most virulent “meme” ever. I mean the panopticon itself, not Foucault’s talk about it (which has been utterly ineffective). To him it was a striking metonymy pointing to a batch of interdependent ideas/schemes that, at what’s turned out to have been a decisive conceptual moment, changed everything. It’s exemplary “systemic change,” maybe the most significant that’s come over us recently enough that we can still kind of understand it.

            We’re practical. Imprisonment exists. It’s given. (How?) Anyway it’s here and we want to make it “effective.” We’re presented with a plan. It’s neat, geometrical. Seems pretty good! It would accomplish this list of things we say we’re trying to do…now that the plan has defined those things as accomplishments for us. Yada yada yada, the thing is done, not nearly as good and hard as our calculations say would be optimal, but it’s kinda done. It’s a thing in the world.

            And, oops, it turns out that it’s a destructive artificial intelligence, a replacement humanity, and now we are it and we can’t anymore quite conceive of ourselves being—or ever really having been—otherwise.

            I’m not doing Foucault’s prison song justice, but it goes a little something like that. I recommend it to anyone who thinks “thinking” is important business. He had a special talent for it.

            A warning, though. In one of his lectures on the subject, he tells a charming anecdote about the city of Paris justifying its appropriation and razing of three poor people’s houses on a riverbank with (the era-correct equivalent of) a PowerPoint presentation that mathematically demonstrated, down to the very last one, how many lives would be saved by un-trapping miasmas in that area.

            So he’s not for the easily offended.

        • Some Troll's Legitimate Discussion Alt says:

          (assuming non-abusive guards).


        • Alia D. says:

          The Panopticon is also association with the idea that prisoners should be in essentially solitary confinement to avoid prisoner on prisoner violence, but it is now thought that solitary confinement is not generally good for prisons mental health.

        • multiheaded says:

          >(assuming non-abusive guards)

          Why not also assume that prisoners all made a random tragic misstep and set them free, then?

    • Dahlen says:

      History doesn’t “prove” anything about the validity of a moral system. Remember that people from ages past could have asked just the same question, and judged a type of ethics on the same criteria, conclude they’re right just as well, and yet arrive to completely different moral conclusions. The content of your answer is mostly a consequence of when and where you were born. So, whatever history converges on doesn’t have any bearing on what is truly right.

      It may be that your utilitarianism has come to shape the world more than you realise. Utilitarianism influenced American individualist culture (which came to be spread to the whole world via your movie & media industry) and came to be employed in economics, so in some ways it shaped its circumstances and put its questions into the moral forefront; is it then surprising that the right answers to those questions are utilitarian ones?

      • Tracy W says:

        Utilitarianism influenced American individualist culture (which came to be spread to the whole world via your movie & media industry) and came to be employed in economics

        I find this implausible as the movie industry (from memory) only really started in the 20th century, which is after the marginal revolution in economics, which of course was European-led and even after Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics publication started in the 1890s. I can’t recall anything in economic analysis that changed in the 20th century to become even more individualist, can you cite any examples?

        • Dahlen says:

          No, sorry. Layman speculation. Feel free to dismiss anything I’m saying about the topic on that basis, it would be easier on me than having to gain access to academic journals or research fields I have no previous training in.

          Also, I meant that utilitarianism influenced economics in that economists perform utility calculations with money playing the role of utilons, sharing a set of basic assumptions about value, rather than influencing it towards greater economic individualism. In case I got this one right.

          • Tracy W says:

            Darn, I was hoping to be surprised.

            On the economists calculating utilions, I’m rather sceptical. If you assume money=utilions then there’s a whole bunch of things you can’t explain, like why anyone ever takes time off work to do self-indulgent things like sleep.
            Sometimes assuming people maximise income is a justifiable (IMO) simplifying assumption, eg in financial markets, and of course in cost-benefit analysis economists try to measure utilions in money so as to be able to compare it (eg how much more money do people pay for a house with green space nearby).

          • Dahlen says:

            Purely theoretical models in various economic fields sometimes do that, defining agents, choices etc. in a mathematical-utilitarian way. As far as I had been exposed to them, the calculations are pretty complex. If it fails to map accurately onto everyday experience, this concern can be explained (away) by stating that “it’s just a model after all”.

          • Tracy W says:

            Mathematical-utilitarian way is not the same as assuming money to be utilions.

            And “this model is wrong but it’s still useful” can be an utterly valid argument. For example a model that tells you the direction of change correctly 95% of the time but not the magnitude is better than a model that tells you nothing.
            (There’s also the problem of macroeconomics where the human costs of things like recessions are so large that people keep trying to come up with models despite all the data problems.)

          • “Mathematical-utilitarian way is not the same as assuming money to be utilions.”

            To expand on this.

            No economist believes that the only thing in the utility function is money income or wealth.

            Some economic analysis is done as if money value, how many dollars you were willing to pay if necessary to get something, is a measure of utility. That’s the assumption on which maximizing economic efficiency is equivalent to maximizing utility. It’s false, for reasons economists are familiar with, but sometimes useful.

            For anyone sufficiently curious, I discuss the efficiency/utility connection in some detail in several of my books, including two that can be read for free online. For instance:


          • Dahlen says:

            Do you both seriously think that I do not understand that?

            I can understand the usefulness of a model for a narrow purpose. Just because I was being a bit snarky about it doesn’t mean I strongly disagree with the idea.

            My larger point is that utilitarianism shares a common worldview with a lot of other elements of Western society, which might explain why it might “click” more to a Western individual, and I was giving an example of a sister concept in another field which from afar looks more similar than different to that of utility. The claim is good enough for its purpose, it supports my thesis. Whether the overlap between the two is perfect or partial doesn’t have much bearing on my central point.

    • Chris says:

      I don’t think ‘utilitarians’ is a useful reference class, especially not when evaluating long term historical trends. Utilitarianism takes a stance on normative ethics but is compatible with many mutually exclusive views on applied ethics, not to mention all of the empirical disciplines. Even if there is enough historical information to infer an associative trend between utilitarianism and economic theory X (which I doubt), that information would be of very limited use when looking at utilitarians today.

      The core EA movement seems easy enough to poll; someone should gather data on EA economic/political views and then forecast the success of the movement from there.

      • LTL says:

        This. Uncharitably (but this is what I believe) I notice that a lot, possibly all, of utilitarians will essentially just rationalize their pre-theoretical ethical intuitions in terms of utilitarians, say that therefore utilitarianism provides all the right answers, and all other utilitarians who came to different moral conclusions were just confused about the facts or something.

        This isn’t unique to utilitarians. All advocates for a normative ethical theory do this to one degree or another.

        • Linch says:

          N=1, but I definitely did not believe animals have moral worth when I was say 16, I did not stop eating pork until about a year ago, and I consumed meat regularly until a few months ago.

          I also independently came up with the idea behind a secular tithe, but would probably not have cared as much about effectiveness. It’s also likely that I would have stopped at 10% if I didn’t either a)read Famine, Affluence and Morality or b)engaged with the EA community.

          While the base rate will always be that people are more likely to change the surface than the substance of what they believe, I think it’s a stretch to say that it’s impossible for arguments to change people’s views, and I personally suspect that utilitarianism is sufficiently detailed that people are less likely to use it as a confirmation for their pre-conceived object-level notions than eg., virtue ethics.

          In one sense of vigilance against co-option, utilitarianism probably stacks poorly against most deontological theories, but that’s at least partly because deontology is less demanding.

          • LTP says:

            “I personally suspect that utilitarianism is sufficiently detailed that people are less likely to use it as a confirmation for their pre-conceived object-level notions than eg., virtue ethic”

            Why? Utiltarianism isn’t detailed *at all*. I would say it is just as susceptible to this as virtue ethics for similar reasons. It just says maximize happiness/preferences/utility. All I have to do is come up with a plausible sounding story for how my pre-theoretical beliefs maximize happiness/preferences/utility and they’re now rationalized, which IME in reading utilitarians is very easy to do. This is easy to do, as people don’t agree about what happiness/preferences/utility is, whose happiness/preferences/utility matters (e.g. just humans, just rational beings, all conscious things), and there is no way to measure it in practice, AND the only way to get a definitive answer would require literal omnipotence.

          • Linch says:

            “If you pull numbers out of your ass and use them to evaluate decisions, you’re more likely to get accurate/novel/counter-intuitive results than if you just pulled the decisions directly out of your ass”

          • Nornagest says:

            I think I’d expect accurate, novel, and counterintuitive to not just be uncorrelated but actually anticorrelated.

          • RCF says:


            Given three variables, it’s rather unlikely that each pair will be anti-correlated.

          • Nornagest says:

            More precisely, I’d expect novelty and counterintuitiveness to be correlated with each other but anticorrelated with accuracy.

          • Linch says:

            I agree with your statement in general, but still believe that self-described utilitarians are less likely to use utilitarianism to justify their pre-conceived notions than virtue ethicists, or people whose philosophy are more literary minded.

            I don’t believe it very strongly though, maybe we can set up an experiment?

    • Irenist says:

      One interesting premise that has to be hammered out before answering a question about the historical track record of utilitarians is determining when to begin the history of utilitarianism. Even if you go back beyond Bentham to Paley and Gay, or back beyond them to Hume and Hutcheson, or back further to Shaftesbury, you’re still pretty much in the 18th century or late 17th. In which case, “having a good track record” has a serious confound in that Enlightenment moderns obviously have sensibilities closer to ours. Further, utilitarian thinking was centered in Britain, which had a relatively tranquil political history in the modern period–so not that many civil war crimes to be complicit in. I suspect (but don’t know) that Diderot (who translated Shaftesbury’s “Inquiry Concerning Virtue and Merit” into French) and some of the other philosophes who provided the ideological background for the French Revolution were influenced by utilitarianism. Someone who actually knows something about that might be able to tell us whether French utilitarians showed rectitude and mercy during that period or acted in ways more reminiscent of modern sympathizers with Stalinism.

      But further back is, AFAIK, a problem. E.g., if there were no utilitarians during the Middle Ages, then there’s no track record w/r/t going on Crusades or burning heretics because the utilitarians weren’t there to have an opinon. In which case, a utilitarian can claim that ze wouldn’t have burned heretics like all those nasty virtue ethicists and deontologists, but there’s no historical track record, specifically, of how utilitarianism would’ve acted if it shared theist cosmological assumptions about, e.g., heresy sending you to hell if you don’t repent–which seems like a recipe for a very ugly Pascal’s mugging, as arguably happened in a milder way in Pascal’s Wager itself.

      Now, there were certainly pre-modern consequentialist thinkers (Machieavelli, Mo Tzu) and ancient hedonists (the Epicureans, and even more so the Cyrenaics), but they weren’t properly speaking “utilitarians” and if I were a utilitarian I might want to draw some sort of distinction between, say, Machiavelli’s views and mine so I’m not stuck claiming him.

      This is just a long way of saying “hard to say.” Sorry about that.

      ETA: I suppose you could reach and claim Buddhism for utilitarianism (what with its hedonic goal of ending suffering), and then get points for vegetarianism, how awesome Ashoka was, etc. But “wanting to ameliorate suffering” is a REALLY broad category that in one way or another will rope in most ethics not inspired chiefly by valor in war, so I think that would be a bridge too far. YMMV.

  104. Anon says:

    To be more charitable to the Muh Borders people than is perhaps warranted, everyone I know who enjoys or shares its content is very careful to ensure that doing so comes out of their “personal amusement timewasting” budget, not their “doing good in the world” budget.

    “Donate money to fight malaria? But I already did my part by sharing this image! Systemic change!” is a caricature of a position which no one, as far as I am aware, actually holds, even implicitly.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      You’re right, that was unnecessary and I’ve taken it down.

    • Nornagest says:

      Not many people explicitly voice that opinion, but if I had a dime for every EA that’s shared an annoying political meme and I lost a dime for every EA that’s donated anything to charity, I’d… not be rich, it’s a small movement, but I bet I could buy myself a nice sushi dinner.

      Revealed preference, you know?

      • Alex Richard says:

        I agree.

      • suntzuanime says:

        Wait, there are EAs that don’t donate? Really? Oh my god.

        • Nornagest says:

          There are lots of EAs that don’t donate, or at least haven’t donated.

          To be (a little) fair(er) to them, though, a lot of them are students or otherwise on very limited budgets.

          • suntzuanime says:

            Where the fuck would they get off telling me how to give to charity, if I gave to charity? Man, I was tolerant of the smarminess because I figured at least they were doing more good than me but I guess I underestimated people’s capacity for empty signaling.

          • Nornagest says:

            No one ever went broke betting on empty signaling.

            That being said, I should probably mention at this juncture that I’m pretty much behind the weak argument for EA — less so for Singer-style strong arguments, but that’s because those arguments are utilitarian and I’m not. Sure, it can come off a little smarmy, but that doesn’t make them wrong, and I’ve been called smarmy myself on occasion.

          • Linch says:


            “The mean EA in our sample donates 11% , but again this is because of a skew. The median is 3.2%.”

            Hopefully both the numbers and percentages will increase as the movement grows and the median EA gets older!

          • RCF says:


            One can assert that another person’s giving is suboptimal, without giving oneself.

        • zz says:

          How many effective altruists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

          Actually, it’s far more efficient if you convince someone else to screw it in.

          How many Giving What We Can members does it take to change a lightbulb?

          Fifteen have pledged to change it later, but we’ll have to wait until they finish grad school.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          I think this is unfair. It’s appropriate to not want to give very much money, but be interested in making sure the small amount you do give is targeted effectively. And if you make $100K a year, you can save a life each year by donating even 3% of your income.

          • suntzuanime says:

            I’m not talking about people who give a “mere” 3%, I’m talking about people who give 0%.

            I mean, shit, if I were going to donate money I probably wouldn’t give it to Child’s Play either, am I an Effective Altruist?

      • jeorgun says:

        You’re almost tautologically much less likely to hear from EAs who don’t post annoying things about politics (as one data point, the last time I shared any political memes anywhere was sometime in the 9th grade).

  105. If everyone gave 10% of their income to effective charity, the GiveWell charities would immediately run out of room for more funding and then we’d have to figure out what to do with the rest of it. This process seems prone to instigating civil war, or at least the kind of difficulties that you’re hoping to avoid.

    GiveWell has written about the limitations of the giving-as-consumption model. It may be possible for the marginal person to avoid these hard problems while doing the most good they can, but I don’t think there’s any way to avoid tackling them if you want to do good on a really large scale.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Jeffrey Sachs says that it would take about $50 billion a year to solve world poverty; I’m going off his figures.

      • Linch says:

        Sachs is way better at development and more informed than me, but I nonetheless have over 90% confidence that he’s too optimistic with that figure (unless we’re talking about a fairly long time horizon where most of the work is done by internal development+trade).

        • Kyle says:

          I agree. Just looked up UN figures, 1.2bn people <$1 a day. 2.8bn people <$2 a day. Just taking the 1.2 billion people, if we go GiveDirectly, and hand them $40/year or $0.12/day, that still leaves us with 2.8 billion people <$2/day. Given the pretty high rates of ROI on that investment, call it 20% although I think it will be hard to scale that to $50 billion, that would $0.025/day in permanent income increase for a billion people. That's not bad! That's, call it, a 4% increase in lifetime earnings for the billion poorest people in the world in one year. But that doesn't look like we fixed poverty, or that's a plan to solve poverty in a decade or two (even if it makes a tremendous difference in living standards).

          More mobile phones, cheap mobile banking, cheap bandwidth, cheap solar panels, cheaply tracking property rights, and bigger/better cities. Maybe that Silicon Valley dream could be done with 50bn in startup capital? But I don't think starting a bitcoin based housing deed system is what Sachs is thinking, it's not charity, it's very risky, and the technology/business building part is really, really hard. And doing cities right is probably even harder.

      • Is he proposing to do this in such a way that we can be highly confident that throwing $50 billion per year at the problem would actually work and not somehow backfire horribly? It seems likely to me that such a proposal would be systemic change, with all the associated risks.

      • Nornagest says:

        I don’t think you could solve American poverty in any kind of intuitive sense for fifty gigabucks a year, let alone global poverty, but Sachs probably has something specific and not very intuitive in mind.

        • baconbacon says:

          You could probably solve american poverty for negative 50 billion a year.

        • Mary says:

          In the only sense in which it can be solved with money, American poverty has already been solved. You can’t run a homeless shelter without providing amenities (deemed necessary to make it fit for human habitation) that would make kings and queens and emperors of two centuries gape in astonishment.

          If “charity cases live better than royalty” doesn’t mean poverty is solved, the problem is not money.

          • Emp says:

            I can’t agree more with this assessment. The average person’s present lifestyle is far more luxurious and filled with things Roman Emperors couldn’t even have dreamed of. This is a manifestation of jealousy, something which is unfortunately not going away any time soon.

            There is a lot to be said for the wisdom of the ancients and in particular I agree with “Nothing new under the sun”.

            People who think poverty and suffering can be eliminated are wrong, and not in a sense that has anything to do with understanding technology, statistics or economics. Human behaviour will adapt to ensure that these things continue.

          • To take this to the world level.

            One definition of world poverty is living on less than $1/day. By that definition, allowing for inflation ($1 defined as of 2005 purchasing power), about 40% of the world population was poor in the early eighties. The current figure is about 14%. Over a little over thirty years we have eliminated about two-thirds of world poverty, definition held constant, not by charity or foreign aid but simple economic growth.


            (also shows figures using $1.25 and $2)

          • wysinwyg says:

            If “charity cases live better than royalty” doesn’t mean poverty is solved, the problem is not money.

            This seems nonsensical:
            a) we should compare the poor of 200 years ago to the royalty of 200 years ago; or the poor of today to royalty today. It’s not at all obvious that “charity cases today live better than royalty 200 years ago means that “poverty is solved”.
            b) Do “charity cases today live better than royalty 200 years ago”? Sure, “charity cases today” have running water and electric lights (feel free to suggest amenities I’m not taking into account), but they presumably do not have dozens of servants (a small subset of which provide most of the utility of electric lights and running water by lighting lamps and porting bedpans), or the sort of fresh, local, seasonal food royalty of 200 years ago was likely to eat. They also have a great deal less personal security; getting robbed in a homeless shelter is a daily occurrence, but it seems unlikely that royalty of 200 years ago were routinely robbed in their own bedchambers. And, of course, royalty a few hundred years ago got to spend a pretty good share of time in leisurely pursuits, whereas a modern day homeless person trying to get enough money together to lease an apartment would probably have to work 16+ hour days (unless maybe they’re skilled labor who became homeless as a result of depression or similar).

            But even ignoring that, homeless shelters don’t even solve homelessness, let alone poverty.

          • wysinwyg says:

            This is a manifestation of jealousy, something which is unfortunately not going away any time soon.

            This sentiment is why there was ever such a thing as a Marxist.

            Yes, people who have to work two or three jobs to keep Kraft dinner on the table are jealous that some people work salary jobs and can shop at Whole Foods. And some people who work salary jobs and shop at Whole Foods are jealous of people who can afford to eat out, order in, or hire a chef every night of the week.

            From the libertarian perspective, this should be a good thing. This sort of “jealousy” is what makes people want to have money in the first place.

          • jaimeastorga2000 says:

            @Mary, Emp:

            Gonna link to my old comments here. Yes, first world poor have a lot more money than third world poor, and that money allows them to easily buy things like digital televisions, air conditioning, and smartphones which are beyond the reach of third-world poor and which would have been unimaginable luxuries to the kings of ages past. No, this doesn’t mean they aren’t poor, because they are still trapped in a situation of having to work really long and really hard at really shitty jobs with a really long commute in order to afford the rent of a really tiny apartment, a really long credentialed education, etc…

            Now, I am sympathetic to the idea that you can’t solve these problems just by giving the first world poor more money, since they appear to be caused by zero-sum competitions and/or monopolies which can eat arbitrary amounts of money. But my point is that saying “there are no truly poor people left in first world countries” is just wrong.

          • gbdub says:

            That’s a bit too rosy – there certainly remain people in pretty squalid conditions by any standard, although the truly homeless seem to be more a problem of lack of effective mental health care than lack of available resources to care for their physical needs.

            I for one am perfectly fine with ratcheting the definition of poverty upward – that is in one sense basically the defining characteristic of progress – as long as we’re honest about it. Yes, American poverty today is not nearly the same thing as American poverty in 1935, but to say it’s “solved” and we never have to worry about it again seems sort of like giving up on progress. I’d like the poor of 3000 to be at least as better off as the poor of today are compared to 1000.

          • Randy M says:

            “a) we should compare the poor of 200 years ago to the royalty of 200 years ago; or the poor of today to royalty today. It’s not at all obvious that “charity cases today live better than royalty 200 years ago means that “poverty is solved”.”

            What is the problem of povery? Quality of life or low esteem due to wealth differential?
            If it is quality of life, then seeing the poor have a quality of life equal to that of those considered well off in times past (if true, all things being equal, etc.) is quite instructive.

          • Mary says:

            dozens of servants (a small subset of which provide most of the utility of electric lights and running water by lighting lamps and porting bedpans),

            Who does nowadays? That’s because the servants’ jobs have been automated away. What do the servants materially provide that the lack makes you poor? After all, if you want your own orchestra nowadays you use recorded music.

            or the sort of fresh, local, seasonal food royalty of 200 years ago was likely to eat.

            You cite its faults, not its virtues. Local and seasonal both mean “limited” — homeless shelters have a better and wider selection. And is it really better to have fresh peaches for the peach picking season than canned peaches all year?

          • Mary says:

            “No, this doesn’t mean they aren’t poor, because they are still trapped in a situation of having to work really long and really hard at really shitty jobs with a really long commute in order to afford the rent of a really tiny apartment, a really long credentialed education, etc…”

            Yes, it means they aren’t poor. This is because you are conflating a lack of money for necessities with other difficulties. “Poor” does not mean “has all sorts of problems,” it means the lack of money for necessities.

          • Mary says:

            “I for one am perfectly fine with ratcheting the definition of poverty upward – that is in one sense basically the defining characteristic of progress – as long as we’re honest about it. ”

            I’m not.

            It invariably turns into a demand for slavery — not by my definition, but by that of the Supreme Court, which defined it that one man should labor for the good of another against his will.

            And I don’t see how it could do anything else. What else could such a ratcheting up of the level of poverty do?

          • wysinwyg says:

            Who does nowadays? That’s because the servants’ jobs have been automated away. What do the servants materially provide that the lack makes you poor? After all, if you want your own orchestra nowadays you use recorded music.

            You have it backwards. You’re trying to argue that the poor of today are better off than the royalty of 200 years ago. I’m pointing out that in all respects that the poor of today are actually in pretty good shape, the royalty of 200 years ago was in similarly good shape. From their perspective, it doesn’t matter if it’s servants or a light switch — as long as the lights are on.

            But to honestly answer your question, having people cook food for me, serve it to me wherever and whenever I want, make clothing tailored for me from the finest materials available, being able to hunt on my private nature preserve, have experts raise horses and dogs for my personal use…these seem like wonderful “amenities” that would improve anyone’s mood a bit.

            You cite its faults, not its virtues. Local and seasonal both mean “limited” — homeless shelters have a better and wider selection.

            “Limited” means “bad”? And I suspect you don’t eat many meals at homeless shelters.

            And is it really better to have fresh peaches for the peach picking season than canned peaches all year?

            I honestly feel a little sorry for you if you think canned peaches all year are not obviously inferior to fresh peaches during peach picking season.

          • jaimeastorga2000 says:

            Yes, it means they aren’t poor. This is because you are conflating a lack of money for necessities with other difficulties. “Poor” does not mean “has all sorts of problems,” it means the lack of money for necessities.

            It looks like we are just arguing over a definition, then. If we taboo “poor”, can we both agree that people in first world countries almost never die of hunger, thirst, or exposure, but that a lot of them experience the sorts of problems and difficulties I listed?

          • Mary says:

            Once, the wine froze on the table at Versailles. There’s one amenity he went without that the homeless don’t have to do without.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            I notice with a mixture of amusement and despair that the words “poor” and “in poverty” are being used interchangeably by many participants.

            In the words of a famed philosopher, the poor you will always have with you. But a person who is in poverty is not just poor: they are impoverished. “Poor” and “impoverished” are not the same thing. All impoverished people are poor: not all poor people are impoverished.

            In my opinion, America has solved the problem of poverty, for any reasonable definition of “solved” and “poverty.” Granted the solution is not administered anything like as well as it could be and people slip through the cracks: that does not mean the solution is not real, it means it isn’t being applied. Anyone who is impoverished in America is impoverished because of inability to use anti-poverty resources, not because they are not available.

            It has not solved, and never will solve, the problem of there being poor people. Using that as your measurement means you automatically win. Congratulations. Have a cookie.

            I know that is really pedantic, but given the amount of talking past each other that is going on here, I felt like being pedantic. Please stop doing that.

          • HlynkaCG says:

            wysinwyg says:I honestly feel a little sorry for you if you think canned peaches all year are not obviously inferior to fresh peaches during peach picking season.

            Even if you live in a area who’s climate and soil supports peach trees canned peaches whenever you want them are still vastly preferable to no peaches at all 8 months out of 12.

        • Marc Whipple says:

          If you raised the standard of living of everyone in the world to the median “poverty level” household in America, I believe many people would consider (reasonably) world poverty to be a solved problem.

      • zz says:

        Source? I find 150B, 175B, 200B.

      • Alyssa Vance says:

        One of GiveWell’s recommended most effective charities is Give Directly, essentially just giving money to very poor people. Remittances ( basically do the same thing – very poor people have a family member in a richer country, and the family member sends some extra cash back to them. Per Wikipedia, remittances to developing countries totaled $436 billion in 2014. A $50 billion annual budget would add to existing remittances by a total of 11%, barely enough to even notice. And before a commenter tells me how they can distribute an annual budget of $50 billion to poor people much more effectively than the combined effort of tens of millions of close relatives of said poor people, I’d like to see where on their resume they managed a budget of $10 million (a tiny amount! only 0.02% as much!) without them, their employees or their contractors wasting a large fraction of it. I used to largely manage a ~$1 million budget, and even at that level it was a continuous grind to resist all the pressures of people who’d annoy you for months, unless they got paid thousands of dollars for work they didn’t do. Managing huge amounts of money effectively is really, really hard.

        • Linch says:

          To be fair, most of those remittances are not going to the bottom billion or two.

          But thanks for some order-of-magnitude clarity into this situation.

        • Adam says:

          I managed a pair of budgets collectively equal to around $50 million and I still don’t think I could do that, but naive uniform random distribution could probably do better than remittances.

          That was the combined travel and micropurchase budget of the 1st Cavalry Division, by the way. Sometimes I ponder the fact that we could probably save a few hundred thousand lives just by axing the budget for awards and ceremonies, which presumably would have the minimal effect on military readiness out of things you could cut. $195,000 a year just in that one division is spent on commander’s coins annually, which aren’t even real awards, just desk decorations.

      • Anon. says:

        Scott, Sachs is a hack. Read Easterly.

      • Emp says:

        I am 95% confident that there is literally no amount of money that will end world poverty.

        If $50 billion would do it, it would already have happened.

        Are you sure the assumptions involved with this estimate account for changes in prices and behaviour in response to whatever impact the spending of this $50 billion has.

        • The reason that world poverty is unlikely to end is that, as societies get richer, they raise their definition of what counts as poverty.

          If that isn’t obvious …

          The old definition of world poverty was a dollar a day. The current U.S. definition works out to a little over five thousand dollars/year per person, or about fifteen dollars/day. Not a small difference.

          As I pointed out in an earlier comment, using a constant definition about two-thirds of world poverty (as a percentage of population) was eliminated over the past thirty-some years.

          • wysinwyg says:

            The old definition of world poverty was a dollar a day. The current U.S. definition works out to a little over five thousand dollars/year per person, or about fifteen dollars/day. Not a small difference.

            The difference is presumably commensurate with the difference in cost of living. Try feeding, housing, and clothing yourself in the US for one dollar a day.

            There’s also the fact that ours is a consumer economy which means that the proles need some non-zero amount of spending money to keep the carousel turning.

          • gbdub says:

            @wysinwig – I’m sure David can fend for himself, but I do believe his calculation of “2/3 of poverty eliminated” took inflation into account.

            Of course there are still infrastructure issues – there are places where even if incomes have risen things like water and electricity cannot be purchased reliably at any price. But those are getting better too with advancing technology.

          • brad says:

            No, it is adjusted for inflation and for cost of living differences (which are almost always and everywhere overestimated).

            We are just that much richer. Homeless people in US cities for example don’t kill and eat squirrels and pigeons, because they have better options.

          • wysinwyg says:

            I’m sure David can fend for himself, but I do believe his calculation of “2/3 of poverty eliminated” took inflation into account.

            I didn’t say anything about David’s 2/3rds of poverty eliminated. That did indeed take inflation into account and seems well argued. It’s also interesting and perspective-fixing, and perhaps I should have given him credit for all that.

            But I was actually just pointing out the problem with comparing a world poverty definition with a US poverty definition and not taking into account differential costs of living — it’s a completely different issue.

            Of course there are still infrastructure issues – there are places where even if incomes have risen things like water and electricity cannot be purchased reliably at any price. But those are getting better too with advancing technology.

            As others have pointed out, even the wealthiest 200 years ago did not have running water or electricity. Obtaining food, shelter, and clothing seems to be the more pressing problem regardless of geographic or temporal considerations.

          • wysinwyg says:

            Homeless people in US cities for example don’t kill and eat squirrels and pigeons, because they have better options.

            Better options seem to mostly consist of panhandling and dumpster diving.

            These are good options: Americans are generous and incredibly wasteful with respect to good food. Trickle down at work, I guess.

            Also, I suspect most homeless people wouldn’t know how to field dress a squirrel.

          • Linch says:

            The current definition of extreme poverty is *still* $1.50/day in 2015 prices, which is roughly the same as $1/day in 1995.

            2/3 is a bit rosy. Did you adjust for inflation? Also, it obfuscates certain trends like life-cycle effects and population growth of people in moderate (rather than extreme) poverty.


            But yes, in general the world is becoming a better place.

            When Sachs (and hopefully most people on this thread) talks about world poverty, he is explicitly referring to the $1/day (in 1995 dollars) figure. In a hypothetical world where the poorest person in the world lives on just below the US poverty line, I can see a case for redefining world poverty in those terms, however using that as a case for why world poverty as it is used today (instead of just a term) could never end seems like a map-territory confusion.

            wysinwyg: The UN’s definition of poverty is explicitly pegged at US prices. “Try feeding, housing, and clothing yourself in the US for one dollar a day.” Yes, poverty sucks. It’s not mildly inconvenient, it really really really sucks. If you want it to suck less for some people, consider donating to GiveWell’s top charities!

          • Urstoff says:

            I wonder what percentage of people dumpster-diving are doing that because they are mentally ill or otherwise don’t like homeless shelters or other forms of charity rather than people who literally have no other options. Panhandling is pretty common in any US city, but they look to be much better off than any person you see dumpster diving (which seem to be the people that have a bike/shopping cart and have refined homelessness into an art).

          • wysinwyg says:

            I wonder what percentage of people dumpster-diving are doing that because they are mentally ill or otherwise don’t like homeless shelters or other forms of charity rather than people who literally have no other options.

            I suspect they’re mostly drop-out types for whom the psychological/ideological dimensions of eating from a trash container aren’t much of a factor. Realistically, panhandlers seem to use their money to buy convenience store sandwiches or pizza slices. Dumpster divers can get much better food than that if they know where and when to look.

          • Adam says:

            What are you guys referring to as “dumpster divers?” I used to have a neighbor that woke up at 4 AM every morning to be the first one to every dumpster, get all the cans, and take them to the recycling center and he helped pay the rent that way. He wasn’t even homeless. He lived with like eight other people, one of whom owned a medical transport service.

          • Urstoff says:

            My best example of a dumpster diver is the grizzled-looking old guy (who is probably 48 but looks 65) who lives behind the dumpster of the Motel 6 next to my office and digs through the dumpster for who knows what. He’s an OG homeless person.

          • wysinwyg says:


            What are you guys referring to as “dumpster divers?

            I guess I ended up talking about intentionally-homeless hipster kids.

            But I acknowledge that plenty of housed/employed people go through dumpsters too, and that some of them can even make pretty good money at it with the right skills or connections.

          • “The difference is presumably commensurate with the difference in cost of living. ”

            You are mistaken. The poor on $1/day are not living anything close to the quality of life of the American poor on $15/day. Why do you assume that the cost of the same things, many of which are traded in world markets, is much lower in poor countries?

            I actually did a calculation on my blog of the minimum cost life in the U.S., where the criterion was “conditions that did not reduce life expectancy by 50% or more.” It wasn’t much over a dollar a day.

          • Linch asks if I adjusted for inflation. In my earlier comment I wrote:

            “($1 defined as of 2005 purchasing power)”

            So yes.

          • RCF says:

            “Why do you assume that the cost of the same things, many of which are traded in world markets, is much lower in poor countries?”

            Probably because the idea of anyone living on a dollar a day in the US is absurd, and thus either the cost of living in other countries is much lower, or income isn’t being properly calculated. People in less developed countries don’t monetize as much of their lives as people in America do. If an American buys their water at a store, then that is captured as economic activity. But if someone walks an hour-long round trip, pumps water from a well, and carries that home, most of the economic expenditures for that won’t be measured. It might even be considered “free” water, even though it is no such thing.

            “I actually did a calculation on my blog of the minimum cost life in the U.S., where the criterion was “conditions that did not reduce life expectancy by 50% or more.” It wasn’t much over a dollar a day.”

            Cost, or cost to the person? Cost, or monetary expenditure?

          • I wrote:

            “I actually did a calculation on my blog of the minimum cost life in the U.S., where the criterion was “conditions that did not reduce life expectancy by 50% or more.” It wasn’t much over a dollar a day.”

            and got the response:

            “Cost, or cost to the person? Cost, or monetary expenditure?”

            The blog post is:


            It’s part of an argument I was having with the “Bleeding Heart Libertarians.” The calculation of minimal cost, a response to the idea that “basic needs” was an objective category, is towards the end.

            Looking at it from the other end, a piece I recently saw, from a not-unbiased source but with links to data on what poverty in the U.S. consists of:


          • RCF says:

            @David Friedman

            First, regarding “Politics and the English Language”, I find it hard to take seriously any essay that complains that the passive voice is used more than it should be.

            As for your calculations, you dismiss housing costs by saying people can live outdoors. While there may be places where nights in the winter are survivable, it would a rather miserable existence. Adding tents and sleeping blankets not only increases up-front costs, but also means that one has to provide security. There is a cost to having a bunch of homeless people living in state parks, or wherever you’re proposing, and these costs would be greatly increased if we had say, several million people living there. Also, you base your food costs on supermarket prices, but there aren’t many supermarkets in the middle of nowhere. Distributing food to a bunch of people living in the woods would significantly increase its costs. And, as you admit, it doesn’t include medical costs. There is also the issue of what sort of dental care you are envisioning. And while technically, a person can survive without social interaction, it’s not psychologically healthy.

            There may be some “mush” in the concept of minimum living standards, but to say that there is not enough clarity in the concept to exclude living in the woods without any social contact, subsisting on flour and peanut butter, having half the life expectancy of average Americans, etc., is going too far.

        • Linch says:

          “I am 95% confident that there is literally no amount of money that will end world poverty.”

          I am 99% confident that your claim cannot be literally true.

          • stillnotking says:

            If the pain of poverty in the developed world mostly stems from lack of status, then it is true. In that case, the only way to “solve” poverty would be to give everyone a customized Matrix habitat where they are a rock star, a head of state, or a highly esteemed blogger.

            (I don’t mean to trivialize status hunger. It’s very real, and is a major driver of depression and suicide, especially in men.)

          • Randy M says:

            That depends on if poverty is a question of inequality or of quality.

          • Linch says:

            Most of the time when people talk about “world poverty” (esp. among people like Sachs and people in EA circles), they’re implicitly not referring to developed-world poverty.

            Now the developed world is a part of the world so maybe that term is imprecise, but I think the semantics dispute isn’t particularly important.

            Randy: If you think poverty is a question of inequality and not quality, you could advocate for eg, a genuine communist revolution or a reactionary return to a more egalitarian hunter-gatherer society. If relative poverty (defined reasonably as, eg, less than 1/3 of the median income) is the greater culprit, it’s not mathematically impossible to solve.

            Now I personally wouldn’t, since I think quality>>>equality, but saying that “you can’t ever solve this issue even with infinite resources” is kinda silly.

          • Randy M says:

            “It’s not mathematically impossible to solve.”
            Nor is it a question of where to apply how much funds in that case, however. If EA’s are trying raise xxT$ to fund a global communist revolution, that’s going to get notice, and soon money won’t be the limiting factor.

          • Linch says:

            Sure, I was mostly responding to the claim “I am 95% confident that there is literally no amount of money that will end world poverty.” which at the literal level seems *really* excessive.

          • Randy M says:

            My point was that it wasn’t necessarily excessive, it might be quibbling about the definition of poverty.

          • Linch says:

            I don’t think any reasonable*, currently extant definition of poverty will not be solved by pouring an arbitrarily large of pile of money at the solution.

            If your definition of poverty is “less than $1.50/day,” we can brute force the problem with less than a trillion every year. (and there are probably better leveraged methods!)

            If your definition of poverty is “1/3 of the median income” redistribution through cash transfers for people with less than 1/3 income will solve that too.

            If your definition of poverty is something more complicated like Sen’s capabilities approach, I still think it’s plausible (like way more than 5% plausible) that each of those social services could be set up by pouring enough money into the situation.

            *Maybe reasonable is doing the heavy lifting here, but I struggle to come up with a definition of poverty that isn’t solvable by money and isn’t obviously absurd.

          • Linch says:

            @Mark OP made the original claim of “literally no amount of money” If you don’t like unbounded claims, take it up with him/her.

            And the US currently spends close to a order of magnitude more on social security than is needed to lift the entire world out of (the $1.50/day definition of) extreme poverty in the most direct means possible, so I think you more than exaggerate the fallout of the “problems you may claim to wish to solve”

          • RCF says:

            If they claim that they are 95% confident, I see no reason to doubt that it’s literally true that they are 95% confident.

            Also, money is means of redistributing resources. If there aren’t enough resources to solve a problem, then it is literally true that literally no amount of money will solve the problem.

          • Linch says:

            The world we live in has enough resources that all 7 billion of us could live at significantly above $2.50 a day. Why is this even an argument?

          • “The world we live in has enough resources that all 7 billion of us could live at significantly above $2.50 a day.”

            “Could” conceals a lot of problems. Since it isn’t happening, you are assuming that something is changed, and it’s worth specifying what.

            Suppose God orders everyone to act as he is currently acting, while he transfers enough income from those making more than $2.50/day to those making less to bring everyone above that level. That’s workable as long as current per capita world income is above $2.50/day, which I am sure it is.

            But that isn’t one of the available options. Next assume a competent and benevolent world government which taxes the richer people and subsidizes the poorer. Doing that alters the incentives of both rich and poor, with the exact effect depending on the details. If the government simply offers to bring everyone up to $2.50/day, there is no incentive for those making less than that to work, which will reduce world income by whatever they currently produce. If it gives everyone a demogrant of $2.50/day, that costs about eight trillion dollars a year, which will have to be collected in additional taxes, and those taxes affect the incentives of the people paying them and may reduce the amount they produce.

            Next suppose we are imagining not a benevolent and competent world government but the sort of world government we would actually be likely to get if we had one—rather like existing governments. Now getting everyone above $2.50 may be impossible, because it may not be the outcome that comes out of the politics of such a system. We have lots of examples of real world governments that proclaim their belief in equality and helping the poor while actually maintaining an elite largely supported by the government.

            All of which is to say that your “could” conceals a lot of hard issues.

            A different way of making part of the same point is that your “resources” ignores the fact that the main resource is people—oil doesn’t pump and refine itself. Each person is controlled by himself. So not all ways of getting people to act to produce the outcome you want may be possible.