This bit of pondering was beyond the scope of the manuscript I was writing (a followup to this post, which is why the examples are all about anti-rodenticide interventions), but I still wanted to share it. Cut from rough draft, lightly edited it so it would make sense to Forum readers and to make the tone more conversational.
It is often difficult to directly engage in political campaigns without incentives to lie or misrepresent. This is exacerbated by the differences in expected communication styles in politics vs the general public vs EA. There is a tradition of strong arguments in broader EA (+rationality) culture for EAs to entirely steer away from politics for both epistemic and effectiveness reasons. I find these arguments persuasive but wonder whether they have become an unquestioned dogma.
We don't hold any other class of interventions to the standards we hold political interventions. I find it hard to believe that effective charities working in developing countries never have to do ethically dubious things, like giving bribes, because refusing to do so would make it impossible to get anything done within the local culture. Yet EAs often consider it unacceptable for other EAs to engage in "politician-speak" or play political games to win a valuable election.
A major practical objection to political interventions is that they may swiftly age poorly or lock orgs/EA/society into particular positions rather than leaving them flexible to pursue the goals that motivated the original political push. Well-intended regulations today (full of compromises and ignorant of what may become important distinctions) could lead to difficulties in implementing better solutions tomorrow. This is a serious downside.
- When considering legal bans on rodenticides, I foresee these failure modes:
- Most likely failure mode: after great effort, resources, and political capital spent, second gen anticoagulant bans succeed in some areas, and pest management professionals just switch to first gen or non-anticoagulants that are nearly as bad for rodent and off-target animal welfare.
- Worse alternative than rodenticides are developed in response, and the political strategy becomes an arms race.
- Successful campaign to ban rodenticides, but closing loopholes, enforcing the ban, and enforcing enforcement of the ban by governments becomes never-ending followup job.
A moral qualm I have about EA playing the political game is that high leverage political campaigns may actually tend to subvert democracy, which might be bad in itself (depending on the situation, I think) and may lead to blowback against the political aim, EA, and/or a field like wild animal welfare. “High leverage” and "democratic political process" may be fundamentally at odds. EA is looking for interventions that will have the greatest effect for our goals with the fewest resource. If you consult the electorate about their goals and how they should be achieved, they rarely strongly agree on the thing we want to do. Voting is hardly an efficient market, but I still don't think political interventions are the place to go to find $1000 bills on the ground. If a lot of people already agree on a course of action, chances are it's not going to be a high leverage intervention because it's either 1) already being done, or 2) ineffective, empty, or symbolic.
EAs have leaned on legislative hacks like ballot measures for several of our greatest farmed animal welfare victories to date, most notably California’s Proposition 12 and Massachusetts’s Proposition 3. However, a major aspect of those amendments, the ban of animal products imported from other states with lower welfare standards, is now being challenged by the pork industry in the US Supreme Court. It is precisely because of the ease of special interests using that avenue (i.e. the high leverage for EA) that those amendments are now being seen as possibly illegitimate. (Massachusetts prop 3 passed with like 70% of the vote iirc, which makes me feel that it has a mandate at least in Massachusetts, regardless of whether MA has the right to impose limits on interstate commerce. So one guideline here may be “EA political victories on contentious issues have to be landslides”.)
Even if political accomplishments withstand judicial review, some EAs fear we may lose the public’s good will if we are seen to be lobbying rather than faithfully attending to doing the most good. However, this point depends a lot on what one believes someone who is motivated to do the most good would do. I humbly submit that EAs engage in typical mind fallacy on this-- hands-off abstract theorizing is not everyone’s idea of doing good. Many people may perceive EA or WAW as less sincere if we don’t engage in contentious politics.
One positive of political campaigning is that this may be a more legible and straightforward demonstration of commitment to our goals for many non-EAs than many of the activities EAs consider highest impact. Campaigning to stop people using harmful rat poison is a lot more understandable and potentially persuasive to the uninitiated than, say, trying to remove fishery quotas to help the fish.
I think the reason that bribing local officials to establish new delivery routes for bednets would not be seen by most EAs as threatening to the epistemics or theory of change behind the intervention is that we have more distinct buckets for "model of the world/theory of change/selecting intervention" and "executing intervention" when we're thinking about public health than we do when thinking about politics. Granted, it's harder to separate the epistemics from the intervention when the intervention is selling yourself and your views than when it's distributing medicine, but I still think we could do a much better job mentally distinguishing political intervention from our models of the system. There's a suspicion of politics in much of the community (and particularly in the rationality community) that is out of proportion considering the danger that engaging in any intervention represents to someone who isn't distinguishing "trying to achieve an instrumental goal" with "what's true and what my goals should be".
The temptation to corruption in politics is a serious concern for individual EAs and EA in general, but there's a very compelling expected value argument for pursuing political remedies and political power. I propose that, to be able to access that value with less threat to the epistemics, models, and values of the movement, we have stronger distinctions between EA prioritization and the execution of actual interventions. This could be achieved through compartmentalizing tasks or job descriptions so that people who "do prioritization" are not the same as those that "do politics".