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". 

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I think politics can seem very opaque, incomprehensible, and lacking clear positive payoffs but after volunteering, studying, and working on campaigns for a few years, I think it's more simple but difficult. 

  1.  I think politics is an area where there are a lot of entrenched ways of doing things as well as a lot of pitfalls that often require experience to navigate well. And even then, the chance of failure is still high. A moment's slip up or bad assumptions or a random event can undermine months or years of work. This doesn't happen as often in other areas. 
  2. For animal welfare, I think the outcomes show that it's something people are more willing to vote for than pay for, so I think ballot initiatives are generally a good route to try out. I think the pork industry challenge to the MA law is pretty weak, but even if the initiative is struck down, it was probably good to try and see if it worked, and that may still open up some new opportunity. Winning by a large margin is good in that it may discourage special interests from trying to run a counter ballot initiative next time to repeal it.  
  3. I think it's important not to become naive about anyone elected to office. Just because they have a similar background to you, say things you agree with, or belong to a group you like doesn't mean they're going to actually do good things or that the things they do are good. Just because they seem right about one or even many topics doesn't mean they know what they are doing on other topics. 
  4. Politics is about coalition building and that often means various kinds of deal making. This is not for everyone, and not every deal is good or even necessarily clearly good or bad. It also involves constant tradeoffs and high uncertainty that will often make a lot of people unhappy. 
  5. Politicians spend most of their careers fundraising - even when in office - and not nearly enough time talking to groups of their constituents that represent the diversity of experiences in their districts. This means a lot of popular ideas get ignored, some of which are good and others which are maybe not. Being a good representative means knowing when, how, and how much to defer to people. 

A moment's slip up or bad assumptions or a random event can undermine months or years of work. This doesn't happen as often in other areas.

In addition to blowback, there's also the risk of getting entangled into specific political factions and then tanking with them, or even having blame deliberately passed to EA associates because they're vulnerable and/or make for a convenient villain. 

These people are essentially armies of lawyers (sometimes literally) and they have developed substantial cost effectiveness at selecting targets and spinning narratives, and they often randomly run into hurdles that incentivize them to think up all sorts of ways to cut their losses.

Yeah there are a lot of "fairweather friends" in politics who won't feel inclined to return any favors when it matters most. The opposite of that is having a committed constituency that votes enough in elections to not be worth upsetting - aka a base of people power. These take serious effort to create and not all groups are distributed geographically the same way so some have more/easier influence than others. One reason the NRA is so powerful and not abandoned despite negative media coverage is that they have tight relationships with Republican politicians and they turn out big time in any primary where someone opposes them or something they want. It's not so much about the campaign contributions as far as I can tell (other groups spend far more and are much less influential) though campaign contributions are certainly a part of their system of carrots and sticks. 

The lack of more broad participation in primaries is a problem for represenation and responsive good government. It's an opportunity for groups that aren't all that representative to magnify their influence. Alaska's top 4 primary election seems like a step in the right direction since it opens up primaries to more voters and then  lets voters rank the top 4 candidates in November. It increases the chances that someone can try to run and win as a more representative candidate instead of being filtered out by small, highly partisan groups. 

It's often easier to stick to established narratives, group identifiers, and allies, or even make up new conspiracies than to be measured and nuanced. Something inflamatory and/or conspiratorial is more likely to hook into human brains, be amplified by engagement seeking algorithms, and, if it's obscure but rapidly repeated, not have any better sources of information competing with it when people look up its key words. 

Holly, thanks for posting this. You raise important and interesting questions.

I do think EA should continue to steer clear of overtly partisan-political issues, especially in highly polarized societies like the U.S. This is for a few reasons:

  1. EAs seem to lean Left politically, according to EA surveys; but to engage with partisan politics in a morally and epistemically humble way, we'd need a real diversity of political attitudes within EA to provide checks and balances against unconscious political biases and virtue-signaling.
  2. Partisan politics tends to involve controversies that are often not neglected, tractable, or scope-sensitive, so they're often a poor fit for EA. Modern political parties exist not to solve real-world problems, but to raise money, get votes, amass power, support virtue-signaling, and make partisans feel good. EA exists to solve real-world problems efficiently and open-mindedly, so its principles and goals simply 'don't compute' to most partisan politicians, activists, and voters.
  3. Politics is a game for older, cynical sociopaths who understand how power works, not for idealistic young EAs who, dare I say it, are often quite naive about the nature of power and how it's gained and wielded. (I'm in my mid-50s, and I'm only just starting to understand how American politics actually operates; I'm dubious that EAs younger than about 40 would end up being anything more than pawns in political games they don't understand.)
  4. Political engagement is highly addictive, rewarding, thrilling, and distracting. (Trust me on this, as someone who's all too engaged on political Twitter.) For many EAs  trying to work at the intersection of politics and EA, the political side would often end up pulling them away from their EA principles and cause areas.
  5. Politics tends to be very nation-specific and culture-specific, whereas EA aspires to global relevance. Insofar as EAs tend to be from the US, UK, Germany, Australia, and few other 'Western liberal democracies', we might end up focusing too much on the kinds of political institutions and issues typical of these countries. This would lead to neglect of other countries with other political values and issues. But even worse, it might lead us to neglect geopolitically important nation-states such as China and Russia where our 'Western liberal democracy' models of politics just don't apply very well. This could lead us to neglect certain ideas and interventions that could help nudge those countries in directions that will be good for humanity long-term (e.g. minimizing global catastrophic risks from Russian nukes or Chinese AI).

For all these reasons, I think EA should strive to avoid the realm of politics, and just do our own thing, in what we could think of as 'non-political stealth mode', flying under the radar of the usual partisan-politics system of news, activism, power, and propaganda. 

I think these are great points for the movement in general and for "politics" in general, but I still think it's more complicated in some cases. 

For example, I'm just not convinced we can dismiss the EV of investing in having EA/EA-adjacent people in power, even if any given person is expected to make ~0 counterfactual difference, just in case the have to respond to a pivotal emergency-- it would be convenient if we could, but I don't think we can.  

I'm doing a pretty grubby, what you call "real-world" project trying to get people to use less rat poison, but nothing I do to try to achieve that is outside of the reach of the law. My ideal solution would be to create birth control that is superior to rodenticides and even more convenient so that people will voluntary switch to that, but even if I had the perfect product in hand, marketing it would require navigating a maze of policy and special interests. Zooming out, there would much more incentive to create such a product if there were more restrictions on rodenticide use, and given their toxicity and destructive effect on the ecosystem, there are plenty of people already trying to do that.  Do we ally with them? What if all we need to do is sign onto the coalition sponsoring a bill? What if we don't 100% agree with the bill? I just think the answer to questions like that is going to be case-by-case. 

I don't like doing political stuff.  It feels icky to me and I feel pretty naturally disadvantaged at political maneuvering. I would love if there were an EA reason not to have to deal with it. But unfortunately I suspect that real world wasn't built around EA preferences :(

Hi Holly,

I think that in specific cases like this (e.g. reduce rodenticide use), where there's no obvious partisan side to the issue, and it doesn't come pre-polarized in the public mind, and most politicians and voters haven't even heard of the issue or thought about it, then there's a totally reasonable case for EA promotion of the cause at a political level. 

I was mostly concerned about EA avoiding issues that are already partisan-polarized, already controversial, and already subject to pressure from vested interests with a lot of power and money.

More generally, I think it might be helpful to recruit and influence people who are already active in political life to adopt EA values and views as part of their 'private persona' -- as long as  we don't form explicit public alliances with organized political parties or partisan movements.  For example, if some EA group in Washington DC wanted to do more outreach to smart young Congressional staffers (of both parties!), that could be quite helpful in terms of EA perspectives informing the behind-the-scenes thinking and priorities of Congressional Representatives. 

Or if EAs want to pursue political careers as potential high-impact ways to promote EA initiatives, that could be great -- as long as they avoid overly explicit 'EA branding' in their campaigns.

I just think we have to be very careful not to appear overtly allied with any political party. For many potential intersection of EA and politics, that might be very difficult -- but for some (e.g. rodenticide use), it might be quite easy.

More generally, I think it might be helpful to recruit and influence people who are already active in political life to adopt EA values and views as part of their 'private persona' -- as long as  we don't form explicit public alliances with organized political parties or partisan movements.

Yes, I think this. I don't see much point to having people elected or doing political interventions in the name of EA. But many object that even getting people who happen to be EAs into politics is too corrupting because, for example, they fundraise among EAs and their friends get partisan when supporting them.
 

For example, if some EA group in Washington DC wanted to do more outreach to smart young Congressional staffers (of both parties!)

Many consider this dangerously close to spinning the message to try to appeal to politicians.

Completely agree about not getting into encumbering alliances at the movement level.

I completely agree with this. As a (Americans read: neo) Liberal that thinks the Green movement does far more harm than good, some of the political campaigning I’ve seen EAs do really puts me off and makes me question the entire movement. SBF’s lobbying of politicians in the US is another example of egregious misuse of funds.

Until those checks and balances are in place, we should be focusing on directing funds to the most impactful causes. That should be the beginning and end of EA in my opinion. Politics is almost never the best ROI approach to anything, using EA’s own methodology to calculate impact. There will of course be exceptions, but I find it hard to believe any amount of money will be better spent trying to influence a government as opposed to buying malaria nets.

We also need to avoid thinking and framing our actions as a group identity. It’s to be expected that people come to different and opposing conclusions even within a movement with clear stated principles. As such, political action shouldn’t be done in the name of the group as a whole.

We also need to avoid thinking and framing our actions as a group identity. It’s to be expected that people come to different and opposing conclusions even within a movement with clear stated principles. As such, political action shouldn’t be done in the name of the group as a whole.

YES

Duarte -- I agree with your additional points here.

FWIW, I was always uneasy with SBF's massive donations to (mostly) Democratic politicians, and with his determination to defeat Trump at any cost, by any means necessary. It just didn't make sense in terms of EA reasoning, values, and priorities. It should have been a big red flag. 

But I think the lack of political diversity in EA, and many EAs' tacit agreement with SBF's partisan political views, led too many EAs to think it was no big deal that SBF was mixing EA and politics in unprincipled and somewhat bizarre ways.

In the future, I think we should have stronger skepticism about anybody who tries to link EA to partisan political activism.

FWIW, I was always uneasy with SBF's massive donations to (mostly) Democratic politicians, and with his determination to defeat Trump at any cost, by any means necessary. It just didn't make sense in terms of EA reasoning, values, and priorities. It should have been a big red flag. 

I thought it was not super consistent with EA but easily explained by Sam's parents' careers and values. I often expressed worry about how it would affect our epistemics for EAs to become politicians bankrolled by Sam or for the community as a whole to feel pressure not undermine political moves that they would have to make to succeed, but I gave him personally a pass for wanting to spend some of his seemingly unlimited funds on political stuff because I assumed he had strong beliefs about politics as a lever for good from his upbringing. 

I'm dubious that EAs younger than about 40 would end up being anything more than pawns in political games they don't understand

Can't disagree, only 32, still don't fully understand how american politics works.

  • I think if both optics and impact both constitute a significant part of our motivations for doing politics, we shouldn't be doing it.
    • The costs of compromise are often exponential with the number of separate criteria we optimise our projects for. It's exponentially harder to find one date who's rich, kind, smart, blue-eyed, tall, whatever, compared to finding  dates who are separately significant in  traits. I guess I'm advocating for the cause-prioritisation equivalent of polyamory or something. Oo
    • To optimise separately for optics and impact, ask:
      • What's the most effective way we could achieve a good reputation?
      • And what's the most effective way we could achieve impact?
        • Although projects purely optimised for impact should probably still compromise with reputation as a satisficing side-constraint.
    • Within animal advocacy, perhaps it's better to separately invest in a portfolio of projects that legibly help relatable animals, and a portfolio of projects that are maximised for impact in a way that most people find hard to understand.
      • The latter, imo, looks like trying to somehow leverage the transition to a post-AGI world for the interests of animals. Or something.

You pose some great questions, Holly. 

I really like the EA culture of "unintended consequences" analysis, as you do with a political campaign on rodent control. That analysis is good to do with all campaigns, and some political campaigns will have greater risks and some will have lesser. It is not inherently a reason not to engage in politics.

Interesting points about undermining democracy. I think it is also worth considering the null-hypothesis: what is the impact of doing nothing? How does it favor existing powers to continue the status quo?

Ultimately, the costs and benefit of political campaigns are extremely difficult to quantify, so I understand why EAs are still developing our attitudes toward this. As a person who works in politics, I agree that there are potential consequences to be wary of (developing a partisan identity, making powerful enemies, etc). Nonetheless, I see these as important precautions and risks to mitigate rather than dealbreakers.

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.

If you think overhead scares people away from specific charities, then literal bribes definitely would risk tanking the charitynavigator score. Plenty of charities would rather risk getting nothing done within the local system.

It’s my impression that development NGOs accept having to do things like bribe corrupt policeman to use the roads as operating costs. This is how it is for scientists doing field work, at least, which is a world I know better. Knowing how and when to bribe is an important skill for people who travel in developing countries, and among those people it is generally viewed more like deferring to local custom and respecting that you a foreigner in their country than a sullying act of corruption.