The recent EA Survey asked about additional areas of action for the EA community. In this note I argue that the central orientation of efficient altruism should be finding projects where near term outcomes are aligned with the long term targets.
An activism that is oriented to avoid tail events is doomed to lose traction every day that the event does not materialize (see Alinsky, 1971 on efficient activism). On the other hand, this is the culminating moment of human history where the events of a few decades can affect outcomes in geological time. Above all other considerations, looking for cases where the trade-off between the long-term impact and near-term outcomes is minimal shall be the main criteria for selecting projects at the present time. The EA movement has the broadest political-philosophical perspective in the world and a modest social base, and this tension is going to define its historical role in the coming decades.
In this sense, this note argues that there are three areas where short-term objectives can be achieved while addressing existential challenges. These three areas are: i) Institutional development and moderate politics, ii) Digital Commons, iii) Dual-use technologies for developing countries and post-disaster situations.
Institutional development and moderate politics
More than half of humanity remains under autocracies or authoritarian oligarchies, some of them with a large nuclear arsenal, and in the last decade these regimes have managed to consolidate and partially push back the democratizing tide of the post-Cold War.
In addition, contemporary democracies show signs of obsolescence. Our social system is the product of the rise of capitalism, the XVII to XIX centuries liberal revolutions and a wave of social reformism in the post-World War II period (Judt, 2004). The three elements (the legal-political system, the economic system and the social protection system) are vastly more functional than the alternatives, and the economic order of the globalization is altogether much more egalitarian than any previous system of international economic relations (Milanovic, 2013).
But the increase in economic and vital precariousness in developed countries (reflected in some relative income stagnation and the increasing inequality), and the general disappearance of a coherent public opinion (replaced by a proliferation of ideological and cultural echo chambers) are symptoms that the institutional system is overwhelmed after several decades of mere management by the elites and apathy by the masses. In the long run, capitalist liberal democracy is too fragile, and has to undergo too extensive social changes to survive in its current form, but at the present moment, and in Lincoln's words, democracy (and America itself!) are “the last, the best hope of Mankind”.
For this reason, in the short and medium term, and by order of urgency, the main human priority is to sustain the currently existing democracies by supporting either democratic institutions and centrist political movements. A brief summary of the results from comparative Political Science (Lijphart, 2012) suggest that parliamentary regimes (instead of presidential ones), with proportional representation mechanisms (instead of “first past the post” races), lead to consociational governance, which is less brilliant, but also more secure that the strong majoritarian alternative. Among other initiatives of interest in this field, we have the “Unite America” institutional reform agenda, and “Radical Exchange” is in its own way a parallel community with many points of contact with EA.
As far as economic policies are concerned, the Second Theorem of Welfare Economics remains a beacon that dialectically surpasses either capitalism and socialism: a capitalist economy with substantial redistribution (in the form of free social goods as health and education, and unemployment benefits, ideally contingent on macroeconomic conditions) is the state of the art of social economic stabilization for developed countries.
Paradoxically, institutional stagnation happens when the most extensive analytical knowledge about social coordination mechanisms is available and where technology allows this research to be implemented. Glen Weyl and Richard Posner (Weyl and Posner, 2018), propose a set of innovative mechanisms to transform private property or political participation, maintaining a decentralized structure in production, or political decisions. Developments in decentralized computing (blockchains) allow not only to have decentralized currencies and contracts, but also participatory institutions (DAO).
Institutional progress is the substitution of arbitrary personal decision regimes for rules and institutions capable of aggregating preferences and distributed knowledge into optimal social decisions. When expressed in this way, it is clear that liberal democracies (and markets) are more advanced than authoritarian (and usually kleptocratic) regimes, but one can also suspect that there is still a long way to go to achieve a stable, legitimate and capture-resistant social system safe enough to govern a species that has developed an immense capacity for self-destruction.
Another significant socio-economic trend in recent decades is disintermediation in the field of communication. This post is published in an open access forum, which however allows for a global audience. Basically the marginal cost of distributing information has been reduced to zero in the XXI century.
Of course, the production of content still has costs (although they have also contracted), but in the first decades of the rise of the zero marginal cost economy there was a wave of optimism about the possibility of "liberating" content and monetizing it based on revenue collection schemes different from the payments by the consumer. Boldrin and Levine proposed abolishing intellectual property (Boldrin and Levine, 2012), and Perry Barlow (Barlow, 1996) called on governments to abandon the “New Frontier”. The promise has been partially fulfilled. Google and Meta are hugely profitable companies that obtain their income from the leg a two-sided platform (Rochet and Tirole, 2003) that is not the general public. However, the content generation sectors have suffered (press and music are the most affected), and in many cases we are seeing a return of payment schemes by the final consumer.
At the same time that the great internet monopolies consolidated there was a boom in open source protocols and programs, although always under the shadow of economic precariousness. It is evident that both from the perspective of economic contestability (defense of competition) equality and democracy, the "Digital Commons" are a global public good. Each euro devoted to knowledge liberation is a euro that can be used by the whole Mankind.
One of the most valuable parts of the digital commons is the digital scientific knowledge and tools. The academic emphasis on the scientific paper is probably passing and scientific agendas are going to be more and more oriented towards the creation of free software and database projects. The contemporary academy has to assume a leading role in the management and availability of the digital commons. Some successful initiatives in this area are the Open Science Foundation, Plos ONE, and Milne Open textbooks. In many developed countries, free textbooks are defended as a part of the educational branch of the welfare state, but in our time that “free” should not come from public subsidies for textbooks, but from the use of educational materials under a “Creative Commons” license.
A very simple and high impact intervention is the purchase of patents (to be released into the public domain) that facilitate the production of all kinds of generic goods (drugs are the classical case). In general, the selection of high-value intellectual properties to be purchased and placed in the public domain and the investment in their maintenance and universal availability should be considered among EA priorities. Ideally, these interventions shall be carried on partnership with academic institutions. In addition to punctual interventions, EA shall promote the idea that the Academia must put the availability and expansion of the stock of Digital Commons at the center of its social mission (perhaps large university endowments would finally find their true mission).
Dual-use technologies for developing countries and post-disaster situations
In almost any of the great catastrophes that may occur in the coming decades (being nuclear war both the worst and the most likely), the greatest challenge is to sustain supplies of food, energy and a reasonable manufacturing capacity (Dartnell, 2015).
The most critical bottleneck is food production: fortunately, the food system has several layers of redundancy, the most important of which is the possibility of directing the food consumption of the livestock for human use. But recent research opens up the possibility of developing synthetic foods (see the ALLFED website for a summary) or selecting resilient varieties of plants for extreme environments.
On the other hand, the so-called “distributed manufacturing” is a set of highly flexible manufacturing techniques, among which 3D printing stands out (European Defense Agency, 2018). Apart from its disruptive economic potential, it can also function to mitigate the extreme dependence on international industrial supplies, providing a layer of flexibility to the natural rigidity of the super-optimized production system generated by globalized capitalism.
Both kinds of technologies are dual-use: they can be used to alleviate poverty in less developed countries and to deal with major catastrophes. After 77 years under the threat of nuclear war no progress towards building a less geographically centralized society with fewer industrial bottlenecks has been done. The urban population has been increasing steadily since 1945, and industry is not only more concentrated, but also contemporary technologies are especially sensitive to nuclear detonations (with their associated electromagnetic pulses).
However, a distributed, resilient and as simple as possible industrial technology is worthwhile both from the standpoint of development and that of the “Day After” of major catastrophes. Deployment is simply too expensive to the means of the EA community, but research support and some seed capital could be affordable.
Until now, open source hardware (see the Bonvoisin et al, 2020 literature review) has been focused mainly in electronics, being both Arduino, Raspberry Pi and some 3D printers among the most important demonstration cases. On the other hand, the most interesting use cases would be precisely for large and relatively simple machines, as agricultural machinery. The Open Source Ecology is the largest project devoted to this segment of open source hardware, but its degree of success and scalability are hard to assess.
In this note I propose three types of highly leveraged investments from the perspective of their synergies between near and long term objectives: i) Institutional development and moderate politics, ii) Digital Commons, iii) Dual-use technologies for developing countries and post-disaster situations.
Two disclaimers are in order: First, the proposed priorities are designed from the perspective of human welfare maximization. Although the moral objections to factory farming seem plausible to me (in the rich countries), I am agnostic about the intensity and nature of non-human conscience. Secondly, in the factual realm, I see nuclear war as more urgent and likely risk than any other catastrophic/existential risks.
In my view a substantially volitional Artificial Intelligence is not necessary a risk (it can even be a solution for many human problems), and I do not see its emergence as imminent. Readers that do not share these two sunk hypotheses have to make their own assessment on the relevance of the proposed priorities. On the other hand, for those sharing the human welfare/nuclear war worldview, the priorities here outlined are (in my view) almost inescapable.
Alinsky, S.D, "Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals", 1971
Arend Lijphart, “Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries”, Yale University Press ,2012
Barlow, J.P, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, 1996
Boldrin, M. and Levine, D.K., “Against Intellectual Monopoly”, 2008
Bonvoisin, J., Molloy, J., Häuer, M., Wenzel, T., “Standardisation of Practices in Open Source Hardware”, Journal of Open Hardware, 2020
Dartnell, L., ”The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm”, Penguin Books, 2015
European Defense Agency, “Additive manufacturing feasibility study & technology demonstration”, EDA AM State of the Art & Strategic Report, 2018
Judt,T. “Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945”, Penguin Books, 2006
Milanovic, B. “Global Income Inequality by the Numbers: in History and Now—An Overview“, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper, 2012
Rochet, J.C and Tirole,J. “Platform Competition in Two-Sided Markets”, Journal of the European Economic Association, 2003
Weyl, G. y Posner, R., “Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society”, Princeton University Press, 2018