I’ve often been skeptical that US political engagement was an effective use of time for EAs. During and after the 2016 election, I heard people front the idea that defeating Trump might be an effective use of EA resources. I’m skeptical that this is true, and I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of “this thing my social group thinks is good: maybe it’s also the most effective thing by EA standards”. Politics is driven by tribalism, so I think this is especially a risk here.
Recently, I’ve surprised myself by coming to believe that donating to candidates who support policies which reduce existential risks is probably the best passive donation opportunity for US citizens. The main reason I’ve changed my mind is that I think highly aligned political candidates have a lot of leverage to affect policies that could impact the long-term future and are uniquely benefited from individual donations.
While I don’t think that the work of individual US congress members is more effective than the work of organizations like the Alignment Research Center working directly on long-term problems, I think that the presence of large funders willing and able to fully fund organizations working on long-term causes makes supporting political candidates with aligned values a more promising target for individuals donations, since congressional election campaigns are limited in how much funding they can accept from any individual donors.
I think there are more effective donation opportunities but they require special knowledge that the major EA orgs don’t have access to. For example, I’ve been looking for promising aligned people or projects in the infosec space that could use funding to jumpstart their career or project. Since I have special knowledge / expertise here, I expect these are among the highest impact donations I can make.
However, I often get pretty busy and don’t have time to look for neglected funding opportunities. Given time and attention constraints, I think donating to political candidates with a strong commitment to long-term oriented policies is my best default. This year, nearly all my EA donations are going to political campaigns. I wouldn’t have predicted this last year!
Why do I think this is effective compared to other donations?
- Large longtermist donors - Open Philanthropy, FTX, Jaan Tallinn, etc. - can and do fund most promising organizations working on long-term risks
- Political campaigns are limited by the size of individual donations from US citizens because of campaign finance laws.
- Contributions to Congressional candidates are limited to $2,900 per election, so $5,800 per year. (A primary election counts as a different election)
- I think having candidates in Congress willing to sponsor legislation on long-term issues like biosecurity and AI existential risk could significantly improve the prospects for policy interventions in these spaces
- There are officials in US government who prioritize long-term concerns, but no elected officials meet this bar
- The 0-1 difference in Congress is large! This is because a single congress person can sponsor legislation. As a start, it would be very good to have two candidates, one from each party, in both the senate and the house. A common concern among EAs is that supporting candidates might polarize important cause areas. Supporting candidates from different parties could help mitigate this risk and work towards bipartisan support of global risk reduction, an area that should appeal to people of any party.
- Example policy area I think is high impact: Banning gain of function research. This is a policy that nearly everyone working on long-term issues would like to see happen, but there has not been sufficient political will. I think having a few Congresspeople prioritize this issue & propose legislation could lead to a real ban, or at least a ban on federal funding for GoF.
- In order for a legislator to be effective for long-term issues, the following must be true:
- They must be be able to create / identify legislation that would be net positive for the long-term (or have staffers that can reliably do this)
- They must be able to increase the chance that legislation is passed
- I think the first premise is true in a number of cases, especially around shifting funding away from dangerous biology research. It’s much harder in the area of AI policy, but I expect there are some pretty net positive policies that could be passed.
- I’m less confident about the second area, but I think the 0-1 effect is probably large. I’d love some concrete examples or numbers on this.
- How much will additional funding help candidates win?
- Seems highest impact to support candidates where the race is close. If they’re likely to win or lose regardless of donations, that seems obviously not very effective
- I don’t know much how campaign spending relates to election outcomes
- Who is vetting candidates for their commitment & effectiveness championing policies which will make a difference on long term issues. Will they do a good job?
- Personally, I’ve been impressed with Guarding Against Pandemics, who have been vetting and publicly endorsing candidates who might support long-term oriented policies
- Is it ethical / a good norm to support candidates in other states?
- I think it’s ethical given current laws and norms (see below), but still have some uncertainty here
Ethics of inter-district donations and the integrity of political candidates
One question I’ve considered is whether it’s ethical to donate to political campaigns in districts I don’t live in. The US allows candidates to receive support from outside their district, and this information is available to the public. Furthermore, it’s not unusual for congressional candidates to get a large share of their campaign funding from outside their district. Given it’s both transparent and a common practice, I think it’s ethical to support candidates in other districts. When thinking through this, I asked myself “would I think it’s okay for those who support (or oppose) abortion rights to donate to political candidates who prioritized the issue, even outside of the donor's district?” and noticed that that scenario seemed fine to me.
It’s important to me that political candidates I support have integrity. I wouldn’t want to support a candidate that didn’t plan to do right by their constituents. I don’t think there’s any significant conflict between supporting policies to mitigate existential risk and looking out for shorter-term concerns. I think there will be some tradeoffs in terms of how they would allocate their attention, but I expect the tradeoffs to be pretty small given how huge the federal government is. I also think upping our chance of surviving the next century is pretty aligned with the interests of voters, and I’d love to see candidates who appealed to voters on this axis.
I don’t think long-term issues like AI or biotech existential risks are fundamentally partisan issues. I’d be happy to donate to high-integrity candidates in either political party who are committed to mitigating these risks. Currently, some issues like Gain of Function research are somewhat split along policy lines, and it doesn’t seem to be for principled reasons. I remember researching SARS-CoV-2 origins in early 2020, and at the time Trump’s support for the lab origin hypothesis caused a lot of people to dismiss it as a conspiracy theory. But once he was out of office, prominent scientists came out saying the hypothesis was legitimate. Political fights like this hurt our government’s ability to track reality. Having Congresspeople with an eye towards the long term in both parties, who could break party lines to support especially impactful policies, seems really desirable.
I just donated the max allowed, $2,900, to a candidate I thought was especially promising and well vetted by people I trust. Going forward, for my EA donations, I’m planning to prioritize 1) opportunities where I have special knowledge and 2) political campaigns of aligned congressional candidates. My current best source of knowledge is politically oriented EA friends and Guarding Against Pandemics. So I plan to mostly donate where they recommend and do some spot checking as I go. If you find these arguments compelling, I recommend you do the same!
You can sign up via this form to be notified about campaign donation opportunities in the future.