Epistemic status: speculative
Longtermists have good reasons to be interested in institutional innovation. Broad longtermist institutions could focus on improving the political representation of future generations; more targeted ones could focus on particular cause areas such as AI governance.
The community’s approach to institutional change so far seems to be two-pronged:
- Research new institutions. Examples of such work include Will MacAskill on age-weighted voting and Gillian Hadfield and Jack Clark on regulatory markets for AI safety.
- Get into influential positions in the most influential governments, so that we are better placed to take important decisions, including regarding new institutions. For instance, to my knowledge, CSET was established partly to help build the political capital of thoughtful longtermists in D.C.
Here’s another approach which might be promising:
- Get into influential positions in the most innovative governments (i.e., those most willing and able to create and change institutions), so that we are better placed to test institutional innovations.
Many of the innovations which are interesting by longtermist lights can only be implemented by governments (e.g. most of the ideas in this post, regulatory regimes); and, presumably, governments vary in their willingness to test new institutions. There’s also no clear reason why the most influential governments should be the most innovative. Field-trials would help establish which ideas work well empirically, and running them in innovative governments would allow for more ideas, and stranger ones, to be tested. According to Robin Hanson, “the key resource needed for institution adaptation efforts is actually real organizations willing to risk disruption and distraction to work on adapting promising institution ideas.”
Successful implementations could also propagate new institutions to more influential governments. A cursory look at the literature on the diffusion of policies and institutions suggests that institutions set up in one country often quickly spread to others. In the context of environmental institutions, for instance, “diffusion mechanisms contributed to a significant extent to the international spread of environmental ministries and agencies, particularly in the 1970s.” One reason for this might be the reduced risk for those following the innovator: it’s already been shown that the institution can work well.
If the above is correct, perhaps some fraction of longtermists aiming for a government career should look towards the most innovative governments. Some questions that would help clarify the value and feasibility of this approach include:
- Which governments are the most innovative?
- Could EA’s work for these governments?
- Is the diffusion of institutional innovations a robust phenomenon?
- Which countries have historically had the most success diffusing their innovations?
Thanks to Maxime Riche, Jeremy Perret, Adam Shimi, and Laura Green for feedback.