Taking Systemic Change Seriously

by kbog24th Oct 201628 comments

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This is meant to be a rough response to the attitude that systemic change is too difficult/intractable as well as a response by performance that EAs don't think about systemic change. Note: by systemic change I'm referring to many possible changes in the fundamental structure of economic, political and international systems, not necessarily to what lots of people naively assume to be the one true proper method of systemic changeTM.

EAs have seemed to congregate at the extremes of direct robust aid (poverty, veg ads) and massive technological risks and transformation (x risk, abolitionism) without many people in the middle. This is curious and cries out for an explanation. There are a few people working in policy spaces to improve how governments deal with the aforementioned issues, but none of that really counts as middle ground or systemic change in my opinion (and many people outside EA would agree). It's just applied activism and politics. Systemic change means improving human society's ability to solve many problems and be more ethical in a general long term sense. Some things that would be systemic change include changing the way our political systems operate, altering the structure of the international order and removing the influence of capital on society.

Since so few EAs have seriously approached systemic change, it's likely that there are more underdeveloped ideas in this intervention space than in other intervention spaces, which indicates that it might be a better cause area than we would naively expect. Also, if we are uncertain about cause areas then systemic change makes sense as a way to attack a variety of problems (but if you think that just a few particular causes are by far the most important then spending your time on systemic change seems inefficient). I think systemic change makes the most sense if you expect new important issues to arise in the future. These considerations indicate that the value of systemic change is covariant with the value of movement building.

I want to sketch a better picture of what systemic change should 'look like.' I can give several desideratum for a systemic change effort:

  1. It should be great in expectation. In other words, looking at the potential and likely results of activism should reveal large improvements for the future of sentient life.

  2. It should be robust. It should not rely upon any one political ideology, any one empirical expectation, or any one framework of morality or decision theory. Given the opacity of systemic change and the fact that we will probably never get much reliable feedback about the outcomes of our actions, we should demand high prior confidence.

  3. It should be scalable. At least, it should be the sort of thing where a tiny fraction of the EA community - maybe fewer than 10 people - could accomplish something non-negligible OR have a small probability of achieving something significant. Otherwise we will probably be wasting our efforts for the time being.

  4. It should be ideologically safe depending on how widespread and public we want the campaign to be. Ideally, it should be ideologically positive by getting new people on board with EA in general. But if we are perceived as having views which are repugnant or offensive then we may lose influence with many people. This is a real possibility: people have sneered at EA because of attention given to existential risk and people have rejected it because of the refusal to broadly condemn capitalism. You cannot please everyone but we should think about these factors, especially when we want the movement to have institutional clout with current elites. It sucks, but it's the intelligent road to take.

Before we get into particular intervention ideas, the first questions we should answer are: how good of a cause area do we think systemic change might be, a priori? And are the above desiderata suitable?

Now I can think of several examples of systemic change which would fit some or all of the above criteria.
 
  1. Evidence/science/impact based governance: Generally instilling a culture of more rational decisionmaking in the government would improve its ability to implement a wide range of programs effectively, as would changes in the structure of political processes that are designed to take better guidelines into account. There are more specific proposals that can be investigated in this area, such as futarchy.
  2. World government: For very basic game-theoretic reasons, more credible power in the hands of international organizations and the U.N. in particular could go a long way towards solving global coordination problems (like existential risks) and reducing war. It would set a precedent in political relations that might continue indefinitely. Removing the veto from the U.N. security council is a possible step in this direction. On the other hand, shoring up the E.U. could be critical to preventing a reverse trend in the coming decades. I think this cause is potentially the best, depending on how well it can be meshed with the very defensible realist understanding of international relations.
  3. Public ownership of the means of production: placing more questions about production in democratic hands could go a long way towards reducing poverty and international conflict, according to various theorists. However, these claims are contentious and divisive. It is possible that implementing this change would reduce existential risks as well, due to alleviating coordination problems and rampant consumption drives.

Now the questions to be answered are: how good might the above causes be, and what other types of systemic change should we investigate?

 
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We do indirectly work on 1 and 2 through our contacts with governments and public servants, plus by voting or working within internationalist parties. EAs are also supportive of research into e.g. prediction markets. But it's really hard to see how you can do either of these things in anything other than an incrementalist way. Institutions in the UN and EU have been built up over 70 years, and even at that pace it has been a struggle. Unless you want to get rid of democratic accountability - which is exceedingly risky - the only way to introduce 'evidence based policy' is to bring politicians and the general public on board, which takes time, even when it's possible.

3 is interesting but less obviously a good idea. If the government wishes to accumulate assets, arguably it should do so by investing in the health and education of taxpayers, or just building useful public infrastructure, rather than buying up the stock market. That avoid common problems with governments making poor decisions as active managers of companies. But I wouldn't discourage someone suitable from doing research into ways to make 'market socialism' work well.

It seems clear to me that in some cases positive systemic change is possible, even with relatively limited teams working on them.

However, systemic changes can also lead to substantial problems. Even some of the examples you gave here are far from objectively good - I note with some worry that historical attempts to place the means of production into the hands of the people have led to some of the greatest disasters of human history.

The "downside risks" of these sorts of approaches seem very high. That isn't to say that nobody should do them, but I would be quite cautious about supporting unusual new ventures in these areas. To some extent your category 4 (ideologically safe) seems to screen off this objection, but the fact that you put public ownership of the means of production down afterwards makes me worry about how effectively that categorization will be applied.

Even some of the examples you gave here are far from objectively good - I note with some worry that historical attempts to place the means of production into the hands of the people have led to some of the greatest disasters of human history.

Just because some of the cases where means of production were publicly owned happened in a country where lots of people were killed doesn't imply that placing the means of production in public hands is always likely to get lots of people killed. For one thing, charity has been responsible for disasters, as well as capitalism, but we don't think that those things are always bad just because of that.

Western democracies have a far more advanced political culture and civil society than early 20th century Asia and eastern Europe did, and we also have democratic governments rather than dictatorships, so worries over mass murder can be pretty easily tossed out the window.

Calculation problems are more interesting, and I'm not well read on the literature behind them, but the one thing I can say pretty confidently is that 21st century America/Europe doesn't have to worry about food in the way that the 1920s USSR or 1970s China did.

To some extent your category 4 (ideologically safe) seems to screen off this objection, but the fact that you put public ownership of the means of production down afterwards makes me worry about how effectively that categorization will be applied.

I don't think anything will satisfy all four categories well, but some could fit pretty well. Many cases of public ownership of the means of production are so ideologically safe that people don't even realize that they are cases of public ownership of the means of production: national parks, NASA, highways, etc. Others might be more controversial (OPEC, some airlines) but still have good reasons behind them.

I agree that world government could help solve some problems like climate change. However, there is a risk that it could become a totalitarian world government. In the past, totalitarian governments have not lasted very long because they have been outcompeted by their neighbors. However, if it were a global totalitarian government, there would be no competition, so it could become a permanent state. This is one of the significant existential risks (one that would not let humanity achieve its potential). See the book Global Catastrophic Risks for details.

Of the examples you give here, I think #1 is the best by far.

Regarding #2, I think that world government is a great idea (assuming it's a liberal, democratic world government!) but it's highly unobvious how to get there. In particular, am very skeptical about giving more power to the UN. The UN is a fundamentally undemocratic institution, both because each country has 1 vote regardless of size and because (more importantly) many countries are represented by undemocratic governments. I am not at all convinced removing the security council veto power would have positive consequences. IMHO the first step towards world government or any similar goal would be funding a research programme that will create a plan that is evidence based, nonpartisan and incremental / reversible.

Regarding #3, I am really not sure who these theorists are and why should we believe them.

Another potentially relevant cause area (although I'm not sure whether this is "systemic change" as you understand it) is reforming the education system: setting more well-defined goals, using evidence based methods, improving incentive mechanisms, educating for rationality.

Yes I think education is a big deal. Particularly early education. If you can raise people to think differently and more ethically then you are changing society at the root of its problems. Schools are considered a powerful agent of political socialization, so the way that they educate and reform children affects the values and behaviors they will have later in life. Our schools as of now preach obedience alongside individualism; I'd suggest that they should be doing the opposite of both.

Regarding #3, I am really not sure who these theorists are and why should we believe them.

Well the original strands of thought mostly came from early 19th century utopian socialists and were updated by Marx and Engels. There has been a lot of post-Marxian analysis as well.

Many of their ideas are considered insightful and useful in social science.

Well the original strands of thought mostly came from early 19th century utopian socialists and were updated by Marx and Engels. There has been a lot of post-Marxian analysis as well.

AFAICT, the strands of thought you are talking about are poorly correlated with reality. Marxist thought is largely outside of mainstream economics. They use neither studies nor mathematical models (at least they didn't in the 19th century). To the extent they are based on any evidence at all, this evidence is highly subjective interpretation of history. Finally, Marxist revolutions caused suffering and death on massive scale.

I suspect that Marxism is popular with intellectual elites for purely political reasons that have little to do with its objective intellectual merit. The same sort of elites supported Stalin and Mao in their time. To me it seems like a massive failure to update.

AFAICT, the strands of thought you are talking about are poorly correlated with reality. Marxist thought is largely outside of mainstream economics. They use neither studies nor mathematical models (at least they didn't in the 19th century).

Mainstream economics doesn't seek to answer the same questions that Marxian economics does, while much of the 19th century socialist work was very mainstream and derived from the ordinary economic thought of the time. Needless to say, modern heterodox economists use studies quite frequently.

To the extent they are based on any evidence at all, this evidence is highly subjective interpretation of history.

No, utopian socialism was supported by standard economic and utilitarian thought, whereas Marxism was derived from materialist epistemology. Later directions in socialist and communist analysis have taken various different directions.

I suspect that Marxism is popular with intellectual elites for purely political reasons that have little to do with its objective intellectual merit.

Well this doesn't look very likely, because most of the intellectual elites who seriously support and engage with Marxism have engaged with the relevant literature and find it compelling in its own right for various reasons. Conversely, we might think that people who have never seriously studied socialist or Marxist thought are likely to dismiss it for purely political reasons since they have not analyzed its objective intellectual merit.

To me it seems like a massive failure to update.

We might think that intellectual elites who engage with socialist thought or with Marxist thought differentiate between the various doctrines and directions within this ideological space and accept some ideas while rejecting others. Or we might think that the behavior of a state doesn't make all of its policies wrong: for instance, we might dispute the idea that capitalist states' rampant imperialism demonstrates that capitalism is always wrong.

Mainstream economics doesn't seek to answer the same questions that Marxian economics does...

I'm not so sure, can you spell it out in more detail? Maybe you're saying that Marxian economics is mostly prescriptivist while mainstream economics is mostly descriptivist. But then, we have welfare economics and mechanism design which are more or less mainstream and have a prescriptivist bend.

...much of the 19th century socialist work was very mainstream and derived from the ordinary economic thought of the time.

I suspect it depends on the socialist work. For example, do you think Fourier's phalanstère is derived from ordinary economic thought of the time? Or their prediction that the seas will become lemonade?

Needless to say, modern heterodox economists use studies quite frequently.

Can you recommend a good survey of studies (preferably meta analyses) supporting Marxist ideas?

To the extent they are based on any evidence at all, this evidence is highly subjective interpretation of history.

Marxism was derived from materialist epistemology.

Materialism is a school of philosophy. In what sense does it qualify as "evidence"? In any case, it seems perfectly consistent to be a materialist / physicalist and deny Marxism?

We might think that intellectual elites who engage with socialist thought or with Marxist thought differentiate between the various doctrines and directions within this ideological space and accept some ideas while rejecting others.

What reason do we have to think the opinions of these elites today are much more accurate than when they supported Stalin?

Or we might think that the behavior of a state doesn't make all of its policies wrong: for instance, we might dispute the idea that capitalist states' rampant imperialism demonstrates that capitalism is always wrong.

Yes, but virtually all communist countries were terrible virtually all of the time.

Also, I don't know what it means for capitalism to be "wrong". Capitalism is just what happens when you allow people to free exchange goods and services and enter into contracts. It might be that limiting such exchange and replacing it but something state-controlled is useful but this clearly depends on the nature of limitations and replacement. So the question is not whether capitalism is "wrong" but whether the system you are proposing instead of capitalism is an improvement.

Bottom line, the most important question is this: what evidence do we have that implementing Marxist ideas is effective or at least beneficial?

I'm not so sure, can you spell it out in more detail?

All economic systems make certain assumptions about the way wealth and society are organized, different perspectives make different assumptions and operate on different levels of analysis, so e.g. Marxists aren't concerned with computing DSGE.

I suspect it depends on the socialist work.

Yup.

Can you recommend a good survey of studies (preferably meta analyses) supporting Marxist ideas?

I don't know what that would even look like. Can you recommend me a good survey of studies (preferably meta analyses) supporting libertarian ideas? There is no such thing.

Materialism is a school of philosophy.

Materialism has many different meaningw and you are referring to something completely different. I am referring not to materialism as a theory of mind but to materialist epistemology, a method of social analysis.

What reason do we have to think the opinions of these elites today are much more accurate than when they supported Stalin?

I think most of the elites who supported Stalin are now dead. In any case this seems like a pretty strange thing to worry about, like saying we should disbelieve in evolution because of social darwinists and eugenics.

Yes, but virtually all communist countries were terrible virtually all of the time.

Not really true, and we might think that various directions in Marxism and socialism can be implemented without following the same policies that they did.

Also, I don't know what it means for capitalism to be "wrong".

Harmful, immoral, etc.

Instead of arguing with me you would probably learn more by going to serious readings such as Marx, postwar socialist theory or to communities which are specifically oriented to discuss this sort of thing, such as reddit.com/r/asksocialscience.

All economic systems make certain assumptions about the way wealth and society are organized, different perspectives make different assumptions and operate on different levels of analysis, so e.g. Marxists aren't concerned with computing DSGE.

This is a generic statement that conveys little information about Marxism in particular.

I don't know what that would even look like. Can you recommend me a good survey of studies (preferably meta analyses) supporting libertarian ideas? There is no such thing.

I never claimed that implementing libertarian ideas is effective altruism! I'm sorry but the burden of proof is on you.

Materialism has many different meaningw and you are referring to something completely different. I am referring not to materialism as a theory of mind but to materialist epistemology, a method of social analysis.

Do you have a reference for this? Googling "materialist epistemology" doesn't yield much. You claimed that "Marxism was derived from materialist epistemology", does materialist epistemology precede Marxism? What was "materialist epistemology" derived from?

I think most of the elites who supported Stalin are now dead. In any case this seems like a pretty strange thing to worry about, like saying we should disbelieve in evolution because of social darwinists and eugenics.

My point is that intellectual elites are untrustworthy about this sort of questions and we should only believe direct evidence. Reverse stupidity is not intelligence, but stupidity is also not intelligence.

Yes, but virtually all communist countries were terrible virtually all of the time.

Not really true, and we might think that various directions in Marxism and socialism can be implemented without following the same policies that they did.

Why is that not really true? Maybe they can be implemented differently or maybe implementing them differently won't help. If your theory keeps failing the experimental test despite all sorts of tweaking, maybe you should abandon it and consider a different theory.

Also, I don't know what it means for capitalism to be "wrong". Capitalism is just what happens when you allow people to free exchange goods and services and enter into contracts. It might be that limiting such exchange and replacing it but something state-controlled is useful but this clearly depends on the nature of limitations and replacement. So the question is not whether capitalism is "wrong" but whether the system you are proposing instead of capitalism is an improvement.

Harmful, immoral, etc.

It sounds like you completely ignored my explanation.

Instead of arguing with me you would probably learn more by going to serious readings such as Marx, postwar socialist theory or to communities which are specifically oriented to discuss this sort of thing, such as reddit.com/r/asksocialscience.

That is an extremely condescending comment. You came here suggesting that the EA community embraces Marxism as an effective cause. I'm asking you for supporting evidence. You refuse to provide the evidence, or even explain the nature of the evidence, suggesting that I should read whatnot before I gain the right to talk about it. If I claimed that Mahayana Buddhism is an excellent recipe to systemic change, you would be right to demand at least an outline of supporting evidence before being sent to read the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra.

This is a generic statement that conveys little information about Marxism in particular.

The relevant information about Marxism is that it views the world on different terms than through the mathematical market framework of neoclassical economics. Like I said, since I'm not an expert, I don't have that much to say and you're better off looking elsewhere if you want answers to questions like this.

I never claimed that implementing libertarian ideas is effective altruism! I'm sorry but the burden of proof is on you.

I did not mean that libertarianism had anything to do with EA. Just that asking for an empirical meta study of complex social ideologies is not the right way to approach things.

My point is that intellectual elites are untrustworthy about this sort of questions and we should only believe direct evidence.

I don't claim that you should trust intellectual elites, but just that you should see what they have to say, evaluate their arguments, etc.

Why is that not really true?

I have seen several empirical analyses by economists showing positive economic and welfare data from Soviet countries. It's a bit contentious.

Maybe they can be implemented differently or maybe implementing them differently won't help. If your theory keeps failing the experimental test despite all sorts of tweaking, maybe you should abandon it and consider a different theory.

Many types of socialism and communism have not been implemented. For instance, Marxism advocates a classless and moneyless society. The USSR was not classless and was not moneyless.

It sounds like you completely ignored my explanation.

"More harmful/immoral than socialism", or something like that. I don't see how any of this takes away from the point it started from, namely that capitalism as an economic system has its own record of brutality as well as communism.

That is an extremely condescending comment.

I did not mean it to be.

You came here suggesting that the EA community embraces Marxism as an effective cause.

I said "public ownership of the means of production", and Marxism is just one of several frameworks for doing this.

More importantly, I did not suggest that the EA community embrace it. I suggested that people look into it, see if was desirable, etc. Doing so requires serious engagement with the relevant literature and discussing it with people who can answer your questions better. If I was trying to argue for socialism or communism, of course I would be speaking much differently and with much more extensive sources and evidence.

...asking for an empirical meta study of complex social ideologies is not the right way to approach things.

What is the right way to approach things? In order to claim that certain policies will have certain consequences, you need some kind of model. In order to know that a model is useful, you need to test it against empirical data. The more broad, unusual and complex policy changes you are proposing, the more stringent standard of evidence you need to meet.

I have seen several empirical analyses by economists showing positive economic and welfare data from Soviet countries.

My family lived in the Soviet Union for its entire history. I assure you that it was a hellhole.

Many types of socialism and communism have not been implemented. For instance, Marxism advocates a classless and moneyless society. The USSR was not classless and was not moneyless.

The Khmer Rouge abolished money. Abolishing class is much harder since class can exist without formal acknowledgement in the legal system. The real question, though, is why should we think these changes are possible or desirable.

I don't see how any of this takes away from the point it started from, namely that capitalism as an economic system has its own record of brutality as well as communism.

But the two are not on equal footing. People in modern Western-style democracies (which are all capitalist) enjoy personal freedom and quality of life unrivaled in the entire history of the human race. On the other hand, virtually all attempts to implement communism lead to disaster. So, although it is theoretically possible that some implementation of communism is superior, there is a very high burden of proof involved.

I said "public ownership of the means of production", and Marxism is just one of several frameworks for doing this.

Well, Marxism was your justification for it.

More importantly, I did not suggest that the EA community embrace it. I suggested that people look into it, see if was desirable, etc. Doing so requires serious engagement with the relevant literature and discussing it with people who can answer your questions better. If I was trying to argue for socialism or communism, of course I would be speaking much differently and with much more extensive sources and evidence.

In this case, I suggest formulating a much broader objective e.g. "alternative systems of government / economics". This might be communism, might be anarcho-capitalism, might be something else altogether. IMO, the best strategy is moving one level of "meta" up. Instead of promoting a specific political ideology, let's fund promising research into theoretical tools that enable evaluating policy proposals or government systems.

What is the right way to approach things?

By combining insights from sociology, history, economics, and other domains. For instance, materialist epistemology is a method of analysis that draws upon sociology and history to understand economic developments.

In order to know that a model is useful, you need to test it against empirical data.

Sure, but not everything that counts as empirical data can be fit into a regression table and subjected to meta-analysis.

My family lived in the Soviet Union for its entire history. I assure you that it was a hellhole.

And mine lived in Romania, but I'm not sure that this is the most reliable form of empirical data.

The Khmer Rouge abolished money.

Yes. They also killed a quarter of their population. So whether or not their economy succeeded seems to be more strongly governed by other factors.

Abolishing class is much harder since class can exist without formal acknowledgement in the legal system.

Yes, well class in the Marxist definition is about the distinction between capital owners and laborers, which is a bit different from how it's used in other contexts.

The real question, though, is why should we think these changes are possible or desirable.

We might think that inequality of wealth is bad as it allocates goods to those who can afford them rather than those who need them; we might think that capitalist markets lead to tragedies of the commons which exacerbate resource shortages and existential risks; we might think that unequal distribution of power in society corrupts politics.

People in modern Western-style democracies (which are all capitalist) enjoy personal freedom and quality of life unrivaled in the entire history of the human race. On the other hand, virtually all attempts to implement communism lead to disaster.

This is not really a good comparison, given many cases of success in socialist and communist economies (such as Cuba, which roundly beats other Latin American countries in human development standards) and many failures in capitalist economies (such as the widespread economic disaster which followed the end of the Soviet system). But again, I am not an expert here, so if you want to learn more then I'd suggest looking elsewhere.

Well, Marxism was your justification for it.

I'm not sure what you're trying to say. My justification for saying "public ownership of the means of production" was that was that many of the people who give serious thought and attention to the idea of public ownership of the means of production are in favor it. Some of those people are Marxists.

In this case, I suggest formulating a much broader objective e.g. "alternative systems of government / economics". This might be communism, might be anarcho-capitalism, might be something else altogether. IMO, the best strategy is moving one level of "meta" up. Instead of promoting a specific political ideology, let's fund promising research into theoretical tools that enable evaluating policy proposals or government systems.

That sounds great too.

What is the right way to approach things?

By combining insights from sociology, history, economics, and other domains. For instance, materialist epistemology is a method of analysis that draws upon sociology and history to understand economic developments.

You still haven't provided a reference for "materialist epistemology".

Anyone can claim to "combine insights" from anything. In fact, most political ideologies claim such insights, nevertheless reaching different, sometimes diametrically opposite, conclusions.

Sure, but not everything that counts as empirical data can be fit into a regression table and subjected to meta-analysis.

If you're proposing to overhaul the entire system of government and economics, at the very least I expect you to provide objective, quantitative evidence. This is what effective altruism is about: doing good using evidence based methods.

The Khmer Rouge abolished money.

Yes. They also killed a quarter of their population. So whether or not their economy succeeded seems to be more strongly governed by other factors.

There is remarkable correlation between communism and killing / imprisoning large numbers of innocent people. It is unlikely to be a coincidence.

Yes, well class in the Marxist definition is about the distinction between capital owners and laborers, which is a bit different from how it's used in other contexts.

In this case the USSR had no class since there were no capital owners.

We might think that inequality of wealth is bad as it allocates goods to those who can afford them rather than those who need them; we might think that capitalist markets lead to tragedies of the commons which exacerbate resource shortages and existential risks; we might think that unequal distribution of power in society corrupts politics.

Alternatively, we might think that markets are good since they create incentives for productivity and innovation; since they make sure decisions in the economy are made in a distributed way, not prone to a single point of failure; since this distributed way naturally assigns more weight to people who have proven themselves to be competent. We might think that tragedies of the commons can be solved by controlling market incentives through taxation and regulation; that there is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater by destroying the entire market.

All of this is speculation.

People in modern Western-style democracies (which are all capitalist) enjoy personal freedom and quality of life unrivaled in the entire history of the human race. On the other hand, virtually all attempts to implement communism lead to disaster.

This is not really a good comparison, given many cases of success in socialist and communist economies (such as Cuba, which roundly beats other Latin American countries in human development standards) and many failures in capitalist economies (such as the widespread economic disaster which followed the end of the Soviet system).

Cuba is still a dictatorship with a track record of human right violations. I wouldn't want to live there. My point is that Western-style capitalist democracy is the most successful model of government we know, and there is a high burden of proof for claiming some alternative is better.

You still haven't provided a reference for "materialist epistemology".

I would say this is a good essay: https://www.marxists.org/archive/fromm/works/1961/man/ch02.htm

If you're proposing to overhaul the entire system of government and economics, at the very least I expect you to provide objective, quantitative evidence.

You might expect me to provide reasons, or arguments, or historical examples, or other kinds of objective evidence. Those are very valuable, and if you're looking for them I would recommend you consult the relevant literature and communities which specialize in providing them.

What you certainly shouldn't expect is that everything be quantitative, or that everything be condensed into a meta-analysis that you can look at really quickly to save you the trouble of engaging with complicated and complex social and political issues. Sociopolitical systems are too complicated for that, which is why people who study political science and international relations do not condense everything into quantitative evidence. Quantitative evidence can certainly enter into a broader debate, and socialists and marxists cite all kinds of quantitative evidence in various contexts, but the discussion we're having is too vague and ambiguous for any particular statistic to be appropriate to bring up.

This is what effective altruism is about: doing good using evidence based methods.

A singleminded emphasis on statistics is absolutely not what effective altruism is about. There are no meta-analyses citing data about the frequency of above-human-intelligence machines being badly aligned with values; there are no studies which quantify the sentience of cows and chickens; there are no regression tables showing whether the value of creating an active social movement is worth the expense. And yet we concern ourselves with those things anyway.

There is remarkable correlation between communism and killing / imprisoning large numbers of innocent people. It is unlikely to be a coincidence.

If you intend to go by quantitative data then I would suggest avoiding cases with a <10 sample size and I would also suggest correcting for significant confounding variables such as "dictatorship".

In this case the USSR had no class since there were no capital owners.

Not entirely - the USSR's economy was complicated and changed significantly throughout the decades. The more general point of course is that the USSR did not succeed in abolishing political class.

Alternatively, we might think that markets are good since they create incentives for productivity and innovation; since they make sure decisions in the economy are made in a distributed way, not prone to a single point of failure; since this distributed way naturally assigns more weight to people who have proven themselves to be competent. We might think that tragedies of the commons can be solved by controlling market incentives through taxation and regulation; that there is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater by destroying the entire market.

We might, but as I said above, many of the people who seriously engage with the relevant literature find these concerns to be small and other concerns to be large, for various reasons.

All of this is speculation.

Of course not, there are plenty of arguments and literature examining these issues very carefully and closely.

Cuba is still a dictatorship with a track record of human right violations.

Cuba's human rights record is not any worse than that of other Latin American countries, but regardless, I don't think anyone here is arguing for dictatorships or for human rights violations.

My point is that Western-style capitalist democracy is the most successful model of government we know,

The West has been successful, yes, but it's not clear how successful it's been in distributing its goods fairly and the extent to which its rise was due to exploitation of other countries.

there is a high burden of proof for claiming some alternative is better.

There is a high standard of evidence whenever large ideas are discussed, but there's certainly no disproportionate 'burden of proof' to be placed against non capitalist ideas which haven't been tried or the non capitalist ideas which actually have been tried and have been quite successful in their own contexts.

Also, don't misread me as saying "Communist countries worked so we should look into communism." I'm better interpreted as saying "lots of people from different perspectives have traced serious problems to the private ownership of the means of production, so we should look at the various ways to change that."

You still haven't provided a reference for "materialist epistemology".

I would say this is a good essay: https://www.marxists.org/archive/fromm/works/1961/man/ch02.htm

So, "historical materialism" is some collection of vague philosophical ideas by Marx. Previously, you replied to my claim that "to the extent they [utopian socialism and Marxism] are based on any evidence at all, this evidence is highly subjective interpretation of history" by saying that "Marxism was derived from materialist epistemology". This is extremely misleading to say that Marxism was derived from something when that something is itself an invention of Marx! To say that historical materialism is "evidence" for Marxism is to deprive to word "evidence" of all meaning. Evidence is not just something someone says that they claim justifies something else they say. Evidence is (by definition) objective, something that all participants in the conversation will agree upon given a minimal standard of intellectual honesty. If you honestly think "historical materialism" is an objective truth that everyone are obliged to accept (even if we assumed it is well defined at all, which it probably isn't), then I see no point in continuing this conversation.

What you certainly shouldn't expect is that everything be quantitative, or that everything be condensed into a meta-analysis that you can look at really quickly to save you the trouble of engaging with complicated and complex social and political issues. Sociopolitical systems are too complicated for that, which is why people who study political science and international relations do not condense everything into quantitative evidence.

Quantitative does not imply "you can look at it really quickly". Quantum field theory is very quantitative but I really want to meet someone who understood it by "looking at it really quickly." On the other hand, when something meets a high epistemic standard it makes it more worthwhile to spend time looking at it.

"Sociopolitical systems are complicated" does not imply "we should treat weak evidence as if it is strong evidence". If a question is so complicated that you cannot find any strong evidence to support an answer, it means that you should have low confidence in any answer that you can find. In other words, you should assign high probability to this answer being wrong. If some field of social sciences fails to provide strong evidence for its claims, this only means we should assign low confidence to its conclusions.

A singleminded emphasis on statistics is absolutely not what effective altruism is about. There are no meta-analyses citing data about the frequency of above-human-intelligence machines being badly aligned with values; there are no studies which quantify the sentience of cows and chickens; there are no regression tables showing whether the value of creating an active social movement is worth the expense. And yet we concern ourselves with those things anyway.

Yes, but you are ignoring two important considerations.

One is that e.g. becoming vegetarian will not cause a catastrophe if it turns outs that animals lack consciousness. On the other hand, a communist revolution will (and did) cause a catastrophe if our assumptions about its consequences are misguided.

The other is that the claim that a random AI is not aligned with human values is an "antiprediction". That is, a low information prior should not assign high probability to our values among all possible values. Therefore, the burden of proof is on the claim that the AI will be aligned. On the other hand, Marxist theories make complicated detailed claims about complicated detailed social systems. Such a claim is very far from the prior and strong evidence is required to justify it.

If you intend to go by quantitative data then I would suggest avoiding cases with a <10 sample size and I would also suggest correcting for significant confounding variables such as "dictatorship".

I'm not saying we have a lot of data. I'm saying we don't have much data but the data we do have points in the opposite direction. Regarding dictatorship, my hypothesis is that there is a causal link communism->dictatorship, so it is hardly a confounder.

In this case the USSR had no class since there were no capital owners.

Not entirely - the USSR's economy was complicated and changed significantly throughout the decades. The more general point of course is that the USSR did not succeed in abolishing political class.

You claimed USSR didn't abolish class. I said that abolishing class is hard because "class" can exist without being coded into law. You replied by saying "class" only refers to capital owners. Now you revert to the definition I assumed.

We might, but as I said above, many of the people who seriously engage with the relevant literature find these concerns to be small and other concerns to be large, for various reasons.

And many of "the people who seriously engage" reach the diametrically opposite conclusion.

The West has been successful, yes, but it's not clear how successful it's been in distributing its goods fairly and the extent to which its rise was due to exploitation of other countries.

I'm not sure what "fairly" means or why it should be ranked so high in importance. "Exploitation" is also a word that is used so often that its meaning became diluted (I also suspect that if all countries were liberal democracies it would be a win-win for almost everyone). If "fairness" is the main argument in favor of communist systems, then from my perspective it is paperclip maximization and there is no point in discussing it further.

There is a high standard of evidence whenever large ideas are discussed, but there's certainly no disproportionate 'burden of proof' to be placed against non capitalist ideas which haven't been tried or the non capitalist ideas which actually have been tried and have been quite successful in their own contexts.

There is is very high burden of proof for any policy proposal with potentially catastrophic consequences. The existing system (in Western-style democracies), with all its shortcomings, already underwent significant optimization and is pretty good compared to most alternatives. You can only risk destroying it if you have very strong evidence that the risk is negligible wrt the gains.

Also, don't misread me as saying "Communist countries worked so we should look into communism." I'm better interpreted as saying "lots of people from different perspectives have traced serious problems to the private ownership of the means of production, so we should look at the various ways to change that."

Yeah, and other people traced serious problems to other things like "the state exists and imposes regulation on the market" (for the record, I suspect that both groups are wrong). Let's not privilege the hypothesis.

So, "historical materialism" is some collection of vague philosophical ideas by Marx.

I'm not sure how to respond to a statement this dismissive, but for what it's worth, effective altruism is based on 'vague philosophical ideas', as are neoliberalism and all sorts of other ideologies, and if you want to be rational about the matter then you might want to start by taking ideas in philosophy seriously.

Previously, you replied to my claim that "to the extent they [utopian socialism and Marxism] are based on any evidence at all, this evidence is highly subjective interpretation of history" by saying that "Marxism was derived from materialist epistemology". This is extremely misleading to say that Marxism was derived from something when that something is itself an invention of Marx!

I don't understand what you are complaining about. Suppose I asked "what objective evidence is there that Givewell recommends good charities?" And you replied, "well, they recommend the ones that are best rated by their analysis method." And I said, "This is extremely misleading to say that charities' ratings are derived from something when that something is itself an invention of Givewell!" Clearly, such complaints are silly.

To say that historical materialism is "evidence" for Marxism is to deprive to word "evidence" of all meaning.

Except I didn't say that the mere existence of historical materialism was evidence for Marxism. I said that analysis conducted through the lens of historical materialism provided evidence for Marx's theories.

If you honestly think "historical materialism" is an objective truth that everyone are obliged to accept (even if we assumed it is well defined at all, which it probably isn't), then I see no point in continuing this conversation.

I'm not sure what point you could see in continuing this conversation either way, since you clearly aren't armed with any claims which haven't already been repeated and answered over and over in the most basic of arguments over socialism and Marxist philosophy, so you can't possibly be trying to convince me, and because I've already stated that I'm far from the most helpful or informed authority on socialism and Marxist philosophy, so you can't possibly be trying to learn or have your arguments answered.

Quantitative does not imply "you can look at it really quickly".

Sure, that was a snide remark.

"Sociopolitical systems are complicated" does not imply "we should treat weak evidence as if it is strong evidence".

I didn't say we should.

If a question is so complicated that you cannot find any strong evidence to support an answer,

There is strong evidence for it. It's just not quantitative.

One is that e.g. becoming vegetarian will not cause a catastrophe if it turns outs that animals lack consciousness. On the other hand, a communist revolution will (and did) cause a catastrophe if our assumptions about its consequences are misguided.

No, the 'catastrophes' of communist revolutions were due to totalitarian governments and food shortages. We might think that placing the means of production in public control would not result in a totalitarian government nor would it result in a food shortage, primarily because both of those things are generally implausible in modern contexts and secondarily because the only evidence you have provided for public ownership of the means of production leading to catastrophe is a very poor statistical analysis you ran in the back of your head about a very few countries conducting a flawed attempt of a very particular mode of Marxist-Leninist socialism.

On the other hand, Marxist theories make complicated detailed claims about complicated detailed social systems. Such a claim is very far from the prior and strong evidence is required to justify it.

This is not true for Marxism any more than it is true for other social theories or arguments negating Marxism, so it doesn't tell us anything about whether Marxism should have a weak prior. In any case, usually in philosophy and sociology, scholars go straight to arguments and evidence about the theories themselves, because they're much stronger and much more objective than haggling over ill-defined priors. It's strange that you recoil at the idea of sociological analysis that doesn't seem objective when you are explicitly relying upon subjective Bayesian epistemology.

I'm not saying we have a lot of data. I'm saying we don't have much data but the data we do have points in the opposite direction.

Except it doesn't. There have been many cases of public ownership of the means of production having positive results, and there have been countless cases of private ownership of the means of production resulting in abominable crimes to humanity.

Regarding dictatorship, my hypothesis is that there is a causal link communism->dictatorship, so it is hardly a confounder.

And the hypothesis is a poor one. First because it's not very relevant, as the bulk of postwar socialist theory (and practice) in the West has involved democratic or other means of implementation which don't involve dictators. Second because several Marxist countries in the twentieth century, such as Chile, have had democratically elected governments (in Chile's case, one which was replaced by a capitalist dictator).

And many of "the people who seriously engage" reach the diametrically opposite conclusion.

Right. Which is why you won't catch me making sweeping claims that one side or the other is all wrong without engaging with the relevant literature. You will catch me taking scholars and theorists on both sides seriously, because that is the rational approach when informed people reach opposite conclusions.

I'm not sure what "fairly" means or why it should be ranked so high in importance.

Generally we take "fairness" to mean "equal" or "egalitarian" in some way: for instance, if 80% of the wealth were controlled by 20% of the population, that would be an "unfair" distribution of wealth. The primary, but far from only, reason this is important is that those who are impoverished derive much more utility from additional wealth than the wealthy do.

"Exploitation" is also a word that is used so often that its meaning became diluted

Exploitation has a very precise meaning in Marxist theory.

If the terms I used aren't clear enough, I can rephrase the point: "it's not clear that the fact that the West became rich over the last few centuries is something that speaks well to the goodness of capitalism, or if the only reason that the West is rich is because it systematically enslaved, raped and stole from the other three-quarters of the world, much of which is still recovering from the social and economic disasters caused by the West. So we're not sure just how good capitalism is on balance for the world as a whole, especially in comparison to alternatives."

The existing system (in Western-style democracies), with all its shortcomings, already underwent significant optimization and is pretty good compared to most alternatives.

I'm not sure why you keep talking about Western-style democracy, because the point of discussion here is whether the means of production should be privately or publicly controlled, which is a different issue. The issue here is capitalism, which often considered to not be good at all compared to many alternatives.

Yeah, and other people traced serious problems to other things like "the state exists and imposes regulation on the market" (for the record, I suspect that both groups are wrong).

And suspicion seems to be all that you have. In any case, socialism generally has a much stronger following in academia than Austrian libertarianism.

I'm not sure what point you could see in continuing this conversation either way, since you clearly aren't armed with any claims which haven't already been repeated and answered over and over in the most basic of arguments over socialism and Marxist philosophy...

Indeed I no longer see any point, given that you now reduced yourself to insults. Adieu.

It's not an insult if it's true. You clearly have no background knowledge or expertise in any of this, but you decided to argue with me, despite me repeatedly telling you that there are better places for you to learn. Don't get offended when you get called out on it.

I agree that EAs should pay more attention to systemic risk. Aside from exerting indirect influence on many concrete problems, it is also one of the few methods available to combat the threat of unknown risks (or equivalently increase our ability to capitalize on unknown opportunities). Achieving positive systemic change may also be more sustainable than relying on philanthropy.

In particular, I like the global governance example as a cause. This can be seen as improving the collective intelligence of humanity, and increasing the level of societal welfare we are able to achieve. Certain global public goods are simply not addressed, even despite much fanfare in the case of carbon emission abatement. Better global governance would thus create new possibilities for our species.

A full-fledged world government might be the endgame, but in the meantime small advances might be made to existing institutions like the UN and the EU, as you suggest. Unfortunately this can be very difficult; removing veto power in the UN Security Council is a case in point. Fundamentally, any advance on this front requires countries to sacrifice part of their own sovereignty, which seldom feels comfortable. But fortunately the general trend since WWII has been towards more global coordination, the recent visible setback of Brexit notwithstanding. My personal belief is that any acceleration of this trend could have huge positive consequences.

I agree that systematic change should be given more thought in EA, but there's a very specific problem that I think we need to tackle before we can do this seriously: a lot of the tools and mindsets in EA are inadequate for dealing with systematic change.

To explain what I mean, I want to quickly make reference to a chart that Caroline Fiennes uses in her book. Essentially, you can think of work on social issues as a sort of 'pyramid'. At the top of the pyramid you have very direct work (deworming, bed nets, cash transfers, etc.). This work is comparably very certain to work, and you can fairly easily attribute changes in outcomes to these programs. However, the returns are small - you only help those who you directly work with. As you go down the pyramid, you start to consider programs that focus on communities... then those that focus on changing larger policy and practice ... then changing attitudes and norms (or some types of systematic change) ... and eventually you get to things like existential risks. As you go down the pyramid, you get greater returns to scope (can impact a lot more people), but it becomes a lot more uncertain that you will have an impact, and it also becomes very hard to attribute change in any outcome to an program.

My worry is that the tools that the EA movement relies on were created with the top of the pyramid in mind - the main forms of causal research, cost effectiveness analysis, and so on that we rely on were not built with the bottom or even middle of the pyramid. Yes, members of EA have gotten very good at trying to apply these tools to the bottom and middle, but it can get a bit screwy very quickly (as someone with an econ background, I shudder whenever someone uses econ tools to try and forecast the cost effectiveness of X-risk reduction activities - it's like trying to peel a potato while blindfolded using a pencil: it's not what the pencil was made for, and even though it is technically possible I'll be damned if the blindfolded person actually has a clue if it's working or not).

We should definitely keep our commitment to these tools, but if we want to be rigorous about exploring systematic risks, we should probably start by figuring out how to expand our toolbox in order to address these issues as rigorously as possible (and, importantly, to figure out when exactly our current tools are insufficient! We already have these for a lot of our tools - basically assumptions that, when broken, break the tool - but I haven't seen people rigorously consulting them!). I'm sure that a lot of us have in mind some very clear ideas of how we can/should rigorously prioritize and evaluate various systematic risks - but I'm pretty sure we have as many opinions as we have people. We need to get on the same page first, which is why I'd suggest that we work on figuring out some basic standards and tools for moving forward, then going from there. Expanding our toolkit is key, though - perhaps someone should look into other disciplines that could help out? I'd do it, but I'm lazy and tired and probably would make a hash of it anyway.

"I'd do it, but I'm lazy and tired and probably would make a hash of it anyway." - you seem rather knowledgeable, so I doubt that. I've heard it said that the perfect is the enemy of the good and a top level approach that was maybe twice the size of the above comment and which just provided an extremely basic overview would be a great place to start and would encourage further investigation by other people.

I like the desideratum. :)

There does seem to be a lot of potential good in improving governments, just by the sheer math of it. However, I am generally worried when I see EAs engaging in politics. It seems a good majority of us are left-leaning, and I wonder if that may bias people towards suboptimal policy positions. If we undertake reform of governance, it is important that we should strive to critically question our beliefs lest we fall prey to unexamined political assumptions that we adopted because our filter bubble of friends had them. Examples 2 and even moreso 3 struck me as things with political charge.

One way to combat this is striving for intellectual and sociocultural diversity - this would help with the robustness value. We shouldn't just talk to Western educated left-leaning white secular elites who agree with us. This probably applies to all of EA as well, but particularly it seems like something to beware of when it involves anything political, especially anything international in scope.

I am uncertain how much stock I should put in my intuitions here. My priors are that people of all stripes seem to easily get funny in the head about these subjects, and therefore caution is warranted. On the other hand, we're talking about a lot of resources on the line, and the fact that we (as far as I'm aware) don't seem to have good knowledge about the area, suggests this is a neglected topic worthy of further research.

Here are some numbers on government spending. It's big.

I am generally worried when I see EAs engaging in politics.

I think my primary issue here is that I don't think that left vs right is a very important divide for effectively-altruistic political decisionmaking. Aside from there being at least some good ideas on both sides, it seems like the weeds of policy are much different and more pragmatic in nature than what gets highlighted on national TV.

One way to combat this is striving for intellectual and sociocultural diversity - this would help with the robustness value. We shouldn't just talk to Western educated left-leaning white secular elites who agree with us.

I haven't looked into this closely, but I suspect that there is a fundamental barrier here in that people who are not Western educated white secular elites (or who are not at least two or three out of the above five) are much more likely to implicitly or explicitly disagree on assumptions which are core to EA. I don't mean it in a "they have unique and interesting perspectives on how to change the world" kind of way, I mean it in "they actually don't think the world has a list of problems to be solved in order from objectively severe to objectively minor" and "they're not comfortable using quantification or subjective probabilities to measure and bound our expectations for improving the world" and "they don't believe in weighting opinions based on the scientific strength of evidence" sorts of ways. If you are stuck to those perspectives (which are also present among plenty of Western educated white secular elites of course) then there's less that you can say which is obviously valuable. Maybe we can talk about which methodological and ethical assumptions are actually true, but I think most of us are reasonably and rightfully confidently in our own.

Essentially, what I'm saying is that the EA mission rests on decent methodological and ethical assumptions over and above the mere mantra of 'doing as much good as you can', so there's less room than people realize for alternative perspectives to add ideas. I think the intellectual diversity we have is actually fairly decent given this constraint. Not that more diversity isn't better, of course.

Here are some numbers on government spending. It's big.

Yes. All other things being equal, it is easier to take public money and turn it into other kinds of public money than it is to fight over it in the private sector and then donate it.