Why are party politics not an EA priority?

by Chantal4 min read2nd Jan 202112 comments

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Hello everyone. I’m new to the forum but not to EA. In my own personal efforts to use my time, money, and skills as effectively for good as possible, I have increasingly gravitated towards engaging in party politics, and I’m curious why this is not discussed more as an EA priority. 

It’s something I see in the margins, but rarely discussed directly. For example Rob Wiblin has an excellent article about the value of voting in democratic elections. If you follow the GiveWell blog, staff members often refer to a portion of their personal donations being spent on political campaigns. 

In certain particular cause areas the connection also seems obvious, if not explicit. The long-termist concern with good governance and international stability is surely, at its core, a question of politics. If a civil servant has the potential to make radical positive change in the course of their career, surely elected officials who set that person’s agenda and budget do too. Other cause areas like climate change might be labelled as not particularly tractable, whereas one might argue that the place to gain traction is inside political systems. 

In fact so many of the cause areas we discuss are, at heart, political issues that will ultimately be determined or at least heavily impacted, in democratic countries, by elected officials.

It strikes me that a person with the right skill set could have an incredibly outsized impact in any of the following:

  1. Running for elected office personally (at any level, but especially locally, where elections often seriously fail to attract quality candidates);
  2. Being involved as a member of a political party; or
  3. Supporting someone else’s political campaign, either through directly working with that campaign, or simply by supporting it as a voter and volunteer. 

 

I would posit that not only is elected office often the critical lynchpin in achieving policy and governance gains in a democratic society, but it may also be the mostly desperately “talent constrained.”

Most classic EA career paths are extremely competitive (as they should be), and it’s difficult to find genuinely valuable ways to volunteer time. Charity is of course extremely important, but for many of the most pressing problems facing humanity, there is a limit to what philanthropic dollars can (or probably should) achieve without political progress.

In contrast, my instinct is that the three ideas I’ve outlined above could potentially absorb as much energy as any individual EA would be willing to give them, without necessarily displacing much. I am speaking from my own experience, and of course the opportunities will differ for each office, party, or campaign.  

 

A couple of objections that I can think of are:

(1) Politics is miserable

Certainly party politics often involves a lot of group loyalty and dogma, and hasn’t traditionally exhibited a lot of EA values. A lot of time might be spent on building influence and reputation, and working on things that aren’t EA priorities. Building and gathering support and consensus among large groups of people is extremely difficult and often fails, and compromise is almost always necessary. 

These are true difficulties, and might be good reasons why many individual EAs may be unsuited to this path. But I would think that the comparative absence of EA values in an area that is so fundamentally critical to achieving EA outcomes would make work in this area all the more important for those who can do well. I’m also not aware of any better alternative to democratic governance, so the immense difficulties and frustrations of working in politics don’t seem to be a valid reason to ignore it as a critical area. 

 

(2) We marginalize ourselves

Politics and political views are so much wider than EA, and I doubt we constitute a homogenous voting block. So, I can definitely see the danger in suggesting that any individual candidate is an “EA candidate” or that EA should align with any particular candidate in any particular election. That would unnecessarily narrow the scope of the community. But I think it should be possible to discuss the value and need for work in the political sphere without going down that path. 

For example, and for full disclosure, I am a member of a political party in my country that falls on the left-hand side of the spectrum. I’ll advocate that other like-minded EAs should join me, but maybe even more exciting to me would be if EA-minded individuals who identify more to the right or the center got similarly engaged in other parties. Reasonable people disagree on all kinds of points for all kinds of reasons, but if political parties across the spectrum had more active participants advocating for effective altruist values and engaging in the kind of open and respectful dialogue I see here, I think most democratic systems would be a lot healthier for it.

 

Are there other objections that I’m missing? Am I wrong in considering political action to be as critical and to have as much potential as I think it does? Is my sneaking suspicion that a lot of people here actually are highly politically engaged correct, and for those of you who are politically engaged in your country/community, do you see it through an EA lens or is it something else entirely?

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This is a really good question! I'm glad you shared this argument, opened with a sense of curiosity, and included some potential objections (I think both of yours have merit, but don't tell the whole story).

There's been quite a bit of discussion on this. I'll link some resources below, but I think the major issue here is practical -- running for office is very difficult, and typically requires a lot of preparation and investment into a single person. 

An EA-aligned person who decides to run for their national government may have to succeed in several different low-probability contests to get there, and they'll face stiff opposition. By comparison, most EA causes involve working in areas where there isn't active opposition, and people won't invest more and more resources to counter your efforts the harder you work. 

Of course, EA works on some political issues where active opposition exists -- most notably animal welfare, but also policy around housing, climate change, foreign aid, etc. I'd guess that many of the most politically-minded EA people go into fields where they can advocate for specific policy change, rather than focusing on getting elected. 

Being elected could make certain types of policy change a lot easier (though note that a single rookie Congressperson often can't do much), but policy work is more flexible, more resilient to a single bad election, etc. It doesn't seem obviously wrong to focus on policy change over party politics.

That said, if we do want EA-friendly candidates in office, there are ways to pursue this aside from getting a specific person elected:

  • Make EA-related ideas popular in elite spaces: Most of the top universities in the U.S. and Europe (and many other schools and cities worldwide) have local EA groups. People from those places are more likely to become elected officials. Even if a given Congressperson wasn't a member of such a group, they might have friends or past colleagues who were, and they may be positively inclined toward advice that lines up with EA principles.
  • Make EA more prominent in popular culture: How many future politicians listen to the Sam Harris podcast? How many of them read the Economist? How many read Vox and see Kelsey Piper's articles from time to time? How many will play Baba Is You and see the Giving What We Can advertisement featured in the game?

Of course, these are indirect effects, and the most likely way to get someone into office is to work directly on party politics. But I'm not sure that has the highest expected impact on politics, overall.

A few more links on EA + party politics/direct political action:

Thank you for the resources and insightful comments! I pretty much agree with all of that.

If we're talking US Congress, then I also definitely agree that's super difficult and a huge investment. While it'll be relevant for some, maybe the more useful examples would be running for local office, getting involved in some of the organisations that work on primary challenges, or simply supporting the best candidate for office (with money and volunteer time) when elections do come around (looking at you Georgia). 

Also for context, my family are American but I'm actually a New Zealand citizen and we have proportional representation which does make the national-level politics a very different beast.

I think EA-aligned people could probably learn a lot by running for local office, and I'd be enthusiastic to see more people try it (depending on the strength of their other opportunities).

One difficulty is that it often pays quite badly; one highly engaged community member was a state representative in New Hampshire, but eventually had to quit because the job was effectively unpaid and took a lot of time. She's running an AMA on the Forum soon -- keep an eye out, as you may want to ask her some questions!

eventually had to quit because the job was effectively unpaid

That's interesting - I've seen it argued that we should massively increase pay for MPs etc. in order to attract higher quality candidates. At the moment the pay and quality of life are both significantly worse than decent candidates could get by being e.g. an executive at a medium sized firm, and perhaps as a result many MPs are just not that bright. In contrast Singapore pays very highly and has a reputation for high competency. 

Wow, thank you! I especially appreciate the handbook, it expresses a lot of my thoughts much better than I could have. 

It also made me realise that I didn't express the point you make in the very first section although it's kind of critical to my feeling that there's so much opportunity here - ie that politics is sort of unique in that it calls for mass engagement, and there are so many opportunities to be involved just as a citizen (or group of citizens) without necessarily making it your profession or becoming some kind of expert. Which is not generally often true in other spheres (eg charity) in my opinion. 

Great point to raise, Chantal. I am questioning this myself for many years, which led to joining a party ten years ago and trying it out. By now I know people who are/were in the national or local government and my conclusion is very short:
In the vast majority of important political decisions I see that the politicians follow the changes in the society - they rarely lead them (speaking from a European perspective).
So I believe now in changing aspects through EA will be the efficient way (also because of your point 1, which is indeed very frustrating), but this realisation is personal depending also on my skill set, so for others it might be the right way and all societies need good politicians, not only the EA community.

"In the vast majority of important political decisions I see that the politicians follow the changes in the society - they rarely lead them [...]."

This is a widely-expressed sentiment, but I think it is not true. There are many examples of politicians taking (often momentous) decisions which are out of step with public opinion. E.g:

  • UK politicians abolishing the death penalty in 1965, despite clear public opposition. (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-32061822)
  • The UK government hitting the 0.7% aid target for many years, despite  opinion polling showing that a majority of the public opposed this 
  • Tony Blair taking the decision to commit British troops to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, despite widespread public opposition (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2003/jan/21/uk.iraq2)
  • (More extremely, and in a very different context, Adolf Hitler abolishing liberal democracy  having won just 33pc of the vote in the November 1932 elections.)

The idea that politicians merely follow broader societal trends and public opinion is not true. They often act counter to these trends. And they often, themselves, help to shape these trends (eg, perhaps, civil partnerships and same-sex marriage in the UK).

There is plenty of space for politicians to take high-stakes decisions based on their own conscience and values - decisions which often lead or even defy  public opinion. For good or ill, politics offers leverage  for impact-minded individuals. 

I agree. On the same note I really enjoyed Dylan Matthews' article about George W. Bush's PEPFAR program, apparently pursued somewhat independently by Bush: https://www.vox.com/2015/7/8/8894019/george-w-bush-pepfar 

I work in Democratic data analytics in the US and I agree that there's potentially a lot of value to EAs getting involved in the partisan side rather than just the civil service side to advance EA causes. If anyone is interested in becoming more involved in US politics, I'd love to talk to them. You can shoot me a message.