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:
- Running for elected office personally (at any level, but especially locally, where elections often seriously fail to attract quality candidates);
- Being involved as a member of a political party; or
- 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?