There is an optimization problem within Effective Altruism. The EA movement was born out of the use of data and analysis to optimize charitable giving. This was a magnificent step for the world of humanitarian impact. Yet by focusing on charitable giving, we have neglected other means of making an impact. The EA movement should be examining the question of how to optimize charitable resources to maximize a world that minimizes suffering (…we can workshop that mission statement).
I have long felt that one of the most impactful yet neglected areas in the EA movement is systemic change through political advocacy. This is an important lever for us to consider.
What does high impact, low cost (I.e. “effective”) political advocacy look like?
One of my favorite models for advancing systemic change comes from another form of systemic change: corporate engagement. The Humane League (THL) has demonstrated how powerful it can be when leveraging consumer voices to create demand for corporate action. In this model, THL mobilizes large numbers of volunteers to take small actions that pressure industry for systemic change. The THL campaigns cost nothing of the volunteers but a couple of minutes to send an email or post a comment on social media.
There is a similar process in politics; it is called building political will. For changes to the status quo, politicians need to know that they have their constituents’ support, that the political gain outweighs the cost. Coordinating the voice of voters is a powerful policy intervention.
For many EAs, the time needed to follow politics is too high to make activism worthwhile. Fortunately, a small but growing number of EAs are honing their skills around political advocacy.
- Kyle Bogosian’s blog Happiness Politics captures the important role and impact that EAs can make through politics.
- In 2015 there was a project in the EA DC chapter to analyze high impact + neglected regulations that EAs could weigh in on.
- Groups like Guarding Against Pandemics, The Good Food Institute, and my own group DC Voters for Animals are leveraging political advocacy to advance their cause areas.
- There are EAs working within government to increase the impact of federal dollars on improving the state of the world, and EA aligned candidates are even popping up in the political process.
By leveraging the expertise of EA’s political pundits to identify policy opportunities that are neglected, important, and tractable, EA supporters can help move these forward in their respective jurisdiction without sacrificing much time or resources. By emulating corporate engagement models from orgs like THL, we can introduce policy interventions that complement and magnify work being done in various cause areas.
A key tenet of THL’s model is starting small. If calling for changes in welfare for chickens, you do not start with McDonalds. THL would start with the small businesses and work your way up, until you can demonstrate that enough of McDonalds’ peers have adopted the policy that it would be an aberration for even the biggest players to have lower welfare standards. These conditions are the same in politics. Local level politics can pave the way for state, which can pave the way for federal and international. We would not want to start a novel intervention at the federal level. Instead, we can start small. Looking at fur bans, for example, first three cities in California passed fur sales bans. That list has grown to nearly a dozen cities, as well as the state of California and the entire country of Israel. One can imagine that that list will continue to expand.
What does low cost, high impact action look like in politics?
There are several ways to engage government officials. Of course, traditional lobbying and campaign donations are high leverage, but they are not the only way to move your issue forward. Contact from constituents is key. This can be mobilizing support through calls and emails (personalized, not form emails!), and voting in blocks. And social media is a big one. It is common to use outlets like Facebook, for example, to wage pressure campaigns on companies with lower animal welfare standards. Twitter, however, is a more common platform for political action. The Management Center revealed that an informal survey of Hill staff and members is that it takes an average of 12 tweets to get a member of Congress’ attention on a topic.
Where are the gaps?
I want to be clear that I am not advocating for partisan political advocacy—and believe that a further assessment of trade-offs and unintended consequences is warranted. One way to remain true to our cause areas is by focusing on policy and not weighing in on partisan candidates.
The other challenge is the difficulty of quantifying investments in political advocacy. Not only are the benefits of a policy often hazy, but the policy itself is rarely a sure bet for success. The EA movement is going to have to call upon its deep thinkers to figure out how to translate the analysis that helped us decide that bed nets were a useful intervention, for instance, to apply to uncertain outcomes like policy. Nonetheless, groups are increasingly seeing the case for policy. Founders Pledge has endorsed several organizations known for their climate policy interventions, and Humanity Forward is an EA framed advocacy group on Capitol Hill.
Effective Altruism is evolving to be more than a giving club. While the analysis-backed charitable giving is what motivated me to become an EA, giving is only a tactic, not a goal. The EA movement should be examining the question of how to optimize charitable resources to maximize a world that is livable and minimizes suffering. While giving is extremely extremely important, we should be in vigilant pursuit of every lever for making the world better. That is why we cannot overlook the importance of politics in creating systemic change for public health, artificial intelligence, animal welfare, and a myriad of cause areas.