Some thought it would be relevant for me to cross-post this from my personal blog. Original link in https://whynotparliamentarism.com/f/the-effective-altruist-case-for-parliamentarism
Back in 2013, Benjamin Todd of 80000 hours wrote "a framework for strategically selecting a cause". The idea that not all causes are equally worthy of being pursued is straightforward enough, but rarely followed. As Todd writes, people usually pick a cause based on personal passion. Sometimes this personal involvement is even encouraged by the general public. Having a direct involvement with a cause tends to make someone seem more trustworthy.
Todd proposes, instead a deliberately more rational approach to see if a cause is worth pursuing according to effective altruist principles. The summary is well worth reproducing in its entirety:
In summary, we think you should look for the best overall combination of the following three factors, the names of which we took from GiveWell Labs:
- Important: If we make more progress on this cause, the world will be made a better place. By ‘world made a better place’ we mean that lots of people will be made better off in important ways. Causes can also be important indirectly, because progress on them lets us make progress on other important causes or provides valuable information about which causes are best.
- Tractable: There are definite interventions to make progress within this cause, with strong evidence behind them For instance, there are definite opportunities for progress, backed by widely accepted theory, randomised control trials or a track record of success.
- Uncrowded: If we add more resources to the cause, we can expect more promising interventions to be carried out. Uncrowded causes are often undervalued or neglected by society. There may be a shortage of important actors within the cause.
We think you can assess causes by:
- Assessing these factors and their subfactors by asking experts and gathering other relevant data (e.g. data about how many people are affected by a problem, how many people are working on the cause).
- Drawing on cost-effectiveness and benefit-cost analyses prepared by the Copenhagen Consensus, JPAL and other academic research.
- Using the results of GiveWell Labs, which aims to assess causes from the perspective of a donor (with the caveat that the best areas to lead your career within are likely to be different from the best areas to donate to).
By following that framework, we can see that promotion of parliamentarism is a great cause for effective altruists to pursue. It is important - few things are more important. As I argue on the book, parliamentarism causes all sorts of outcomes which unambiguously make the world a better place. In terms of GDP growth alone, McManus and Ozkan estimate that it translates into a benefit of around 0.6 to 1.2 percentage points higher yearly GDP growth. That is huge.
It is tractable: there are "definite interventions to make progress with this cause, with strong evidence". The most impactful intervention is also extremely straightforward and technically simple as far as policy and institutional changes go: make a constitution become parliamentary by ensuring that a collectively responsible executive serves at the pleasure of a representative assembly. If that seems too transformative*, there are other smaller yet definite interventions which makes a country more parliamentary. Requirements of confirmation by assemblies for executive appointments, requirements of confirmation for dismissals, limitations to veto power, limitations to treaty power, creation of independent agencies more responsive to parliaments than to presidents, adoption of parliamentary models of governance (such as the council manager system) in other levels of government, the possibilities are numerous.
Uncrowded: I wish it was not so clear that it is extremely uncrowded. I have been researching this issue, and the only blog in the English language I am aware of which is dedicated to parliamentarism is this one. If you believe my arguments are poor, this is yet another reason to make your own contribution for this unexplored terrain. Some of the most brilliant researchers upon which I relied to write the book are shy in their promotion of parliamentarism. I wish they would speak more loudly about this. Their relative silence seems comparable to a situation where climate scientists saw what was happening to the climate but hardly ever talked about the causes.
Benjamin Todd suggests you to assess these factors by asking experts around. As I wrote in the book, there is close to a consensus among experts on the superiority of parliamentarism. I am not aware of any explicit cost-benefit analysis of the issue (and I would love to see one) but a back-of-the-envelope calculation shows the ratio is gigantic. In the book, I mention a study by Finkel et al which estimates that a US$1 million investment increases the amount of democratic change for the average country by 65%. Let us be rough but conservative and imagine that the expected amount of parliamentary change for a country in a given year is 1/1000, if we classify countries as pure presidential with a value of 0 and pure parliamentary with a value of 1. Let us also stipulate that the effectiveness is 1/10 the effectiveness that Finkel et al find for democracy**. Then a US$1 million investment would buy you around 0.65*0.001*0.1 = 0.000065 units of parliamentarism (65/1,000,000). Considering that the "average" country has a GDP of around US$400 billion**, and parliamentarism is worth around 1% of GDP per year, which I will translate into a 20% increase in the GDP level, then a US$1 million investment would have a return of 400,000,000,000*0.2*0.000065 = US$5.2 million. Those are great returns, and scalable - we may expect that a US$1 billion could translate into US$5 billion of benefits, since we are talking about affecting the government system of whole countries. And those would only be the economic gains, I did not even estimate the benefits in terms of equality, freedom, health, etc.
This is only a back of the envelope calculation and you may find it silly**** to suggest we spend billions of dollars, or even a million dollars, based on such rough estimation. But it does demonstrate the great potential that this may have, which in turn calls for greater research and more detailed cost-benefit analyses. GiveWell and the Copenhagen Consensus Center are two good candidates for trying this out.
Now the passion
While passion is a poor predictor of how worthy a cause is, it is a good predictor of how committed somebody will be to the cause. There is no use proposing causes which may have a great benefit-cost ratio if they are so objectionable or unpleasant to the person which should promote it that it would never happen. The good thing about the promotion of parliamentarism is that while it is not the most exciting topic for everyone, I would expect effective altruists to be moved by it. The most important element in this cause is persuasion through rational argumentation, something which attracts effective altruists.
I know I am passionate about this. I hope you have become a bit too.
*I would argue that it is only very transformative in the (positive) outcomes it promotes, not in the costs of implementation, but still.
** I would expect the promotion of parliamentarism to be more effective than the promotion of democracy. It involves far fewer actors and a movement from presidentialism to parliamentarism is less transformative than a move from authoritarianism to democracy. It is also dramatically less crowded. In any case, I am trying to be conservative.
*** I simply divided world GDP as around US$80 trillion by around 200 countries.
**** I edited this to reflect that I personally do not find it silly to promote parliamentarism at least as much as we promote so many other policies which are much less important, tract