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I am sceptical of the idea that a substantial amount of EA funds should be allocated democratically. In my view there are some strong reasons to believe that the existing model of allocating funding (that is funders giving money to organisations which allocate money with the allocators' best judgement)  does better than a simple democratic vote.

The main problem in my opinion is that individual voters do not have sufficient incentives to allocate collective funds in an effective manner

Rational Ignorance (or even irrationality)?

The main problem is that getting decisions to be correct requires a large amount of information (which is costly to collect) and decision making (which is again costly to make correctly). 

Consider the decision on whether EA funders should spend more money on reducing civil conflict. This is a hard decision to make because it involves a large amount of information (like historical statistics on civil wars, their causes, historical efforts to reduce them etc)., subjective judgement (how tractable it is, comparing it to other funding opportunities, weighing PR concerns), and finally decisions based on the above judgements (how much to fund and to whom). The above process costs many hours of high intensity thinking. 

 

The most obvious response to this is that EA voters aren’t going to be ignorant because they care about EA causes. The argument would go that EA voters are going to spend more time than what political scientists would consider rational because they have a deep commitment to the cause. I do find this plausible. Many EAs regularly donate over 10% of their income to cause areas. Many of them spend hours explaining and debating these issues online, and for some of them working in an EA cause area will be their main career priority.

My first response to this is that these people are going to be a minority of the total voter population (if broadly defined). Not everyone will have the same level of engagement with EA ideas, and not everyone will have the same level of personal interest in getting them right. These qualities are going to be concentrated in a minority of people because, relative to the total EA population (say as defined as DAUs or MAUs of the EA forum, or a larger one as GWWC pledge takers), this is a small number of people. 

 

But my second critique is more substantive. It is that apart from being rationally ignorant on these issues, most voters probably will be irrational on them too. On several EA topics voters will be biassed in the sense that they will have beliefs that are systematically wrong in some direction. They might be in favour of some cause area without updating when new information or arguments are produced. Their notions about certain people or organisations might make them systematically biassed against them and lead to bad voting outcomes. 

What incentive do voters in this have to improve? I don’t think they have many. Each voter does not think that their vote is very important. They won’t have a large chance of influencing the vote, so why bother doing all the reading anyways? Their previous notions will influence the voting decision and they will have no incentive to change if they are wrong

The existing method for EA orgs to allocate money has been for donors to give them money, then to analyse the costs and benefits of whatever opportunities they investigate and decide on what grants to give. 


 

I think this would lead to better outcomes because there are clearly identifiable people who have reputations to build by doing good analysis and recommending good grants. This can work in the opposite direction (people are too afraid to propose high risk grants because they feel it might stick to their name if it fails), but everything considered, it is a good thing that this incentive exists. 


 

These people are better informed about the topic in ways that voters will not be able to. Many of them have years of experience in the cause area, both inside and outside EA. Some have advanced degrees in the subject and this is also valuable in building a base of knowledge to allocate donor money


 

(Conflict of interest: I will receive money from an organisation funded by Open Philanthropy)

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I am sceptical of the idea that a substantial amount of EA funds should be allocated democratically.


I appreciate the spirit of this post, and agree with many of the specific concerns you raise. However, you seem to be making assumptions about what it'd look like to allocate funding democratically (with regard to who would get to weigh in, what they'd be weighing in on,  and how they'd be weighing in), and then drawing much broader conclusions about whether democratizing funding is a good idea. I think you persuasively argue against one such approach, but that others are worth considering.

Individual voters do not have sufficient incentives to allocate collective funds in an effective manner

For instance, I agree with this point with regard to EA voters, but why would the voters have to be EAs? Why not find the stakeholders who do have sufficient incentives to allocate funding well; i.e., those who stand to benefit most from the decisions that are made? And why have them vote on different cause areas, versus weighing in on specific initiatives within a given cause area? Etc.

Any proposal to democratize funding is going to face challenges—I suspect it will inevitably be expensive and burdensome to do this well. But presumably, the way to figure out whether this is worth pursuing is to determine the point of allocating funding (more) democratically, generate specific proposals on this basis, and then evaluate whether any could be implemented effectively.

Then go for it. 

Come up with a detailed proposal, describe exactly how it would work, convince people to give you funding to run the experiment, and then report back and tell us how it went.

The default assumption always is that doing everything differently won't work very well. It doesn't matter what the precise change is. So skepticism is the correct attitude until this is proven that it can work.

It is a good idea though for the people who are enthused about this idea to follow their passion, and build and test concrete proposals. Go forth and try to make the world better.

Why not find the stakeholders who do have sufficient incentives to allocate funding well; i.e., those who stand to benefit most from the decisions that are made?

Could you give me a concrete example? For many concerns it's impossible to reach them (eg longtermist ideas about the future) and for global health and development while it's possible (although I am slightly sceptical of the benefits)

Sure! A couple of thoughts:

I agree that democratizing funding is easier for GWH causes than for more longtermist ones, and there is correspondingly more precedent for this in global health. I'm not going to do a lit review, but Tables 3 and 4 here list some of the things that have been tried (though I wouldn't read the paper). Personally, I think the move is probably to survey potential beneficiaries—rather than doing something more deliberative—and then factor their preferences/values into decisions about which projects within a given cause area to prioritize (rather than having them choose causes). The case is trickier for longtermist causes—both normatively and practically—but Will MacAskill and Tyler John's WaPo op-ed touches on some creative ways of doing this.

But my point is really: EA has developed some excellent, remarkably creative solutions to other problems in priority setting. My sense is that when GiveWell was started, the perception of many people in global health was that it would be impossible to do what they were trying to do. Open Philanthropy has also developed some innovative approaches to priority setting, and seems to do a great job of implementing them. 

When we look at efforts by many non-EA organizations to allocate funding democratically, the track record does not look good (to me). But the EA community has solved other, likely far more challenging priority-setting problems, so I think it'd be a mistake to say "this is impossible to do well" without seriously interrogating all of the options.

There's already a large amount of democratized funding. It's gathered via taxes and spent by bodies that are backed by democratic processes. 

In EA there's a belief that the dollars spent by EA orgs are more efficiently spent than those by the government. Choosing EA as the electorate would be a choice with the intention of not regressing to the average dollar effectiveness of dollars in our government budgets.

In contrast to the budget of our governments and even African governments the budget of EA is very tiny. 

But my second critique is more substantive. It is that apart from being rationally ignorant on these issues, most voters probably will be irrational on them too.

I'm kind of confused about this point - why expect big funders to be less irrational? You point to 'incentives' but AFAICT those incentives will push big donors to do good things given their beliefs, but not to be less irrational about what beliefs to hold (unlike in the for-profit company space where if you make less money you're less of a thing in the market).

I don't think that they won't be irrational. I think that the need to have a reputation would lead to them being more rational than the median voter. EA organisations will make mistakes. Voters too will make mistakes.

But only EA organisations will face public blowback for that and over time will have better processes for correcting those mistakes