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Why do we need philanthropy? Can we make it obsolete?

by Mati_Roy8 min read27th Mar 20209 comments


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Last updated: 2020-04-25


I wasn't sure whether to post this as a post or a question. On one hand, I feel I've put enough effort / it's good enough that it warrants a post, which I feel would give it more visibility. On the other hand, if other people want to write answers on this question, I feel like asking a question to centralize the discussion on the topic is useful. I'm opting for something in-between: asking as a question, but writing my answer in the post / question's description. I've seen other questions like this. Do you think this is the best norm or should we replace it with another one?

Alternative title

Why do we need the Effective Altruism community? (How) can we make effective altruism obsolete?


I'm surprised to not have seen much on this topic (and would like to be linked to relevant pieces I missed). It seems to be a (the?) fundamental question of the Effective Altruism community. Some potential benefits I've identified from having a better understanding on this question includes: being better at determining which cause areas are likely to be neglected, better understand how we can make the world less dependent on philanthropy, and better understand the long-term consequences of different social norms on philanthropy.

Epistemic status

I think I'm pointing in a useful direction, but probably at least made mistakes on some details


Effective Altruism is inherently rooted in philanthropy. Whether you earn-to-give, volunteer, self-fund your work, or take a pay cut to have a higher-impact career, you're ultimately exchanging resources for social good (the resource often being money).


I will discuss the following points.

On the role of philanthropy

  • it corrects for coordination failures
    • ie. are individuals in the system well coordinated?
  • it corrects for excluding people from the political apparatus
    • ie. are there individuals excluded from the system?
  • it corrects for inequalities
    • ie. is wealth fairly distributed in the system?

On getting rid of philanthropy

  • Should we obsolete philanthropy?
  • To fix or to patch: Should we prioritize obsoleting philanthropy?
  • Are systemic failures a free pass on not helping the world?
  • RadicalxChange: Effective altruism for systemic changes
  • Going meta: a system to fix the system (and the prosocial basilisk!)


By discussing in the comments, I realized that the 'inequality' and 'politically unempowered moral beings' motivations assume some form of preference utilitarianism (or cooperation mechanism). This wouldn't obsolete philanthropy for (all) other morality.

Coordination failures

Spatially-global goods

Problem: We don't have a global political entity


Most levels of organization (family, city, country) have mechanisms to fund public good. However, global goods are more likely to be underfunded because the UN lacks enough power / countries lack sufficient coordination.

Scott Barrett, in zir book Why Cooperate? The Incentive to Supply Global Public Goods, identifies 5 types of global good based on what they require: single best effort, weakest link, aggregate effort, mutual restraint, coordination. Depending on the type of cooperation needed, global goods can be more or less likely to be fulfilled. Aggregate effort, mutual restraint, and sometimes weakest link are the most difficult to enforce.


  • Single best effort: Asteroid defense, knowledge, suppressing an infectious disease outbreak at its source, geoengineering
  • Weakest link: Disease eradication, preventing emergence of resistance and new diseases
  • Aggregate effort: Climate change mitigation, ozone layer protection
  • Mutual restraint: Non-use of nuclear weapons, non-proliferation, bans on nuclear testing and biotechnology research
  • Coordination: Standards for the measurement of time, for oil tankers, and for automobiles

Source of the examples, and for more information: Friendly AI as a global public good

Possible systemic solutions: Excellent global governance / world government

Notable organization: Global Challenges Foundation

Temporally-global goods

Problem: Time-inconsistent preferences

Possible systemic solution: Ancestor Worship is Efficient

Note: Although this could also fail into the next section with future people as the politically unempowered moral beings.


Problem: Political decision-making is not a market, let alone an efficient one

Possible systemic solution: Futarchy, Social impact bond

Problem: Some valuable negative externalities are not captured by the market, or are not tradable.

Possible systemic solutions: Carbon market, Insurances for global catastrophes, Planetary Condominium

Politically unempowered moral beings

Problem: Not every moral beings have a political voice

Some moral beings could represent themselves, but they are not let. Historically, females have been part of this group. Today, young people still can't vote, although their parents often have a personal interest in representing them.

Some moral beings cannot represent themselves even if they were allowed to. This includes people that are cognitively incapable, such as very young humans, non-human animals, and severely mentally handicapped people. It also includes people that cannot reach our spatiotemporal position, such as dead people, not-yet born people, and people in parallel universes.

As a special case of future people, this include the future versions of existing people. Some moral beings should arguably be weighted more, such as those with a higher expectancy of remaining life years given they will live with the consequences for their votes for longer.

A larger proportion of voters can vote for a policy even with lesser passion compared to the minority proportion of voters who have higher preferences in a less popular topic. This can lead to a reduction of aggregate welfare.


Problems: Some moral beings have less capacities to gain wealth. Some moral beings might have a higher marginal utility for wealth. The way wealth gets distributed might not be fair (according to most operationalizations, as described in the literature on multiplayer bargaining problem).

Possible systemic solutions: Windfall Clause, Luxury tax*, Global basic income, Transforming nature

*Also Should effective altruists work on taxation of the very rich? (which I haven't read yet)

Related: Moral public goods

Should we obsolete philanthropy?

Alternative title: Should the economy capture all social good?

One of my saying is that people should aim to make themselves obsolete, such as by automating their job or creating a superior good/service making the previous one obsolete.

Of course, I'm just pushing in a direction: I don't think most people should spend all their time making their job obsolete without actually doing the job.

I think it's similar with philanthropy: when we can make it obsolete at a reasonable cost, we often should. Here's why.

1. Economic incentives are more robust. Philanthropy, by it's nature, is not a sure thing and relies on people's good will, and effective philanthropy also relies on people's rationality.

2. Philanthropy is not enough. The optimal amount of resources our civilisation should spend on common goods is more than what we currently spend. If we reduce the need for philanthropy in some areas, it will allow philanthropists to redirect their resources to other underfunded problems.

3. Having philanthropists give away their money might reduce the power of altruistic coalitions to steer the future (see: Are selection forces selecting for or against altruism? Will people in the future be more, as, or less altruistic?)

However, there are also some aspects we should be careful about when considering making philanthropy obsolete.

1. If economic incentives were enough to fund public goods at just the right amount on themselves, public good might get overfunded as some people are naturally inclined to donate money to public goods and might continue doing so (mentioned in Radical institutional reforms that make capitalism & democracy work better, and how to get them)

2. Philanthropy might act as a signal of care, which could be an important quality for selecting the people steering the future of Earth-originating life

3. Some systemic failures might cancel each other, and fixing only part of might make it worse. For example, having billionaires fund public good (inequality) might be good in a world where democracy hasn't decoupled values from expertise (coordination), even though ideally we might prefer to have other mechanisms to select who informs us of the most valuable public good to fund.

4. I have the impression that a lot of people see making a profit from providing important social goods, such as accurate testing during a pandemic crisis or valuable medication against age-induced pathologies, as a bad thing. Possibly even more so than profiting by exploiting addictions. For example, Robin Hanson mentions that "Clearly many see paying for results as risking too much greed, money, and markets in places where higher motives should reign supreme. Which is too bad, as those higher motives are often missing, and paying for results has a lot of untapped potential." It seems like shifting the cultural norm on this would be beneficial, especially if philanthropy is made less necessary. Otherwise, in a system where philanthropy is obsolete, organizations might charge more for social goods to compensate for the reputation hit it would have on them. Note also that endeavors that can be profitable should generally not use philanthropy money as philanthropy money is currently under-supplied, and money also helps with being held accountable for being efficient.

Overall, I have the impression we should move in the direction of making philanthropy less necessary / capturing more of it in the system, but be mindful about the order in which we improve the system to avoid problems such as the one mentioned in the con #3 just above.

To patch or to fix?

Alternative title: Should we prioritize obsoleting philanthropy?

Even though I think it would be good to move in a direction of encapsulating more philanthropy within the system ("fix"), is this a priority, or should we instead target the problems it causes directly ("patch")? Alternative names for 'patching' interventions could be targeted or one-off interventions (I'm not sure which term to use for this concept).

I definitely think there should be funding available to tackle both approaches, but at the margin, which one has the highest expected value?

Instead of fixing coordination problems, should we address the problems that arise from them directly, such as research on existential risks reduction and brain preservation?

Some considerations:

  • If you think existential risks are imminent, then you might not have the time to change the systems
  • If you think only a few global goods have a high expected value and that they would need several systems to be fixed in order to start getting funded, then you might prefer focusing on them directly
    • For example, AI safety in 2010 was neglected not just because we don't good global governance, but also because we haven't fully solved the expert problem

Instead of trying to legally give a political voice to oppressed groups, should we directly ask them (or if not possible, then try to guess) who they would want to vote for and act as their represent in elections?

Some considerations:

  • Whether the relevant systemic issues are in the Overton window
  • How many issues a given oppressed group would be interested in politically (ie. if there's only one, then maybe easier to just push for that one issue directly)
  • Is this group likely to stop being oppressed in the short-medium term (ex.: cellular agriculture might put an end to animal farming)

Instead of advocating for systemic redistribution of wealth, should we aim to make as much money as possible and redistribute it directly through charities like GiveDirectly?

Some considerations:

  • If you expect poverty to be reduced a lot in the medium-term future, then you might prefer to give directly instead of trying to reform the system, and vice-versa
  • If you think not reforming the system creates selection pressures against philanthropy, you might prefer to focus on reforming the system, and vice-versa

Not a free pass

I've sometimes seen systemic issues use as a free pass to not help the world, "Don't blame me, blame the System". And I don't think this is entirely wrong.

But I think we do need philanthropy as a correction mechanism to fix those systemic issues: the system is otherwise not as much (and plausibly enough) self-correcting.

We need philanthropy to make philanthropy obsolete.

And there are great opportunities for donations to help with those systemic issues; a few organizations which were mentioned above

Side note: With general advocacy, to people that are not (aspiring) effective altruists, it does seem like focusing on institutional changes is more fruitful than focusing on individual changes (see: Summary of Evidence for Foundational Questions in Effective Animal Advocacy).

RadicalxChange: Effective altruism for systemic changes

The Effective Altruism community has focused a lot, although not entirely, on individual changes. There are a lot of good reasons to do so, some of which have been pointed at in this post. But I think it's also important to pay attention to systemic problems.

I've always wondered what the unifying theme was behind RadicalxChange, but after writing this post, I had the sudden realization that it's about making philanthropy obsolete. I don't know if they know, but maybe they should use this in their branding. Their website describes RadicalxChange as:

a global movement dedicated to reimagining the building blocks of democracy and markets in order to uphold fairness, plurality, and meaningful participation in a rapidly changing world

In my experience, many Effective Altruists are interested in the idea of the RxC community, and I think they are excellent allies, and completes the EA community very well.

Going meta: a system to fix the system

The Philanthropy Prizes

With prizes to reward (the most) successful interventions towards making philanthropy obsolete, we could create a systemic incentive to correct systemic issues.

We could have 3 prizes:

  • The coordination prize
  • The empowerment prize
  • The equality prize

The coordination prize could potentially also be fragmented into more prizes: the global good prize, the longtermist prize (to reduce civilization-wide time-inconsistent preferences), the expert prize (to solve the expertise problem), etc.

The prizes could be annual prizes, impact prizes, or inducement prize contests.

Prizes could also make those pursuits more prestigious, although we should also take into account the literature on the overjustification effect.

For more related propositions, see: Moral economics — Cause Prioritization Wiki.

Charter cities

Charter cities are a good way to experiment with reforms in all 3 areas.

Notable organizations: Charter Cities Institute, The Seasteading Institute

The Prosocial Basilisk

My favorite solution, but seemingly implausible to work, would be to have philanthropists buy certificates of impact from organizations fixing systemic issues which the "system" (ie. governments) would then come to want to buy back once fixed, hence fully completing the loop, and bootstrapping a good world into existence 'out of thin-air'. A prosocial basilisk of some sort. Not unlike this story of "n sevraqyl fhcrevagryyvtrapr obbgfgenccvat vgfrys vagb rkvfgrapr" (rot13).


Also see my comments below.

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I claim that "fixing" coordination failures is a bad and/or incoherent idea.

Coordination isn't fully fixable because people have different goals, and scaling has inevitable and unavoidable costs. Making a single global government would create waste on a scale that current governments don't even approach.

As people get richer overall, the resources available for public benefit have grown. This seems likely to continue. But directing those resources fails. Democracy doesn't scale well, and any move away from democracy comes with corresponding ability to abuse power.

In fact, I think the best solution for this is to allow individuals to direct their money how they want, instead of having a centralized system - in a word, philanthropy.

To make philanthropy obsolete, I think you'd have to either make advocacy obsolete or be able to capture it effectively without philanthropy. As long as sentient individuals have competing values and interests and tradeoffs to be made, which I'd still expect to be true even if nonhuman animals, future individuals and artificial sentiences gain rights and representation, I think there will be a need for advocacy. I don't expect ethical views to converge in the future, and as long as they don't, there should be room for advocacy.