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What types of charity will be the most effective for creating a more equal society?

by Maksim1 min read12th Oct 202018 comments

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Hello. I have a question about rational altruism.

I sometimes donate a little money to charities that help homeless people, shelters for homeless animals, sterilization of homeless animals, a fund that provides free vegetarian food to those in need, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, an international human rights group that protects illegally detained at peaceful protests, other human rights defenders, the Committee against torture, Greenpeace, and artists and musicians who receive donations, maybe I forgot something, but the essence is clear.

But now I think that this is plugging holes, and not a solution to the cause of all these troubles. My conviction, based on the data of scientists, that the root cause of most of the ills of society is inequality, primarily economic inequality - income inequality. Therefore, I want to direct my modest efforts to eliminate the root cause of most of society's ills - inequality.

The system where the 8 richest people on the planet have a fortune equal to the state of 3.5 billion (!) of the poorest people is deeply sick and all other problems are just derivatives of this disease.

Accordingly, the question is - what types of charity will be the most effective for creating a more equal society?

Please, if you disagree with me, carry your precious opinion elsewhere. I am only interested in opinions on how to most effectively create a more equal society.

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6 Answers

This question appears to be unpopular -- at time of writing it has a karma of -6.

However I'd like to defend/steelman this question.

First, let's try to understand those who appear not to like this post.

The post makes the claim that inequality is the "the root cause of most of society's ills", however it does not provide evidence for this claim.

I'm not going to try to defend this claim.

What I will say is that whether or not the claim is correct, I would like the Effective Altruism community to be able to help with the question raised by the original poster:

What types of charity will be the most effective for creating a more equal society?

EA ways of thinking *should* be a tool to enable people to answer practical ethical questions such as this, even if the link between a more equal society and all of society's ills is not clear.

For example, some may believe that equality is an intrinsic good.

So, having made the case that this community should be more supportive of this question, here are some brief thoughts.

Society can be made more equal by

(a) raising the wealth/standards for those on the bottom rung

(b) redistributing from the richest to the poorest

Also, most EA thinking tends to either focus on direct impacts work, which is typically required to have good cost-effectiveness, or hits-based work, which is required to have a potentially huge impact.

  • When helping the poor, the EA community tends to take a global perspective, because people in the developing world are typically much poorer and easier to help than those in the developed world.
  • A good choice of charity for a redistribution charity with a direct impact is GiveDirectly, which is recommended by GiveWell
  • For a more hits based approach, some have given consideration to Tax. I have seen a write-up on the EA Forum about this, however I have not reviewed it, and I neither endorse nor disavow it.

As for raising the wealth of the poorest people without simply giving people money, this has turned out to be surprisingly difficult. For example, microcredit does not appear to be particularly effective at this.

Apologies that this response is too brief to do justice to this complex question.

Thank you to Maksim for engaging with the EA community, and I hope you find the responses to your question useful.

You might be interested in this 80,000 Hours podcast with Glen Weyl on uprooting capitalism and democracy for a just society: 

Radical institutional reforms that make capitalism & democracy work better, and how to get them

First off, welcome to the EA community! If you haven't already, you might want to read the Introduction to Effective Altruism. I don't have time to write up a full answer, so here are a few of my thoughts.

Usually in the effective altruism community, we are cause-neutral; that is, we try to address whichever charitable cause area maximizes impact. While it's intuitively compelling that the most cost-effective effort is to eliminate the root cause of a problem, this could be a suboptimal choice for a few reasons.

  • Most things have multiple causes, and it's not obvious which one to spend the most resources on without an in-depth analysis; one could just as easily say that the root cause of poverty-related problems is a lack of caring about the poor, or inability to coordinate to fix large problems, or the high cost of basic necessities like medicine and clean water.
  • Even if systemic change would fix wealth inequality, actually finding and implementing such change could be difficult or expensive enough that it's more impactful to address the needs of the extreme poor first.
  • It could be tractable to research, say, government structures that incentivize redistribution of wealth if you have a political science PhD, but there might be no good way for the average person to spend money on the cause area.

I haven't looked in depth at the arguments for systemic change being cost-effective, partly because global health isn't my specialty. If you have a strong argument for it that isn't already addressed in a literature review, I encourage posting it here as an article or shortform post.

Here are some ideas:

The rich have too much money relative to poor:

Taking money versus eliciting money.

Taking via

  • revolution
  • taxation

Eliciting via

  • shame, pressure, guilt
  • persuasion, psychological skill
  • friendship

Change of culture

  • culture in general
  • elite culture

Targeting elite money

  • used to be stewards of investments
  • used for personal spending

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Revolutions are risky and can lead to worse governments.

Taxation might work better. (Closing tax haven loopholes.) Building political will for higher taxes on wealthy. There are people in the US who don't want there to be higher taxes on wealthy even though it would materially benefit them (culture change opportunity).

Eliciting could be more effective. Social justice culture (OK with shame, pressure, guilt) has philanthropic charities. (Not exactly aligned with EA.) Guerrilla Foundation, Resource Generation. (Already established. You could donate or join now.)

Eliciting via persuasion or psychological tactics sounds like it would appeal to some people to try to do.

Eliciting via friendship: what if a person, or movement, was very good friends with both rich and poor people? Then they could represent the legitimate interests of both to each other in a trustworthy way. I'm not sure anyone is trying this route. Maybe the Giving Pledge counts?

Change of culture. What are the roots of the altruistic mindset? What would help people have, or prepare people to have, values of altruists (a list of such for EA or EA-compatible people; there could be other lists)? Can this be something that gets "in the water" of culture at large? Can culture at large reach into elite culture, or does there have to be a special intervention to get values into elite culture? This sounds more like a project for a movement or set of movements than for a discrete charity.

Elite people have money that they spend on themselves personally -- easy to imagine they could just spend $30,000 a year on themselves and no more, give the balance to charity. But they also have money tied up in investments. Not so easy to ask them to liquidate those investments. If they are still in charge of those investments, then there is an inequality of power, since they can make decisions that affect many people without really understanding the situation of those people. Maybe nationalize industries? But then there can still be an inequality of power between governments and citizens.

If there can be a good flow between citizens and governments, whereby the citizens' voices are heard by the government, then could there be a similar thing between citizens and unelected elite? Probably somebody needs to be in charge of complex and powerful infrastructure, inevitably leading to potential for inequalities of power. Do the elite have an effective norm of listening to non-elite?

--

You might also consider the effect of AI and genetic engineering, or other technologies, on the problem of creating a more equal society. AI will either be basically under human control, or not. If it is, the humans who control it will be yet another elite. If it isn't, then we have to live with whatever society it comes up with. We can hope that maybe AI will enforce norms that we all really want deep down but couldn't enforce ourselves, like equality.

On the other hand, maybe, given the ability to change our own nature using genetic engineering, we (perhaps with the help of the elite) will choose to no longer care about inequality, only a basic sense of happiness which will be attainable by the emerging status quo.

Hi Maksim, great question. Thank you for posting this!

Three charities you might find relevant:

Global Financial Integrity - they focus on combatting illicit financial flows, arguably a key driver of inequality

Global Witness - they focus on the interaction between natural resources, conflict and corruption

Tax Justice Network - see my write-up here

In addition to donations, career choices and how you spend non-work time can have an important impact. Feel free to message me to discuss further.

"the root cause of most of the ills of society is inequality, primarily economic inequality - income inequality"

While I think income inequality (or, perhaps even more so, consumption inequality) is a large problem, I don't think it's the root cause of most of the ills of society. I'd imagine that tribalism, selfishness, mental-health problems, and so on are larger causes. In the US, for instance, my sense is that racism is a root of more problems than is income inequality.

More specifically answering the question you asked, I'd imagine political solutions would be the most effective here, as the government plays such a large role in influencing the economic distribution, and the amount of money in politics is incredibly small compared to the effect of political outcomes. I could imagine effective organizations in this area could include think tanks searching for political solutions, firms lobbying for implementing these solutions, or organizations that work to elect politicians/parties that are more likely to appropriately address these concerns.

[I'd also note that, from a global perspective, inequality between countries may typically larger than within countries, so it would perhaps be better to focus on health and development charities such as AMF, though one could make an argument that (for instance) social problems in the US spill over into problems for the rest of the world, so focusing on inequality in the US may be more important that a naive calculation would indicate.]