Stating in the 1980’s a non-profit called RESULTS mobilized citizens from across the country to direct their attention to Congress. Their goal: redirect federal spending for global health interventions to malnutrition, hunger, and disease in developing countries. People wrote to their Senators, lobbied their Representatives, and published letters in newspapers. By coordinating action around a specific goal they were able to get Congress to direct extensive funding toward charitable initiatives that were more efficient and effective than previous uses of funds.
What I propose for EAs to consider is more than a new cause area, it is a cause area multiplier. There are several EA cause areas where systemic change is warranted; either where charity cannot alone solve the problem in the foreseeable future, or where institutional interventions offer exponential benefits. The EA movement has largely neglected these levers thus far. A key area we can grow—and tap into systemic change—is through well-informed political advocacy.
What would a political arm look like?
It would entail setting up a totally new organization, or a branch of an existing organization*, that focuses on political advocacy. It would entail using EA principles of Importance, Tractability, and Neglectedness to guide analysis on prospective laws to advocate for. It would employ tools commonly used in advocacy movements that make it easy for EAs to channel our collective interests to elected officials via text or email. It would employ low-lift, high impact interventions that individuals can partake in to advance widespread change.
Imagine having an action alert that goes out to hundreds of local members, or thousands of people nationally, to weigh in on a policy teetering on the brink of passage. Imagine if we were able to collectively voice our interests by signing a petition in support of a legislative initiative. Imagine if we were directed to weigh in on a non-partisan and overlooked regulatory initiative that could change peoples’ lives. None of these initiatives require funding from members—only the institutional investment to form an EA political branch. Here are examples of existing platforms that can be used to contact, mobilize, and enable members:
Muster: Allows advocates to enter their address so they can directly email their elected officials
Change.org: Petition platform
SalsaLabs: Allows people to take action via texting
Action Network: A hub that offers all of these tools
With tools like these, the EA movement could invest a small amount of money that harvests energy and people-power rather than its finances.
Potential for Impact
Is the EA movement big enough to make policy impact, either on the local, national, or international level? That is where tractability is an important question—we will need to EA to advocate for interventions that are winnable at our scale of membership. But as local hubs grow, this breeds more opportunity for taking action on a local level. And if there are low-effort/high-impact policies and regulations on the federal level that EA can influence by exhibiting member support, it is important we have the infrastructure to do so. Otherwise we leave that opportunity on the table. For those who better understand issues via a Trolly Problem medium, I have created one that grossly generalizes the issue at hand.
A System for Systemic Change
Open Philanthropy has already demonstrated an appetite for policy change, with the Open Phil Tech Policy Fellowships and the South Asian Air Quality interventions as examples. But without a concentrating force to direct supporters on when and where to partake in high leverage action we leave that potential squandered. Politics can have a high barrier to entry, so having an EA political arm that is familiar with policy opportunities can focus and optimize our efforts.
As others have begun to explore, political advocacy has a potential unintended impact of making EA seem more partisan. This could alienate prospective members (alternately, it could attract others). There is more room for assessment of trade-offs, and in the interim EA can avoid partisan politics by not weighing in on elections on an organizational/movement level. Or if we do endorse candidates, to make bipartisan endorsements.
In evaluating this cause-area multiplier we must assess whether EAs will partake in political campaigns. Without participation the people-power is useless and we are limited to more costly tools such as making political donations and influential lobbying organizations as the main sources of influencing policy (still worth considering!). A couple of avenues we can use to explore the potential of political advocacy are 1) starting on the local level where hub leaders can help champion participation in actions, and 2) crowdsourcing/voting on initiatives and policy direction to grow buy-in from the community.
Another consequence of political advocacy campaigns is the potential for newly engaged and new members. Diversifying our opportunities to be an “Effective Altruist” only broadens our movement. While some may not have the capacity or interest to donate, they may see a political action or petitions as a lower lift point of entry to demonstrate their commitment to a better world with EA. Similarly, the spread of EA petitions and actions would be a movement-building tool. It is a tool to onboard prospective EAs by signing up when they take action. Giving people a low lift tool to partake in effective altruism increases engagement opportunities and broadens our reach as a movement.
Effective Altruism began as a movement to guide charitable giving. The GiveWell mantra “Doing Good Better”, for example, reflects the EA mission for using analysis to maximize the impact of charitable resources. But if we look at giving not as the end goal, but rather as a tool for doing good, it opens us up to “doing good better” better. That is why we need to abandon our neglect of political advocacy and capture this opportunity to make systemic change across our cause areas. We do not need to create a new organization on the scale of RESULTS. But having the infrastructure to make informed decisions on political action and empowering EAs to share our voice with decision-makers can increase our impact with such significance that it would be an oversight to neglect this lever for change.
The world of political advocacy can be murky in assessing trade-offs and costs/benefits, especially when action & finances do not directly correlate with outcomes. However, the growing interest within the EA community has demonstrated that others, like me, see value in policy interventions. If you have thoughts on what a political arm of EA might look like, critiques to consider, or trade-offs to evaluate, please share!
*It is important to know how charity laws relate to politics. In the US, standard charities (501c3) are allowed a minimal amount of lobbying and are not permitted to take part in electioneering/electoral campaigns. 501c4 are allowed to do both lobbying and electioneering, but gifts are not tax-deductible.