Leaving Things For Others

by Jeff_Kaufmanjefftk1 min read12th Apr 20203 comments


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With covid I've seen many calls to leave things for others:

Let's set aside for the moment whether these are accurate, [1] does this kind of thing work? These are all cases where at the current price there are many more people who want the thing than people who can supply the thing. In normal times the price would rise until these balanced, but in emergencies our society has chosen not to allow that. Let's say you're considering buying store-brand kidney beans, a WIC-eligible item, the last one on the shelf. If you choose not to buy it, what happens?

One possibility is that it stays on the shelf until someone who can only buy the store brand of kidney beans comes along, and they're able to buy it. Another is that someone who doesn't know to look for the WIC symbol comes along, and they buy it instead.

There are about 7M people covered by WIC in the US, out of a population of 330M, so 1 in 50 shoppers is a decent estimate for what fraction care about the WIC status of items. This means that whether leaving it for someone else is likely to work depends enormously on whether you expect most of society to be going along with it. If it's just you and a few other scrupulous people, probably someone else who isn't on WIC buys the kidney beans, while if nearly everyone is doing this then it probably works.

The thing is, though, getting everyone on board with one of these, distributing the message widely so that everyone hears it, explaining the details of why it matters so people agree and go along with it, is really hard! And pretty much all the time, instead of putting out calls for individuals to leave things for others it makes more sense for sellers to apply restrictions. For example, UK supermarkets have been trying to restrict delivery to vulnerable people and US supermarkets have been designating hours for vulnerable people and essential workers.

Avoiding things in the hope that someone who especially needs them will be able to get them instead usually won't work, and isn't a very good altruistic tradeoff. If you do want to improve distribution in situations like this, encouraging sellers to prioritize is likely much more valuable. Alternatively, look for ways to shift demand to other things and work around the shortage.

[1] For example, in MA distribution of EBT is staggered throughout the month, but "don't buy on 4/1" was still going around in local groups here.

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[-][anonymous]1y 8

I agree with the overall argument here, which I perceive as fitting broadly into the category of arguments demonstrating that institutional action is more impactful (in the vast majority of situations) than individual action. However, without more information, I don't really see this conclusion as action guiding? That is, while obviously I shouldn't only do the individual action part, why can't I do both the individual action and the institutional part?

Some arguments in favor/against doing both I can see:

  • For: there is a chance that the individual action does good, too. I'm someone who broadly doesn't care that much about my own inconvenience, so I find this very compelling. Or, if the action doesn't inconvenience me that much, there's no reason not to do it.
  • For: sometimes (often?) calls for individual action serve as rallying cries that bring more people into a cause or make them more thoughtful, which then increases the likelihood that they participate in advocacy for the institutional change.
  • For: I can use my choice to abstain from particular choices as a conversation point to start talking about the institutional change that would be valuable.
  • Against: someone might think "my work here is done" when doing the individual action, and be less likely to participate in/advocate for the institutional change
  • Against: perhaps the action is very inconvenient/difficult, and trying to do it makes the actor feel bad, and therefore less likely to participate in/advocate for the institutional change.

Specifically, I'm curious about your framing here: "And pretty much all the time, instead of putting out calls for individuals to leave things for others it makes more sense for sellers to apply restrictions." This makes it sound like a given individual has a choice between putting out a call for individual actions or applying a restriction. But often it is not the same individual who has the power to ask their friends to do something, as has the power to make a supermarket institute a policy.

For myself, I can act on both fronts, because I can avoid using delivery, and call my grocery store chain to encourage them to restrict usage, and call my congressperson to ask them to pass a bill, without getting compassion fatigue or taking up too much of my time. Perhaps as a community, we should not have a tendency to discourage people from doing things that indicate they care about the possible effects of their actions on others, even if those things are weak altruistic trade-offs, as long as we are also encouraging people to/thinking about how to do things that are more effective.

So this was somewhat long-winded, but my question to you is basically: what do you see as the action-guiding result of your argument? Are you recommending that people not put out these calls for individual action because you see it as trading off with institutional action in some way? If so, could you clarify how you see that trade-off as occurring? If not, why not do both?

why can't I do both the individual action and the institutional part?

Both avoiding delivery and calling stores to encourage prioritization are ways of turning time into a better world. Yes, you can do your own shopping and call your own grocery store, but you have further options. Do you call other stores you go to less frequently and make similar encouragements? Do you call stores in other areas? Do you sign up as an Instacart shopper so there will be more delivery spots available? You write that you can act on both fronts, but if you start thinking of how you might do good with your time you'll quickly have so many potential things you can do that you have to prioritize. I'm arguing that you should prioritize based on how much good the action does relative to how much of a sacrifice it is to yourself.

The link at the end ( https://www.jefftk.com/p/effective-altruism-and-everyday-decisions ) gives more details, but overall I see these as very similar to encouragements to use cold water for showering instead of warm. Yes, there's some benefit to both, but when you compare the benefit to others (the delivery slot has a chance of going to someone else who needs it more than you do, a cold shower means less CO2 emitted) with the cost to yourself (you would prefer grocery delivery and warm showers), most people will have other altruistic options that do more good for less sacrifice.

[-][anonymous]1y 7

I think in many cases it makes sense to use the prioritization you describe, but I have two concerns about it:

1) I think it's possible that with collective action problems, it's really easy to miscalculate the potential effects of your choice (and talking about your choice) has on the behavior of others, and therefore harder to estimate the true good the individual action produces (and the harm that explicitly discouraging mildly good but ineffective actions might cause).

2) I think it's likely that "how much of a sacrifice" something is varies a lot, and could depend how many other people are doing the thing and how your community views the thing. So it might be worthwhile to have a community that encourages doing inconvenient things, because that makes it easier to do good things that are inconvenient (ultimately making them less inconvenient).

Finally, I'm also not sure I agree that all things can be directly converted into "time spent" and then directly compared. Yes, if I have a specific amount of time I spend on social media, where I can either advocate for policy change or individual action, I should use that time for policy change. But some kinds of time use are inelastic or not-exchangable at a certain point, and one-off uses of mental time for deciding how to spend that inelastic time in a positive way doesn't seem wasteful to me. So I think it's better to be more nuanced than just saying "everything takes time and so everything is a trade-off" and instead evaluate which things genuinely trade off time with each other.