The EA community has been convulsing since FTX. There's been lots of discontent, but almost no public discussion between community leaders, and little in the way of a constructive suggestions for what could change. In this post, I offer a reconceptualisation of what the EA community is and then use that to sketch some ideas for how to do good better together.
I’m writing this purely in my personal capacity as a long-term member of the effective altruism community. I drafted this at the start of 2023, in large part to help me process my own thoughts. The ideas here are still, by my lights, dissatisfyingly underdeveloped. But I’m posting it now, in its current state and with minimal changes, because it's suddenly relevant to topical discussions about how to run the Effective Ventures Foundation and the Centre for Effective Altruism and I don't know if I would ever make time to polish it.
[I'm grateful to Ben West, Chana Messinger, Luke Freeman, Jack Lewars, Nathan Young, Peter Brietbart, Sam Bernecker, and Will Troy for their comments on this. All errors are
- We can think of effective altruists as participants in a market for maximum impact activities. It’s much like a local farmers’ market, except people are buying and selling goods and services for how best to help others.
- Just like people in a market, EAs don’t all share the same goal - a marketplace isn’t an army. Rather, people have different goals, based on their different accounts of what matters. The participants can agree, however, that they all want there to be a marketplace to allow them to meet and trade; this market is useful because people want different things.
- Presumably, the EA market should function as a free, competitive market. This means lots of choice and debate among the participants. It requires the market administrators to operate a level playing-field.
- Currently, the EA community doesn’t quite operate like this. The market administrators - CEA, its staff and trustees - are also major market participants, i.e. promoting particular ideas and running key organisations. And the market is dominated by one big buyer (i.e. it’s a ‘monopsony’).
- I suggest some possible reforms: CEA to have its trustees elected by the community; it should strive to be impartial rather than take a stand on the priorities. I don’t claim this will solve all the issues, but it should help. I'm sure there are other implications of the market model I've not thought of.
- These reforms seem sensible even without any of EA’s recent scandals. I do, however, explain how they would likely have helped lessened these scandals too.
- I’ve tried to resist getting into the minutiae of “how would EA be run if modelled on a free market?” and I would encourage readers also to resist this. I want people to focus on the basic idea and the most obvious implications, not get stuck on the details.
- I’m not very confident in the below. It’s an odd mix of ideas from philosophy, politics, and economics. I wrote it up in the hope others can develop the ideas and I can stop ruminating on the “what should FTX mean for EA?” question.
What is EA? A market for maximum-impact altruistic activities
What is effective altruism? It's described by the website effectivealtruism.org as a "research field and practical community that aims to find the best ways to help others, and put them into practice". That's all well and good, but it's not very informative if we want to understand the behaviour of individuals in the community and the functioning of the community as a whole.
An alternative approach is to think of effective altruists, the people themselves, in economic terms. In this case, we might characterise the effective altruism community as a group of individuals participating in a marketplace for maximum impact philanthropic goods and services - an agora for altruists.
This may initially seem strange, but effective altruism community is somewhat analogous to a local farmers' market. However, instead of the market stalls offering fruit, vegetables, and so on, the sellers are touting various charities, as well as research into those charities. There are buyers - donors - who are looking to get the best value for their money. There’s a social community that’s formed around the market. There are some people whose job it is to run the market, too.
The motivation of the participants in each market may be different: people come to the 'EA market' for the good of others but go to the farmers' market for their own good. However, in many other respects, the markets function identically: buyers come to shop around and find the best deal for their money, and sellers are trying to sell as much of their goods as possible.
One key practical difference is that, whilst you can inspect the quality of goods in the farmers’ market yourself (you can see if the fruit is rotten) buyers in the EA market can’t easily test or observe the goods they buy (you don’t see what happens when you, say, donate to AMF). Hence, arguably the key players in the EA market are the research organisations, which provide advice to participants, equivalent to consumer champions, such as Which? in the UK.
What, if anything, about EA is new? Of course, markets are old, as are charities and events around charities. Perhaps what’s new is that this is the first historical example of a marketplace for people explicitly committed to achieving the maximum impact for their altruistic resources, rather than just some impact: some combination of free market economics applied to philanthropy. I suspect that simply creating a market for maximum impact altruism is an extremely important - and so far unrecognised - achievement of the community.
Considering EA as like a farmers’ market, you don’t have to look hard to identify equivalent structures. In EA, the marketplace itself is run by various arms of the Effective Ventures Foundation (EVF, which formerly used to be called, somewhat confusingly, CEA). CEA runs the EAG and EAGx conferences (the market days), the EA forum (the market noticeboard), the EA handbook (the market catalogue) and the community builder grants (market outreach). 80,000 Hours is the main advertiser for the marketplace. EAFunds is a platform for buyers. Giving What We Can is a buyer’s community. Longview is a club for large buyers that encourage particular purchases. And so on.
Whether or not you like the marketplace analogy, it’s pretty clear EA operates on a ‘hub-and-spoke’ model. There are some common bits that are widely participated in - the conference, the forum, CEA’s marketing, the social network - but otherwise there’s quite a lot of separation, with participants congregating by cause areas.
If we see the EA community as a market, what follows about how it would work?
It seems apt to understand effective altruists as engaging in a certain kind of economic activity. Given that, but that we aren't used to think of EA this way, what can we say about how the EA market will function? We'll come back to questions of how it should, morally-speaking, function in a moment.
One main takeaway is that we should conceive of effective altruists as functioning like any other economic agents, just with a rather unusual set of preferences. We should expect them to pursue their own self-interest. We should not expect them to be moral saints, or to be immune to ordinary human flaws and vices; this might sound obvious, but I’ve often got the impression that EAs think of themselves, and particularly their leaders, as fully selfless, perfectly rational, and so on: no, we’re all just people, squishy bags of flesh attached to bones, evolved from apes and living on the surface of a rock flying through space.
Something that follows from this first observation is that EA is not a collective project. We are not like an army, working together for the same goal, or, as Holden Karnofsky has suggested, the crew of a ship. People may want to ‘do the most good’, but have different conceptions of 'the good'. People with the same moral views might be analogous to the crew of a ship, but not the market as a whole. If you really want to keep the ship analogy, we're like multiple ships, with many people undecided on which ship to join or split between multiple ships.
In the market paradigm, the buyers and sellers don’t have, or need to have, much in common. The butcher, baker, and candlestick-maker each want to maximise profits for themselves, rather than the collective. As Adam Smith put it, relating to conventional markets, “It is not from the benevolence (kindness) of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”.
It can be rational for participants to press for their own interests at the cost of others. Participants can and will believe that their products are superior; they may well think others are snake oil salesmen. Although the buyers all seek 'the best value for their money', as they see it, they do not think of 'best value' the same way. Indeed, that’s the point. There is a market because people have a diversity of preferences and they want a single place to go and shop - if you only want one item, there may be little point going to the market. Buyers and sellers with shared interests may group together to increase their negotiating power.
Perhaps the only thing the participants will, collectively, have in common is that they want there to be a market and, what’s more, for it to be run freely and fairly. As a whole, they’ll want to avoid corruption, nepotism, arbitrariness, dishonesty, etc. If you’re an apple seller, you don’t want your stall to be hidden at the back, whilst the other apple seller gets pride of place because he’s friends with the guy that runs the market.
The shared aim of wanting a ‘free and fair market’ is fairly minimal, and desired only because it is in their individual interests. There isn’t some further, substantial goal all the participants need to share; it would be surprising if there was one.
As a consequence of their different interests, it will be rational for individual participants in either market to bend or break the rules in their favour, establish favourable or monopoly positions for themselves, and so on, if they can. This problem doesn’t go away in the EA marketplace. If anything, it’s sharpened: rather than trying to get the best deal for yourself (as you see it), you aim to get the best for others (as you see it), so there some moral reason to bend the rules in your (moral view’s) favour. Equally, participants may be annoyed if they see others abusing their power to promote their own interests.
How, in broad terms, should the EA market be organised? As a free market
I’ll discuss some specific changes for EA in the next section.
If we ask “how should a farmers’ market operate?”, an obvious, but not very informative answer, is “to bring about the best outcomes”. Fine, but how do we know what those are? Perhaps some social planner should decide what would be best for people, then force the market to produce those goods. That, indeed, is the approach preferred by socialists and, to a greater extent, communists.
The standard answer, the one out of vanilla economic theory -and the one I imagine most EAs would agree to generally - is that there should be a free market. Individual consumers choose what they want, producers react to demand, and what is ultimately produced is decided by ‘the market’. The free market is the means to the end of producing the best outcomes.
Given that the EA community seems to be a market, like any other, the presumption is that it should be structured like any other free market unless there are sufficiently good reasons to deviate from this.
I don’t want to get into the minutiae of exactly how markets should be run. It’s not my speciality and I suppose that focusing on details will be distracting from the broad strokes.
I suspect some will object to this model: the purpose of EA is, in the end, to 'do the most good', not ‘operate as a free market’, so if we already know what the particular priorities are, shouldn’t we just push people towards those? Here, we need to be careful to distinguish both means from ends and, also, the perspective of individuals from the collective.
This situation of individuals thinking ‘I know what’s best’ is, of course, essential to the functioning of an ordinary free market: you want sellers to create and tout goods to customers, provide choice, compete over price, etc. because this allows consumers to get better deals.
However, we still want sellers to compete in the free market, and to resist attempts by sellers to distort the market in their favour. There’s a reason governments have bodies that work to maintain competition and break up monopolies.
Given this, there’s an important distinction between the mindset of individual participants and the organisers of the market. The participants are entitled, indeed encouraged, to advocate for what they think is best (within the rules, whatever they are). But the organisers of the market should maintain a level playing-field, remain studiously impartial between these and only intervene to correct market inefficiencies (I leave open how much correction is warranted). It's through competition that the buyers get the best deals. Ultimately, the question of “who’s right?” should be determined by the participants in the market, not its organisers. You get the best outcomes because, not in spite, of their being a level playing field. You want a free market as the means of achieving good outcomes - it's not an end in itself.
Although it’s tempting for participants in the EA market to nudge the moral market in their favour, i.e. ensure more of their preferred goods are sold, doing so seems objectionably paternalistic. It combines arrogance - “I know better than others” - but also suggests insecurity - “I do not believe my ideas would win in a free market, so I must intervene”. If we think state interference, monopolies and so on, are bad in ordinary markets, we should object to them in high-impact philanthropic markets too.
Lurking in the background is a concept of fairness. We’re talking about morality, so don’t we need to decide on the correct theory of morality first to run the moral market? The obvious, if not perfectly simple, principle to appeal to here is Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance: how would you like the market to be run if you didn’t know who you would be in it? You could be a buyer or seller, and you could have few or many resources.
Given this, we can distinguish between whether some change to the structure of the market is good or bad for an individual from whether it promotes or reduces fairness. I suspect we should praise those who strive to make the effective altruism market fair, especially when this is counter to their narrow interests.
The market itself will need to be organised by someone, and could well have various functions, such as advertising the market as a whole to potential customers, and deciding who gets which stalls. But it should not favour particular goods or services.
To what extent is EA functioning differently from this right now?
The effective altruism community is full of wonderful, smart, intelligent, thoughtful caring people - many of the best people I know. I find it a continued source of inspiration. My aim here, however, is to flag some ways in which effective altruism, as a system, could possibly work better. Although my intention is to highlight how things might be improved, I don’t want this to detract from the much excellent work that people do. My focus is on the overall functioning of the ‘market’. I don’t think I have much, if anything, to say about the behaviour of the small buyers and sellers. This is consistent with, indeed follows from, conceiving of it as a market and wanting it to run as a free-market. If you have a well-regulated market and lots of buyers and sellers, the result is a competitive market. Hence, you want to focus on removing the barrier to their being such a market.
I see a few related problem areas.
(1) there is a big overlap between the administrators and the participants in the market.
CEA/EVF is the hub that coordinates the wider movement, but it, and its trustees, are also participants who advocate for particular things. Of the seven total trustees of the US and UK EVF boards, six are current or former 'buyers' or 'sellers' in the market. As far as I can tell, Tasha McCauley is the only one not directly involved in another effective altruism organisation. Claire Zabel, Nick Beckstead, Eli Rose, Nicole Ross and Zachary Robinson are all current or former Open Philanthropy employees. Nick Beckstead was the chair of the FTX Foundation. The final trustee is Will MacAskill, who wears more hats in effective altruism than it is easy to list. Aside from being participants in the markets, two of them (Nick and Will) are also major public proponents of a particular market 'outcome', namely longtermism (see Nick's thesis and Will's recent book). This is a bit like having the farmers' market mostly run by the orange sellers' association - arguably non-ideal. CEA promotes a particularly longtermism agenda, as does 80k.
I would like to see CEA/EV acting as something like an impartial regulator, civil service, or public service broadcaster, for EA: it should try to impartially manage things, not take a stand. If you want to be outspoken, then that’s fine, but you should probably let someone else take the reins of organising the market. As the Bible puts it, no man can serve two masters.
To be clear, I don't want to blame anyone for the status quo. A charitable and fairly plausible explanation is that the people most passionate about the market would also have views about what the priorities should be - the products it should produce. So the original participants became organisers. But as EA looks to the future, it seems preferable to move to a split. I imagine some organisers might welcome this change - it's awkward to act as something like a politician and a civil servant.
(2) the central market structure lacks accountability to or oversight by its participants.
The farmers' market would be accountable to the local government and ultimately, the electorate. Conspicuously, the Effective Venture Foundation, which contains a number of charities, including the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA), is accountable only to its trustees - and perhaps, practically, its donors - and has no democratic elements. This seems non-ideal. CEA, as its name indicates, to some large extent represents the EA movement as a whole, yet there is no formal representation of the EA movement in its decision-making. As the American revolutionaries might have said in this context, “no representation without representation” (rather than “no taxation without representation”).
(3) there’s only one major buyer.
EA is effectively a monopsony. This is the opposite of a monopoly, that is, where there is only one seller. Open Philanthropy comprises something like 60% of the total purchasing power (from eyeballing Ben Todd's now out-of-date figures). I don't find monopsonies as intuitive as monopolies, but my understanding is that, just like monopolies are bad if you're a buyer, monopsonies are bad if you're a seller. Because there is only one buyer, you get reduced competition and innovation: organisations aren't incentivised to produce goods for other buyers, but instead to focus on what the large buyer wants.
There's been discussion in EA about regranting from the major funders - Open Philanthropy and (formerly) FTX. I take this as recognition that there's an issue with funder concentration.
The combination of (1) - (3) means there’s no/little effective external scrutiny of how EA is run. Who has the incentive, or power, to say “hey guys, is this a great idea?’ who is not already an insider?
There may be lots of other issues too that someone more economically literate would spot.
What should be done?
The most obvious solution for (1) and (2) is to remove the overlap between participants and administrators. One way to do this is for CEA/EV to move to having a partially or fully elected set of trustees. These trustees should ideally not be both ‘poachers’ and ‘gamekeepers’. The central functions in effective altruism strive to be genuinely impartial.
What would the electorate be? Contra Dustin Moskovitz, aka ‘The Sponsor’ who suggests defining the EA community is a ‘non-starter’, there are quite a few options: Giving What We Can members; people who have previously attended EAGs; CEA could become a fee-paying society like many others. I’m sure there are other options. Personally, I like the idea of GWWC members selecting the trustees of CEA: giving 10% is a costly signal and it gives people an incentive to take the pledge. I recognise it's too late to do this for the new round of EV/CEA trustees that are being recruited, so this is something to consider for the future.
CEA could be more accountable and allow for more ‘voice’ from the community, even without reforming its structures. One simple thing would be for the CEO(s) to have 'townhall' meeting at EAGs where people could (anonymously) ask them difficult questions.
I don’t have an easy solution to (3). I think it’s good there is one major buyer, rather than none, and I can’t simply magic up another billionaire. That said, if CEA had democratic elements, it would then have to balance the desires of its major funder with that of the electorate, rather than being so concerned with the former, which seems like progress.
One suggestion for funder concentration that gets mooted is regranting, e.g. Open Phil gives money to a bunch of other people to spend on its behalf. This doesn't seem like a very promising solution and we can see why in light of the market analogy: it’s basically like the rich local landowner giving a lot of money to his mates and telling them to buy things in the farmers’ market. If they buy the same things, nothing changes. If they buy different things, he’ll think it was a bad idea. Either way, it’s only a temporary spike in demand. Perhaps the better solution, if the major donor(s) want the market to exist, is to financially support the existence of an impartial market it does not itself run (I recognise someone might argue this already happens, to some degree).
Possibly, if EA was run more conspicuously as an impartial market, it would attract and retain more large ‘buyers’.
Similarly, the econ-literate folk may spot obvious improvements that have not been obvious to me.
How would all this have helped EA with its recent scandals?
I hope that all of the above seemed sensible without appealing directly to SBF, sexual misdemeanours, or racism. But I do think we can see how it would help, to some extent, with those.
SBF. A question we might ask is: why was Sam Bankman-Fried a problem for the EA community? What does it have to do with the wider community that some guy who identified as EA, and was a donor, seems to have committed an enormous crime? I think we can pick this apart by imagining alternatives.
Suppose a big buyer disappears from the marketplace. This would be unfortunate, but there’s no scandal.
Suppose there's criminality on the part of some people in the marketplace. This raises general issues of community trust, as well as specifically of policing, but it wouldn’t obviously rock things to the core. And we should expect it to happen. People are still people, even if they participate in the maximum altruism market.
Suppose a major buyer collapses, they are engaged in criminal activity, but their staff are also deeply involved in running the market. This is much more serious because it goes right to the heart of the market. It raises questions about whether the core staff were sufficiently attentive to the health and good running of the market as a whole. One perspective on why SBF-gate shocked EA to its very core was that the people working with SBF at his fund were the same key EAs who run the movement/market, and are key participants in it, eg Will MacAskill and Nick Beckstead.
What if EA were organised along the lines suggested above, with a democratically infused CEA that was not a participant in the market?
For one, it would have contained the problem. Imagine FTX had collapsed, but its staff were just ‘ordinary’ EAs and not involved in running anything else. This would have been a much smaller problem, it not clearly so damning for EA as a whole.
For another, democratic elements would have improved scrutiny. With EA run as a very tight group, there was no one who had the incentives, or the power, to ask probing questions like “hey, is this guy legit? Should we really take his money?” I would absolutely have expected someone to ask those questions about SBF at anonymous townhalls, at which point the CEO of CEA would have to at least think about it.
What about Nick Bostrom and his ‘old email’ case? This struck me as a relatively contained scandal exactly because Nick ‘just’ runs a ‘spoke’ in EA, the Future of Humanity Institute, but he doesn’t (also) have a role in the hub. If I'm an apple-seller, I don't think it has much to do with me if the chief cheese dealer has unpleasant views.
Finally, let’s turn to the scandals about sexual behaviour and consider the case of Owen Cotton-Barratt, the trustee of CEA who recently resigned. A couple of things stick out.
One is that it's difficult to police the behaviour of your boss, which is what the community health team had to do. Saliently, the community health knew about the incidents, but didn't raise them to the whole board [Chana Messinger commented on a draft on this that the health team "did bring this to a UK board member" but not the whole board]. What would have happened if the trustees were elected - or at least there was greater scrutiny of CEA? Probably, the community health team would have been more accountable to the wider community and would have felt obliged to tell some or all of board who would, in turn, have felt obliged to tell the rest of the board and then act. At that point, the trustee would have made a public statement and/or resigned. They could still have stood for re-election, meaning the community could decide if the matters were sufficiently serious to merit not being re-elected. At least, it seems far less likely this story would have emerged, years later, in the international press, with an open question over whether the community health team had prioritised its boss over the community.
The other is that Owen was, in addition to being a trustee of CEA, also a leading market participant in his role at the Future of Humanity Institute. As well as being non-ideal in itself, this arguably gave him additional influence that made it harder for the community health team to act.
Regarding the wider reports of EA community members being involved in sexual harassment, the complaint about the status quo is that there is a close-knit group of men who control the jobs and so speaking out is dangerous. But, again, if CEA were accountable to the community and separate from other organisations, it makes it much easier for people to raise issues with CEA, and for CEA to be in a stronger position to, say, warn or ban offenders of events.
The effective altruism community began with a bunch of smart, idealistic, inexperienced young people about 10 years ago. It has become radically, unexpectedly, successful and then exploded into the public consciousness. Its original institutions were designed pretty much as you might expect a friendly, close-knit group to do, and they worked well when EA was small. But it's run into what we might politely call 'growing pains'. Now EA is big, we need - reluctantly - to grow up and develop new institutions that are fit for purpose.
I think it’s possible to conceive of a new, better EA world emerging out of the SBF, and other crises, one set up well for its next stage of growth. To me, that looks like an impartial market centre - or hub - that promotes the general ideas of EA, maintains a level playing field, and keeps the community healthy. And it involves the ‘spokes’, the participants, developing and sharing their ideas for how to do the most good. What's more, it certainly helps me, and I think it might help others, to see their involvement in effective altruism as participating in a market, rather than as an all-encompassing part of their identity.
I also suspect that, if EA is going to survive its many crises and retain some credibility, it needs to make some changes. The attitude I’ve observed from some leading EA is, effectively, “SBF was a bad guy, we were unlucky, things are basically fine. Let’s wait for this to blow over”. I find that disappointing. As Winston Churchill once said, "never let a good crisis go to waste". I fear effective altruists are, collectively, letting this crisis go to waste.
I’ve sketched some basic ideas and I’m curious to hear what people think about them. I’ve deliberately not got into the details of what a free market for maximum altruism would look like, both because that’s not my area and because I want people to focus on the big picture. But I would welcome economists and others to launch themselves at this task in due course.
This might explain why effective altruism is treated with such suspicion by those who are sceptical of capitalism already.