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Cross posted from my blog https://hauke.substack.com/p/populism 

An earlier version of this shallow cause area investigation was funded by legacies.now as a preliminary first step into this cause area and written in early 2020. Thanks to Stefan Schubert and Michael Aird for helpful comments on an earlier version of this manuscript. All opinions and errors are mine. This is an example of "EA consulting". If you're interested in consulting services from me, get in touch at: H@EA.do

Executive summary

This short review explores what a potential philanthropist could fund in the “Decreasing populism, improving democracy, evidence-based policy, and rationality” space.

This document sets out:

  • What populism is, what its impacts and causes are, and who is working on this cause already
  • What a philanthropist could do to tackle the problem

Our analysis informed our ranking of which broad causes are specifically effective to decrease populism, which is based on qualitative subjective impressions. We concluded that improving rationality, institutional decision making and evidence-based policy are particularly promising.

This should just be seen as a rough guide towards finding potentially highly effective interventions.

Throughout the report we highlight concrete ideas of things that a philanthropist could fund. We distinguish between “funding ideas”, which are promising broad areas that could be explored further, and “funding opportunities”, which are a bit more concrete because we have found a non-profit or academic researcher that is already working on a very promising idea or project that seem plausibly highly effective and that could be funded in the very near term. Our rough ranking of promising funding opportunities is as follows:


For instance, our top choice is the Initiative on Global Markets (IGM), a research center at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Specifically, their “Economics Experts Panel”, regularly polls top economists on economic policy questions. A philanthropist could fund this project so that it can be expanded. Basing economic policy on expert consensus should be robustly positive.

What is the problem?


The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘populism’ as a ‘political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups’.

Here, our rough and fuzzy working definition of populism is as follows. We have three defining features that are each sufficient (but not necessary) conditions for a policy to qualify as populist:

We simply contrast populism with liberal democracy.

Thus, populism has any of the following features:

  1. Anti-democratic: For instance, it could be eroding democratic institutions e.g. suppressing votes, consolidating power / eroding separation of powers, suppressing free press etc.
  2. Illiberal: illiberalism happens when minority rights are violated. An example of illiberal democracy is the Swiss Minaret controversy, where a majority banned the building of a Turkish Minaret through a popular referendum.[1]  
    1. There can be all kinds of combinatorics: Illiberal democracy, undemocratic liberalism (e.g. many people in China enjoy comparatively many liberties, but it is not democratic).
  3. Anti-technocratic: Scientific and technical experts contribute to the separation of powers and the checks and balances of modern democratic societies, fulfilling a similar constitutional role to that of legal institutions and a free press.[2] But populists often propose “common sense” solutions at odds with the opinion of experts:

For instance, Daron Acemoglu, a professor at M.I.T. and the most cited economist of the last decade, described U.S. Sanders’s “economists don’t understand basic economics. They are not just dangerous, they are clueless.”.

Another example: a survey of eminent economists agreed with the statement: “Because of the Brexit vote's outcome, the UK's real per-capita income level is likely to be lower a decade from now than it would have been otherwise.”.[3] Crucially, we define making the case for Brexit on economic grounds as populist, even if it would not harm minority rights nor be undemocratic. Anti-technocratic policy contrasts with evidence-based policy.

How important and neglected is it?

Importance - what’s the scale of the problem?

[Post World War 2,] developed democracies in North America, western Europe and beyond appeared to be remarkably stable. Moderate parties and politicians were dominant. Independent institutions were strong. A broad political consensus created a sense that the future was highly predictable.[4]

In contrast, in recent years, populism has increased. The Democracy Index measures electoral process and pluralism; the functioning of government; political participation; political culture; and civil liberties in 165 countries. In 2019, the average global score decreased to the worst average global score since the first edition of the index in 2006.[5]

Votes as a share of total votes for populist parties have gone up recently:

Figure 1: The global rise of populism. Taken from [6]

Populism is also here to stay in the 2020s.[7]

Many major countries have been described as now being governed by some form of populism:

  • China
  • India
  • United States
  • United Kingdom
  • Russia
  • European countries (e.g. Visegrád Group)

A recent study of presidential-term-limit evasion since 2000, found about one-third of all presidents who reached the end of their term made a serious attempt to overstay—two-thirds of those succeeded.[8] None of these attempts involved ignoring the constitution outright- most used constitutional rules and amendments to circumvent term limits. They also found that courts were mostly ineffectual in stopping these attempts and in fact sometimes validate the president’s attempt to remain past his term. The authors argue that building broad resistance movements might be more effective than putting their faith in courts.[9]

“The citizens of wealthy, established democracies are less satisfied with their governments than they have been at any time since opinion polling began. Most scholars have interpreted this as a sign of dissatisfaction with particular governments rather than with the political system as a whole. Drawing on recent public opinion data, we suggest that this optimistic interpretation is no longer plausible. Across a wide sample of countries in North America and Western Europe, citizens of mature democracies have become markedly less satisfied with their form of government and surprisingly open to nondemocratic alternatives. A serious democratic disconnect has emerged. If it widens even further, it may begin to challenge the stability of seemingly consolidated democracies.” [10]

Further reading: Is Democracy a Fad? - EA Forum

How large is the group it affects and how badly does it affect them?

Populism might have legitimate positive economic consequences, for instance by providing an opportunity to reassess the agenda of economic liberalism, increasing the accountability of technocratic institutions, or improving the economic integration of excluded segments of the population[11]. However, populism has costs such as corruption, increasing economic uncertainty, and most importantly undermining technocratic institutions, which on average should make better decisions.

These costs of populism are large, but hard to quantify. Some relevant examples that might be representative, but not exclusive:

  • Cost of Brexit: Estimates range from ~$90B (or $1,250 per year per person for ever) [12] to $250B.[13]
  • China: Jinping is concentrating power (e.g. less collective leadership, ending of presidential two term limits[14]).More than 1 million Muslims have disappeared into a network of prisons and internment camps since 2016, with reports of torture, sexual violence and deaths.[15],[16]
  • India: Modi might have actively helped organize deadly anti-Muslim riots, murder of journalists who investigate him and judges who rule against him, and supresses free press.[17] India is also building detention camps.[18] The argument that Modi’s net effect is nevertheless good despite human rights violations might be false, because recent GDP growth figures might have been manipulated.[19]
  • Latin America: IMF reports Venezuela GDP reduced by 35% in 2019.[20]
  • Trump trade war: US welfare losses of 0.66%-0.75% [21] or reduce U.S. real GDP by and real consumption ~0.3% each.[22]
  • Increasing protectionism: Guarding against protectionism and not losing the growth from trade might be very important: one study suggest that an “increase in tariffs to average bound rates of 44.7 percent in highly protectionist countries such as India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka would translate into a decline in real income in South Asia by 4.2 percent or welfare losses of close to US$125 billion relative to the baseline by 2020”. Freer trade can decrease infant mortality.[23] For instance, one natural experiment suggests that a US trade agreement with Sub-saharan Africa caused infant mortality to drop by ~9%. Another study found trade liberalization reduced child mortality in ~50% of developing countries they looked at and in most of those countries child mortality was reduced by more than 20%. [24] If these studies are broadly correct, then the humanitarian consequences of trade wars could be very large. Both populists on the left and right are often protectionist.
  • Aid budgets might also often be reduced or tied by populists with perhaps disastrous humanitarian consequences.
  • Populists also often question the legitimacy of central banks' independence.[25]
  • Covid, the financial crisis, the refugee crisis are trillion $ disasters that might have been averted by better governance (see e.g. Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro says coronavirus crisis is a media trick).
  • Finally, it is plausible that populism, with its central message of national sovereignty (“Take back control”), might destabilize international relations and, at worst, increase the risk of war.

Overall, populism and its threat to liberal democracy and global stability is one of the most important causes of our time.

Neglectedness: who else is working on this? What sorts of activities do they fund?

As funding for a field increases, constant and then diminishing returns to scale set in. This is because the low-hanging philanthropic fruits get picked and more work in the same area is less effective. For instance, the first few researchers who publish on the root causes of populism might be highly effective to fund, because of their novelty value and because they cover most of the ground. But the 100th paper on a topic is, all else being equal, likely not as valuable.

According to the law of logarithmic utility—which has been applied to research funding [26]—a simple rule of thumb is that a dollar is worth 1/X times as much if you are X times richer, and so the next dollar donated say at the $500,000 funding mark might have 10x as much impact as the dollar donated after the $5,000,000 mark.

Given the wide mainstream interest the topic of democracy, there is good a priori reason to assume that the philanthropic sector funds it relatively well.

For instance, there are many big foundations with programs around democracy and evidence-based policy. Three of the biggest ones are:

  • Open Society Foundation 
    • Endowment: $20 billion
    • Program names: Democratic Practice, Journalism, Economic Governance, Rights, etc. [27]
  • Hewlett foundation
    • Endowment: $9 billion
    • Program name: “Government and civil society”; $25mn/year
  • Also funds investigative journalism
    • MacAuthor Foundation
    • Endowment: $6bn
    • Program name: Strengthening American Democracy

One analysis suggests that in the past 10 years or ~$7bn where donated to strengthen US democracy (~$.7bn on Campaigns, Elections, and Voting; $2.5bn on civic participation, $2.5bn on government, and $2bn Media)[28]

Journalism in particular might be particularly neglected, because ad revenue fell by roughly half in the last 10 years or so.[29] Funding for journalism seems ~100mn/year.[30][31]

Causes of populism

Here, in our simplified model, demand for populism is caused by economic stagnation and insufficient education or disinformation.

There are many economic reasons for populism.[32] A review on the economic drivers of populism singles out unemployment, stagnating incomes, and personal as well as regional inequalities.[33] We review some of the causes here.

Economic causes


US: A seminal economics paper by David Autor and colleagues[34] finds that greater exposure to import competition from China in the US counties led to “an increasing market share for the FOX News channel, stronger ideological polarization in campaign contributions, and a disproportionate rise in the likelihood of electing a Republican to Congress” Autor et al. show these “trade shocks” may have been directly responsible for Trump winning in 2016.

UK: Similarly, import competition from China has been causally implicated to increase votes for Brexit. Crucially, the competition from inflow of imports and increased Brexit votes more than the competition of inflow of immigrants.[35] Another study also find that [36] exposure to the EU immigration explains Brexit votes well—and the same goes for EU trade. Instead, the authors argue, voting for Brexit can be better predicted by low education, income, and high unemployment (due to overdependence on manufacturing).

Other papers suggest that austerity and broader measures of economic insecurity increase populism. For instance, increased labour-market insecurity has been linked to the rise of the far-right in Sweden.


As shown above, migration plausibly explains some populism, but, as mentioned, perhaps less than trade and even less than technological unemployment (see next section). Thus, there will likely be more effective policies to support.

However, given that migration restrictions are the biggest economic distortions there are[37] supporting immigration with more graduated, controlled and dispersed inflow might be very effective. One could also advocate for increased government spending in areas settled by recent immigrants to protect local public services, threshold language requirements for citizenship, and leadership of international programmes to settle refugees near their country of origin.[38]

Technological unemployment

A seminal paper from 2013 estimated that almost half of all US jobs were at risk from computerization, automation and robotization.[39]

Some studies find that robotization and automation reduces employment.[40] One study suggests that only one more robot per thousand workers reduces the employment to population ratio by about 0.18-0.34 percentage points and wages by 0.25-0.5%.[41]

Crucially, it does so much more than trade: for instance, in the US manufacturing in the 2000s only on the order of 10% of jobs were lost due to import competition.[42]

However, others have found that there is no evidence yet of the automation revolution hypothesis.[43]

Nevertheless, it seems more plausible that there could be more job losses due to automation in the future. For instance, a recent paper projects that job losses due to artificial intelligence (especially autonomous long-distance trucks, automated customer service responses, and industrial robotics) in the next 5 years will increase populism.[44]

Even if new jobs are created and unemployment is low,[45] the threat of automation increases employers bargaining power and suppresses wages.[46]

Stagnant wage growth and under- and unemployment

The factors above might lead to unemployment, but also underemployment,[47] declining job quality[48] and stagnant wage growth,[49] that has not kept up with productivity increases of recent decades (though this effect has been overstated).[50]

Perhaps a more distal cause of frustration is slowing GDP growth generally. This might be because low hanging growth fruit have been plugged (i.e. “ideas are getting harder to find”[51]) and there is less return to additional research and development.[52] Thus, growth might slow in advanced economies and never go back to high growth rates of the past.[53] Such a “natural law” might be very difficult to counteract.

One study finds a strong relationship between increases in unemployment and voting for populists.[54]

How to reduce unemployment effectively? The Open Philanthropy Project argues that looser central bank policy (lower interest rates) ”relative to the current baseline would carry net benefits is that, at roughly their current rates, we see unemployment as more costly in humanitarian terms than inflation.” [55],[56]

The Open Philanthropy Project has recently funded Dezernat Zukunft to support its work on monetary and fiscal policy in Europe. From their grant report:

“Currently run by volunteers, Dezernat Zukunft is a nonpartisan German think tank that seeks to gear European monetary and fiscal policies towards encouraging employment gains and sharing prosperity more widely. Dezernat Zukunft plans to use these funds to increase its organizational capacity, specifically by hiring a full-time staff person, and to support its ability to disseminate innovative macroeconomic policy proposals among policymakers, the press, and the general public.”[57]

Funding opportunity: Though German opposition to inflation is understandably deep-rooted and this might decrease the tractability, topping up the grant for Dezernat Zukunft might be a good way to reduce unemployment and thus populism on a macro-level.

Inequality, Populism, and Redistribution

A recent survey of top economists showed that there’s consensus amongst economists that rising inequality is straining the health of liberal democracy.[58] Many but not all economists agreed that “enacting more redistributive expenditures and policies might limit the rise of populism in Europe” and that “European governments should allocate more resources to policies that would be likely to limit the rise of populism in Europe, even if it means higher public debt or lower public spending in other areas.” One paper provides empirical evidence for this by showing that redistribution can reduce voting for populists.[59] Other papers suggest that economic insecurity[60], labor market insecurity[61] and austerity[62] can increase populism.

Given broad support by the whole left political spectrum and strong push-back from the right, we do not think that increasing philanthropic support for reducing inequality is neither neglected nor tractable.

Funding idea: One particularly effective way to influence policy might be to advocate for a different economic index beyond GDP.[63] One example is the World Economic Forum’s The Inclusive Development Index. The key idea here would be that, even if the likelihood of such an index being adapted is small, getting many policy makers and stakeholders to optimize around a measure that would reduce populism more might have a large absolute effect on populism. This intervention would interface at a higher level than, say, making monetary policy better directly, because all policy makers, including central bankers, would start optimizing for something that takes into account inequality. Thus, advocating for a new measure “beyond GDP” might have very high value in expectation, but is likely a very risky project to fund.

Conclusion: Economic causes

In sum, the literature suggests that populism to a large extent driven by economic causes. Increased migration has a small effect on increasing populism; the effect of trade on populism is bigger but not as big as inequality, stagnant wages, and technological unemployment due to automation. Generally, economic policy is hard to affect through philanthropy and as such this does not seem to be a very tractable cause. Economic policy is also not very neglected by various stakeholders (e.g. political parties have very strong opinions on trade policy).

Non-economic reasons

Lack of Education

Aside from purely economic causes, lack of education might also lead to increased support for populist. One study suggests that Brexit could be better explained by educational rather than economic inequality.[64] Less education has also been shown to the best predictor of voting for Trump[65] and Le Pen.[66]

In terms of philanthropy, increasing levels of general levels of education seems costly and not very neglected. However it does seem tractable to advocate for spending on education.

Disinformation and polarization (through social media)

One paper suggests that Russian Twitter bots have affected the election by causing ~1.76 percentage points of the 'Leave' vote share and might have also affected the 2016 US election. [67] (though one recent review [68], cites a study that suggests that being exposed to fake news during the US 2016 was likely small and has not affected the final outcome). [69] Another recent modelling paper suggests that a small number of strategically placed bots can influence the choices of undecided voters. [70] (Also see Ministers ‘actively avoided’ probe into Russian interference in Brexit vote).

We list funding opportunities below under “computational propaganda”.

Other factors reducing populism

What could a philanthropist do?

Demand side responses: Rationality, education, information, journalism and critical thinking

Increasing rationality

Spreading rationality might reduce populism and increase rationality.

  • Funding idea: Julia Galef is a public intellectual and host of a rationality podcast.
    • Her new book on rationality “The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don't” will be published by Penguin in 2021. The book aims to help people make better decisions by showing how to:
      • gather information from multiple sources
      • weigh up short and long term gains
      • overcome inherent biases
      • transcend tribal thinking
      • avoid self-deception
  • Funding idea: The University of Cambridge recently opened the “Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence”. Their mission is to:
    • “Seek out the evidence about issues important to people’s lives, and ensure that it is presented to them in such a way as to make the potential for both risk and benefit as clear as possible.
    • Reach as many people as possible with evidence relevant to them, and to use feedback and research to be constantly improving its communication efforts.
    • Share its own knowledge and experience with others in order to encourage global adoption of the best known methods of communicating quantitative evidence clearly and without bias”
    • For instance, the Winton Centre has projects on how best to communicate uncertainty and quality of evidence (e.g. for journalists)


General Education spending

“We won with poorly educated- I love the poorly educated” Donald Trump[73]

As mentioned above education can often predict populism better than income. Thus one funding idea might be to try to increase education budgets globally. One way to do this: create or push an index of educational spending,[74] highlight Pisa results or other international comparisons to create “Race to the top”. Or: Fund Our World in Data for more on Education spending (see their current work on “Financing Education”).

However, advocacy for more education is very mainstream and does not seem particularly neglected.

It’s importance is also unclear - from The Case Against Education: “Abundant research confirms education raises support for civil liberties and tolerance, and reduces racism and sexism. These effects are only partly artifactual. Correcting for intelligence cuts education’s impact by about a third. Correcting for intelligence, income, occupation, and family background slices education’s impact in half. All corrections made, education fosters a package of socially liberal views.

At the same time, abundant research also confirms education raises support for capitalism, free markets, and globalization. These effects, too, are partly artifactual. Correcting for intelligence cuts education’s impact by about 40%. Correcting for intelligence, income, demographics, party, and ideology halves it.35 But when all corrections are done, education fosters a package of economically conservative views.”

Further reading: Higher Education Can Help Protect Democracy from Authoritarianism, Says New Georgetown University Report

Civic Education

Funding ideas:

  • Increase the budget for “Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung”: “Civic education, which is aimed at socializing the citizenry into the main values of liberal democracy and, although not always openly, warning about the dangers of extremist challengers. Probably the most elaborate civic education program exists in Germany, which even has a separate government agency charged with carrying it out—the Federal Office for Civic Education (BpB). Overall, civic education can strengthen democratic beliefs and explain the relevance of pluralism, which can play an important role in preventing populist attitudes. Strong warnings against extremist forces can backfire, however, particularly among groups who are already more distrustful of the political establishment and more sympathetic to populist actors.“
  • Debating societies - for instance an initiative to debunk conspiracies.


Funding idea: One UK policy paper has suggested the UK government should introduce new tax reliefs aimed at encouraging (i) payments for online news content and (ii) the provision of local and investigative journalism. Such a tax cut might massively increase the supply of high-quality journalism on a macro level.[75] More research could investigate whether there are advocacy opportunities in this regard.

Other funding idea: Investigative journalism: Bellingcat is an investigative journalism website that specializes in fact-checking and open-source intelligence (OSINT).Bellingcat runs workshops aiming to teach participants the core skills required for open source investigation 

Information spreading

Gapminder Foundation

The Gapminder Foundation founded by Hans Rosling, the author of factfulness, promotes “sustainable global development and achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals by increased use and understanding of statistics and other information about social, economic and environmental development at local, national and global levels.”

The Gapminder foundation is supported by the Gates and Ikea foundation amongst others.[76]

Our World in Data

Funding opportunity: One way to reduce populism is to give activists the tools to expose and debunk populist “common sense” arguments (see for instance “Expose, debunk, ridicule, resist! Networked civic monitoring of populist radical right online action in Finland”).

The Effective Altruism Meta Fund has funded Our World in Data. As for the rationale they write:

Our World in Data produces research relevant to addressing the world’s biggest problems. It makes this research accessible and understandable through data visualizations and clear analysis reports. All work is freely available to the public.

Categories: Information-leverage, scale-stage

In a world where misinformation is a major problem, we see considerable upside in funding organisations trying to make it more likely that decision-makers act based on truthful information. Often, this data exists but is difficult to access and interpret. Our World in Data (OWID) aims to address this by publishing clear, relevant, open-source analysis on a range of important issues. It targets a large audience and ranks high in relevant Google searches, entirely through organic growth.

OWID has some evidence that there is a trend towards even senior decision-makers ‘asking Google’ where they would have previously had an aide do a research project. If this is true, then OWID’s goal of getting compelling, ready-to-use data and charts high in search rankings seems potentially valuable for aiding evidence-based decision making.

Much of OWID’s work is directly relevant to effective causes; for example, see its reports on technological progressgenome sequencingpeacekeepingmeat productionmental health, and smoking. Given how much we've seen OWID data used in research focused on solving high-impact problems, we saw this as an additional reason to support its work.

OWID’s audience is still growing very quickly. The site had over 1 million unique users last month, double its average monthly visitors in 2018. OWID is among the top Google results for a number of keyword searches, such as CO2 emissions and extreme poverty. 60% of users find OWID through organic search. OWID is referenced extensively in media and education; see its data on viewership and media coverage here.

OWID also aims to counter society’s fatalism, prompt appreciation for progress in human flourishing, and inspire us to work toward further advancement. Although success here is hard to measure, the group seems to be making some progress. OWID was listed as the source for 25 out of 75 graphs in Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, and Bill Gates tweeted the cleverly framed ‘World as 100 People’ infographic to much praise. OWID further discuss their motivation here.

The OWID team is surprisingly small. We had assumed the group had a large research and support staff, but it has only 6.5 FTE equivalent. The team went through Y Combinator last year, and they seem highly capable and experienced.

OWID is fundraising £500,000 for 2020, which will allow it to expand its team, particularly to hire more developers (it currently has only two). OWID seems to have accomplished a lot with a very small team, and we expect that growing the team further will be very valuable for their work. OWID projects we are excited for in 2020 include a deep report on the history of war, the development of the OWID grapher (an open-source tool that anyone can use to make their own visualizations), and plans to transform the OWID database into a fully searchable and manipulatable library.”[77]


A production of one video will cost ~$50-100k. Videos have on the order of 1mn views, so cost-effectiveness is likely ~$0.05/view.

Kurzgesagt has received funding from the Gates Foundation to cover global health and development topics.[78] Kurzgesagt can be contracted to develop material.

The Open Philanthropy Project has written a blog post on the cost-effectiveness of documentary films within animal welfare.[79]

In contrast, shows like Kurzgesagt, Last Week Tonight, or Justice have the advantage that a certain number of views are guaranteed, because viewers tune in and they have many subscribers and followers on their Social media accounts.

Last week tonight

  • “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” is a “long-form”, “investigative journalism” weekly TV show that takes 20 minutes to explain relatively complex issues for a TV show.
  • The show often covers politically progressive topics, and they are often related to populism. For instance, it has often covered Trump many times[80], but also Xi Jinping, Modi, Voting machines, and Alex Jones. The show seems fact-checked very well.
  • Importance: We estimate that the show attracts around 10 million viewers per episode.
  • "John Oliver Effect": “The show segments on major societal issues, such as the "Chickens" or "Bail" segments, were soon followed by real-world change and action on said issues by the public, policymakers and/or other institutions. One of the most commonly cited examples of this is Oliver's first Net Neutrality segment which allegedly led to more than 45,000 comments being sent to the FCC”[81]
  • Neglectedness: The show has been funded by an EA-aligned foundation Arnold Ventures and been mentioned by one analyst who works at the Open Philanthropy Project.[82]
  • Funding idea: It might be possible to fund Last Week Tonight to improve their content or focus more on populism. However, it is likely difficult to give to the show or suggest programming.

Research on populism

Funding opportunity: Fund an academic researcher working on on populism:

Professor Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser researches populism (e.g. he is the editor of “The Oxford Handbook of Populism”). He is based in Chile, so he might be relatively cost-effective to fund and speaks fluent German.

Nic Cheeseman is Professor of Democracy and International Development at University of Birmingham. He is the author of ‘Democracy in Africa: Successes, failures and the struggle for political reform’ (CUP, 2015) and co-author of the new book ‘How to Rig an Election’ (YUP, 2018). Professor Cheeseman also regularly provides analysis to governments around the world, and is an advisor to, and writer for, Kofi Annan's African Progress Panel.

Michael Sandel

Michael Sandel is a Professor of Political Philosophy at Harvard.[83] He is widely recognized as one of the most skilled orators alive today. Sandel’s civic education efforts have reached a very-wide audience. His online lecture series “Justice - What’s the right thing to do?” several million views each.

In Korea, he lectured in front 14,000 people on ethics:

Figure 2: Michael Sandel lectures about ethics in a stadium in South Korea (link to video)

His new book is on populism “The Tyranny of Merit - What’s Become of the Common Good?” will be published in 2020.

Funding opportunity: Fund Professor Sandel to boost his civic education efforts, especially his book tour for his book on populism and putting this book into an online lecture format.

English language education

Fostering English language learning improves access to more content. This might improve international relations. Learning English also increases wages.[84]

Fund idea: One could perhaps invest in English language learning apps (e.g. English language learning apps are popular in China[85]). This might be an interesting idea for a very conservative, cautious funder. Teaching people to communicate and open up more reading material could be argued to be very robustly good. However, language learning due to its strong economic incentives for individuals seems not be very neglected nor do we see a shovel-ready project here.

Supply side: Bolstering Democracy, combatting populism

Elections and voting

Funding opportunity: Verified Voting Foundation advocates for the use of paper ballots in the US. Russian hackers tried to tamper with voting systems in 21 states during the 2016 US presidential election[86] Switching back to paper ballots might increase trust in election results, allows recounts, and makes it harder for populists not accept the results of elections. [87]

Funding opportunity: Center for Election Science that promotes alternative voting methods to plurality voting, with an emphasis on cardinal methods and a special focus on approval voting. [88] From the Open Philanthropy Project grant report:

“We see voting system reform as a neglected area with potential to facilitate more qualified candidates, increase competition and reduce hyper-partisanship in elections, and ultimately lead to improved policy decisions. Insofar as other voting systems may be superior to plurality systems, it is because they may better realize a community’s electoral preferences, whatever those may be. These systems provide no structural advantages or disadvantages to either the Democratic or Republican parties or to any single politician.”

Funding opportunity: Vote.org: Uses voter registration to increase voter turnout in the United States to increase democratic participation. “Vote.org, a nonpartisan group, spent $658,000 in the final four weeks of the [Alabama] race in a targeted effort to increase black turnout, according to the group’s founder, Debra Cleaver.”

However, voter turnout might actually increase support for the currently strongly populist Republican party.[89] Generally, voter turnout reduces populism, but the effect is complicated.[90]

Relevant book: 'Get Out The Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout'

Funding idea: Relatedly, Compulsory voting might have a range of advantages (such as reducing vote buying)[91], but also disadvantages, but might also increase support for populist parties.[92] Further research could investigate what whether advocating for compulsory voting is positive on net, and whether funding opportunities exist (see for instance[93][94]).

Combatting Computational propaganda

“AI will cause changes in the political security landscape, as the arms race between production and detection of misleading information evolves and states pursue innovative ways of leveraging AI to maintain their rule. [...] For instance, during both the Syrian Civil War and the 2016 US election bots appeared to actively try to sway public opinion. [...]

Greater scale and sophistication of autonomous software actors in the political sphere is technically possible with existing AI techniques.” [96]

Increased cell phone coverage might have lead to increased political violence in Africa.[97]

Funding opportunities:

Further reading:

“Recommender systems at top tech firms: The technology involved in recommender systems—such as those used by Facebook or Google—may turn out to be important for positively shaping progress in AI safety, as argued here. Improving recommender systems may also help provide people with more accurate information and potentially improve the quality of political discourse.” from https://80000hours.org/2020/08/other-problems/

Top-down: Evidence-based policy / Improving institutional decision-making

80k highlights the importance of institutional decision making:

“Improving decision-making also seems more neglected than other ways of trying to “improve the system”, such as education, suggesting this work is more effective. People often argue for investing in education, or for certain kinds of political reform, for similar reasons we’ve given here: because these things will help us better tackle all kinds of problems.

For instance, the US government spends around 4.6% of GDP on education (800 billion dollars),18 and in a survey of the top 100 US foundations by GiveWell US education accounted for 15% of spending, beaten only by healthcare.19 By contrast, there are no sources of government funding or charitable efforts explicitly directed at improving institutional decision-making processes in the ways we’ve discussed. By contrast, despite the potential importance of artificial intelligence in the 21st century, we could only identify a handful of people working on systematic methods to forecast its speed of development and likely impacts (we interviewed one of those researchers on our podcast).

What’s more, there’s reason to think that focusing on institutions directly might be a more effective way to improve decision-making than a broad approach to improved education, as it targets a smaller set of people who already have a lot of influence, and focuses more on institutional processes.”[98]

In the following sections we highlight a few ways to improve institutional decision making.

Fostering more independent commissions and monitoring

Funding idea: One intervention to improve institutional decision making could be to foster independent monitoring of government departments. For instance, in the UK, the “Independent Commission for Aid Impact” scrutinises UK aid spending. It might be good to advocate for the setting up of independent commissions for every major department in government.

Relatedly, in some areas “Red teaming” might be useful (“A common tool in cybersecurity and military practice, where a “red team” composed of security experts deliberately plans and carries out attacks against the systems and practices of the organization (with some limitations to prevent lasting damage), with an optional “blue team” responding to these attacks.”).

Aggregating expert consensus

Aggregating expert consensus might decrease populism by reducing the faith put in common sense approaches.

For instance, IGM Economic Experts Panel regularly polls top economists on economic policy questions (e.g. on macroeconomic stability: Economists generally agree that a common European deposit insurance scheme, once fully implemented, would increase the stability of European economies in the event of another financial crisis and perhaps decrease the likelihood of another financial crisis.[99]). 

Funding opportunity: One could fund the IGM booth to further and expand their work (perhaps even into other areas aside from economics such as health advice). Basing economic policy on expert consensus should be robustly positive. They are now collaborating with FiveThirtyEight (see What Economists Fear Most During This RecoveryFiveThirtyEight/IGM COVID-19 Economic Outlook Survey Series Round 03).

Relevant paper: Expert Elicitation: Using the Classical Model to Validate Experts’ Judgments

Prediction markets

Prediction markets are exchange-traded markets created for the purpose of trading the outcome of events. The market prices can indicate what the crowd thinks the probability of the event is. Prediction markets have a strong track record of outperforming other forecasting mechanisms across a wide range of contexts — from predicting election outcomes and economic trends to guessing Oscar winners.

Furthering the use of prediction market might help increase the accuracy of forecasts for important policy issues. In the context of climate change, market participants could, for example, bet on important climate outcomes conditioned on the adoption of particular policies. For instance, a prediction market that accurately forecasts how high carbon taxation will be in the future might be highly relevant for policy.[100]

Funding opportunities:

Doing more fundamental research to identify new techniques

80,000 hours highlights career opportunities in doing fundamental research on improving institutional decision making. These could also be funding opportunities:

“You could also try to do more fundamental research; developing new techniques and approaches to improved judgement and decision-making, and then testing them. This is more pressing if you don’t think the existing techniques are very good.

One example of an open question in this area is: how do we judge “good reasoning” when we don’t have objective answers to a question? (i.e. when we can’t just judge answers/contributions based on whether they lead to accurate predictions or answers we know to be true.) Two examples of current research programmes related to this question are IARPA’s Crowdsourcing Evidence, Argumentaion, Thinking and Evaluation (CREATE) programme and Philip Tetlock’s Making Conversations Smarter, Faster (MCSF) project, so you could try to get involved with one of the teams working on these projects.”

Further Reading

Relevant people

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It seems strange to call populism anti-democratic.

My understanding is that populists usually want more direct voter control over policy. The populist positions on immigration and international trade seem like stereotypical examples of conflicts where populists side with the average voter more than do the technocrats who they oppose.

Please don't equate anti-democratic with bad. It seems mostly good to have democratic control over the goals of public policy, but let's aim for less democratic control over factual claims.

Sorry for being unclear, I didn't mean that populism must necessarily be anti-democratic- I've made a small edit to say that populism has any of the three features 'anti-democratic, illiberal, or anti-technocratic' to make this more clear - thanks for the feedback!

I've used my own rough and fuzzy definition of populism as a bit of a catch-all term for some things that are not liberal democracy, where illiberalism violates minority rights. So for example the Swiss Minaret controversy, where a majority banned the building of a Turkish Minaret through a popular referendum, I call populist here, despite being democratic. But you could replace 'populism' with another term, but I think it's not worth to get hung up on definitions.

Please don't equate anti-democratic with bad. It seems mostly good to have democratic control over the goals of public policy, but let's aim for less democratic control over factual claims.

Yes, agreed- I don't think direct democracy  (a la Switzerland) is always better. But yes, in the long-term  policy goals should ideally not be 'anti-democratic', even if they're technocratic and not very  illiberal (like the King of Jordan).  If you have too much technocracy and too little democratic accountability that might lead to populist backlash (see David Autor's studies on trade I cite here or Peter Singer's case against migration). So let's aim for whatever create most utility on the margin, which can sometimes be more democratic control (Jordan, but not Switzerland), sometimes more technocracy (e.g. US left), and sometimes more liberalism (e.g. US right).

This is a very comprehensive report, thanks for posting.

Given that education is seen as a strong predictor of populist attitudes, it is interesting  that  many  interventions listed on the demand side  seem to target highly educated people (e.g. Our World in Data,  Factfullness,  Journalism, Fact checking in general, BPB). The Youtube channel Kurzgesagt and some things Last week tonight comes up with (e.g. the wrestler John Cena warning against conspiracy theories) seem a  bit better.  You mention research how they might affect policy, but it would also be interesting how they affect the attitudes of the broader audience in general.

Still, information spreading explicitly and effectively  targeted towards  people at risk of populist attitudes (older, less educated) seems kind of rare? Where are the civic education memes that can be shared in boomer facebook groups?  E.g. to combat conspiracy theories, I see a lot of videos with experts explaining the issue in simple terms, when this is exactly the kind of people that populists consider to be the elite not to be trusted.   

Excellent point.

I think there's a continuum going from highly educated to those that are most at risk of populism.

I haven't researched this carefully but my hunch is there are actually lots of translation of civic education memes to people who are at risk of populism (not only from experts). It seems to me that on the margin,  high-quality, easily -accessible information for educated people is more neglected.

related citation: IQ of the top 5% better at predicting GDP - does that suggest that increasing the epistemics of the TOP 5% is better than combating fake news? Cognitive Capitalism: The Effect of Cognitive Ability on Wealth, as Mediated Through Scientific Achievement and Economic Freedom

Stefan Schubert also thinks about this this sometimes:





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I appreciate that you did a cause report on this topic! I'm also interested in finding good ways to protect and improve liberal democracy.

I disagree with your assessment that "Generally, economic policy is hard to affect through philanthropy and as such this does not seem to be a very tractable cause." In the most recent 80,000 Hours interview, Alexander Berger cited macroeconomic stabilization as an Open Phil success story:

...we have funded for several years around macroeconomic stabilization policy. And I think the federal reserve and macroeconomic policymakers in the U.S. have really moved in our direction and adopted a lot of more expansionary policies and become more focused on increasing employment, relative to worrying about inflation. I think it’s really hard to attribute impact, so I’m not sure how much of that has to do with our funding, but it’s an area where I think the world has really moved our way, and we might’ve played a small role in that, and the stakes I think are quite high in terms of human wellbeing there. So I see that as a big win.

Also, anecdotally, I think there's been a lot of movement in the U.S. toward "free-market progressive" policies on zoning reform, occupational licensing, and non-competes. For example, several U.S. municipalities have abolished single-family zoning, and the Biden administration recently issued an executive order targeting occupational licensing and non-competes. And I think the YIMBY movement has grown a lot. All of these reforms would likely promote economic growth and reduce inequality in my opinion. So I'm a lot more optimistic about economic reforms.

I suggest looking into two organizations:

  • Niskanen Center: One of their key policy areas is defending liberal democracy (a.k.a. the open society) from authoritarian populism.
  • The Neoliberal Project / Center for New Liberalism aims to push back against left- and right-populism by building a movement around a new "neoliberal" political identity. Their theory of change is that politics is organized around group identities by default, so in order to create policy change, you need to create a new political identity around advocating for a set of policies. They have chapters around the world that do local political advocacy, like the YIMBY movement does. (Disclaimer: I've been very involved in online neoliberal politics.)

Yes, agree that there are some low-hanging fruit for economic reform and progress can be made. I actually cite OPP's macroeconomic stabilization policy efforts in the post that Alex Berger refers to. But as he says impact is hard to attribute, and given that their funding of this area seems somewhat small, I'd be surprised if you could lower interest rates of central banks significantly with only a few million dollars in advocacy funding. 

I agree that there's some progress on '"free-market progressive" policies on zoning reform, occupational licensing, and non-competes', and that there maybe is room for more progress.

But do you think it has  already translated into meaningful consumption increases in the lower income deciles?

There are some interesting numbers e.g. on land use reform in an FP report on zoning reform:


that suggest that the effects might be non-trivial if you can get them through. But I think one would have to do quite a bit of advocacy. For things like occupational licensing and zoning and non-compete, trade, macroeconomic policy you get quite strong push-back from vested interests and rent-seekers. 

As I say in the next sentence: "Economic policy is also not very neglected by various stakeholders (e.g. political parties have very strong opinions on trade policy).

This contrasts with other things like preventing misinformation, which it seems to me you can often make more progress on, with less backlash.

Yeah, this makes total sense.

Debating societies - for instance an initiative to debunk conspiracies.

When it comes to debunking conspiracy theories, the right way to do it is by looking at the evidence. 

Debating societies are inherently about making clever arguments without looking at the evidence. That's not helpful for getting people to deal better with conspiracy theories. 

The abstract for reference 92 suggests that compulsory voting reduces rather than increases support for populist parties. Compulsory voting seems very promising to me!

Just looked at the paper, my prior was that I made a mistake... but I think the paper does actually argue that compulsory voting causes populism and voluntary voting reduces populism - the double negation makes it hard to interpret. See:

• The abolition of compulsory voting in the Netherlands provides a unique quasi-experiment.

• The persistence of compulsory voting in Belgium also provides a most similar control case.

• Analyses of these data reveal voluntary voting benefits Dutch social democratic parties.

"We use a quasi-experimental framework to test the conventional wisdom that left-of-center parties benefit from higher turnout by analyzing the partisan effects of the abolition of compulsory voting in the Netherlands. Fixed effects, multilevel, and matching models of party family vote shares in the Netherlands before and after the reform–and in reference to a control group of Belgian party families–show consistent evidence the voting reform led to an increase in the vote share of Dutch social democratic parties and a decrease in the vote share won by minor and extreme parties."

"We take advantage of the close similarity between the Netherlands and Belgium to measure vote shares for the Dutch parties in a quasi-natural experiment vis-à-vis a comparable and contemporaneous Belgian control group. Contrary to the conventional wisdom and a stream of the literature, we find the decrease in turnout in post-1970 Netherlands contributed to a significant boost in vote share for social democratic (on the order of 8.5 points) and liberal (on the order of 2.2 points) parties in the Netherlands. The increase in the vote share of liberal parties, however, does not appear to be causally related to the reform in voting. This increase in vote share is at the expense of minor and ideologically extreme parties."

but the effect seems somewhat inconsistent: "Parties on the extreme ends of the spectrum exhibit different effects of the reform. Right wing parties lose vote share, but only when Belgian parties are included in the model. Dutch left wing parties also lose vote share, but the effect is nonsignificant when Belgian data is added to the model."

Politicians like to ask, "Are you better off now than you were 4 years ago?"
I like to ask, "Do you understand and respect more people than you did 4 years ago?"
A couple can get rich and still divorce. A country can prosper and still develop many fault lines. But if we deliberately work at understanding and respecting others, we become more moderate, we enjoy better relationships, and we build a better foundation to cooperate with others.

I have a number of related ideas about this. You can read more here:

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