[Review and notes] How Democracy Ends - David Runciman

Good writeup, thank you!

It strikes me that the populist claim ("...that democracy has been stolen by elites, and that the people need to claim it back") is plainly true in the US. I guess my quibble would be that there has never really been true democracy in the US; for most of our history, large groups have been excluded from democratic processes. While almost everyone can vote now, there are still large barriers to voting (e.g. it's not a national holiday, you often have to register in advance, non-citizens can't vote, etc.). Voting also has a lot less impact than campaign contributions and other political spending, which are obviously a factor of wealth. There was a Princeton paper that found the wealthy are many times more likely to achieve their desired policy goals ( Michael Bloomberg is now trying to openly buy the presidency and might succeed.

Does the author engage substantively with this point? I've seen establishment academics poopoo populism, lumping together the right and left-wing versions of it.

EA-aligned podcast with Lewis Bollard

Wonderful feedback, thanks! It's tricky because it's not just an EA podcast, so I have to assume many of my listeners aren't familiar with EA. I could cover the EA side of things at the beginning of the show when it's relevant, then tell people who are EA veterans when to skip to. Rob does this and I find it pretty helpful. I always find it interesting to hear about the personal experience of people who "stare into the abyss" for the careers (see my episode with asylum attorney Brianna Rennix). For future posts will use your title advice.

Ask Me Anything!

I wouldn't consider Dave Rubin's show intellectual, but he does have reach.

Ask Me Anything!

I participated in a civil disobedience direct action protesting an ICE-affiliated private detention center in Elizabeth, NJ. I was one of 36 people arrested for blocking traffic in and out of the facility (and nothing else). We spent hours traveling there, prepping for the action, blocking the road, being arrested and detained. All in, it was a full day of work for everyone involved, plus over 100 others who showed up. We raised money for a lawyer and travel expenses for people traveling for court. From an EA standpoint, this is really hard to justify. We shut down vehicle traffic from one facility for a few hours and got some press.

But, that was the first action of now nearly 40 across the country in the past 7 weeks. People have shut down the ICE HQ for hours, disrupted companies working with ICE, and got a bunch of press coverage on the horrible treatment of immigrants. It sill remains to be seen what the final result will be, but it does seem like the Trump admin has responded to popular protests in the past (the airport protests in particular). Even if this ultimately fails, a ton of young people are getting trained in activism and organizing. One of the organizers cut her teeth organizing the Women's March. The downstream effects of getting young people involved in effective political organizing are hard to measure, but can change the course of history. Barry Goldwater lost the 1964 presidential campaign, but the young people who worked on his campaign went on to take over the Republican Party (see Rick Perlstein's book Before the Storm if you're interested in the story). While the org is definitely not EA, I found the organizing to be very well-thought through and effective, especially compared to other actions I've participated in.

For anyone curious, the group that organized this is called Never Again Action (

EA-aligned podcast with Lewis Bollard

The endorsement episode was released before the election and the mini-analysis was released the day after the election, when it appeared that Caban had won. I was personally involved with the campaign and thought it would be helpful to direct anyone who was inspired by the conversation with Chloe to take a concrete action. I could redact, but agree it might be odd.

Thanks! I was doing one per week at first, but have found that to be unsustainable.

EA-aligned podcast with Lewis Bollard

Thanks! That's a really good idea. I definitely think there is an appetite for more EA-aligned podcasts and the barrier to entry is pretty low. I'll work on this in the next few weeks.

Ask Me Anything!

What are your thoughts on the rise of left-wing politics in the US (e.g. the Sanders campaign, the election of AOC and the rest of the squad, the victories and near-victories at the local levels)? Related: how do you think EAs should think about the 2020 US presidential race?

EA-aligned podcast with Spencer Greenberg

Good point. I think the biggest way he's changed my mind is by helping me understand the ways in which other people's perspectives and default modes of thinking may differ. I have a tendency to see the exchange of ideas as an argument to win (partly a product of my personality, partly a product of my years doing competitive debate). Spencer's approach in conversation, writing, and tools on Clearer Thinking emphasize the mode of discovering how other people think about the world. His work has also pushed me to examine my own bias, particularly on political issues.

Overview of Capitalism and Socialism for Effective Altruism

Thanks for taking these things into account. I also won't have the time to go too much deeper on this stuff. I would say a general response to relying on things like rankings of think tanks or other establishment measures of institutional credibility won't be very persuasive to a lot of people on the left. The world is dominated by capitalist countries, companies, and institutions that support/defend them. There is a lot of money to be made in defending free markets. See Dark Money by Jane Mayer for a detailed investigation into how a handful of billionaires built alternative ideological infrastructure that became mainstream and established, despite having a self-interested, market fundamentalist ideology. The ranking you linked appears to based on surveys of other people in the establishment. If you're broadly critical of the establishment, you don't find their rankings to be credible. For a quick example of the Cato Institute misrepresenting data in its writing see:

For another example of ostensibly opposed think tanks working together (because they both serve the interests of capitalists) see:

Not trusting the establishment creates a lot of problems, which is why a lot of leftists (more prevalent in the past I think) believe some crackpottery and align with some cranks. The establishment may be right about a lot of things, but in some cases it's collectively wrong and there won't be many establishment sources you can cite to say so.

What exactly is the system EA's critics are seeking to change?

Eh, I've explained EA to a lot of lefties I meet and almost all of them have never heard of it, but are on board with the basics. However, my interpretation of and description of EA is pretty consistent with my lefty principles (both are extensions of radical egalitarian principles to me), and I'm sure lots of lefties would not like how market-friendly EA tends to be. I say some version of: EA is a social movement of people trying to do as much good as possible, using evidence to inform their perspective. This generally leads to people giving money to highly effective charities, giving up animal products, and prioritizing the long-term future.

Current Affairs overall is fairly amenable to EA and has a large platform within the left. I don't think "they are a political movement that seeks attention and power" is a fair or complete characterization of the left. The people I know on the left genuinely believe that their preferred policies will improve people's lives (e.g. single payer, increase minimum wage, more worker coops, etc.). You may disagree with their prescriptions, although based on the pro-market sources you tend to cite on these topics, you may not be interrogating your own biases enough. But if you believe what the typical DSA member does (that we know what the right policies are to address inequality and healthcare, and the only thing standing in the way of making them happen are entrenched wealthy interests), then their strategy of mobilizing large numbers of people to organize and canvass for these issues is a smart one. The EA approach to policy will only help affect things on the margin or in very technocratic roles, IMO. These things are important too, but EA has demonstrated no capability to mobilize popular support for its preferred policies.

Read the article. I can definitely see that happening and agree with the author's ideas at the end. I'm based in NYC and the DSA here is quite big and very effective at electoral politics (e.g. AOC and hopefully Tiffany Caban). I don't think that article proves any law of nature around lefty organizing. I do think that it illustrates a failure mode of left-wing communities (deference to identity concerns could be manipulated by bad actors). I don't think it's evidence that socialism is undesirable as a political project, any more so than EA's tendency to avoid politics makes it undesirable as a social movement.

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