All of Jason Brennan's Comments + Replies

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

I don't want to get caught up in words. We can use new words:

Schmoop: Small bands of experts in bureaucracies get lots of power to unilaterally decide policy which controls citizens, businesses, etc.

Vleep: During elections, use some sort of knowledge-weighted voting system.

I am in favor of Vleep but oppose Schmoop. Lots of democrats favor Schmoop despite opposing Vleep. The recent failures of various regulatory agencies are failures of Schmoop but not Vleep. Against Democracy defends Vleep but not Schmoop. 

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

P.S. Regarding funding, we can give the money to any other US college or university. We'll have to figure out the mechanics--it may be that we can directly donate it to your school to use it, or, more likely, you'd have your class do it and we'd pay for students' expenses. 

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

It's clear the agencies did a bad job, as expected, because they had perverse incentives. For instance, the FDA knows that if it approves something that works badly, it will be blamed. If it doesn't approve something or it is slow to do so, most people won't notice the invisible graveyard. 

That said, it's not clear to me whether making this a more open or democratic decision would have made it any better. Citizens are bad at long-term thinking, cost-benefit analysis, seeing the unseen, and so on. You've probably seen the surveys showing citizens were ... (read more)

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

Let's say you have a 10 person workers' co-op which shares income equally. Each person now gets paid 1/10th the firm's profit. Thanks to diminishing marginal returns, if you add an 11th worker who is otherwise identical, they will contribute gross revenue/have a marginal product of labor that is less than the previous added worker's. When you divide the income by 11, everyone will make less.

This is a well-known problem in the econ lit. Of course, in real life, workers are not homogenous, but the point remains that in general you get diminishing returns by ... (read more)

4Linch3moThis might be a dumb question, but wouldn't this theory imply that smaller companies are on average more efficient than larger companies (holding worker quality constant)? And isn't the very existence of pretty large companies some degree of evidence against this?
3Achim3moYour Richland-Poorland example is indeed illustrative, thanks. However, it seems the problem caused by immigration does not only occur when incomes in Richland were equalized before the immigration, but rather they also occur when people care about the degree of income inequality in their own country. So if Richlanders are free-market fans, but they do not like domestic inequality, they will want to keep the Poorlanders out.
AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

A few ideas:

1. Spend the money replacing certain water heater elements at Georgetown. Some students did this for a few dorms, but they could do it for others. $200 can save the university $10s of thousands per year. Indeed, it's bizarre the university didn't copy the students' project. 

2. Help people start a small business in a poor country. $1000 can get one off the ground.

3. Do a fundraiser. $1000 can be turned into $20,000 which can be given to an effective charity. Federal rules prohibit direct donations but the $1000 can be turned into more money that can be donated. 

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

The Ethics Project requires students to deliberate ahead of acting, then act, and then reflect on what they did. Instead of role-playing problems, they deal with real-life problems first-hand. Educational psych lit says that adult learners learn by doing. The moral blind spots lit says that people learn to behave better by practicing reflecting on their strategic decisions before acting. 

Students routinely say it was the most significant learning experience they had. That's validating. 

I like it also because it shakes students of naïveté. They te... (read more)

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

Nothing in particular. I will leave it up to students by having a call for research projects very soon. I think students can come up with really cool ideas on their own--indeed, a few have already pitched things to me that are worth funding.  I will look into that group. Thanks for offering--I may take you up on it. 

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

I answered this before and it didn't post. I'll try again. 

If voting matters, we have to treat it like matters.

EAs warn people, "Don't just donate $500! Be careful. Learn what works and what doesn't. Make sure you give to an effective charity rather than an ineffective or harmful one. Be aware that you are biased to make bad choices!"

But all that applies to voting. If voting can be like donating $50,000, it can also be like robbing a charity of $50,000. But oddly I see EAs telling everyone to vote and telling them to guesstimate, even though our evide... (read more)

4John G. Halstead3moIs it sufficient for it to be good to vote for EAs to be better than the median voter? (which I think is probably true.)
AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

A lot of people seem to hate EA because they come convinced they know the solutions to this and that, but EA tells them those solutions don't work and stuff they reject works.

For instance, if "neoliberal" means anything, it means kind of mixed economy with lots of liberal markets but with various regulations and welfare programs. Empirically, this seems to work better than anything else we've tried--by a lot! But lots of people want to reject that a priori and they hate how comfortable EAs are with doing what...works. 

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

My favorite book on human nature is The Elephant in the Brain by Simler and Hanson. I think they provide overwhelming evidence that people are mostly motivated by ignoble, self-centered motives. This explains why institutions are so dysfunctional or inefficient: Politics is not about policy, charity is not about helping, medicine is not about healing, education is not about learning. Once you read their book and see their evidence, you realize that people will generally do what sounds nice rather than what works. And this stuff is independent of, say, the ... (read more)

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

Definitely do the Ethics Project! Indeed, if you want to do it, hit me up! I have something like $20,000 a year to seed it at other colleges. 

Other things I do:
1. Teach incentives and perverse incentives.
2. Teach moral psychology and the psychology behind giving behavior. (It's depressing but teach it anyway.)
3. Ask students to write a critique of a charity or NGO. Have them identify what a charity is doing badly, why they are messing up, what perverse incentives or psych mechanisms cause it, and what they could do to change the culture or incentives ... (read more)

3Jason Brennan3moP.S. Regarding funding, we can give the money to any other US college or university. We'll have to figure out the mechanics--it may be that we can directly donate it to your school to use it, or, more likely, you'd have your class do it and we'd pay for students' expenses.
AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

Here's what I've noticed when I give public talks:
1. People tend to agree that kidney sales should be allowed.
2. They tend to become much more in favor of open borders than they were before. They might not go full border liberal but they favor increased immigration.
3. They do not endorse epistocracy but they recognize democracy has serious built-in problems and stop saying we can fix it by doing "real democracy". 

Lots of people are talking about epistocracy. It gets frequent mentions in op-eds, magazines, etc. The idea is out there and people are mulling it over. Maybe someone will act on it in 20-50 years. 

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

I wrote a whole book about perverse incentives in academia, but I am not sure there is much we can do other than do more EA work. 

At the end of the day, researchers try to publish in the best journals they can because that's where the money and prestige is. They will tend to work on whatever topics are sexy because that's what it takes to publish. 

Why do some topics become sexy and others not? For instance, why is it something that doesn't matter at all--such as splitting the millionth hair on the definition of some term in public reason theory--... (read more)

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

I donate to GiveWell charities, like Against Malaria or Evidence Action. I also donate to places with whom I have a relationship and owe some degree of reciprocity--that is, I'll give a small amount to my alma mater. But I regard my duties of beneficence as discharged by the effective donations, while the other donations are about transitive reciprocity rather than beneficence per se.

As for funding, nah, we don't need more research funding. We're all well-funded and can do what we do without big money. Indeed, even the $2.1 million I got from Templeton is not for me and my research, but to help others, and to do projects.

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

Either moral realism or moral nihilism. Everything else is a joke. Morality is either real or bullshit. Every in-between theory ends up being a disguised form of one of these or is incoherent. 

As for moral theory, I see moral theories as tools. Consider an analogy: Quantum mechanics and relativistic mechanics are, as of now, incompatible with each other. They describe the world in incompatible ways. Sociology, psychology, and economics describe human nature and behavior with incompatible models. But when we want to understand the world, we use differe... (read more)

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

I have an unusually high amount of influence and public uptake. I am not as famous as Singer or Sandel, but I get more attention than most. 

Despite that, I expect not to have much influence on actual policy or behavior. It'd be surprising if I did have much. 

There's a long shot game I'm sort of playing: You get new ideas out there. They spread around into the public discourse. People know of the arguments and ideas even if they don't know the source. Then, when a crisis occurs, maybe 20-50 years down the road, they might be willing to experiment ... (read more)

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

By taking economics classes. Really, from Henry Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson in high school, which repeated Bastiat's idea that you look not merely at the short term consequences to an immediate group, but the long-term and less obvious consequences to everyone. 

I see EA as, in effect, microeconomics applied to giving. I suspect this is why so many Marxists hate it!

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

That democracy is good in itself. I see it as a tool for producing good outcomes; nothing more. 

I view democracy as a system in which some people push other people around. It's not really equal and it cannot be made equal. Even if it were equal, it would still be a system in which some people push other people around. 

I also deny that an unjust policy can be rendered just by coming about the right way. I don't believe there is such a thing as "legitimacy" which enables governments to do something unjust because of how they decided. For me, that m... (read more)

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

I realized after reading this question that most of the reforms I work on save dollars rather than cost them: Eliminate cash bail, eliminate career prosecutors and instead have prosecutors and public defenders be the same people from the same office, eliminate SWAT teams in most towns and federal distribution of military equipment to the police, open borders, require the FDA to auto-approve any drug approved in certain other countries, etc. Most of these things are free. 

2Nathan Young3moSorry I guess I meant, "What specific reforms do you think are most worthy of an additional dollar of advocacy for them?"
AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

I'd like to try enlightened preference voting in Denmark or New Hampshire.

How it works:
1. Everyone votes for their preferred thing (whatever is being voted on).
2. Everyone somehow registers their demographic data.
3. Everyone takes a 30-question quiz on basic political information.

With 1-3, we then estimate what a demographically identical public would have voted for if it had gotten a perfect score on the quiz. We do that instead of what the majority/plurality actually voted for. 

There are lots of details here I'm not getting into, but that's what I'd want to try. No one's done it to actually decide policy, but researchers have been doing this in labs for a long time with good results. 

6MichaelStJules3moAre you worried about governments using the quizzes to favour certain groups regardless of political knowledge? Kind of like gerrymandering. Who will decide what answers are correct? Or do you expect that this would only be abused if they were going to do far worse anyway? Also, maybe demographic data should include stuff like health conditions and personality, although intellectual disabilities may prevent people from scoring well in the first place, and intelligence/knowledge may correlate with actual interests, i.e. what would be good for a person. Has there been much written about this? I guess we'd hope the more informed would look after the less informed? We're already hoping for this now with representative democracy.
AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

If voting is serious business, we need to treat it as such. 

Right before the US 2020 election, Gelman argues that PA voters have a 1 in 8.8 million chance of breaking a tie. TX was 1 in 100 million. DC 1 in 240 trillion.

Showing some votes have high expected utility means showing those same votes can have high expected disutility. 

It's weird that Wilbin and MacAskill will be like, "Hey, careful! Before you donate $50, make sure you are doing good rather than wasting the money or worse, harming people. We are beset by biases that make us donate bad... (read more)

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

I'd say in general political philosophy suffers from the fact that most political philosophers know little about political science, sociology, or economics. They think they can reason about the justice of institutions without knowing how these institutions work or why they exist. In principle, they could, but in practice, this just means that they sneak in mistaken empirical assumptions. 

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

Economic growth is vital. Here's why:

PPP-adjusted GDP/capita is about $16,000 right now. Imagine I waved a magic wand that magically redistributed all of this in the form of consumable income, with equal shares for all. That'd mean everyone on earth lives on $16,000 a year. Better than what we currently have for most people, but, still, a lot worse than what we see in, say, Appalachian USA.

But this is misleading because this isn't even possible. Lots of that GDP is in the form of government or capital expenditures. We need some money not to be consumed but... (read more)

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

Many EAs are smart neoliberals, but they don't pay sufficient attention to government failure. They imagine running a bureaucracy the way they want, as if it were staffed by EAs, rather than staffed by regular people with regular foibles. 

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

Consequentialist arguments favor liberalism because in practice, it works and other things don't. Most of my arguments for institutions are consequentialist. Economic justifications are consequentialists. 

I think consequentialists get stuck thinking liberalism fails because, sitting in an armchair, they can imagine giving unilateral power to someone to break by liberal rules and then imagine this results in more good. But in practice, that power rarely works as intended, and it gets captured by people who use it for bad ends or use it incompetently. So, I think consequentialism + robust political economy -> liberalism. 

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

EAs are bad at marketing to non-EAs.

Illustrative anecdote: A few years ago, I was in charge of our first year seminars at Georgetown. Every year, we pick a non-profit partner who gives the students a real problem that non-profit needs to have fixed. The students act as consultants to offer solutions in a case competition. The winners usually intern with the organization afterward to implement their ideas. I picked a major EA charity. They said, "We need to figure out how to raise money from more diverse sources other than EA people. Almost all of our money... (read more)

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

The public reason field seems to have all the makings of a degenerate research project. It's a bunch of people debating fine points of definition and who clearly don't believe in what they say. Take, for instance, Gerald Gaus. He theorized about diversity of thought because he hated it; he didn't respect anyone other than those that agreed with him and did his philosophy his way. He wanted disciples. He was willing to sabotage his own department to make sure he got his way in hiring acolytes. Yet, oddly, public reason theorists who say they care about publ... (read more)

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

I work on stuff I think would be high impact if leaders acted on it: immigration liberalization, criminal justice reform, kidney and organ markets. 

Jones is probably right but he's not calling for much reform. He's trying to get readers to not go more radically democratic than they already are. 

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

It depends on the EA. I don't know if there is a universal trend or generalized flaws. EAs seem so diverse that it's hard to generalize.

Still, if I generalize based on what I've read and whom I've talked to, here's what I see:

1. EAs sometimes forget political economy issues. When they offer a political policy that would work, they forget that it will likely be captured by others who don't share their values, or that the people running it will possibly be incompetent. In general, for politics, I recommend imagining that your preferred policies will cost 3 t... (read more)

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

These are great questions. I'll need to look into this more and come back to you. 

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

I don't find arguments for common world ownership very persuasive. It'd take too long to go through all the arguments to explain why here, so I'll just leave my general worry: Common world ownership means we all have a say on everyone else, and it tends to make the world somewhat zero sum. Every new person is an incursion on my ownership rights and dilutes my claims. I prefer institutional mechanisms that create positive sum games. I really Weyl agrees and thinks his proposal gets around this. 

As for self-ownership, I think of course we own ourselves,... (read more)

4John G. Halstead3moI think there is a typo in the bit about Weyl? The interesting thing about the Weyl proposal is that it is an alternative to private property that could potentially produce better social outcomes from a consequentialist/utilitarian/social welfare point of view. The reason for this is that it overcomes the tragedy of the anti-commons, such that holdouts can extract rents, sometimes at huge expense to society. If Weyl's proposal would produce better outcomes, would you be in favour of it
AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

I think it has in some ways strengthened my overall philosophy. I've been pushing public choice ideas for a while, and the FDA and CDC seemed to band together this year to make that look right.

Epistocracy should not be confused with technocracy. In a technocracy, a small band of experts get lots of power to manipulate people, nudge them, or engage in social engineering. Many democrats are technocrats--indeed, the people I argue with, like Christiano, Estlund, and so on, are pretty hardcore technocrats who have been in favor of letting alphabet agencies hav... (read more)

6Charles He3moIs it possible for you to elaborate more on this or easily provide links to a writeup? Technocracy to me just means having experts with decision making power or influence, maybe in some institution, presumably with good governance and other checks. This concept doesn't immediately lead to thoughts of manipulation, or social engineering. I'm trying to get educated here—I'm not being contentious, if this is the "Truth" about technocracy and the general mainstream belief, I want to learn about it Do you mean Thomas Christiano and David Estlund? I guess related to the above, it seems like the object level argument really depends on some assumptions. It is just not clear what is being debated here in this subthread to me and I guess to many other readers of your AMA. Again, is it possible for you to write just a little bit more on this or provide links to something to get novices up to speed?
3SammyDMartin3moThanks for this reply. Would you say then that Covid has strengthened the case for some sorts of democracy reduction, but not others? So we should be more confident in enlightened preference voting but less confident in Garett Jones' argument [https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2021/06/the-premonition.html] (from 10% less democracy) in favour of more independent agencies?
AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

I am tempted to say the stuff on open borders and immigration, because the welfare effects of increased immigration are much higher than anything else I've worked on. But realistically, it's difficult to change people's minds even when you give them overwhelming evidence. 

The work I did with Peter Jaworski on taboo markets seems persuasive to most people who encounter it. If people followed our advice, we'd save tens of thousands of lives per year in the US. But then the issue is that even if you agree with us, it's not like you can personally legaliz... (read more)

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

People tomorrow matter. We cannot simply imposes costs upon them. As Feinberg argued long ago, if I left a time bomb underground that would explode in 200 years, when it kills people, I am a murderer.

Still, we have good reason to think overall that people in the future will be much better off than we are. That doesn't license us to hurt them for our benefit, but we can take steps that impose costs upon them IFF doing so is part of a reasonable risk-sharing scheme from which they benefit more than they lose. 

4John G. Halstead3moGiven the non-identity problem, doesn't the requirement that future people benefit more than they lose allow us to leave future generations with quite a bad situation? eg emitting fossil fuels changes the identities of people in the future, and we could feasibly make the world >10C hotter which would leave lots of tropical countries in a bad state but it would not harm them since they would not have existed had we not emitted
AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

I am a bit split on the data from polling younger people. Quite a bit of that data shows that they prefer the word/label "socialism" to "capitalism".  If you ask them whether socialism is better than capitalism, they say yes. But if you give them more specific things, such as asking whether the government should own all productive property or whether we should have markets, they tend to reject socialism in favor of capitalism, though not by a huge amount. Also, you see the memes going around where people use "socialism" to refer not to socialism, but ... (read more)

2Achim3moWhy should that be the case? Wealth and income of this giant worker's co-op are not fixed, and why shouldn't they scale with the number of members?