"There are some decisions that are made only by governments, and some of those decisions are highly consequential. They include decisions like going to war, or what weapon systems will be fielded, or how technologies will be embedded within larger critical systems. It makes sense to engage more effective altruists within these positions where they can influence those decisions."
"Many effective altruists prioritize reducing existential risks. The international security community also works to lower the odds of certain sorts of existential risks, such as nuclear war. But if we want to work together with them, we'll need to understand their perspective, which may be quite different from that of outsiders."
This short writing attempts to underline some of the key aspects of the discussion of EA taking part in political affairs. Particularly, it argues in favor of stronger involvement and cooperation with federal governments (or their counterparts) and multinational corporations in an attempt to align international policy with longtermist goals.
One evening in 2021, I was having dinner and going through my Twitter feed simultaneously (a perfect example of complex multitasking) when I encountered a Wall Street Journal Q&A with Elon Musk.
"It does not make sense to take the job of capital allocation away from people with a demonstrated great skill in capital allocation and give it to an entity that has demonstrated very poor skill in capital allocation. Think of the government essentially as a corporation in the limit. The government is simply the biggest corporation, with a monopoly on violence and where you have no recourse."
I almost spat out my cereal when he got to the monopoly of violence. My national security geek, little me, was not happy.
Now, let's be clear. Elon is not only one of the most influential technologists in the world, but he has also donated large sums to EA-related institutions. He is part of the scientific advisory board for the Future of Life Institute (FLI), and his companies have worked on developing technology that could help reduce global catastrophic risks significantly (E.g. Accelerating the World's Transition to Sustainable Energy).
Regardless of his notable contributions to the world, or whether or not I agree with him, I believe he touched on a subject that many in the EA community don't know how to feel about: Whether they should get involved in politics.
There was a conference about this topic delivered by Sam Deere in the EA Global: Melbourne 2015, and it’s exemplified quite well by the "Effective Altruism is an Ideology, not (just) a Question" debate and the 80,000 Hours: EA and Highly Political Causes post.
Why is this important? Because EA doesn't exist in a vacuum. So what does this even mean? That it’s already in the midst of it.
The community is sustained by several businesses, think tanks, NGOs, and academics claiming to be non-partisan while proposing concrete policies. People will associate EA with specific political affiliations even though these might look very different from country to country.
Yes, some members can be concerned that if the community gets more political, it might become a political party, a supranational entity, or a sect, but this is the fear of most communities with a bit of money readily available. Many community members are already prominent government affairs-related officials, and "EA is able to do assessments of systemic change interventions including electoral politics and policy change, and has done so a number of times."
For example, the current 80,000 hours list for pressing world problems is also very focused on things that the US Fed has pinpointed as a priority.
Actually, one of the problems seems to be "how Effective Altruism works when dealing with issues outside the core competence of its general membership, particularly in areas related to defense policy."
Suppose you are doing credible and highly impactful specialty technology research. In that case, you most likely will be reviewed by your country's security agencies to understand if they should ignore you, recruit you, or treat you as a threat. So if we want to continue to do such high-end research we ought to ensure we continue to have good relations with these entities.
It has also been noted that: "It could be invaluable to have EAs who could provide an accurate assessment of [U.S.] defense thinking so that we're more likely to get where we want to go", and that “gaining experience in national security policymaking is important [for EA members] because shaping the institution is a vital theory of change for many EA issue areas.”
"...Not only does understanding international relations and public policy require expertise, it's also very easy to screw up when you only partly know what you are doing. In statistics, even experts are vulnerable: a review by a pair of statisticians of the book "Freakonomics", written by a PhD economist, found numerous basic mistakes. I would argue that much of the Effective Altruism community is similarly naive about the policy and international relations impacts of our work - and a basic level of understanding is critical to prevent errors."
The Case for a Longtermist Foreign Policy
There is another entity I know of that likes to throw as much money at a problem (regardless of the outcome) as E.A.-related funds do: The U.S. Department of Defense. Both love technology research, both overlook the social dimension of things and both have a massive community of highly motivated people trying to tackle whatever needs to be taken care of. There is only one problem: The DoD carries out a country's foreign policy; the E.A. community has no nation of its own.
This can be an impairment or a competitive advantage.
The world order is transitioning from U.S. hegemony to a multipolar system. "Complex systems are often fragile, and interrelationships make collapses and cascading failures, increasingly dangerous."
It’s also very difficult to sign or fulfill any treaty on nuclear weapons, A.I., climate change, or biosecurity when strategic competition between the two main economic powerhouses in the world and non-state violence is proliferating.
The most crucial organization to deal with most of our concerns, the United Nations, is not fully operational. It’s not because it’s made up of nations, some of which are unwilling to cooperate to ensure the common good, but rather because there are incentives for carrying out foreign policy to take advantage of the current volatility.
The world has gone through similar times in the past, but the current period is also extremely different. Now, with the kind of access we have to technology, the stakes are much higher.
The distilled knowledge extracted from nearly all U.S. counterinsurgency campaigns is that if you want to solve the problem, you can't just flood it with money. If you want real change, you must work from the inside to make it happen. All boots on the ground until it is not you making the changes, but instead the problem is correcting itself.
So, if you want to talk to the big boys in the neighborhood (both governments and multinational enterprises) and make significant changes, the language you need to use is called foreign policy. Foreign policy was commonly used between nations but is now recognized by all entities. Subnational entities or groups can influence whichever frameworks they want to incorporate into their country's foreign policy.
Even companies can have their own foreign policy where they focus on the values they want to project and promote. Since just 25 companies are more powerful than many countries, this is actually advisable. This is especially the case if they wish to manage geopolitical risk for their company.
On the other hand, "the public policies in the United States, and in many other countries, confer enormous privileges on philanthropists. Private foundations are largely unaccountable – no one can be unelected in a foundation, and there are no competitors to put them out of business. They are frequently nontransparent – more than 90 percent of the roughly 100,000 private foundations in the U.S. have no website. And they are donor-directed, and by default exist in perpetuity. Finally, it might seem that philanthropy is just the exercise of the liberty of people to give away their money. But philanthropy is generously tax subsidized, costing the U.S. Treasury more than $50 billion in forgone revenue last year. "
Both dispositions would encourage us to start thinking about Longtermist Foreign Policy even further. Even though there is a need for more work, some places are advertently or inadvertently building the foundations already.
- All-Party Parliamentary Group for Future Generations.
- Simon Institute for Longterm Governance.
- Global Challenges Foundation.
- Global Catastrophic Risk Policy
I think we should all be trying to figure out what this would look like. Not a dogma or a doctrine, but a philosophy that will allow individuals to generate self-critical systemic change in global governance. One that, by working from the nation-state level and below, can achieve not just more stability for all in the present, but also ensure the survival of those to come in the far future.
My sincere gratitude and appreciation for the feedback from Jaime Sevilla and Melanie Brennan. This piece could not have been produced without their support.
Manuel Carranza is an independent researcher focused on Defense and Security affairs. He had the privilege of undertaking study opportunities at military academies and defense-affiliated institutions. https://orcid.org/0000-0001-6777-6143
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any institution.