I. Introduction and a prima facie case

It seems to me that most (perhaps all) effective altruists believe that:

  1. The global economy’s current mode of allocating resources is suboptimal. (Otherwise, why would effective altruism be necessary?)
  2. Individuals and institutions can be motivated to change their behaviour for the better on the basis of concern for others. (Otherwise, how could effective altruism be possible?)

(1) suggests that we should explore alternative ways of allocating resources. (2) suggests that alternatives involving more altruistic motivation, and less of the self-interested motivation that dominates our current mode of resource allocation, could be both feasible and superior. There is an old name for the movement and ideal associated with pursuing an economic system based on more altruistic motives: socialism.[1] This is a prima facie case for EAs to engage with socialist thought and politics. However, I see little of this kind of engagement.[2] In this post I ask why that might be and how I think EAs might best engage with socialism. My aim is to start a productive conversation, and all comments are welcome.

 

II. Why not socialism?[3]

a. Scepticism about the tractability of systemic change

The first reason for the lack of effective altruist engagement with socialism is that effective altruists care about the tractability of interventions. Perhaps a socialist utopia would be much better than our current world. But it seems difficult to get from here to there.

Tractability is often interpreted as tractability for individuals. It is difficult – perhaps impossible – to see or evaluate how an individual could radically change an economic system.[4] So, the focus of much effective altruism has been piecemeal improvements under capitalism.

But radical change is more tractable on the level of large social groups and movements. These non-individual agents can (and have) changed the world in ways that individuals could not, including large-scale changes to the economic system. Effective altruism’s emphasis on the individual has been much criticised[5] and effective altruism has become increasingly less individualistic.[6] Longtermism has contributed to this change, since many of the interventions that could plausibly affect the very far future are changes at the political, institutional or structural level.

Thinking in terms of group rather than individual agency makes transition from capitalism to socialism appear more tractable.

 

b. ‘Socialism doesn’t work’

The second possible reason for the lack of effective altruist engagement with socialism is the widespread belief that socialist economies do not work as well as capitalist ones.[7] This, however, is far from clear. Of course, one would rather have lived in West Germany than East Germany, and the human costs of some socialist experiments and failures were immense. But the same can be said of some instances of capitalism (especially if colonialism and climate change are taken – as many think – to be closely connected with capitalism). And some socialist economies have had some successes (human development in Kerala, economic growth in China, the USSR’s role in space technology and smallpox eradication, Cuba’s healthcare system). In addition, socialist influence or pressure has played a vital part in reforms within capitalism – such as the expansion of public services, redistribution and decolonisation – which have almost certainly been positive for welfare.

Moreover, even if we think that twentieth-century socialism was an utter failure, it is not obvious that with more time and research and better technology, socialist economies couldn’t work better – and better than capitalism – in the future. Recall the prima facie case: our current economic system is suboptimal, and people’s economic behaviour can be changed for the better on the basis of altruism. The socialist hope is that such change can, somehow, be delivered on a large scale.

All in all, if EAs have neglected socialism because they emphasise individual over systemic change, and they believe that socialist economics doesn’t work, then this neglect seems undermotivated. How, then, should effective altruists engage with socialism? 

 

III. How to engage with socialism

Firstly, EAs should be more willing to fund and conduct research into alternative economic systems, socialist ones included. As stated above, we agree that the current system allocates resources suboptimally. It distributes too much to those who need it the least, and too little to causes such as malaria prevention and treatment, AI safety and pandemic prevention. Could an alternative do better? Why not a socialist alternative, that is, one in which people are motivated to a greater extent by altruism and a lesser extent by self-interest? 

Secondly, effective altruists should learn about socialist ideas and the history of the socialist movement. The socialist movement is not unlike the effective altruist one. It is a community of people trying to make the world better, by their lights, across a wide range of policy areas, appealing to principles that are beyond common-sense morality and distinguished by being egalitarian and roughly welfarist. Its successes and failures may be instructive for EAs. Contemporary socialist thought, moreover, offers different ways of thinking about many of the things EAs are interested in – different ways but rooted in a reasonably similar moral outlook, such that they should be legible to EAs. For instance, there is much recent socialist literature on climate change[8], on movement-building and strategy[9], and on the economics of the future[10]. Engagement with socialist thought, especially socialist critiques of capitalism, might have woken EAs up to the dangers associated with dependence upon billionaires and the current competitive race to AI at an earlier date.

Thirdly, EAs who want to have impact through politics should regard socialists as natural allies. The socialist movement is largely made up of people who agree with core EA tenets about the importance of redistribution, equality, global health and development, cosmopolitanism, altruism and the long-term. Socialism is also in a state of ideological flux, so there is a possibility of getting EA-friendly policies into the nascent twenty-first century socialist programme. Moreover, socialists hold a reasonable degree of political power, and so aiming to influence and co-operate with them may have significant impact. The Chinese Communist Party is the obvious example, although this is a very different form of socialism to that we find in the west, where it is quite possible that democratic socialists of one kind or another will be in government in the UK and France reasonably soon, and are (amazingly) growing in influence in US politics, as well as governing Brazil.

 

Conclusion and a risk

I spend a lot of time amongst socialists. They are often hostile to effective altruism. Partly this is due to misunderstandings of what effective altruism is,[11] which is another thing that more EAs engaging seriously with socialism would correct. But partly it is due to effective altruism’s proximity to capitalists. The main risk to EA of greater engagement with socialism is that it will scare away capitalist donors. But, as stated above, all EAs, including capitalist donors, agree that the current mode of resource allocation is suboptimal – and altering their behaviour or beliefs to suit the fears of donors would be a dangerous path for effective altruists to go down. Moreover, I do not advise that all effective altruists should start flying the red flag. Rather, it is a claim that it would be good for effective altruism, as a movement, if some EAs took socialism more seriously: some should engage in research about socialist economic alternatives, socialist history and ideas, and some should aim to engage with and aim to influence socialist political movements.


[1] Socialism thus defined includes a wide diversity of more particular movements, including reformist social democrats, Marxist revolutionaries, some anarchists, market socialists, Soviet-style state socialists and so on.

[2]  I would be very grateful if readers could point out any that I have missed, in the comments.

[3] The title of this post is a reference to G A Cohen’s very readable book of the same name. Highly recommended if you want to see why many people are attracted to socialism.

[4] See for instance, Peter Singer in his New Yorker interview: “You don’t need a social revolution—or the social revolution is too difficult to achieve, and rather we should focus on getting individuals to change their practices.” 

[5] See for instance Amia Srinivasan (2015) and Alexander Dietz (2019).

[6] See for instance Benjamin Todd (2018) and Robert Wiblin (2015).

[7] Effective altruists often point to the massive improvements in technology and welfare made in the capitalist era (e.g. Muehlhauser). It is important to clarify here that socialists need not deny this – Marxists, in particular, tend to be very clear that capitalism is an improvement on what came before it. The socialist claim, rather, is that we can now replace capitalism with something superior.

[8] See Malm (2016) and (2021), Pendergrass and Vetesse (2022) and Lawrence and Laybourn-Langton (2021).

[9] See Bevins (2023) and Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor (2024).

[10] See Frase (2016), Williams and Srnicek (2016) and Varoufakis (2023).

[11] I tried to correct some of these in my ‘A Socialist Guide to Effective Altruism’. An alternative title for this post might be ‘An Effective Altruist Guide to Socialism’.

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You have defined socialism here quite broadly, which may be unhelpful to discussing it as it can mean anything between


a. A market-based economy with a significant amount of redistribution from the wealthy to the poor and some business regulations for prosocial reasons. 

b. A command economy where a centralized government has control over (or attempts to control) almost all aspects of the economy. 

 

In my view, the former may very well be the ideal for developed countries at the moment but I am rather skeptical of the latter. 

  1. The global economy’s current mode of allocating resources is suboptimal. (Otherwise, why would effective altruism be necessary?)

The US government spent about $6.1 trillion in 2023 alone. That's over 40x Bill Gates' current net worth. Very little of that $6.1 trillion went to top EA causes.

[Edit: Here is an interesting 2015 quote regarding US government spending, from Vox of all sources: "A couple of years ago, former Obama and Bush officials estimated that only 1 percent of government spending is backed by any evidence at all ... Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, evaluations of government-sponsored school and work programs have found that some three-quarters of those have no effect." Maybe I would be more enthusiastic about socialism if this were addressed, but fundamentally it seems like a tricky incentives problem.]

The strategy of "take money from rich capitalists and have citizens vote on how to allocate it" doesn't seem to result in anything like effective altruism. $6.1 trillion is already an incomprehensibly large amount. I don't see how increasing it would change things.

I don't favor increasing the government's budget unless the government is spending money well.

  1. Individuals and institutions can be motivated to change their behaviour for the better on the basis of concern for others. (Otherwise, how could effective altruism be possible?)

My sense is that most people who hear about effective altruism aren't going to become effective altruists. EA doesn't have some sort of magic pill to distribute that makes you want to help people or animals who exist far away in time or space. EA recruitment is more about identifying (fairly rare) individuals in the general population who are interested in that stuff.

If this sort of mass behavior change was somehow possible at the flip of a switch, socialism wouldn't be necessary anyways. People would voluntarily be altruistic. No need to make it compulsory.

Why not a socialist alternative, that is, one in which people are motivated to a greater extent by altruism and a lesser extent by self-interest?

I don't think socialism will change the rate of greed in the general population. It will just redirect the greed towards grabbing a bigger share of the redistribution pie. The virtue of capitalism is that it harnesses greed in a way that often has beneficial effects for society. ("It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.")

And some socialist economies have had some successes (human development in Kerala, economic growth in China, the USSR’s role in space technology and smallpox eradication, Cuba’s healthcare system).

Historically speaking, socialists often endorse economic systems that end up failing, but after they fail socialists forget they originally endorsed them. I think it's important for those cases to be included in the dataset too. See this book.

EAs should be more willing to fund and conduct research into alternative economic systems, socialist ones included.

Yep, I favor voluntary charter cities to experiment with alternative economic systems on a small scale, and I support folks who are trying to think rigorously about alternative systems, such as radicalxchange. The big thing socialism lacks is a small-scale, working proof of concept. Without a compelling and robust proof of concept, advocating for radical changes to big developed countries which already function fairly well in the grand scheme of things seems irresponsible.

(Writing this quickly and while very sleep deprived).

I really appreciate the OP for so clearly making the case for such a big idea and everyone’s engagement with it. That said, it’s a bummer that maybe the most common/upvoted reply on the EA forum to pro-left-wing arguments is something like this because it assumes that socialism is just about making the government bigger, but it’s not, at least not necessarily. There are lots of different definitions of socialism, but I think the common thread is: a system that aims to empower the working class to build an alternative to capitalism. The most compelling and practical vision of this to me is Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara’s. His appearance on Lex Fridman is a (relatively) short articulation, and his book The Socialist Manifesto goes into more detail.

(An uncomfortable implication of the above commenter’s perspective is that we should redistribute more money from the poor to the rich, on the off chance they put it toward effective causes.)

I don’t blame people for thinking socialism = more government, because, at least in the US, education on the topic is extremely bad (we did have a whole Cold War and all). 

Some examples of policies that push in a more socialist direction that don’t necessarily involve growing the government:

  • Worker codetermination on corporate boards (common in Germany, which has a strong economy and a far more equal distribution of wealth than the US)
  • Worker cooperatives
  • Participatory budgeting

And there are plenty of socialist-y policies that would grow the public sector but in a directed way to improve welfare for lots of people, like:

  • Public banking
  • Green subsidies
  • Public options for natural monopolies like fiber optic internet
  • Single-payer or nationalized healthcare

If you look at rich countries, there is a strong positive association between left-wing policies and citizen wellbeing. I think it’s worth noting that the book linked is pretty clearly written with a serious pro-market slant (as is the comment). At a glance, the book doesn’t appear to get into examples of socialist/leftist movements in Europe, the US or Canada. But these movements and the results of their policies are far more relevant to any discussion of socialism in rich countries with strongly developed civil societies (where most EAs live). Ignoring Europe, and Scandinavia in particular is cherry-picking.

Further, almost no socialists I know are advocating for a command economy like the Soviet Union, but rather things like the above. 

In general on the forum, it feels like capitalism-sympathetic views are treated with far less scrutiny than left-wing views.

(If anyone's curious, I discussed EA and the left with Habiba Banu on my podcast a while back.)

Thanks for the response, upvoted.

socialism is just about making the government bigger

OP framed socialism in terms of resource reallocation. ("The global economy’s current mode of allocating resources is suboptimal" was a key point, which yes, sounded like advocacy for a command economy.) I'm trying to push back on millenarian thinking that 'socialism' is a magic wand which will improve resource allocation.

If your notion of 'socialism' is favorable tax treatment for worker-owned cooperatives or something, that could be a good thing if there's solid evidence that worker-owned cooperatives achieve better outcomes, but I doubt it would qualify as a top EA cause.

(An uncomfortable implication of the above commenter’s perspective is that we should redistribute more money from the poor to the rich, on the off chance they put it toward effective causes.)

Here in EA, GiveDirectly (cash transfers for the poor) is considered a top EA cause. It seems fairly plausible to me that if the government cut a bunch of non-evidence-backed school and work programs and did targeted, temporary direct cash transfers instead, that would be an improvement.

If you look at rich countries, there is a strong positive association between left-wing policies and citizen wellbeing.

I'm skimming the post you linked and it doesn't look especially persuasive. Inferring causation from correlation is notoriously difficult, and these relationships don't look particularly robust. (Interesting that r^2=0.29 appears to be the only correlation coefficient specified in the article -- that's not a strong association!)

As an American, I don't particularly want America to move in the direction of a Nordic-style social democracy, because Americans are already very well off. In 2023, the US had the world's second highest median income adjusted for cost of living, right after Luxembourg. From a poverty-reduction perspective, the US government should be focused on effective foreign aid and facilitating immigration.

Similarly, from a global poverty reduction perspective, we should be focused on helping poor countries. If "socialism" tends to be good for rich countries but bad for poor countries, that suggests it is the wrong tool to reduce global poverty.

One quibble with the mode of analysis for taxation. The way to evaluate the impact, positive or negative, of government spending, would be the effect of the spending vs the average counterfactual effect of retention. Thus, for impact analysis, we would not be comparing the utility generated from government spending to the cost-effectiveness of a marginal dollar to a Givewell-endorse charity, but rather the utility generated by the counterfactual retention of the funds by the taxpayer base. In any case, that bar is much easier for government spending to clear.

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It can be difficult to have conversations about socialism without it becoming politically and emotionally charged.

Still, when I have been able to, my experience is that EAs generally share a great deal of the core beliefs that socialists do about what an ideally organised society looks like, and what capitalism gets wrong.

The question is then 'should (some) EAs advocate for socialism?' I think I'm rather more uncertain than you are on that front. Some broad intuitions driving my pessimism:

  • Many dedicated and talented people have tried very hard to advocate for socialism for decades, and I think they haven't made as much progress as they might (or indeed, as EAs have on their issues of choice in much less time) -> i.e. I think tractability is low
  • I'm pessmistic about moral suasion in general
  • Revolution is, to put it lightly, a fraught concept
  • I'm often confused about what precisely people mean when they argue against "individualistic" decision making (this isn't to say they're wrong — just that I've not yet found the arguments convincing)

Contra tractability specifically, this depends on a lot on what societies count as 'socialist' or not. A lot of European countries, for example, are essentially market socialist or hybrid economies (large social states as in the Nordics, strong or mandatory labour unions as in Germany, large cooperative companies as in Spain, widespread state ownership of industry as in the Nordics or Poland). These countries have the longest histories of socialist movements, and have all achieved these economies through reform.

huw
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I tend to think the question is less 'should EAs advocate for socialism?', and more practically, 'should EAs and socialists collaborate?'. Framing it in the former way is only going to highlight the very real differences between both movements. We can learn from the history of leftist disunity that historically, leftist movements have been strongest when they focus on finding ways to collaborate rather than persuading each other of their exact flavour of the ideology.

I think the collaboration between EA and existing animal welfare ideologies is a great template for what I mean here.

To respond to a relatively small part of the post:

Individuals and institutions can be motivated to change their behaviour for the better on the basis of concern for others. (Otherwise, how could effective altruism be possible?)

Effective altruism works if only a few people can be unselfishly motivated in this way, whereas requiring unselfish motivation as a key part of the ordinary economic system that nearly everyone participates in is a much bigger ask, so I don't think it would be very surprising to believe that one worked and the other didn't.

I'm not sure why we would believe that socialism would require more unselfish behavior from individuals, if anything a more consciously planned economy would be able to align interests far more effectively than indirect capitalist social regulation.

Because you will also select the people who will make the "consciously planned economy" from the population and can most optimistically assume normal distribution of these traits in people in power. It is, however, more likely that the less⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠ unselfish people will aspire to these positions and ultimately use them for their own ends, resulting in a redistribution of power to more selfish people. Centralized systems inherently offer more affordances of seizing power to selfish ends.

Reading the history of Mao, the Russian Revolution, and the Gulag Archipelago helps with some context.

[you] can most optimistically assume normal distribution of these traits in people in power

This is not maximally optimistic! We can hope we could come up with a system that (a) empowers unselfish people over selfish people and (b) protects the system itself against interference from the powerful. This is a difficult thing to achieve, and many have arguably failed, but that doesn't mean it isn't possible to do.

Centralized systems inherently offer more affordances of seizing power to selfish ends.

I think this is kind of unclear. If you do not deliberately engineer a government to manage the distribution of power, instead you will get an unmanaged distribution of power, which in particular will not obviously be well-placed to prevent an individual accumulating and then seizing power for themselves.

But even if true, I think I would still be in favour of central government because centralized systems inherently offer so many other things, which together are IMO worth it.

What's more, democratic capitalism + effective altruism will direct effort and resources to effective uses even if only a few capital-havers are unselfishly motivated in this way.

If socialism means the command-economy things, then democratic socialism + effective altruism doesn't reliably direct resources to causes that only a small minority are motivated to support.

The point about EA only requiring a small number of unselfish people is quite right and I actually write about these sorts of dilemmas elsewhere. (https://philpapers.org/rec/VENIAS)

One thing I'd say in this context, though, is that if the case against socialism is: "Well, a small minority can be trusted to have less selfish motivations, but the general public can't - and we're in the small minority" - this starts to look like a kind of elitism that the left often worries about EA encapsulating.

If EAs can do it, why think that (especially under different social conditions) most people couldn't? This would require some thought that EAs are special, which, given the elite, white, rich, etc. skew of EA is a worrying one.

Yes EAs are especially altruistic. Although especially altruistic people exist across all economic classes and races, you'd still expect to see more privileged people in EA because they have the means (alongside other factors like the cycle of low diversity).

And so, EA is not a good measure of who is altruistic because it incidentally filters out people who are less wealthy, have less spare time, are more risk-averse, or don't want to be in spaces that don't represent them. If you have more privilege, you can (not want to, but have the means to) do more altruism. It's important for people to have self-serving motivations if they don't have much time or money: they know the best way to spend it.

That leads to my next point, which is that the vast majority of elite white rich people (needlessly) have selfish motivations, and can't exactly be expected to altruistically set up co-ops or start a business with no expectation of high returns in the world where it works out. This makes your point irrelevant, because it shows that even when people have the means they are still mostly not altruistic.

EA is possible because of a small minority of people having the sufficient means (time or money) and a weird altruism. Anyone who feels this weird altruism is welcome. If you know how to make people more altruistic, that would be fantastic information. Note there would be many things with a higher priority on the to-do list than 'socialism'.

EA is straight altruism (to signal unusual virtue). Socialism is reciprocal altruism, so could be expected to be more popular (in a high trust society)

It seems like quite a leap from your premises (1) and (2) to “socialism”. You don’t clarify much what you mean by it in this post, but afaik I agree with your premises but don’t agree with socialism.

One reason is that I am personally interested in being altruistic, but:

  1. I don’t want to force other people (or even myself) to be “altruistic” against their will
  2. I’m not convinced that governments spend their resources very wisely

So “try and increase the size of government” isn’t that attractive as an end goal.

Another reason is that the actual track record of well-intentioned communist revolutions seems extremely bad - neutral at best (Cuba?) and catastrophic at worst.

huw
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Perhaps this is a cop-out, but 'socialism' generally just means the reduction of private capital. This doesn't necessarily mean more government or authority.

In fact, I think you'd probably agree with a lot of socialist anti-imperialism, such as replacing the IMF, World Bank, and Belt & Road with grantmaking organisations (these don't require enforced austerity or other impositions of power when the recipients don't make repayments). Equally, without uniform U.S. interventionism in every left-wing revolution since WWII, we may have seen some of these economies flourish. Both of these stances are motivated by an analysis of the West's involvement as being motivated by protection or enhancement of private capital (whether you buy that or not), but I do agree that the original post could've clarified this further.

I think one of the reasons why socialism is so unfalsifiable is because it's incredibly easy for socialists to shift the goalposts rapidly to another form of 'socialism' upon critique, so thank you for your definition. 

You say "it's just the reduction the private capital" or this relatively benign form of anti-imperialism, but the post above outlines the USSR's space program or China's economic growth as examples of socialist successes, so it must be to do with the 'socialism' in those economies. Your definition sounds like capitalism to me: you can pay rent to a landlord, have your surplus labour taken, the only condition is that 'private capital' is being 'reduced' (something like the railways are being nationalised or corporations are being taxed).

On your institutional point, being intergovernmental organisations, I don't believe IMF and World Bank are 'private capital'. Furthermore, the Belt & Road initiative is run by China, which is listed as a socialist country in the post. 

On your intervention point, would I prefer US intervention done in the name of anti-communism across the late 20th century wasn't so brutal and destructive. Does that make me any less of a liberal? I think you can be pro-capitalism and anti-imperialism, in the same way you can be pro-socialism and pro-imperialism (China, Venezuela, USSR). In other words the attributes pro-imperialism and pro-capitalism are independent.

The general thrust of my take here is that most economies are a hybrid of pro- and anti-property systems, so it's hard to disentangle a lot of it. But I'll have a crack:

the post above outlines the USSR's space program or China's economic growth as examples of socialist successes, so it must be to do with the 'socialism' in those economies

Oh, I read these as counter-examples to the theory that capitalism is a superior economic principle; that whatever causes these things could be independent of either. But equally, China's economic growth might be more attributable to their capitalist tendencies than their socialist ones.

Your definition sounds like capitalism to me: you can pay rent to a landlord, have your surplus labour taken, the only condition is that 'private capital' is being 'reduced'

It's all a spectrum, right? No system is entirely 'capitalist' either, in the sense that not all forms of capital are subject to private ownership for profit. So I was looking more at decreasing private capital relative to the status quo, rather than abolishing it entirely. It wouldn't be beyond the pale to refer to such acts as 'socialist'.

being intergovernmental organisations, I don't believe IMF and World Bank are 'private capital'

Given that almost every capitalist government raises some of its own capital by borrowing money from private citizens, yes, these organisations partially serve private capital. I can't speak to the extent, untangling global debt flows seems hard.

In other words the attributes pro-imperialism and pro-capitalism are independent.

I think that's fair. I was speaking toward the tendency of capitalist systems to exhaust themselves of growth in their places of origin, and then start looking outward. The usual example leftists like to trot out here is the Dutch East India Company (not without reason!). I think you might be able to be capitalist and anti-imperialist, but it's harder work and you might find yourself out-competed by those willing to extract the extra value by doing so.

As an EA who has been in the movement since 2013 and a self-proclaimed liberal democratic socialist, I'd say that there is definitely a tension between EA and socialism that stems at least in part from the history of both movements.

One of the basic foundations of EA thought is Utilitarianism, and historically, Marx criticized Bentham and Mill for what he considered "bourgeois morality" that merely justified the rule of the ruling class. Utilitarianism's influence on EA can be traced to Peter Singer and also the Oxford moral philosophy students turned professors like Will MacAskill and Toby Ord. That's what I'd consider the academic foundation of EA, and one of four major power centres in EA.

The other three power centres are, respectively:

  • The Bay Area Rationalist community, led more or less by Eliezer Yudkowsky (who early on was funded by FHI at Oxford to start his blogging), and who are known for having something of a techno-libertarian bias.
  • The billionaire Dustin Moskovitz through Open Philanthropy, who funds a massive percentage of EA related projects (nothing against him personally, but the optics are clearly challenging).
  • The DC Area American establishment, including think tanks like RAND (who's current leader is a known EA supporter), although it's hard to say to what extent EA is trying to influence the establishment vs. the other way around, but there's probably significant cross-pollenization, especially more recently with the AI governance push.

All of these would be considered suspect by most card-carrying socialists, particularly the more radical ones who are prone to disliking an Anglo-centric movement beholden to both political and entrepreneurial elites.

A more radical socialist (i.e. tankies) might even extend the known history of CIA and U.S. government PSYOPs into a conspiracy theory that EA is a possible PSYOP to create a funnel for would be left-leaning radical students to be safely redirected into a relatively tame, American Imperialism conforming ideology that doesn't aspire to upset the status quo in any meaningful way. While I doubt this would be anything more than a silly conspiracy theory, socialists who have dealt with a long history of red scare tactics and government surveillance are likely to fall prey to this kind of paranoia.

All that, before I even got to the ideological clashes of EA and socialism.

Ideologically, EA, particularly the leadership of EA, is very much biased towards western liberalism, both the intellectual tradition, and the political movement. Bentham and Mill were both considered liberals in their day (notwithstanding Bentham's connections to Robert Owen, or Mill's later turn towards cooperatives). Oxford's elites today seem generally more aligned with liberal thinking than socialist thinking, the Bay Area folks lean libertarian (i.e. classical liberalism), and of course the American establishment is very much a defender of the liberalism of Fukuyama's End of History.

The idea for instance, of private charitable donations to GiveWell approved charities to administer bednets for a health intervention in Africa is something that makes the most sense if you are a liberal with individualist sensibilities. Socialists would almost certainly ask, why isn't this health intervention being done by the government? Shouldn't that be the responsibility of the state or society to provide for the basic welfare of its citizens?

This is not to say that EA and Socialism have no common ground. Your post shows clearly that there are places of overlap, particularly in the ideal of some form of altruism being desirable. The rank and file EA, according to surveys, is most likely to lean centre-left to left on the political spectrum, and likely at least somewhat sympathetic to the idealism of socialism, if not necessarily its practice.

I don't think the difficulties are insurmountable, but it would probably require a substantial push for engagement from the rank and file left-leaning EAs that would somehow be listened to by the EA leadership rather than being briefly considered and then ultimately ignored. If you haven't guessed, I'm somewhat cynical about the EA leadership, and doubtful that they'd do this, given that the power centres I've mentioned hold considerable sway.

Good luck though!

Nikhil! I am very glad you wrote this post!
I read this post not as a we should, as EA, advocate socialism, but more as a EA should have more socialists, or people looking into socialism. I want to discuss two ways of pushing back against that particular claim.

Insofar as people decide what to look into, I think the justificatory basis for looking into socialism (as opposed to e.g. standard economic theory, market economy, trade policy) remains somewhat slim. 

You give a first-principle argument that seems neutral between real socialism and a somewhat interventionist market economy a la Europe. Insofar as the latter counts, my sense is that there is quite significant EA research on state interventions and how to support them (e.g. Lead removal projects trying to empower state actors to curb lead), as well as on broader political change (e.g. Social Change Lab is EA-affiliated IIRC) or heterodox economy (e.g. LEP). So for non-hardcore interpretations of socialism, I do see a fair amount of engagement.

You give some examples where somewhat more hardcore socialist countries had positive results - but I think that for at least some of them, e.g. Chinese poverty eradication, the orthodoxy is to understand them as having worked because of a change towards a less socialist system, rather than a more socialist system. So on a loose understanding of socialism, I feel like there's a fair amount of engagement. On a strict understanding of socialism, I feel like there's too thin an evidence base to justify focusing on it over e.g. orthodox economics. This may be because I do not know all examples well enough. 

A second way of pushing back against your claims is that I think you may be simply wrong that there is not a significant amount of socialists in EA. Left seems to be the second-most popular position in EA after center left ( https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/AJDgnPXqZ48eSCjEQ/ea-survey-2022-demographics#Politics ). While EA is often painted as libertarian, there seem to be 7 times as many leftists as libertarians doing the EA survey. I myself had many interesting and insightful conversations with socialists I met in EA (you among them!). I think the impression that EA is very libertarian or neoliberal in membership is wrong. I think it may arise from the fact that in university contexts, those positions are simply so rare that a handful of vocal neoliberal EAs give the impression that EA is hyper-neoliberal.

Anyways, these are two ways in which I'd like to push back against the central claim. I enjoy you push towards thinking more about overlap between socialist and EA thought, and find it productive. 

 

Very fair points. 

I'm taking socialism to be a movement as much as an end-state - a movement towards a more altruistic economy. The interpretation of the historical economic evidence is of course very controversial. What I hope to do (and where my expertise lies) is give an a priori case that we should expect some kind of socialism to be good, on the kind of metrics EA endorses.

The point about leftists in EA is interesting. I knew the figures skewed left but it's greater than I recalled. I guess what I see is people who are EA and, say, vote for Bernie Sanders, but not so much people whose EA work itself engages with socialist thought or movements. That's where I think we could move the dial.

On the second point again: it seems like almost 30 people have commented on this post so far. Only 2, as far as I can tell, are sympathetic to socialism. The same number have made eugenicist arguments against me. This is kind of hard to reconcile with the survey numbers.

Out of 35 comments so far I count 21 commenters, with 5 sounding particularly sympathetic to socialism, in my subjective view. Most of the rest seem neutral or ambivalent rather than strongly opposed, and the 2 eugenicists have both been severely downvoted.

I am similarly unenthused about the weird geneticism. 

Insofar as somewhat more altruism in the economy is the aim, sure, why not! I'm not opposed to that, and you may think that e.g. giving pledges or founders pledge are already steps in that direction. But that seems different from what most people think of when you say socialism, which they associate with ownership of means of production, or very heavy state interventionism and planned economy! It feels a tiny bit bailey and motte ish.

To give a bit of a hooray for the survey numbers - at the German unconference, I organized a fishbowl-style debate on economic systems. I was pretty much the only person defending a free market economy, with maybe 3-5 people silently supportive and a good 25 or so folks arguing for strong interventionism and socialism. I think this is pretty representative of the German EA community at least, so there may be country differences. 

I also want to point out that many of the EAs sympathetic to socialism might have better judgment than people like me and not want to out themselves publicly on the forums, just in case it might affect future chances at things like funding. We'd like to think that it shouldn't matter, but it may just be prudent not to take the risk.

Good question, worth exploring!

One point not brought up, which I think is somewhat important to me is how socialist policies are to be enforced.

I personally dislike the implicit threat of violence enforcement of those policies requires. I'll be the first to admit it's difficult to create a functional society without the use or threat of force, but I still would like to see it treated it as a necessary evil not to be used lightly.

There are many laws which would be less popular if one added to the end: "or we'll beat you up", but in some sense every law has this implicitly written. We're just not very mindful of it!

I think it's reasonable for vegans to ask someone whether they would still eat meat if they had to kill the animal themselves. In a similar manner, would you be fine with forcing someone into a car and locking them into a cell if they refused to hand over everything they had earned that month?

This is far from a knockdown argument and somewhat of a strawman, but it matters to me. I place value on people being free to live their lives how they see fit. Anyone should be welcome to form a socialist commune, but it should be out of ones own volition.

One of the things that moved me away from the libertarian view of all distribution as violence is the notion of government in any form as protecting the wealthy against existences in which there would be much more violence and in which they could not be secure in their wealth and comfort. Essentially, no matter how self-made, one's wealth is almost always enabled by a functioning form of government. It seems reasonable for those whom government enables to be very wealthy and comfortable to require some contribution so that others might have minimal comfort or opportunities. 

I don't find find this argument all too compelling. Who pays for the government's ability to protect the wealthy? In absence of a government, why wouldn't the wealthy pay someone else to protect their wealth?

That said I completely agree with the last sentence and I think taxation is very reasonable. Deciding that taxation is theft and therefore always wrong, is after all the worst argument in the world.

I don't mean to argue for libertarianism, but I do want advocates of socialism to be mindful of how they plan to enforce it.

We all pay for the government's ability to protect the wealthy by yielding to the government its monopoly on the legitimate use of force. In a "state of nature" most of those with the skills or luck to accumulate wealth would either enjoy it fleetingly or pay significantly higher costs for its retention than taxes under governments. If a system of law and order enables the lucky to be so much better off regarding their wealth, it strikes me as quite fair that the unlucky should share in the benefits of society as well.

I understand we may not be as far apart on policy, but this is why I bristle at the "necessary evil" framing of taxation.

We all pay for a government to ensure internal safety in general, from which everyone benefits. Everyone benefits from general safety and having these conditions to determine in a non-violent way who succeeds and who doesn't.

And being wealthy is a good thing! "The wealthy" should never be the enemy. Many wealthy people have contributed so much value to their society that rational people would vote on how much to pay them for their contribution; their current wealth is precisely what they should get, given what they contributed. 
The only problematic wealth is the one that was achieved by unlawful means (in which you don't need redistribution but law enforcement and taking back money that wasn't acquired in a way anyone would agree with!).
And who should be thought as the outgroup are rent-seekers independent of their current wealth.

https://preview.redd.it/miemgnhsvut71.jpg?auto=webp&s=f1588d524f52635e41ce99110bb71bdb94d02a1e
 

I agree. I do not view the wealthy in general as an "enemy." 

I agree that the accumulation of wealth often corresponds with the production of social value. It is interesting that you bring up the issue of rent-seeking as a problem but not that a lot of "rent-seeking" is perfectly legal and is often a component of accumulation of wealth even where part of it would be attributable to socially valuable production.

For instance, I am an attorney who (among other matters) litigates personal injuries and worker's compensation claims. There is a component of general social value that is produced through my activity: aiding in the resolution of disputes and serving as a helpful piece of a functioning legal system. However, there is also a "rent-seeking" component of my job, I am looking to transfer wealth or prevent the transferring of wealth from an opponent to my client. The degree of my compensation, or the ability of me to accumulate wealth, corresponds more strongly to my rent-seeking ability than that of my ability to generate general social value (because I am paid by my clients on the basis of being able to resolve disputes on more favorable terms for them, not by the judicial system generally). Thus, in relation to my social value created, I (or rather, the firm that I work for) is likely overcompensated. The same is true in many other extremely lucrative industries, such as finance.

"Thinking in terms of group rather than individual agency makes transition from capitalism to socialism appear more tractable."

I disagree. There is a long history of large, organised, and well-funded groups failing to engineer transitions to socialism within individual countries, let alone a global transition to socialism.

Here is a very long list of large, organised groups failing to engineer transitions to socialism within individual countries, because the United Stated were larger, more organised, and better-funded.

Even more reason to think that transitioning to socialism is not tractable - some people will fight against it like hell!

I've recently been reading Thresholder book 4 by Alexander Wales which exists in a functional socialist world. I think it's easier to empathise with this case when I'm reading about a place where everyone gets enough food, clothes, furniture and housing. 

Some thoughts on this:

  1. The global economy’s current mode of allocating resources is suboptimal. (Otherwise, why would effective altruism be necessary?)

I am not sure most EAs think this. I think they think that we are bad at allocating resources to poorer people/animals. Charity is flawed because the people paying and the people and beings benefitting are different. Which ruins the incentives. In some sense foundations are already a more command means of allocating money. But it doesn't follow that the whole economy should be.

And some socialist economies have had some successes (human development in Kerala, economic growth in China, the USSR’s role in space technology and smallpox eradication, Cuba’s healthcare system)

This is the article I want to read, FYI. If I were more confident on these points, then I would be more in agreement overall. If you want, I'd happily have a google doc on these points and attempt to make a blog later, but I really don't know much about it. But I'd like to learn more!

In addition, socialist influence or pressure has played a vital part in reforms within capitalism – such as the expansion of public services, redistribution and decolonisation – which have almost certainly been positive for welfare.

This is disputed. Some claim that these things would have happened as people got wealthier. Personally I don't know. 

Firstly, EAs should be more willing to fund and conduct research into alternative economic systems, socialist ones included.

Yes in theory, but how can this be done without grift/vaccuousness. I like the charter city institute trying to set up charter cities. I'd prefer a commune trying to scale itself rather than research I wouldn't trust when it was done.

For instance, there is much recent socialist literature on climate change[8], on movement-building and strategy[9], and on the economics of the future[10]. Engagement with socialist thought, especially socialist critiques of capitalism, might have woken EAs up to the dangers associated with dependence upon billionaires and the current competitive race to AI at an earlier date.

Yes I have some time for this, though it seems like the first people I'd expect to do this kind of translation work are socialist EAs of which there are a few. I sort of don't get why they aren't most passionate about translating their learnings into EA language. I mean, I do that with forecasting and some ex-christian learnings. 

Thirdly, EAs who want to have impact through politics should regard socialists as natural allies.

This is not my experience of socialists. I agree with them on a number of things, but often I get the sense that I am not nearly good enough. I know people who won't come to my house because my housemate (not an EA) is a Tory. Generally they come across to me as people who want perfection before they'll deal with me and I doubt I'll make the vibe check.

But partly it is due to effective altruism’s proximity to capitalists.

I mean, yes and as above I think that some skepticism about billionaires is wise, but that said, on balance 10,000s or more lives have been saved due to the donations of billionaires and many of the changes on graphs below seem coincident with markets. I guess I think that if you don't give a good chunk of credit to the allocative efficiency of markets and their wealth creation then you will get wrong answers elsewhere, as I think many socialists do.

 

Poverty - Our World in Data

And that's before we get to socialist errors on climate change, which currently many seem to be making worlse.

 

Again, I think that threaded discussion is the right way to go here. I'd prefer to have a google doc than discuss here (or if you want to, perhaps respond to a specific point and we can discuss them 1 by 1). 

I hope you're well. 

I think this is all really fair. I don't have time to pursue these things much further right now, but I will try to circle back to this. Thanks for the thorough engagement!

Reposting my answer to the same question from Reddit:

Redistribution does correlate with wellbeing but so does economic freedom. Nordic countries have both. USA has much lower taxes than the EU but more progressive taxation. The US spends higher % of GDP on education and healthcare, but it's much less effective, perhaps because of worse corporate governance?

I recommend thinking about specific policies, rather than whole ideologies, where you can actually read some studies, convince someone, move the needle and be sure that you're correct and some second order effects don't make your effort counterproductive. E.g. IMO calls to smash capitalism are more likely to radicalize opposition than increase social spending.

I'm pretty confident removing housing restrictions, improving the voting system and farm animals conditions would be great. I care about biosafety, AI safety or homelessness. I can imagine that voicing some of these topics could actually affect something. I can imagine that much worse for promoting the optimal tax policy, both because everybody else cares about taxes, and because I'm uncertain what it looks like.

My commentary would be that promoting political ideologies (or connecting to them) sound usually bottom-lined to me about the nature of reality.  I think that bundling concepts under the tag "socialism" or "capitalism" makes it hard to sift through it and find the occasional diamond (see this). It's hard to "check" whether socialism works, because it refers to too many things at the same time.

Let's suppose the government spends money, not on subsidies for national activities X or Y, but for interventions X or Y in the global south. Is this socialism? I don't care. The real question is : does it work? What are the costs? What are the benefits? How does it compare with my pondered ethical beliefs?

Some people would be happy to denounce legislation on AI frontier model as excessive governmental regulation, and thus socialism. But this is not important. What is important is : does it work? Does it help reduce X-risks? What do superforecasters say?

I'm not interested in evaluating the general tendency to act like a socialist, but specific interventions, no matter which tribe identifies to it. It doesn't seem like healthy thinking to me to bundle interventions in packages and call them "socialist" and have the entire package be considered either as working or not working, worthy trying or not trying. I'll be very happy to have one kind of systemic change such as massive governmental subsidy for a medical system in one country, and zero subsidies in another, if the end results are equally counterfactually optimal regarding my set of moral credences.

In contrast, charter cities experimenting with various interventions, or analyzing data resulting from the application of distinct policies, all sound like a more promising idea to me -and I be damned if the end intervention is socialist, capitalist, or whatever. For a more zoomed-out alternative, stuff like Reasoned Politics sounds less confusing to me.

Just listened to this post right before this recent post on the giving pledge.

  1. I think a lot (probably a majority) of EAs think one should try to live as frugally as possible and then donate any surplus.
  2. I think a lot (a majority?) of EAs think it is good if more people do this.

Is that not socialism? 

I think EA is more about leading by example, changing norms and not antagonizing the "others". Like a nice kind of socialism? And EA is quite inclusive by trying to accommodate other causes and approaches too, such as AI safety researchers that live perhaps a bit more of a lavish lifestyle without donating because there is not only one way of doing good and people are constrained differently (e.g. having a social circle spending a lot). And I guess we also have scepticism about whether what we are doing is good or not and thus it seems better to be humble to other people's approaches to doing good - it's a complex world and many previous attempts of doing great good have failed miserably. In socialist circles I feel there is less of such inclusivity and humility.

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