Philanthropy Vouchers as Systemic Change

post by RYC · 2019-07-11T15:12:47.894Z · score: 12 (9 votes) · EA · GW · 2 comments

[Follow-up to 'Charity Vouchers [public policy idea] [EA · GW]'. Originally posted to]

It's interesting to compare the ways we talk and think about political vs non-political (civic/philanthropic or market) agents, advocacy, and organization.  Consider the common objection to Effective Altruism, that it allegedly "neglects the need for systemic change."  I've rebutted this objection before, but a different aspect of it that I want to focus on today is that the criticism seems to presuppose that only politics can be systemic.  But why assume that?

EAs advocate that everyone donate at least 10% of their incomes to effective causes.  If that happened, the world would be radically transformed: ending extreme poverty, material deprivation, and easily preventable disease, forever.  So if that's not a "systemic change", I don't know what is.  Admittedly, what we're calling for (in the first instance) is change to the behaviour of agents in the system, rather than changes to the rules of the system.  But changing the rules also requires behaviour (just of a political sort), so it's not entirely clear what the basis is for seeing any deep distinction or disagreement here.

Perhaps the thought is that the sort of 'systemic change' constituted by universal acceptance of Effective Altruism is just too unrealistic.  That might seem an odd criticism for political radicals (of all people) to make, but it's certainly more probable that (enough) people change their political behaviour to elect a radical leftist than that a comparable number of people change their non-political behaviour to be radically more altruistic.  Voting and political talk is cheap compared to funding your values, after all, and people are lamentably selfish.

I think this is an important insight.  Altruistic political expression is easier to secure than altruistic (non-political) behaviour, so we should use the former to force the latter, e.g. by redistributive taxation. I've long supported universal basic income for just this sort of reason. Redistribution is really important!  But I don't think it follows from this that we should expand the role of government more broadly, empower government agencies, or "abolish capitalism" (whatever that would even mean).  Tax-funded philanthropic vouchers offer a very different (decentralized) model for achieving radical humanitarian goals, in a way that's compatible with everyday reluctance to voluntarily part with your money.

In light of this alternative model, it's interesting to compare familiar forms of political advocacy to analogous civic advocacy under a radical philanthropic voucher system. Compare the following pairs of actions:

(1a) Advocating for [voters to support] increased/decreased military funding in the federal budget.
(1b) Encouraging your fellow citizens to allocate more/less of their voucher funds to the military.

(2a) Advocating for [voters to support] de/funding Planned Parenthood.
(2b) Encouraging your fellow citizens to allocate none/some of their vouchers to Planned Parenthood.

etc. etc.

My question is: should we prefer our public debates to take form (a) or form (b)?  The latter strikes me as preferable for several reasons.  One key difference is that, rather than a winner-takes-all political contest, civic persuasion (aimed at influencing voucher allocation choices) operates on a continuous scale: each additional person you persuade makes a certain (and equal) difference to the overall distribution of resources.  Each individual's voucher choice matters, in the sense of making a difference, in a way that cannot be said of individual votes (where one must resort to the abstraction of expected value).  Boosting support from 19% to 21%, or from 79% to 81%, is just as significant as the boost from 49% to 51% of the population.  This is clearly more principled, and provides a salutory incentive to appeal to as wide an audience as possible rather than separating into hostile political tribes, and resting content with 51% support.  (It's a bit like the virtues of proportional representation over winner-takes-all elections, only even more so.)

Further benefits include sidestepping traditional worries about "forcing" taxpayers to fund things they find morally repugnant (e.g. war, contraception, etc.).  Of course there's a sense in which taxpayers collectively fund the philanthropic vouchers, but that connection seems much less salient than it does with direct government spending.  Each citizen is entitled to their equal share of vouchers, after all, and it is then up to them how they choose to allocate them.  No-one will force you to support (through your voucher allocation choices) things that you find abhorrent.  (I don't endorse the traditional worry, but it does seem helpful to be able to avoid it in this way.)

Are there cases where you should prefer budget disputes to take a centralized, winner-takes-all form?  I guess if you could be confident of being the winner, and don't mind bulldozing over the preferences of the "losing" side, an all-or-nothing contest might seem more appealing to you than the continuous scale of decentralized civic support where you're sure to end up with less than 100% control of the public purse.  But given the risks of yourself getting trampled next election, I'd argue that civic funding is a compromise worth taking.


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comment by rhys_lindmark · 2019-07-11T17:38:01.207Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · EA · GW

I like this style of thinking. A couple quick notes:

1. Various U.S. presidential candidates have proposals for "democracy dollars", which are similar to philanthropy vouchers, but scoped to political giving. AFAICT, they have a different macro goal as well: to decentralize campaign financing. See and

2. I agree that non-politics can be systemic. See this post that expands on your idea of "what if everyone tithed 10%?" [EA · GW]

3. It would be interesting to see philanthropic vouchers tested in the EA community. Kind of like a reverse EA Funds/donor lottery, where an EA donor gives lots of EAs vouchers (money) and then the EAs donate it.

comment by aarongertler · 2019-07-16T22:32:50.549Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Within EA, I've seen a couple of examples of limited voucher systems (or systems with some similar properties):

  • Giving Games give people the chance to allocate funding to one charity out of a small group (usually 2-5)
  • I've personally run a limited "donation voucher" system on Facebook before, offering to donate a small amount ($50, IIRC) to any GiveWell charity on behalf of the first X people who took the offer (I think X = 5, but only three people actually asked)

I'd worry about what the existence of a voucher system might mean for charities that take more risks; if it were sufficiently well-funded, it could increase the attention paid to the philanthropic sector and lead to many more fights over controversial organizations like Planned Parenthood (or even someplace like MIRI).

I also suspect that much of the best philanthropy happens through large donations to lesser-known organizations from people who have the time and money to conduct research (e.g. the kind of work Open Phil does), and that people with less knowledge making smaller donations might not make high-impact choices. (I think it's very likely that a voucher system would increase the correlation between charities' spending on marketing and their donation revenue.)

That said, if someone were to propose a bill in the House that redistributed $25 billion in the form of $100 vouchers to every American adult for charitable giving, I might support it, assuming that the costs of the redistribution/vouchering process weren't too high. The average charity people chose to support (e.g. "buying food for hungry people") might still have more impact on total welfare than the average use of government funds.