Future Paths for Effective Altruism

post by James Broughel · 2022-08-04T10:34:02.949Z · EA · GW · None comments


  Law and Economics
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The Effective Altruism Forum is inviting criticisms [EA · GW] of the movement as part of an online contest. As such, I thought I would offer a few thoughts about EA and how the movement might improve itself and build momentum for its cause going forward. I don’t consider myself to be any kind of expert on EA, nor do I personally identify with the label “effective altruist.” That said, I am someone who is broadly supportive of what people in this community are doing, and I would like to see them succeed. My experience is in the policy arena, so I’m going to focus on EA and its relation to policy. Recommendations about philanthropy I’ll leave for a future post.

Effective altruism appears to be at a critical juncture. It has the potential to be a powerful force in policy. However, with great potential to succeed also comes great potential to make mistakes. Here, I believe there are two intellectual movements from the recent past that EA could learn a lot from. These are the libertarian movement and the law and economics movement, both of which I have been at least tangentially involved in. Both started out as small, ramshackle groups of smart, young people eager to make a difference—a lot like EA. Both have now matured into formidable forces in Washington, D.C. At the same time, these movements have made their share of mistakes along the way, and in some ways they have turned out to be disappointments relative to their initial potential.

This essay will focus on what I see as some of the core lessons from these movements and how they might be applicable to EA’s future. My main conclusions are that the EA community would benefit from engaging with these and similar groups, as well as trying to build what I call a “coalition of the reasonable” among centrist pragmatists committed to evidence-based policy.


I see the effective altruism movement as essentially being a group of people who want to do good with their lives as well as with their money, and who see following reason and evidence as the best way to accomplish that end. Adherents of EA’s philosophy tend to pride themselves on rationality, a willingness to change their mind in the face of new evidence, and a willingness to challenge their own views constantly by always looking for the strongest arguments on the other side.

These are all noble traits. On the other hand, I would think most intellectuals believe themselves committed to at least some of these principles. None of us adhere to them perfectly, but essentially these are just principles about truth seeking. In this sense, EA is in some ways just a repackaging of sound academic principles that are timeless. Nevertheless, EA is also unique in some ways. What EA seems to have going for itself at the present moment is primarily that it has: a) a lot of young, talented people who are attracted to the philosophy and b) some very wealthy silicon valley backers. This combination of talent and money makes it a force that should not be underestimated, even if its size and relative influence is small at the present time.

When I look at these two distinguishing character traits of EA, the first thing that strikes me is how similar they are to the libertarian movement of a few decades ago. Both movements’ adherents are intensely rational and academic, and both have some very wealthy financial supporters. There is even some overlap between the libertarian community today and the EA movement. Effective altruists argue for zoning reform, permitting reform, and technological progress generally, often making arguments that are hard to distinguish from libertarian ones. Some individuals within the EA camp even have connections to libertarian think tanks.

The majority of the EA movement, however, is not libertarian. Although I am generalizing somewhat, the movement seems to me to be mostly comprised of center-left Democrats who want policy and philanthropic giving to be more evidence-based. It resembles the old “Washington Consensus” crowd from the Bill Clinton era, or the 90’s “neoliberal” crowd when that term isn’t being used as a pejorative. According to this view, any overlap EA has with libertarianism is only because some libertarian positions are strongly supported by the evidence; there is little overlap for ideological reasons.

This is important because recently we’ve seen some EA supporters take steps to enter the realm of political giving more forcefully. Granted, I am an outsider to EA, but these steps make it appear as though one goal of the new generation of effective altruists may be to try to remake the Democratic Party in an EA fashion. This is all the more reason why EA enthusiasts should not ignore the lessons of the libertarian movement of the last forty years.

It is noteworthy that after all the money that has been spent by libertarian organizations on conservative politics to-date, the Republican Party today is probably even less libertarian in its outlook today than it was when I was growing up. That’s despite the fact that a libertarian network of think tanks and grass roots organizations has grown substantially during my lifetime and is now fairly firmly entrenched as part of the mainstream political infrastructure of the Republican Party. And yet, for all this infrastructure, it is not at all clear how much success the movement has had in terms of actual outcomes. By one simple measure, the size of government, the movement has been mostly a failure. This is even more apparent if one looks at the scope of federal regulation.

The number of pages in the US Code of Federal Regulations now exceeds 180,000 and has risen nearly every year since 1950.

One of the reasons building support for new movements is hard is that most Americans are not very rational when it comes to their voting behavior. They often prefer symbolism over substance, for instance. Indeed, one of the more depressing books I have ever read was “Democracy and Decision,” written by Geoffrey Brennan, a public choice economist who recently passed away, and his coauthor Loren Lomasky. The two painstakingly compiled the available evidence up to that point on the knowledge (or lack thereof) possessed by most American voters. The authors concluded voting tends to be “expressive,” in the sense it is intended to signal virtues rather than concern for actual policy positions. The sad truth is, most Americans simply don’t care if policy is evidence-based or even whether it works at all.

For this reason, the EA-sympathetic population is probably too small to remake the Democratic Party in an evidence-based image. Moreover, overhauling the Democratic party is arguably harder than overhauling the Republican party is, as the former seems more segmented and less hierarchical. Convincing diverse groups like labor unions, environmentalists, and social justice types to even partially come on board the EA project may well prove impossible. At a minimum, significant compromises are likely to be needed to gain their support.

What I would really like to see from EA is an attempt at building a smart, informed, centrist coalition, combining the efforts of the center-left and center-right, based on exactly the kind of pragmatism that EA enthusiasts promote. Such a “coalition of the reasonable” would have a lot of advantages. A coalition of moderate liberals and conservatives might be less prone to group think and more prone to the kind of challenge culture that EA proponents claim to support. Although many Americans don’t seem all that interested in policy details, many do still want to align themselves on the side of “science.” We could leverage expressive voting to promote a desire for affiliation with smart policy and smart people. A powerful centrist coalition could also isolate and weaken the fringes on both the right and left, thereby drawing in more moderates of all persuasions.

There is an opening for a practical, middle road coalition. I acknowledge, I am not totally disinterested in this endeavor. As someone who myself falls on the center-right side of the political spectrum, and who respects the EA cause, I would like to be able to work with them. If they become just another part of the Democratic establishment, I think that would be a shame. I certainly understand why EA might not want to be associated with certain libertarians, like those affiliated with Ron Paul or those who have argued vehemently against vaccines over the last two years. But those groups are not the pragmatic centrists that I am speaking of. There are considerable numbers of responsible, center-right conservatives and libertarians who have plenty in common with EA.

Law and Economics

Another group that I would recommend EA proponents learn from, and also engage with, is the law and economics establishment. Beginning in about the mid-1970s, a group of legal and economics scholars began arguing that economic efficiency should play a more prominent role in policymaking. Leaders in this movement included scholars like Richard Posner of the University of Chicago. This movement ended up being championed by the Reagan and Carter administrations, and its main achievements include the deregulation of trucking, railroads and airlines in the United States, along with advancing the use of cost-benefit analysis in the U.S. as well as around the world.

The law and economics movement reminds me very much of EA for its lack of attachment to ideology and commitment to evidence. Like libertarianism, it began as a relatively small group of outsiders, but it now finds its proponents firmly within the mainstream of Washington, D.C. policy institutions. There are academic societies and journals devoted to its advancement. Regulatory economists are employed all throughout government. The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA)—which is the federal cost-benefit analysis watchdog agency—is known as “the most important office you’ve never heard of.”

The law and economics movement has clearly had some successes. However, at the end of the day, after 40 years of cost-benefit analysis and OIRA review of regulations, the influence of law and economics scholarship over actual policymaking—like the influence of libertarianism—is at best hard to measure and perhaps relatively insignificant. Only a small number of federal regulations have a cost-benefit analysis prepared for them. Of these, most analyses are incomplete in the sense that they don’t include a monetized benefit estimate. Analysis is often manipulated to reach political conclusions. And despite the highly trained, competent staff at the OIRA reviewing regulations, the quality of analysis remains poor on average. Even when analysis is fairly high quality, it’s usually not clear if it plays any central role in decision making. The image below shows the small number of regulations over a ten-year period with a relatively complete cost-benefit analysis.

Very few regulations have a cost-benefit analysis prepared, and for those that do, analysis tends to be incomplete.

I recently wrote an essay in National Affairs magazine where I called upon free-market and conservative scholars to get involved in the regulatory reform movement. Here I will make the same plea to the EA community. The law and economics movement is exactly the kind of area where smart, young people can make a difference at a relatively low cost. The field is not dominated by Harvard and MIT types, like some areas of economics. It is highly interdisciplinary as well, including amongst its ranks economists, lawyers, political scientists, epidemiologists, toxicologists, risk analysts and others. Really anyone with an interest in policy can get involved.

Moreover, I see few novel ideas emerging out of this movement at present, and this is not because of a shortage of pressing issues to contend with. There are many opens questions in cost-benefit analysis that require solutions, including how to deal with existential risks, how to account for equity, distribution and inequality, and also the role of animal rights. These are exactly the kinds of questions EA scholars routinely wrestle with. I would encourage them to get involved in the cost-benefit analysis community or even seek employment at places like OIRA. This is an area desperate for pragmatic young people with fresh ideas.


As EA tries to go mainstream, it should remember that building enduring institutions is not the same as building influential ones. Too often, successful institutions end up built around promoting the status quo. Just because you appear to be gaining support in terms of members or financial support does not mean you are having any impact. You may well be personally benefiting, but only at society’s expense.

I don’t claim to have answers to all these issues, except to reiterate my two core recommendations. First, EA should try to expand its coalition across the center of American politics as opposed to expanding to the left within the Democratic Party. The latter is the path to selling one’s soul for the sake of political expediency. Second, engage with existing movements that share EA’s commitment to pragmatic, evidence-based solutions. There is a lot to learn from these movements, and they probably have more in common with EA than differences.

The EA cause has a lot going for it, but its supporters should proceed with caution. Much can go right in the years ahead, but even more can potentially go awry. I wish EA the best of luck.

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