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The political economy of effective altruism

Originally published: EconoSpeak on December 15, 2022 by Peter Dorman (more by EconoSpeak) (Posted Dec 19, 2022)

Back in the day, I used to give talks on child labor. I would always begin by saying that boycotts and shaming of corporations, while understandable as an emotional response, were unlikely to do much for the world’s children. This was because very little child labor is employed in making internationally tradeable products. Moreover, simple prohibitions don’t get at the root causes, which need to be identified and addressed with national and international policies. Most of the talk would be about those causes, and I would end with a call for people in the audience to get involved politically, so that U.S. policy would at least not reinforce the conditions that impose poverty and insecurity on much of the world’s population. I would give a list of specific demands.

Feeling like I had communicated a complex topic persuasively and provided a motivating political spin at the end, I would ask for questions. Inevitably, the first would be some variation on “What should(n’t) I buy?” People were so enclosed in a worldview in which only individuals could take action, and “collective action” meant lots of individuals were doing the same thing, that my argument simply couldn’t get through.

Effective altruism is a variation on the same theme, only substitute philanthropy for shopping. If “what should I buy?” springs from the consumption portion of income, then “how should I give?” pertains to the portion not dedicated to current or future consumption. The first question would be asked by a citizen of the 99%, the second by a one-percenter.

But it’s worse than that. Conscious consumerism’s only fault is that it occupies the ethical place that should be the seat of politics; conscious philanthropy adds the additional problem that the surplus income it channels is itself the consequence of choices that can make the world a better or worse place. To put it bluntly, effective altruism allows people to exploit or even defraud others to become rich, so long as they expiate themselves by giving away the surplus portion of their riches in accordance with an approved set of criteria. Its ideological function is cemented by the criteria themselves, which call for discrete interventions with measurable outcomes; these can be applied to philanthropic donations but not to the more systemic interventions addressable by politics.

So we come to the fact that Samuel Bankman-Fried gave enormous sums of money to politicians, think tanks and other receptacles whose purpose was to enable him to make yet more money, for instance by expanding the pool of potential investors in his crypto exchange to pension funds. He gave more or less equally to Democrats and Republicans. (The official donations to the Dems were slightly greater, but by his own admission Bankman-Fried channeled more of the dark money to Republicans.) The favored Dems were, not surprisingly, corporate-friendly third-wayists, like the Center for American Progress. Objectively, no matter how brilliantly he might divide his philanthropy between malaria bednets and techie projects to avert an AI singularity, his contribution to world betterment was more than offset by shoring up the global order via the political arm of his investments. Effective Altruism exists to foreground the first and obscure the second.

The prominence of both consumerist and philanthropic strategies to fix what’s wrong with the world are reflections of an immense political vacuum. Somehow, and quickly, politics needs to be rebuilt from the ground up: a vision of genuine change that can grapple with the extreme challenges that face us, political movements organized around elements of that vision, and a few victories along the way to give us strength and spirit. The goal would be to live in a world in which “what should I buy?” and “how should I give?” were no longer regarded as important political questions.

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