The Political Economy of Effective Altruism

Yves here. Your humble blogger has not wanted to think very hard about the subject of effective altruism, mainly because the “effective altruism” is a Madison Avenue label to make the random, inadequate, and often self-interested tidbits tossed by the well-off to the masses is an adequate substitute for social safety nets and redistributive policies. Fortunately Peter Dorman was willing to do the heavy lifting.

By Peter Dorman, professor of economics at The Evergreen State College. Originally published at Econospeak

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 US 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, “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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  1. Amfortas the hippie

    this has been one of my Mulling as Distraction woolgathering exercises in the last week.
    the Neoliberal Dispensation…not satisfied with erecting its own fit for purpose Orthodoxy(Right Belief)…has now turned it’s attention towards Orthopraxis(Right Action).
    much the same way the Universal Church once hereticised the advocates of Praxis as a “Closer Walk with Thee”…and a remedy for the problems and contradictions arising from “Making windows into mens’ souls”…now it turns towards the last Humanism, aiming to conquer it, and absorb it into itself.
    the standout observation in this brief bit, for me, is the internalisation of Market Catechism…by just about everyone.
    even the more or less “Real Christians” i know…those who genuinely attempt to follow Jesus…speak in MarketSpeak…transactions and building the resume and the Person as Enterprise….former Citizens/Congregants now regarded, inexorably, as Customers.
    Randian Libertardianism, filtered through those anodyne corporate motivational posters and trust-fall “Team Building” exercises on the Big Island.
    meanwhile, the Machine continues apace, eating the world and pseudo-eugenicising the surplus population….and the Wokerattii continue killing off the Humanities and undoing the Enlightenment Project…doing their part(perhaps unconsciously) to further Hyperindividualise the remaining Masses…so that no challenge can ever arise to counter their world ending totalism.
    in keeping with the real-world recreation of the Carboniferous period, we are to become a mass of jellyfish, drifting into the shallows and other edge-spaces to unconsciously colonise anything Not-Us.

    1. DJG, Reality Czar

      Here is the dilemma, which has gone on for a very long time. King James Version of Mark, chapter 12:

      38 And he said unto them in his doctrine, Beware of the scribes, which love to go in long clothing, and love salutations in the marketplaces,

      39 And the chief seats in the synagogues, and the uppermost rooms at feasts:

      40 Which devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayers: these shall receive greater damnation.

      41 And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much.

      42 And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing.

      43 And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury:

      44 For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.

      1. Carolinian

        We don’t talk much about religion around here, but leaving aside the question of belief I think Christianity as metaphor for human behavior and social comity is very shrewd. And this psychological accuracy accounts for its vast spread even if those less ethical like to use if for their own purposes or proselytize at the point of a sword. Of course that latter means that just understanding the problem is not enough, and Christianity as shaper of behavior–“the ethical place that should be the seat of politics”–has been considerably less successful.

        Therefore a “realist” perspective would say that political competition is really about power and competition for resources and should be regarded as such. A system based purely on reason would try to create a social contract that benefits all because rewarding competitive instincts above all others can be socially destructive and we need society to survive.

        Many of our elites have turned their backs on religion and look down on the “bitter clingers” who won’t get with the modern program of self realization. But the truth is they’ve merely substituted their own religion of selfishness–i.e. “greed is good”–for an alternative In that scene Oliver Stone’s movie was being partly satirical. Nothing to laugh about these days.

        1. semper loquitur

          “But the truth is they’ve merely substituted their own religion of selfishness–i.e. “greed is good”–for an alternative In that scene Oliver Stone’s movie was being partly satirical.”

          There is the “greed is good” angle and then there is the eugenics angle:

          The Religion of the Future Police

          The Collinses write: ‘Only cultures with a strong external motivation to have kids are well above repopulation rate at the moment; all others will enter the dustbin of history.’ We need more humans, and we need higher-quality humans, produced by strong cultures and talented families, like the Collinses. Like so many entrepreneurs, they dream of saving the world.


          “They call their religion ‘secular Calvinism’ — interestingly, the scientist JBS Haldane called eugenics ‘scientific Calvinism’ in the 1920s. They believe the ultimate good in the universe is ‘sapience’. More humans = more sapience. More educated and more free-thinking humans = even more sapience. Intelligent, free-thinking humans are better, according to this theology, than conformist dull-witted herd-humans, or what the Collinses call ‘husks’:

          we call them a “husk” because when someone halts the process of creative destruction — refusing to explore, weigh, and sometimes to accept new ideas — they stop being meaningfully human (in our House’s view, at least).


          1. Carolinian

            Eugenics in a nutshell: “you first.”

            It never seemed to occur to Hitler that if he wanted to improve the quality of the German gene pool he would put a bullet in his mouth (although he did, finally, figure it out).

          2. Amfortas the hippie

            i’d like ta
            eat those people.

            frell them that thinks they gets to pick and choose.
            they made it a dog eat dog…and expect to be somehow exempt?


          3. Craig H.

            With a large number of green columns and a score of 1.9, Embryo №3 — aka Titan Invictus (an experiment in nominative determinism) — was selected to become the Collinses’ third child.

            Sol Invictus would like at least a shout-out no doubt.

        2. Gulag

          So Carolinian we appear to presently be in a paradox where Religion in the West is kaput yet some possibly inherent sense of the sacred is not.

          I often think that our next logical step is what Kingsnorth calls the religion of the machine–we were we all become like gods, through our capacity to technologically create, using the emerging machine/blob/technostate as our primary vehicle of immortalization.

          This possible outcome seems to get us way beyond the issue of simply overcoming capitalism.

    2. DJG, Reality Czar

      I think that now, living as we do in the Triumph of Money (which would have been satirized on the frescoed walls of churches in the past, aligned with a Ship of Fools or the Triumph of Death), it seems that money is in control.

      Maybe not.

      But as Dorman writes, there has to be a politics that doesn’t serve only money. We have to develop another ethic. The seeds are there–the Popester is called Francis and it is no empty gesture. That’s one seed.

      I am not ready for despair. But then I have been contemplating Saint Francis and the Franciscan movement for some time, as well as the simplicity of Buddhism.

      Dorman brilliantly calls these foundations and NGOs receptacles–they are a savings accounts of the rich, where they ineptly try to store up some virtue.

      1. Kouros

        I would say we need to implement the ethic that is being taught. What you call ethic is patently not recognizable as such.

        1. Amfortas the hippie

          “do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law”
          ain’t that about it?
          turn it back on them…and there is no “Law”

          it becomes a question of Legitimacy.

          They are quite obviously Lawless.
          ergo, laws dont matter.
          libertardian utopian state

          Fucking Eat Them and Steal their stuff.

          that’s the reducto ad absurdam of the world they wanted.
 well as the world they’ve made.
          “sow the wind..”, and all

    3. noonespecial

      To your comment, Amfortas, “meanwhile, the Machine continues apace, eating the world”…

      The following lines are found in recent piece in National Interest written by General Charles Krulak USMC (last assignment was as Commandant of the Marine Corps) and General Anthony Zinni USMC (last assignment was as Commander, United States Central Command). The article’s subheading is telling: Vision 2035 is a roadmap for a better way forward for the U.S. Marine Corps.

      So, according to the authors, “First, the United States will remain a maritime nation with global interests. Freedom of the seas for global trade will be as important in the future as it has been in the past. The Pacific theater will increase in importance due to growing economies in the countries that border the Pacific Ocean and the amount of trade that transits its waters…[thus] Our units and our Marines must remain ready to immediately deploy anywhere and at any time, fight any foe, and win. We are and will remain the Nation’s 9-1-1 force, its premier expeditionary force-in-readiness.”

      My takeaway is that these two USMC-ers seem to unequivocally defend the empire’s interests (i.e. access and exploitation of the world’s resources and consumers). Carry a big stick and break glass in case of an emergency.

  2. Patrick Donnelly

    Corporations are masks for the old family dynasties that own most corporations.

    The anonymity enables corruption. Allowing banks to launder money is not a bug, it’s a …

    All corporations over a certain size can be disincorporated. The assets split between smaller corporations. Some can be totally split to the shareholders, with suitable taxation….

  3. fjallstrom

    Yes, it doesn’t make sense.

    In order for the altruism to be effective, even on its own terms, it needs to offset:
    1. The movements own costs, which run into hundreds of millions, including two castles. One in England, and I think the other one is in Slovakia.
    2. The direct cost of the scams of its main donors, which now runs into billions.
    3. The external damage done by the donors as they “earn to give”. Harder to calculate, but surely a big number.
    4. The opportunity cost in not doing something that actually makes the world better.

    Add that up, and surely it would have been better if SBF worked for a pet rescue organisation.

    Except: “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 ”

    Ignore the malaria bednets, and like SBF focus on the “AI risk”. If you prevent the Matrix (which is what these people mean by AI risk) by giving millions to grifters in castles who pontificate about how to make the AI that will take over in our lifetime, a good AI, you will give countless benefit to countless people. Heaven can offset anything.

    Like Dianetics, Effective Altruism doesn’t make sense. But then again, it doesn’t have to because the main function is to be a marketable front to get people in before anyone starts talking about Xenu or AI risk.

  4. lyman alpha blob

    The fourth paragraph reminds me of an interview I read years ago with Warren Buffet’s son who was in charge of Buffet’s philanthropical efforts. He has a Damascene moment at a fundraiser of some sort with extremely well heeled donors, where he realized that the problems that one half of the room were trying to solve through magnanimous donations were caused by the capitalists on the other side of the room, and vice versa.

  5. Thistlebreath

    Donor Directed Giving has proven to be a limpet mine on the hull of philanthropy. Case in point: Mr. E. Musk recently disclosed that instead of ‘donating’ $6B to address world hunger, much ballyhooed by our puffball churnalists, the clever fellow instead donated $5B in Tesla stock to his own charity. Controlled by him.

    A lot of Sand Hill Road types have discovered that their political goals can be helped by funding charities that advance their social, cultural and economic goals. And they, of course, enjoy a hefty tax advantage.

  6. King

    Years ago during one of my infrequent facebook browsing sessions I was served an ad for EA. Morbid curiosity actually found me actually clicking on it. Where that link took me didn’t have enough content to warrant any sort of advertisement. ‘yeah, figures’ I thought and expected that’d be the last I saw of it. Weird internet project or subculture offshoot dead on arrival seemed most likely to me at the time, but then why the ad budget? Now I know.

  7. Gulag

    “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.”

    This approved set of criteria flow from the doctrine of utilitarianism which is the inadequate philosophical underpinning of effective altruism.

    This perspective argues that I (or rather Bankman-Fried ) believe that the right outcome (action) is the one that maximizes total utility in the world (total happiness minus total pain). Part of him seems to have accepted the naive idea ( that choosing to engage in morally objectionable behavior is ok in order to maximize a positive impact while apparently also misrepresenting his view to others).

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