Is effective altruism effective?
"I just wanted to point out the mountain of skulls."
Let X be some idea. Is X effective? We could mean two different things by this.
First, X is a project—a system of rules for governance, both individual and collective. X, privately, tells the individual what to do; publicly, it tells the collective what to do.
Is this program, properly executed by individual and/or collective, effective? If so, X is an effective idea—an idea that believes in having good effects. If not, it is not.
Second, X itself is a tool for changing the world. The effects of X are the impact of infecting human minds with X. Every successful idea is a meme pandemic.
The effects of the idea are the external effects of that pandemic—the ways in which those newly changed minds then change the world. These effects may match the program of the idea. Or not.
If the sum of these external effects—direct private impact on individuals, indirect public impact on the collective—is effective, X is an effective idea. If not, it is not.
For anyone who claims to be an effective altruist, it seems clear that the effectiveness of any idea X must be defined in the second way—by the concrete impact of X, not the abstract project of X. Effective altruism itself cannot be an exception to this logic.
Therefore our question is: are the consequences of infecting human minds with the “effective altruism” idea effective? We are barely at the start of this experiment.
The term “effective” is always inherently relative. When we ask whether X is effective, what we always mean is whether it is efficient—whether it is as effective as possible.
One way to show that any X is not efficient is that it can be transformed, by a series of optimizing steps, into a more efficient Y—where Y is so different from X that it is just a misuse of language to talk about Y but call it X.
If we can find some Y that is strictly more effective than effective altruism, such that no sensible person would call Y “effective altruism,” effective altruism is not effective. Everyone putting time and money into EA should put time and money into Y instead.
To make this question very concrete: the question “is effective altruism effective?” is not: is it better to save a child in Laos, or wash your underwear—assuming that these have the same cost? The project here is obvious: stick with the skidmarks. (Who else will see them, anyway?) Defined in this way, effective altruism is always effective. Yay!
(I am saying “Laos” because I suspect that few Gray Mirror readers have any personal connection to, or emotional feelings about, Laos or Laotians. Apologies to any actual Laotians out there lol.)
The correct question is: if you can spread the meme that it is better to save a child in Laos than to wash your underwear, what impact will that meme have on the world?
It is possible that the impact of spreading this idea will include saving children in Laos, and/or much grotty underwear. Neither of these effects is guaranteed. And the meme pandemic may have other effects not intended or anticipated by the program.
There are two kinds of impacts of an idea: individual (the idea’s effect on the actions you take on your own) and collective (the idea’s effect on group or political actions). We’ll argue that different attitudes toward charity are more effective than effective altruism at the individual level; and different attitudes toward politics are more effective than effective altruism at the collective level.
Individual impacts of effective altruism
At first glance, individual effective altruism looks extremely effective, to the point where it is almost impossible to argue against. It seems obvious that teaching people—especially, like, rich people—to realize that with a very small amount of money they can save a child in Laos—will result in saving many children in Laos.
At least, it should save positive children in Laos. Or wherever. Also, there is only one human race, so children are children. Right? There is no legitimate moral basis for choosing one child above two, even if the one is yours and the two are randomly selected Laotian orphans. Ergo: any opposition to effective altruism is illegitimate.
It may seem impossible to overcome this clear and simple argument. We’ll do it with a combination of modern social science and anthropology, and Charles Dickens. But first, a justification of our data set.
A critique of altruism at large
How harmful can individual altruism be? We will not restrict ourselves to examples from EA-approved projects. We will consider pathological altruism across the board. Here is why.
First: EA is just too young. Apparently somewhere in Laos there are lakes where all the fish have been strained out with mosquito nets, or something. This is bad. But it is not, like, Pol Pot bad. But give the devil his day.
Second: no one’s intent is pathological. How could it be? All altruists, unless they are out-and-out grifters, want their altruism to be altruistic—which implies effectiveness. EA may have a slightly different definition of altruistic altruism, but its desire to not be straight-out bad is no different.
Third: as we’ll see, altruism is like meth. No one is questioning two facts: that you should clean your room, and that meth helps you clean your room. No one ever did their first hit of meth, or even their nth hit, with the goal of becoming a methhead. Nor does everyone who does meth become a methhead. Many people can chip meth!
However: the world would still be better off without meth in it. The same, as we will show, is true for EA and every other form of systematic impersonal philanthropy. Now, to the Dickens.
The Jellyby effect, part 1
I fucking love Science. But then, I also love Nature. (Okay, Nature “Communications.”)
While Science was suggesting that Laotians might be 19% another species (read the abstract—then read that last sentence twice), Nature was proving that libs love their grandmothers less than a rock. Good times! Maybe the university can be saved after all.
But I jest. Without offending anyone, and certainly without trusting social-science research (let alone blatant scientific racism—like, OMG—in 2022?), let me explain what I think these data plots mean. Form your own assessment. But please consider mine. (And yes, I know where Laos is. Hot tip: the “s” is silent.)
Nature is telling us that there is no free empathy lunch. When you increase the level of empathy for all animals in the universe, regardless of species or even planet, you decrease the level of empathy for your grandmother. Unfortunately, you spend way more time with your grandmother. Or you would—if you weren’t worrying about all the animals in the universe. Get it? Your empathy meme is making you less empathic. It increases your abstract empathy output, but decreases your concrete empathy output.
The other day I was hanging out with a friend in Malibu. Or somewhere like that. My friend was like: you know, you never hear of someone moving to Malibu, then posting on their Facebook page: “gosh! I love Malibu! People here are so nice!” Which cannot be said for, say, Reno. While I would rather live in Malibu than Reno, the quantifiable data behind this generalization is the sickly-green center of the heatmap on the left. Dude: please at least ask if your ideology of good is making you into, like, an asshole.
We should name this heatmap effect in honor of Charles Dickens, who satirized EA 170 years ago in Bleak House. He called EA “telescopic philanthropy,” a wonderful name, and defined its effects with the character of Mrs. Jellyby—whose cause was modeled on the real-life Laos Expedition. From a site for lazy, cheating students:
Mrs. Jellyby is so distracted by this project that she neglects her family and bankrupts her husband gathering money for this cause. Mrs. Jellyby’s house is in chaos and her children are dirty and uneducated. Mrs. Jellyby represents both the frantic efforts of middle-class Victorians to contribute to social causes (even at the expense of their own homes and regardless of whether these causes really help the poor) and Britain’s colonial efforts abroad, which Dickens felt were a waste of money and which squandered resources abroad that could be used to support the poor in Britain. Mrs. Jellyby’s fanatic philanthropy is almost a type of madness and prevents her from seeing the damage that she does to her family.
The project of EA certainly does not prescribe caring about your family less. But the impact of EA is not what its program tells people to do, but what believing in this program makes people actually do. If it actually turns everyone into Mrs. Jellyby, at least on average—is that effective? At what?
One objection is that Mrs. Jellyby is not doing EA. She is doing 19th-century Christian charity. The heatmap data is also not about EA. It is about 20th-century liberal secular philanthropy. This is ineffective altruism—just the opposite of EA, which is effective…
Isn’t there somewhere in Eliezer Yudkowsky where he tells you to always notice the mountain of skulls? I thought that was a rationalist thing—noticing the mountain of skulls. Could be wrong. Anyway… I just wanted to point out the mountain of skulls.
Noticing that previous generations of “altruism” (itself a 19th-century euphemism for “charity”—I guess we are all Comteans now) have been, for whatever reason, notably “ineffective”—which is why the whole concept of philanthropy needs to be reinvented—asks an obvious question.
The world of “ineffective altruism,” the nonprofit or philanthropic world as a whole, is ancient and enormous. As far as I can tell, its moral purpose is the same as that of EA—perhaps with less emphasis on extreme philosophical rigor. Why is it ineffective?
When X doesn’t fly and has to be replaced with “actual X,” the developers of “actual X” had better have a pitch deck with a pretty tight explanation of “what’s up with X.”
What went wrong? Because, like, if you create a new thing, which is going to work, to replace an old thing, which doesn’t work and maybe never did, and you don’t have any idea what broke or doesn’t work in the old thing—what are you doing?
The Jellyby effect, part 2
Another objection to the Jellyby critique is that just maybe, Mrs. Jellyby is right.
Sure, by neglecting her duties at home she is harming those around her. But if the positive effect of her telescopic altruism on the Laotians—who are at least 81% her fellow human beings—exceeds the negative effect of her microscopic malfeasance on her family and friends, remorseless EA logic still concludes that we should all be Mrs. Jellyby. And just cope with our dirty houses while we save happy, laughing kids from absurdly preventable diseases.
The problem is: the Laos Expedition failed. It left—a mountain of skulls. Nor was this an isolated event. The modern aid-industrial complex which is the spiritual heir to the Laos Expedition is famed for its counterproductive impacts. Why? Why the skulls? Why do all these lovely ideas keep turning into mountains of skulls?
One hypothesis is that since the heatmap on the right corresponds to unsophisticated human instincts, whereas the heatmap on the left can only be produced by advanced philosophy, the warm fire spot on the right—the love for Laos, the rest of the galaxy, rocks, etc—is in a way illusory. It is cerebral warmth, not visceral warmth.
You cannot really love a rock the way you love your grandmother. You cannot escape being human. Being human, though, your brain can pretend really damn hard.
Because of the cerebral quality of this empathy, it is easily tricked. You have convinced yourself to care about the Laotians. Maybe you have convinced yourself that you are doing a good thing for them. But the connection between “I do a thing” and “Laos receives actual positive utility” is too long and slippery for normal minds to validate. It can easily be the reverse! Let us illustrate this with a dangerously topical example.
A live problem in effective altruism
Here is an example live enough to be dangerous: the Ukraine war. Is arming the Ukraine effective altruism? Discuss.
My guess is that most “effective altruists” support arming, or at least supporting, the Kiev regime—on the basis that this action is altruistic toward the set of human beings who happen to live in the Ukraine. But… is it? How’s that actually working out?
A modern Mrs. Jellyby would be a huge booster of the war in the Ukraine. She would consider it a philanthropic act, indeed a gesture of peace, to send shells and bombs to the Ukrainian army. “Sell your cloak,” said Jesus, “and buy a sword.” What would the Buddha do? If the Buddha had but a loaf of bread, he would sell the loaf, and buy a HIMARS rocket. Imagine bringing not peace or even just a dinky little sword, but a modern GPS-guided munition. Or two. Thump thump! You’ve been demilitarized…
Many a descendant of Mrs. Jellyby thought about the Great War in much this way. Yeats, writing after the war, is scathing on the mind of the romantic militarist:
Many ingenious lovely things are gone
That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude,
Protected from the circle of the moon
That pitches common things about. There stood
Amid the ornamental bronze and stone
An ancient image made of olive wood—
And gone are Phidias’ famous ivories
And all the golden grasshoppers and bees.
We too had many pretty toys when young:
A law indifferent to blame or praise,
To bribe or threat; habits that made old wrong
Melt down, as it were wax in the sun's rays;
Public opinion ripening for so long
We thought it would outlive all future days.
O what fine thought we had because we thought
That the worst rogues and rascals had died out.
All teeth were drawn, all ancient tricks unlearned,
And a great army but a showy thing;
What matter that no cannon had been turned
Into a ploughshare? Parliament and king
Thought that unless a little powder burned
The trumpeters might burst with trumpeting
And yet it lack all glory; and perchance
The guardsmen’s drowsy chargers would not prance.
Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare
Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery
Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,
To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free;
The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.
The abstract vision of the 21st-century liberal imperialist is quite different from the abstract vision of the 20th-century Edwardian imperialist. Both are trying to make the world a better place. Both wind up making it a worse place: negative expected value.
This is what all the Ukrainian flags on everyone’s lawns, etc, have produced:
When we saw our comrades a month earlier, they were smiling and cheerful. Now they don’t even talk to one another, never take off their bulletproof vests and don’t smile at all. Their eyes are empty and dark like dry wells. These fighters lost a third of their personnel, and one of them said that he would rather be dead because now he is afraid to live.
I read obituaries on Facebook every day. I see familiar names and think that these people should continue writing reports and books, working in scientific institutes, treating animals, teaching students, raising children, baking bread and selling air-conditioners. Instead they go to the front, get wounded, develop severe PTSD and die.
How to prepare yourself for the thought that the mother of two children who hid in a basement for a month slowly died before their eyes? How to accept the death of a 6-year-old girl who died of dehydration under the ruins of her house?
I have accepted the possibility of my death as an almost accomplished fact. Crossing this Rubicon has calmed me down, made me braver, stronger, more balanced. So it must be for those who consciously tread the path of war.
So it must be for those who consciously tread the path of war! Weird segue from Gandhi to, like, ISIS there. Or samurai? Is this Bushido? Nay, the New York Times—the Hubble of telescopic philanthropy. “Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.”
If all the West’s Jellybys did not exist, the regime in Kiev would have looked at the obvious military reality and helplessly made peace with the regime in Moscow. The result would be that Ukraine would be a province of Russia.
Like when I was a kid. Also, Serbia would be part of Austria or something. Instead of doing a World War I. And some people would be alive, who now are not. “And all the golden grasshoppers and bees.”
Maybe the Kiev regime provides much better governance than the Moscow regime? This would have to seem really obvious. It does not seem all that obvious to me. In EA terms: what is the expected value of this purported improvement in governance?
Would Serbia have been that badly off as a Hapsburg province? Like… Slovenia? Is Slovenia still slowly, painfully recovering from the brutal Hapsburg yoke? Bueller?
Since Western diplomacy does exist, now and then, a war happened. Since it does exist, millions of lives were wrecked, hundreds of thousands of people were killed or hurt, cities ruined, etc—a direct consequence of our military and diplomatic support. Did we not plan to bring the world under a rule? “Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.”
The war is not yet over. But the Ukrainians are not winning. At what point, in what way, will the net impact of telescopic philanthropy in the Ukraine turn positive? Mrs. Jellyby is alive and well and doggedly piling fresh heads on her mountain of skulls. Also from the New York Times:
With little movement of the front lines, insurgent activity is now intensifying, as the fighters strike stealthily in environs they know intimately, using car bombs, booby traps and targeted killings with pistols — and then blending into the local population.
“The goal is to show the occupiers that they are not at home, that they should not settle in, that they should not sleep comfortably,” said one guerrilla fighter, who spoke on condition that, for security reasons, he only be identified by his code name, Svarog, after a pagan Slavic god of fire.
Svarog and I met over lemonade and cheese pastries at a Georgian restaurant in Zaporizhzhia, a city under Ukrainian control about 65 miles north of the occupied town of Melitopol.
He spoke with intimate knowledge of partisan activities, providing a rare glimpse into one of the most hidden aspects of the war.
They first cut an electrical wire, blacking out a streetlight, then dashed quickly into the darkness where they planted a bomb, wrapped in tape with the sticky side facing outward, into a wheel well. The fishing line was taped both to the inside of the wheel and to a detonator, rigging the bomb to explode when the wheel turned.
“Anybody who would drive that car would be a traitor,” Svarog said. “Nobody there is keeping public order.” The bomb killed one police officer and wounded another.
In a strike last week, he said, his cell booby-trapped the car of Oleg Shostak, a Ukrainian who had joined the Russian political party United Russia in Melitopol. The insurgents targeted him because they suspected him of tailoring propaganda to appeal to local residents.
Svarog, who said he did not take part in this particular mission, said his team placed a bomb under the driver’s seat, rigged to explode when the engine started.
Mr. Shostak was wounded in the explosion but survived, said Mr. Fedorov, the exiled mayor. The attack was separately reported by Ukrainian authorities and described by displaced people leaving Melitopol through a checkpoint to Ukrainian territory on Sunday.
Whether targeted people survive or die in the attacks, partisans say, is less important than the signal sent with each strike: You are never safe.
“Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.” And also, “anybody who would drive that car would be a traitor.” Ladies, gentlemen, and nonbinary altruists, please take a second to think about the expected value of this ongoing Ukraine adventure.
And think about the power of telescopic altruism to persuade nice, chardonnay-loving American wine aunts in the suburbs of St. Louis to endorse it. Humanity, hath thy folly no end? No end, no end, no end. Philosophers, I feel, should keep this in mind— while we drink our lemonade, and eat our cheese pastries. As a friend of mine once put it, “karma is as real as the road.”
If Mrs. Jellyby’s empathy was directed at those around her, those for whom she felt a local, visceral human concern, she would notice that she was objectively delivering death instead of aid. If the mountain of skulls was in her backyard, she would see it. Since the mountain of skulls is in Laos or the Ukraine, she doesn’t.
That’s the thing with telescopic philanthropy—a telescope, by definition, misses a lot. It is easy to say that since EA is effective, it won’t do ineffective or counterproductive things like this. Of course, no one wants to be ineffective or counterproductive. Even if they don’t have the word “effective” in their brand…
The Jellyby effect, part 3
And it is not just that the mountain of skulls is far away. It is actually worse than that.
In some ways, Mrs. Jellyby is behaving like an addict. She might as well be ignoring her family in favor of heroin. She is also ignoring the mountain of skulls. She seems to be in some sense intoxicated by her altruism—it seems to let her ignore painful stimuli.
When we read EA literature we are struck by the same sense of wonder that the young Freud felt, when he thought he had discovered the cure for depression. It was actually just… cocaine.
Cocaine is amazing because it makes you feel powerful. Fuck yeah! Cocaine is a hell of a drug. Is there anything else that makes you feel powerful? Yeah, sure—power. Power is also a hell of a drug. In fact… it’s kind of the original.
People love power at a level of deep evolutionary motivation. For the human male, even for the chimp male, power is by far the best predictor of your genetic success. Which is not to say that power is irrelevant to the human or chimp female!
The connection between altruism and power is that helping someone gives you power over them. They owe you whether they are grateful or not. If you help them enough, they become dependent—and then you truly own them. The English word “lord” is from the Old English “hlaford,” literally “loaf-ward”—the guardian of your bread.
Altruism makes you feel powerful. Altruism gets you high. Altruism is like cocaine. This does not mean that altruism is bad—it means that people are biased in favor of thinking it good. Altruism is like a beautiful human who can get away with anything. It is not bad to be beautiful and many beautiful people are 100% wonderful. But still.
This bias answers the question above. The reason that the world is so rife with bad altruism—ineffective altruism—is that even ineffective altruism feels good. In fact, even counterproductive altruism feels good. Witness the Ukraine war.
If the Ukraine example does not work for you, remember the Arab Spring ten years ago? It started two civil wars, which killed about half a million people. Surely you wouldn’t call that effective altruism?
But can you disagree that the emotion behind the popularity of the Arab Spring, at least in the West, is the normal emotion of altruism? This feeling of warm parental giving is the same thing people feel when they care about the environment, or civil rights, or any other noble, selfless cause… presumably including effective altruism.
It feels good. But objectively, it is bad. This correlation of good feelings with bad actions appears to be correlated with telescopic altruism in general. If a new brand of remote philanthropy appears, with no mechanism to counter this addictive tendency, it should be treated like yet another brand of Cocaine-Cola—especially if statistically associated with both druglike damage to its consumers’ lives, and collateral damage in the unfortunate countries where it is made.
The individual case against effective altruism
Suppose we want people to be as altruistic as possible. Do we encourage them toward the centripetal heatmap of concern—in which they care most about those closest to them—or the centrifugal heatmap of concern—in which they spread their concern evenly around the world or even the universe, following some logical formula?
We see that the cold spot at the center of the centrifugal heatmap creates an atomized society, community and family, in which traditional bonds of closeness are weakened. Instead, unprecedented levels of concern are sprinkled across the planet and universe, in what Dickens called “telescopic philanthropy,” and we call “effective altruism.”
Unfortunately, because of the distance, the abstraction, and above all the excitement of this concern-sprinkling process, telescopic altruism is generally unaccountable to its intended ends. The hot spot at the edge of the centrifugal heatmap is just as hot. But this heat is often wasted—since it flows into systematically ineffective structures.
These structures evolve until they present only the appearance of their stated program—or, all too often, enact the inverse of it. Creating new, more effective institutions is not a promising cure for this disease, unless these institutions are in some different way immunized against it.
In exchange for the destruction of society, community and family, we get not the flowering of the planet, but a planet of aid-devouring kleptocracies. We get the liberation of Afghanistan. We get the homeless-industrial complex. If there is a difference between these old ineffective forms, principles and institutions, and the new ideas of the EAs, it is only that the EAs are younger.
So the most altruistic meme to propagate is the centripetal heatmap of concern, in which “charity begins at home.” Caring about your grandmother more than anyone else’s grandmother, let alone a rock, maximizes the amount of empathy in the world—since everyone is cared for most by those they interact with most.
Best of all, “charity begins at home” is your natural instinct as a human or chimp. The centripetal heatmap of concern is not a meme. It does not need to spread or go viral. It is already installed in your normal hominoid psychology. So it’s a win all around.
Collective impacts of effective altruism
Private impacts of an idea matter, but only when the idea is little. Once it puts on its big-boy pants and really goes viral, private impacts become marginal. What really matters is how the idea interacts with the state—how it becomes an ideology.
Look at environmentalism. Privately, it encourages people to respect the environment. Publicly, it encourages governments to protect the environment. Most of the impacts of environmentalism are public. Even though it is nice to have less litter, etc, what really makes environmentalism a thing is EPA.
If effective altruism really wants to be effective, as it scales it needs to scale into an ideology of state. Otherwise, why the “ism”? Any “ism” is a prince of the blood—a possible contender to become the motivating ideal of the state. If not of all states, crowning itself meme-emperor of the world.
EA sounds like an ideology; it acts like an ideology; it looks like an ideology; people follow it like an ideology. And if it wants to be truly effective, it has to be an ideology, since in theory, state power dwarfs private power in its ability to produce any effect.
To make EA as effective as possible, let us modify it to be as effective as possible as a public ideology. We will invalidate EA by showing that this modification, while more effective than effective altruism, does not deserve the name “effective altruism.”
To make the argument concrete, let’s make it personal—and give praise where due. Will MacAskill, godfather of EA, writes:
So even just getting the US government to represent the interests of its own people has this enormous benefit in terms of pandemics.
Especially given the probability that the US government caused covid, this is what Mark Twain called “praising with faint damns.” On what other issue is this not so? “Even just getting the US government to represent the interests of its own people.” Even! Working from first principles, let us find the gap between us and this even.
On that issue, influencing governments is going to far outweigh any individual actions.
On that and every other issue. Get in the car—we’re going to do some regime change. To get the US government to represent the interests of its own people, here are some things we need to change. When we finish, what will be left of what we started with?
Here are some things that can’t be left, if our new government is going to be efficient and altruistic:
The bureaucratic state
At a public-policy level, effective altruism cannot be implemented by a bureaucracy. Applying the principles of legalistic bureaucracy consistently and regularly produces results that cannot be sensibly described as altruistic.
The effectiveness of the state cannot, of course, be taken for granted. It varies widely. Since there is no check on the decay of a sovereign besides war and regime change, an old state can become very inefficient indeed.
And if in practice state power is moribund, effectiveness requires restoring that power. Effective altruism, as an ideology of state, must be an ideology of the effective state. If the government cannot get anything done, effective altruism cannot be effective.
One obvious way to make the state more effective is to structure it like other effective organizations. We observe that almost all effective organizations—whether they are corporations, restaurants, armies, schools or movies—share one common structure. Moreover, most sovereign states in the historical past have also used this structure.
The common structure is an organizational chart shaped like a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid is a single leader or small leadership team (three is large). Every part of the pyramid is a little pyramid of its own, whose leader receives missions from above and executes them with the resources below.
The name for this design, because of the unity of command, is the rule of one—that is, monarchy. Monarchy does not necessarily mean costumes, dynasties and thrones—it is just the most effective way that anyone has found to run a large organization.
Above the top leader there may be an accountability structure (like a corporate board) which monitors the whole performance of the organization, and can replace (but never micromanage) an unsatisfactory leader. This gives us an accountable monarchy—the general structure of the modern corporation, which makes essentially everything around us that works.
Unfortunately, on paper, the formal organizational structure of a bureaucracy looks exactly the same as the structure of monarchy. Both orgcharts are hierarchies—perfectly-shaped pyramids. The pyramid of a bureaucracy may even have a single judge, priest or oracle, on the top—but the judge is a judge, priest or oracle, not a king, general or CEO.
While of course the monarchic and bureaucratic forms may be mixed, the ideal forms are distinct. Purging bureaucracy from monarchical systems is a constant problem. Yet even if bureaucracy can never be eliminated, we know what we are eliminating.
Monarchical management operates on the military principle of mission orders or Auftragstaktik, in which a subordinate officer is given clear goals and the resources to accomplish them, but freedom of individual action within these limits. At the top of the system is a single officer who defines and commands the entire mission.
Bureaucratic management operates on the legal principle of due process, in which a subordinate officer has a formal procedure to follow. For exceptions not fully dictated by this procedure, the officer’s manager must be consulted. When these exceptions are complex enough, they go up all the way to a single oracle whose decisions are final.
There is a place in the world for bureaucratic organizations. For example, any serious judiciary is legalistic in this sense, as it should be. But most things should not be done by judiciary organizations—which are exception handlers in the first place.
The experience from the corporate world is that it is rarely cost-effective to try to turn an ineffective organization into an effective one. Rather, the ineffective one should be replaced with a new organization—a startup. When the old organization operates on the wrong fundamental operating principle, replacing it is trivially necessary.
Ergo, an effective altruist should want to replace our present inefficient governments with a startup regime—an accountable monarchy.
The utilitarian state
At the public-policy level, effective altruism cannot be defined on utilitarian terms. Applying the principles of utilitarianism consistently and regularly produces results that cannot be sensibly described as altruistic.
Utility is defined as the fulfillment of desire. If we define the purpose of government as maximizing the fulfillment of everyone’s desire—irrespective of the distribution of that fulfillment—we are fairly close to the economic rubric of the 20th-century state.
This state tries to maximize GDP, which is a fancy way to describe the total value (desire-satisfying power) of everything the productive sector can produce. Price is a measure of power to satisfy desire, so GDP is the total price of everything producers sell to consumers.
There is a corner case which hints at the flaw of this model: what about fentanyl? Since people desire fentanyl, they pay for it. Logically, this is GDP. This is desire in the desire economy. And if fentanyl is not good for you, what about marshmallows? Marshmallows certainly aren’t good for you—should they too be excluded from GDP?
We broaden and broaden this argument until we realize that, except at the most basic levels (thirst and hunger), peoples’ desires are not generally a good guide of what they actually need. Often they are an inverse guide. People need exercise; they prefer to lounge. People need work; they prefer to slack.
Somewhere between the ultra-hedonist Athenian state in which life is one long Love Parade, and the ultra-vitalist Spartan state in which life is one long boot camp, lies who human beings should actually be and how we should actually live. It is hard to agree that we all should be drilled from birth like super-soldiers, but also hard to admit that it is right for the state to cheer the mass degeneration of its human capital.
One definition of this problem, which does not solve it in detail but creates the proper mood to solve it, is an old Latin maxim: salus populi suprema lex, “the health of the people is the supreme law.” The rubric of salus populi suprema lex agrees with the rubric of GDP that honest productive activity is good. It draws the line at fentanyl.
If effective altruism at the public level does not mean good government, what does it mean? If good government does not mean that the government defends and improves the health of its people—in the broadest sense—what does it mean?
There is simply no reason at all for the health of a person to generally equate with the fulfillment of that person’s desire. Often the two correlate—but only often. And as the technology of desire-fulfillment advances and more peoples’ basic material needs are satisfied, the two only diverge.
Note also that utilitarianism demands a scope. The absence of world government, and the presence of governments whose scope is not the world, creates a conflict of interest between “representing the interests of a government’s own people,” and representing (as EA demands) the interests of all people (not to mention chickens).
We could assert that the mission of every government is to serve all people on earth, not just its own citizens. In this case, the government of, say, England, is justified in harming its citizens slightly in order to help the much poorer citizens of Laos more.
But as they used to say in England, “dogs should not be taught to eat leather.” When any justification is found for a government to optimize against its own citizens, this conflict of interest opens the door to every kind of predatory abuse.
It is not easy to build an accountability mechanism for a sovereign regime—and much harder if this accountability must tolerate this kind of ethical ambiguity. It is easier to prohibit your employees from stealing, than to prohibit them from stealing too much.
Rover might seem like a good way to recycle scrap leather. Sooner or later, he will eat your shoes. The Lorax may speak for the trees—the government must not be taught to speak for the chickens. At least, if its purpose is to represent the interest of its own people—not the interest of other people, or birds, or rocks, or the rest of the galaxy.
The libertarian state
At the public-policy level, effective altruism cannot be defined on libertarian terms. Applying the principles of libertarianism consistently and regularly produces results that cannot be sensibly described as altruistic.
Churchill used to say: anyone who was not a communist before the age of 30 has no heart. Anyone who was still a communist after the age of 30 has no brain. Churchill used to say a lot of things, not all of which he said. However, anyone who was not a libertarian before the age of 30 has no brain. After the age of 30, however…
Capitalism is cool. Spontaneous order is cool. Yet it is easy to ignore the fact that capitalism, as we know it, is not mostly made of spontaneous order. It is not a sea of self-employing economic atoms.
Capitalism is a sea of economic molecules. Some of these molecules are single atoms. Some are giant megacorporations. Between the molecules, all order is spontaneous. Within the molecules—raisins in the bread—all order is directed and monarchical.
The spontaneous order between molecules—the free market—is good. It is a powerful organizing principle. But what is good about it is not its spontaneity, but its order. We know that order is inherently good; and spontaneous order is one good form of order.
Yet is it the only good form of order? What about a directed order of molecules? The postwar zaibatsu era in Japan, under MITI, is a good example of such a directed order.
True, we have chosen a form of government—a bureaucracy—in which state agencies, being fundamentally far less inefficient, are incompetent to efficiently manage outside contractors (and, as in space and defense, often contaminate them with its methods). We are going to fix this, too! It is broken to retain limits created by other broken stuff, all of which also must be fixed.
While this argument makes intellectual sense, it is hard for the conditioned mind to accept in an aesthetic or spiritual sense. Sadly, I am not an aesthetic or spiritual guy. (Though I guess you could call monarchism—the auteur theory of government.)
So I will defer to a rare and unusual work, in a sense the only real 20th-century bible of monarchy in its truest and deepest sense—Saint-Exupéry’s Wisdom of the Sands.
When you were 3, you might have known St-Ex for The Little Prince. That was cool. Now you are 30. From his little-known posthumous masterpiece, here is St-Ex on the auteur theory of government:
“Since man is so beautiful,” they argued, “we must liberate him. Then he will blossom forth in happy freedom, and all he does be wonderful. But, as things are, we are frustrating his splendor.”
Thus I, when I walk in the cool of the evening in my orange groves, whose trunks are trained to straightness and the branches pruned, might likewise say: “How beautiful are my orange trees, how rife with fruit! Why, then, have lopped off those branches which also would have borne fruit? Were it not better to leave the tree its liberty. Then it would blossom forth in happy freedom. But, as things are, we are frustrating its splendor.”
They had their way and set man free. And straight as a tree he held himself, for he had been pruned and trained to straightness. And when came the police officers seeking to control him, not from respect for that mold which once broken cannot be replaced, but a mere lust for domination, those whose splendor was frustrated broke into revolt.
Like a flame their ardor for freedom swept ahead, till the whole land was ablaze. The freedom they sought was the freedom to have beauty and, in dying for freedom, they died for their beauty, and beautiful they were in death. And the voice of freedom rang clearer, purer, than a bugle call.
But I remembered my father’s words: “Such freedom is the freedom of not-being.”
For in the process of time they lapsed into a mere rabble; since if you decide for yourself and your neighbor does likewise, his acts and yours cancel out and come to nothing. Thus if many people take a hand in painting a certain thing, each according to his taste, one daubs red, another blue, another yellow, and so on—till in the end the thing painted is a dingy gray.
If after a procession has formed up, each man goes the way his fancy chooses, all are dust before a wind of folly and the procession breaks in pieces. If you split up your power and share it out, far from augmenting the power, you lay it in waste.
And if each man chooses the site of the temple for himself, and places his stone wherever he thinks fit, you will never see a temple, only a huddle of stones. For creation requires oneness; your tree is the uprush of one seed alone. And truly you may call the tree “unjust,” for other seeds have been frustrated by it.
True, power, if it comes but of a lust for dominance, is, to my mind, a fool’s ambition. But I praise that power which, wielded by a creator, sponsors a creative act and goes against those natural inclinations which tend to mix things in a formless mass, causing the glacier to melt into stagnant ponds, temples to crumble into dust, the fires of noon to lapse into a tepid warmth, the message of.a book to grow dim as the pages fall apart with time, languages to lose their purity and degenerate, efforts to tell against each other, and every structure issuing from that divine knot which holds things together to disintegrate into a mass of incoherencies.
True power is like the cedar tree which draws its nurture from the stony waste and, delving in barren, thankless soil, traps the sunlight in its branches, and in the eternal sameness of the desert, wherein all is shared out and slowly leveled down, rears up its “injustice,” transcending stones and rocks, building a green temple in the sunlight, singing harp-like in the breeze, restoring movement to the moveless.
For all life is a building-up, a line of force—and injustice. Thus, if you see a group of children growing listless, you need but impose on them constraints—the rules of a game—and presently you will see them playing merrily together.
Once you realize that you believe in order, not just spontaneous order, you realize that you can stop being a libertarian. In retrospect, spontaneous order looks good because it does not imply either existential opposition to the present regime (which can only benefit by loosening its grip), or (more dangerously) loyalty to an alternative regime.
In other words, spontaneous order is a cope to avoid thinking about regime change. Collectively discarding all remnants of this cope will make effective altruists much more effective—since they are not just aiming for power, but absolute power.
That the king is above the law (or, as Nixon so memorably put it, “if the President does it, that means it’s not illegal”) is one of the most fundamental principles of premodern law. If the king is not above the law, some other power is above the king; and so he is no king. Absolute power is inherently the power of final decision.
While this was the power of Hitler and Stalin, it was also the power of Elizabeth I, Peter the Great, Frederick the Great, Augustus, Atatürk, and Alexander the Great. While it would probably not do well in the hands of Donald Trump or Joe Biden, the world has fifteen billion hands—quite a few of whom are effective, experienced CEOs.
Spontaneous order is good—but perhaps human order is even better. Why not try it? Who strikes you as more right—Saint-Exupéry, or MacAskill? Probably, when I was 30, that St-Ex excerpt would have made me almost vomit. But I am no longer 30.
Therefore, for EA to be as effective as possible, the movement should replace its entire whole platform, private and public.
Privately, the new platform should encourage the concentration of altruistic energy toward more local circles of concern—family above community, community above city, city above country, country above world. Rocks, galaxies, foreigners, etc, should be of little interest.
This is just math. Since empathy is conserved, most of it should be kept local—so that it affects the people you interact with most. While telescopic empathy can look more powerful, its image is distorted by the atmospheric distance, and it is more likely than not to end up causing long-term harm. (This is even worse if the telescope is a time machine—computing the expected value of empathy for a purely hypothetical future.)
Publicly, the new platform should emphasize the replacement of the current regime with an entirely new government—a change of power as categorical as last year’s regime change in Afghanistan—whose sole purpose is to, in MacAskill’s excellent words, “represent the interests of its own people.”
A government can only efficiently represent the interests of its own people if its operations are efficient. All large efficient organizations are absolute monarchies. It is much easier to replace old, inefficient organizations than to reform them. Therefore, the new regime must peacefully dissolve all existing agencies, at least by default, and replace their functions (if needed) with new structures which operate like startups. The entire regime must function like one big startup, which means it needs one CEO. This CEO can be accountable to some kind of board—possibly consisting of all voters, but ideally no more than nine people—but must not be micromanaged.
Of course, at this level of revision, anything deserves a new name. (Then again, people are surprisingly flexible about labels—the Chinese Communist Party still calls itself “Communist.”) Since, as an effective altruist, you are transitioning to my platform, you should consider also using my platform’s own name, which is “deep right.” Why not?
(I hear you saying: stop trying to make “deep right” happen. It’s not going to happen! But perhaps, with enough rationally-converted refugees from EA, it could be made to happen… a small act, true—but truly altruistic, I feel. Since “new right” has literally been used six previous times in the century—and where are they now? Skulls, skulls…)