Does Effective Altruism entail Socialism?

Julian Baggini raises an interesting question in his recent interview with Peter Singer on Effective Altruism: namely, what would an Effective Altruist economy look like? Baggini suggests that if most or all people became effective altruists, the result would economically ruinous, and therefore counterproductive:

Then there is the argument that giving up all our relative luxuries might be counterproductive. In accepting that earning to give can be the best way to make the world better, effective altruists are acknowledging how important it is that the wheels of the capitalist economy keep turning. It is widely accepted that economic development has  done more to raise people out of poverty than aid, and Bill Gates wouldn’t have billions to give away unless lots of people were buying computers. Effective altruists accept that the poor are best served by economic growth, combined with better governance and fairer trade. Yet they tell us to stop spending on the things that contribute to this growth and give money away instead.

The most important point, one that Singer rightly makes, is that such a scenario is highly unlikely. It is hard to imagine Effective Altruism having more than minority appeal for the near future. Therefore even if it did turn out that it would be disastrous for Effective Altruism to be widely practiced, I don’t think this undermines the case for Effective Altruism today.

Nevertheless, Baggini’s argument is interesting, even if it is academic. Baggini rightly notes that Effective Altruists are generally accepting of capitalism today. However, I think he makes a mistake in assuming that this support would continue in a society where Effective Altruism is dominant. Indeed, I’m not sure the idea of Effective Altruist Capitalism is particularly coherent.

A society where most people are Effective Altruists is one where most people give a substantial proportion of their resources towards the general good of (the global) society, keeping little above the essentials they need for themselves. In other words, wealth is largely socialised. It is a (global) society with minimal inequality. To me, that sounds a lot like Socialism. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” is a principle that captures the motives of most Effective Altruists, and so it is reasonable to assume that it would guide how they organise a society.

Given the intellectual tendencies of the movement, Effective Altruist Socialism would be unlikely to be statist, and would be likely to take advantage of the market as a source of information. But neither of these are necessarily inconsistent with Socialism. A more significant issue is the question of whether the private ownership that is likely to persist in an Effective Altruist society is inconsistent with Socialism. My instinct is to say that regardless of the technicalities of labelling, an Effective Altruist society would look and act much more like a Socialist than a Capitalist society. If we have to call it Capitalist, we need to acknowledge it is a very strange form of Capitalism indeed.

But Baggini was less worried about what we call the system than about whether it would undermine the economy and cause us to lose the wealth we want to redistribute. Baggini suggests that Western spending on consumer goods is better than giving money away in charitable donations. But it is not immediately clear why this ought to be so. If I give a direct cash transfer, that money might be spent on a computer, just in Kenya rather than the UK. And then that money will circulate through the Kenyan economy. If I spend on deworming, the doctors and nurses involved in treatment will spend the money locally. Moreover, there should be a productivity boost from improving the health of the community. What these have in common, I suppose, is that money leaks out of Western economies into developing economies. Which is a problem for Western economies, but one that Effective Altruists would welcome, given that the whole point of the exercise is to reduce global inequalities.

What might lie beneath Baggini’s concern is the common belief that Capitalism is the most powerful force for creating wealth the world has known, and the fear of tampering with this apparently winning formula. Fundamentally, prosperity is generally believed to have been driven primarily by individual acquisitiveness. A more altruistic society risks ending the “deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind”, as Adam Smith describes the system by which individual ambition drives development. Socialism, by contrast, is commonly regarded as doomed to failure because of its inability to motivate people to toil for the common good.

I don’t want to dwell here on the question of whether harnessing individual greed is necessary for prosperity, in our current society. The question at hand is whether it is necessary in an Effective Altruist society. In such a society, by definition, the commonly perceived barrier to Socialism – that people are not sufficiently motivated to work for others – is removed.

But even if altruism becomes the dominant motive in the workforce, this doesn’t mean that people will be as motivated and industrious as under an individualistic Capitalist system. Are people capable of pushing themselves as hard for distant others as for their own gain? Interestingly, we’re no longer in the realm of the abstract – this is one of the main challenges facing those ‘Earning to Give’. The initial evidence seems to suggest that they are as hungry and successful as their more individually motivated colleagues, but it remains early days in the Effective Altruist experiment.

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9 comments

  1. David Nash · · Reply

    I’d agree with most of this but I’m not sure the aim of EA is to reduce global inequalities but rather to reduce suffering. If happiness stops correlating with wealth over a certain amount I imagine that is when focusing on redistribution would stop. This still leaves plenty of room for motivated individuals to make money and buy things they care about, and for people that don’t to be healthy and happy.

    1. OK, but suppose that happiness is uncorrelated with income above $25k, and everyone has at least this much. What should people do with money they earn above this threshold? It is irrational both to spend it and to give it away. I would guess that people would cut working hours/production, aiming for an equal society where everybody has $25k per year.

      Alternatively, it could be that *some* people get welfare from consumption above $25k, while most don’t (ie they have ‘expensive tastes’). In that case, resources ought to be channeled to people with expensive tastes – in other words, from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.

      1. David Nash · ·

        I think that’s possible, but I’d be surprised if more than 10% of people could be convinced to contribute to redistributing so there will still be a range of incomes (and services to spend that money on) but with a much higher minimum standard of living.

        I also think most people will work less hours, and you can see that happening already with a lot of places only working 4 and a half days or part time voluntarily.

  2. It seems your article for the title is basically just semantics. Once you’ve agreed that an EA society wouldn’t have state control of industry, would have no need for income taxes, and so on, it has basically nothing in common the sorts of policies socialists suggest. On the contrary, it sounds like a capitalist utopia!

    Plus an EA society is unlikely to feature mass starvation, historically a major significant feature of socialist economies.

    1. It might well be a question of semantics, but it isn’t obvious to me that such a system would be clearly capitalist. Large scale redistribution of wealth isn’t (from my reading, but feel free to correct me) a common feature of capitalist ideals.

      It is also important to note that there is an important and prominent strand of socialist thinking that is not all about statism and income taxes (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_anarchism) (or starvation for that matter!)

      So I guess an EA society probably sits somewhere weirdly between capitalism and socialism.

      1. Well forced redistribution isn’t part of capitalist ideals, but voluntary giving certainly is! My primary source for this is the businessmen and women I know personally, but there is also Eliezer’s “Traditional Capitalist Values”.

        “Wise philanthropy is a privilege and responsibility of achieved wealth.”

        http://lesswrong.com/lw/ux/traditional_capitalist_values/

    2. I think you’re being somewhat narrow in your definition of socialism there. Have Norway or Denmark had famines recently? No. And yet they are socialist in a number of respects.

  3. While you’re certainly right that EA has similar fundamental values to left wing anarchism, it’s much more open about the means. An example of a EA (mixed) capitalist system would be guaranteed minimum income, with a free market beyond that point, if it were determined that free markets are the best drivers of economic growth.
    On the issue of governments: if everyone were suddenly EA, it’s completely possible that the legal use of force (i.e. statism) wouldn’t be necessary. On the other hand, given how much disagreement there is about which issues are most important in the EA movement right now, maybe 7 billion EA’s wouldn’t be anywhere near as reasonable as the current small, mostly homogeneous population, and some group would need to coordinate action using force i.e. form a government.

    As you note, the real problem with this criticism of EA is that changing one person’s actions has very different consequences than changing billions.

    1. As you mention, it is quite possible an EA society would need some sort of coordinating body, whether or not contributions to this body were required by force. And so there is an interesting question whether that body, which looks and sounds not dissimilar to a state, could be described as a state.

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