Note: the opinions expressed below are not my own. They may not be Thomas Pogge’s, either, depending on how good I am at taking notes.
Effective Altruism or Mobilization for Institutional Reform?
for Harvard High-Impact Philanthropy
October 11, 2013
There are two different arguments for effective altruism. One is that we have a positive duty to help others, following Singer’s “child drowning in the pond” thought experiment. But this is too favorable to us: we’re implicated in harming the children that Singer wants us to rescue, because we participate in a global system that causes poverty and suffering in the developing world.
World poverty today
Of the 7.5 billion people in the world:
- 868m are chronically undernourished
- 2000m lack access to medicine
- 783m lack drinking water
- 1600m lack shelter
- 1600m lack electricity
Roughly one-third of deaths are poverty-related. This dramatically overshadows every type of governmental violence and violates the universal human right to an adequate standard of living, because extreme poverty would be completely avoidable with an expenditure of only 2% of global income.
Influences on global poverty
The global institutional architecture is biased in favor of the rich. Examples:
- Protectionism. Rich countries force developing ones to strengthen their intellectual property laws as a condition of doing trade. For example, India was forced to switch from process patents to product patents in order to join the WTO, which drastically increased costs of generics.
- Environmental regulations. The benefits fall mainly on the rich, and the costs mainly on the poor.
- Illicit financial flows. Global tax law is architected such that firms with offices in e.g. India can funnel all their profits through a few tax havens, such as the Cayman Islands, robbing India of tax revenues.
Global institutions also give privileges to people running countries, regardless of their legitimacy: illegitimate rulers can sell the resources of the country, borrow in the name of the country, participate in arms trades, and control labor standards, even without a popular mandate. This is comparable to crooks stealing your identity and borrowing money in your name. In the US, you would not be liable for this debt, but there’s no such protection in the developing world, so a totalitarian dictator can borrow crazily and leave the rest of his country to clean up the mess when he’s deposed.
This makes being a leader in the developing world is quite lucrative, so developing countries are rife with corruption, civil wars, and repression.
This rich-favoring system is kept in place by an inequality spiral caused by regulatory capture. Those in power can lobby for regulations that favor them, which let them become entrenched. This happens in the US:
- The “revolving doors” between regulators in the US and the industries they’re supposed to regulate.
- If each quarter you invested in the 50 biggest lobbyists in the S&P 500, you would outperform the S&P by 11%.
- The returns to lobbying for the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004 (a tax holiday so that companies with profits in offshore tax havens could repatriate the money without being taxed) was 220:1.
- This is a source of rising inequality in the US.
Supranational rule shaping
Supranational rule shaping is an especially fertile ground for regulatory capture. It offers especially high returns from lobbying because such rules emerge in a bargaining environment where
- there is no democratic counterweight (citizens are not involved, only international officials);
- there is little transparency even ex post (compare to e.g. Congress, where you can tell who voted for what);
- moral restraints are easily dismissed by doubts about their international acceptance (e.g. “we need to do whatever we can to outcompete the immoral Chinese!").
All of these make it much easier for entrenched interests to throw their weight around. Therefore, the most cost-effective lobbying by entrenched powers is work to shape supranational institutions and move institutions from the national level to international. It is done by wealthy banks, corporations, associations and people, often by way of influencing officials (especially the US) whose job it is to broker such international agreements.
Human rights as a minimal conception of (global) justice
The upshot is that we talk a good game about human rights, but at the same time there’s this massive jungle of special-interest law that causes violations of human rights everywhere.
In the usual conception of justice, we can divide our duties into four quadrants along two axes: positive-negative, and local-global. Most people regard negative duties (fixing harms we’ve caused) as more salient than positive ones (helping with things we’re not complicit in), and local duties are more salient than global ones. However, our duties to distant strangers are negative, not positive, because we are complicit in the system of supranational regulatory capture that violates their right to a good standard of living. And negative duties to foreigners are no weaker than to friends; it’s just as bad to e.g. poison a stranger as to poison a friend.
If you accept this, you have two obligations:
- to work towards better supranational institutional arrangements;
- at least to compensate for our fair share of the harm that we together produce by shielding the global poor.
Implications for effective altruism
How does this affect our thinking about effective altruism? You might say that it makes effective altruism more important, and it makes the “effective” part in particular more important. What matters about philanthropy is not how much you sacrifice but how much you accomplish.
On the other hand, what if we look at income maximization through the lens of negative duty? Are you incurring more negative duties by working for organizations that create the crappy international system?
Arguing that you’re not doing anything on the margin doesn’t hold up to scrutiny: suppose 50 soldiers massacre a village together. Each soldier pleads that counterfactually, had he not participated, the whole village would still have been massacred, so he is blameless. But clearly there must be some culpability for this massacre! So even if you have no marginal contribution, you’re at least somewhat complicit in the harms and have a negative duty to work to rectify them.