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Responding to recent political situations
Improving politics
Initial research on what should change and how to create change
The key features of better politics and policy
A topical example of how recent political tragedy could have been avoided
Further thoughts on tractability
Is it worth EAs time to focus on this?
Conclusions

Responding to recent political situations

Recent political changes that have left many people I know and vast swathes of the population upset and shocked. Whatever your political views may be, there are some questions worth asking:

  • Do these changes present an opportunity for doing good?
  • Can we capitalise on and direct people’s political passion and disappointment, for present or future political issues?
  • Can (and should) we do this in a non-partisan way that builds support from across the political spectrum to improve political and other systems?
  • How do we direct people’s passion towards the most useful cause? And what is the optimal cause to direct them towards?

If we want to act on this concern we could look in two directions:

  • Try to change the current situation in some way.
  • Try to change the systemic issues that led to the current situation.

Trying to tackle the systemic issues, perhaps to prevent the rise of potential future dangerous demagogues, seems neglected. Plausibly, it is a better way to have positive political impact than fighting the current situation. The question, then, is which things about the modern world we should try to change. We could look to improve the values of the public, the political systems, the media [1], big business, or a host of other things. All of these are interesting, but in this piece I focus on improving politics and policy making.

Improving politics

By improving politics and policy making I mean creating stable systems of governance where the decision makers, at minimum, are incentivised to act in the best long-term interest of the population.

Could this be a contender for the most important cause, a thing the effective altruism (EA) community should be fighting for? This could be super important, provided you think that:

  • Policy makers should be putting in place policies that are actually good for the population.
  • Governments should care about long term risks to humanity.
  • Prioritisation research should be done into how best to use resources. [2]
  • We need to see significant systemic changes if governments are to leverage mass talent and resources towards these goals.

But what does creating better political systems actually look like? Is this even feasible? Is this really a high impact use of time?

The key features of better politics and policy

Most of the basic features of a good political system are in place in most developed countries. We mostly have democracy, universal suffrage, peaceful transfers of power, an independent rule of law, term limits, free speech, free press, no extreme education controls, and various other checks and balances on government powers. (In fact for those of us living in countries where the above applies we should be pretty damn grateful to have those basics feature – it really could be so much worse.)

That said, if we want to upgrade from the basic package, there are a few other features of a well-designed political system it would be really nice to have. Such as:

  1. Honest leaders and campaigns.
  2. Minimise political tail end risks. Prevent the rise of Hitler type figures who can turn a democracy into a monstrous dictatorship of suffering, or of individuals who may be trigger happy on pressing the big red doom the earth button.
  3. Leaders who care about the long-term future of humanity and will deal with issues that need international cooperation (eg. climate change) as well as less clear threats (eg. AI).
  4. No tyranny of the majority situations (eg. banning harmless religious actions).
  5. A way of disincentivising politicians from conducting rhetoric or actions which are not in the best interest of the population, but might otherwise help them win elections (eg. a policy that will benefit voters in swing locations but harm other voters).
  6. The use of evidence in policy making and the implementation of policies that actually work to achieve the stated goals, and robustly monitor achievement.
  7. Allow some underlying flexibility for limited, low-risk improvements to the political process (such as improving voting systems).

Initial research on what should change and how to create change

But those all sound impossible, can we actually create a system that will deliver all of the above?

Unfortunately, I am going to give the usual cop-out answer: we should do more research in this area.

We should research:

  • Prioritisation questions: what is most important about a working political system (this could mean adding to and ordering the list above)? Which countries are the most important and tractable to focus time and effort on?
  • Good political systems: what are the practical things that could be implemented in a democratic system that provide the bonus features listed above?
  • Implementation tactics: What tactics are needed to create change that leads to good political systems?

Luckily for anyone interested I’ll give you a kick-start by sharing my (not entirely uninformed) opinions on the above. What more could you need?

Prioritisation questions: I think the most important thing will be to have systems that limit extreme risks, as I am genuinely worried we are not going to be able to keep humanity alive that much longer, and to focus on more powerful countries, as these are the ones that have the most power to create change and lead the way. But I have no strong views on this.

Good political systems: I have slightly more nuanced views on this. In brief, some of the key features of a good political and policy system would be:

  1. An unelected part to the system that can veto or delay very bad decisions, such as the UK House of Lords.
  2. A constitution / internationally agreed human rights bill / etc that gives additional power to the independent judiciary to limit extreme actions by the state.
  3. Transparency. Not necessarily 100% transparency but more transparency about how political decisions are made (Eg. earlier release of public records).
  4. Better legitimised whistleblowing systems for civil servants and others who might see bad political behaviours.
  5. Safeguards to allow party elites to push out strongly disagreeable leadership. See the topical example below.
  6. Evidence enforcing bureaucracy. For example making civil servants have to fill out a form explaining the evidence for and against a policy (like the UK’s better regulation framework).
  7. A code of conduct and training for civil servants that encourages good decision making and honesty.
  8. All new policies are reviewed a set amount of time after they are introduced.
  9. Public consultation for new policies.
  10. Avoiding systems like primaries where a politician may have to take a more extreme view to win their party leadership than they would take otherwise.
  11. Limit the things the public can vote on and explain the evidence for and against choices. Democracy works best when the population is informed and votes on refined choices.
  12. A system whereby party leaders have to have held office previously. Eg in the UK you have to be an MP before you can be made party leader.
  13. More power moved out of the hands of politicians to technocrats in certain areas. For example, the Bank of England playing an independent role to ensure financial stability.
  14. Better and more representative voting systems.

I’m happy to elaborate on any of these if people want. It’s worth bearing in mind that these kind of things will vary from country to country.

Implementation tactics: Highly speculative and I am not an expert in lobbying (especially outside the UK). I think I suggest beginning by building credibility with high quality research in this area, perhaps setting up (or working with) a respected think tank. From there I would just sit back and wait for opportunities to arise. Wait until such topics are being discussed or on the political agenda and then start influencing at that point. Alternatively it could be worth looking for any policy changes that whilst seemingly small or uncontroversial but may have a significant impact if implemented. How to have influence would depend on the situation and could be grassroots, political networking, legal and so forth.

A topical example of how recent political tragedy could have been avoided

Without meaning to offend anyone who has differing political views than me, I think it is fair to say we have all recently seen and been shocked by a tremendous political catastrophe. Yes I am of course talking about the disintegration of the UK Labour Party.

The previous Labour leader, Ed Miliband, changed the way by which labour leadership is decided. The leadership was changed to a public vote from a vote split 1/3 unions, 1/3 MPs and 1/3 public. In order to make sure they did not end up with a leader that all the MPs hated or could not work with they introduced a safeguard that a leader would have to have the support of 50 MPs to run. They did not however think to put in any safeguards to give MPs power to kick out a leader, even if every almost every MP found them difficult to work with. And the current shambles is a result of that. [3]

Perhaps there is with hindsight bias and a lot of hubris leading me to thank that this should have been noticeable. But it certainly feels like this is the kind of thing that a smart person, with a good knowledge of how political systems worked and a long term mindset, could have spotted. Especially if that person had some time to do some research whenever a major party in a major country was changing how they decided on their leader. This is a mistake other parties have made and corrected (such as the conservative party’s 1922 committee). Furthermore, it should not have been hard in this case to make the case to the relevant decision makers.

Further thoughts on tractability

How tractable this cause area is, is incredibly hard to guess. The example above makes it seem like opportunities to make changes do arise. It might be worth looking to see if there are many other past examples of situations where it feels like changes could have been made. If any EAs were to work on this it could be worth making predictions about how many future cases actually come up, where EA influence could potentially help.

It is also my experience from my time in government that there are many very small changes that could be implemented that could improve decision making. I have seen better and worse decisions made, and a variety of checks and balances in place that worked or did not work to varying degrees. To give one innocuous example from an area I worked in: the UK Treasury publishes a Tax Impact and Information Note (TIIN) for all tax policy changes, except for changes to local taxes. Asking for this TIIN system to be extended to local taxes seems simple and should positively impact decision makers’ incentives.

One counter consideration is that it may be very difficult to know what the actual impact of changes will be. For example you could push for more transparency of documentation, and it may lead to less information being written down and worse decisions being made.

Is it worth EAs time to focus on this?

Some things to consider are:

Scale. HUGE. Governments have a lot of resources that they can put towards addressing global problems. Improving how they use those resources would impact the flow of trillions of dollars, and could impact every area of what a government does from social care to climate policy. The flow-through effects seem very large.

Neglectedness. This seems to perhaps be the wrong thing to consider with political change issues. If an issue is too neglected it may be difficult to create the pressure needed for change. The ideal would either be that there is public sentiment that change is needed but no clear leader pushing for change, or that the research in this area is not being pushed hard enough, or is not being carried out effectively. There are already a few organisations working on evidence based policy making, voting systems and transparency. We could do with someone looking more into what exists in this area and what the gaps are.

Tractability. Fairly low as discussed above.

Measurability. This is really really hard to measure the success of. In general working out the impact of policy influencing is difficult: it is hard to know if your actions will create change. If change happens, it is difficult to know if your contribution was a causal factor. You may need someone competent working on this for years to even begin to make any wins. Furthermore, if we create changes that lead to better changes at some invisible point in the future or mitigate risks it may be impossible to see the end impact of this.

Why would EA thinking be uniquely placed to consider improving politics? Improving politics uses both long term thinking about extreme consequences (not putting in the right safeguards into political decisions will likely have no immediate effect but may lead to catastrophe a few hundred years down the line) and meta-thinking (it may make more sense to try to improve governance systems than panic when a poor politician is standing or a poor decision is made and wonder how it reached this point). These are areas EAs focus on.

My biases and thoughts: I have had an interest in this topic since shortly after I begun working in policy. I guess recent events have triggered me to actually writing some views on this.

I initially gave this article the mild mannered (and more honest) conclusion that: “this could be a powerful thing for EAs to work on . . . more research could be useful” but decided instead to try and spark more debate. So, tell me why I am wrong on points 1 to 3 above. Tell me if you strongly agree. Your feedback would be super-helpful.

Conclusions

Some conclusions:

  1. This topic should be a key focus area for EAs. There should be more research by individual EAs, by CEA, by Open Philanthropy, and so on.
  2. The EA community’s responses to recent political events have been poor: fractured, slow and unfocused. We should assume there will be another event that will rile people up (French elections? Something else?) and work fast now to be more able to direct people’s passions in the best direction (such as towards improving politics). More generally, we are wasting too much time discussing non-neglected political issues.
  3. This is clearly more impactful than other policy areas (except where there is an immediate risk to counter, such as arguably bio-security policy). It is clearly higher impact to change and improve how policy is made than to change the kind of areas of policy that the Open Philanthropy Project are looking into, (such as economic stability policy or prison reform or animal welfare).

If anyone wants to work on this or fund this then get in touch: samueljhilton@gmail.com

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With thanks to Alexander Gordon Brown and Robert Collins for input.

[1] Some recent discussion on how to improve the media can be found at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/effective.altruists/permalink/1213547848701570/

[2] Bear in mind that states are by far the biggest spender by a long way on what can loosely be considered prioritisation research and on risk research. States constantly have to think about how to spend money and resources to create the biggest impact although perhaps with a slightly skewwhiff view of what impact means, and they may not necessarily implement the most high impact option for a range of reasons.

[3] I have not looked at this in detail and perhaps over simplify the situation. For more on this see: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/elections/2015/09/why-did-labour-use-system-elect-its-leader and http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2015/05/how-will-labour-leadership-election-work