by Brian Tomasik
First written: 3 Sep. 2014; last update: 7 Jan. 2018
I tend not to focus on political advocacy because the topics I think are most important are far too radical for mainstream political discourse. I think working on unusual topics, such as wild animal and far-future suffering, have outsized expected returns because these questions are so neglected. However, political issues are relevant to these concerns, and I do vote in elections. I recommend supporting animal parties if there are candidates for them and otherwise supporting liberal parties. I think politics can be an extremely effective lever on some issues, so it shouldn't be ruled out, but I do recommend eschewing focus on conventional, well known tug-of-war issues.
My early history: 2000-2005
On a chilly night in Nov. 2000, my family and I headed to a lecture hall at a local college in upstate New York, USA, to view a speech by Ralph Nader. It was a few weeks after Nader had finished running in the US presidential election as the candidate of the Green Party. He came in third place with 2.74% of the popular vote. Nader was widely blamed for costing Democratic candidate Al Gore a clear victory in the election.
Nader didn't speak much about the election per se. Instead he focused his address on general harms and injustices in society and, more importantly, the ability of young people in the richest country in the world to tackle those harms and injustices. I found the speech really inspiring. Previously I had been relatively indifferent to politics and altruism. Afterwards, my enthusiasm for these topics flourished.
Nader mentioned a site TomPaine.com in his speech. I decided to check it out, and I soon began reading it daily. It was a progressive politics site that combined news with liberal commentary. I soon branched out to other progressive news sites and radio shows, as well as my mainstream local newspaper. Between 2001 and 2005, I knew a lot about current events and could debate in favor of progressive views at a moment's notice.
Because I was particularly inspired by Nader, I read two biographies of him, as well as The Ralph Nader Reader and years of his weekly column back issues. I watched about ~20 of his speeches from the 2000 election campaign that I found on C-SPAN. I agreed with his logic for pushing the Green Party in order to challenge the corporatist Democrats to become more progressive and responsive to ordinary citizens. I became my high school's biggest Green Party supporter, went to Green Party events, and wore two pro-Green buttons on my backpack.
I also branched out to more progressive thinkers, including Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Amy Goodman, and many others on CommonDreams.org, Alternative Radio, and other publications. I began reading reports written by Public Citizen, Natural Resources Defense Council, and many other nonprofits. I printed out huge stacks of press releases, white papers, and articles from various websites for me to read. Inspired by the fact that Nader had read the Congressional Record as a young man, I also browsed committee hearings on the Government Printing Office website. When my dad saw my stack of reading materials one day, he said: "You should become a policy analyst."
Throughout high school, I accepted progressive policies without much question, because they were my whole world. I had two conservative social-studies teachers with whom I loved to debate, but my faith in the correctness of the progressive agenda was unshaken. The first conservative book I read was The Vision of the Anointed, and I was surprised that it made some reasonable points, but for the most part I rejected its conclusions.
My later history: 2005-present
In spring-summer 2005, I discovered Peter Singer and learned that animals could feel pain. This was a shock to my world view, but at first glance it didn't seem to change my political leanings. After all, the Green Party included statements about animal rights that neither major party would dare mention. Singer himself ran (unsuccessfully) in 1996 as a Greens candidate for the Australian Senate. Singer endorses environmental preservation in Practical Ethics and other writings.
However, I soon began to realize that Singer's views didn't all add up. It seemed that the extent of animal suffering in nature was so vast -- especially when considering small animals like insects -- that environmental preservation could not be justified, and in fact, the opposite appeared to be more humane. By 2006, I felt that habitat conservation was often harmful to animals on balance. This was my first significant break with my previously unflinching support of progressive policies.
Another source of shifting views was economics. As I learned more economic theory, some progressive policies no longer seemed obviously good. For example, if minimum wages are too high, they may cause unemployment. While conditions in Third World factories are awful, it's not clear they're worse than not having any such jobs at all -- else why would people work in them? So it's not obvious that outsourcing jobs is bad. And so on.
While economics challenged some of my previous assumptions, I also felt that mainstream economics was extremely myopic in many ways. For example:
- Why should I think that higher GDP is good? Is it good for stay-at-home parents to go out and work and instead hire babysitters? Is Wikipedia valueless because nobody pays for it? And who says that greater material production is desirable in the first place? Many environmentalists critique this whole framework.
- Externalities are very often ignored, and many economic conclusions may fail when externalities are considered. For instance, the "race to the bottom" to strip away environmental and consumer-protection regulations with free trade is not obviously good when externalities enter the picture.
- Economists and libertarians can make crazy assumptions about people having full information, when in fact paternalism may often help people who can't possibly make optimal choices about most decisions in life because of information overload.
A bigger source of uncertainty than arguments for economic conservatism was the fact that I no longer knew whether conventional goals were good or bad. For instance, it seems obvious that reducing global poverty is desirable, but given the strong correlation between meat consumption and per-capita GDP, it may be that reducing poverty vastly increases animal suffering, at least in the short run. Likewise, the effects of short-term economic and social policies on the far future are ambiguous. For instance, expanding math and science education as Democrats favor might also accelerate development of artificial intelligence (AI) before society has a chance to figure out how best to handle it. There are many areas like this where analyzing impacts on the near future vs. the far future may give divergent evaluations.
While I have great uncertainty on economic issues, I never have had much uncertainty about social/cultural issues like gay marriage, (early-term) abortion, gun rights, religious voucher funding, comprehensive sex ed, and so on. Disagreements on these matters are mainly driven by moral rather than factual divergence, so there's less of a modesty argument in favor of moving toward moderation on these issues. There's of course debate around the edges about how far to take affirmative action, political correctness, and so on, but it's hard to disagree with the core social values of liberals.a This makes sense in view of the observation that liberal views seem to be primarily focused on care/harm (i.e., reducing suffering), while conservatives also care intrinsically about loyalty, authority, sanctity, etc.
My current views
Despite uncertainties, I think it's likely that people should vote for liberal political candidates. The main reasons are
- Liberals favor policies that generally promote humane, tolerant values in society. For instance, public education in the US is heavily skewed toward compassionate values in a good way.
- Liberals are less bellicose in foreign policy while also not being so weak as to cause harm via backing down from stable game-theoretic equilibria in international relations. Liberals generally favor cooperation more than conservatives. This implies better prospects for handling AI arms races, among other things.
- Conservatives support and give credibility to fundamentalist religion -- both via domestic policies and by making Muslims angry abroad. Liberals are less bad along this dimension.
- More socialist-leaning policies tend to have salutary side effects, like improving social equality and making society more harmonious. This again seems to have positive implications for anti-militarism and compassion.
Downsides of liberal politicians include the following:
- By expanding education and scientific research, they make it more likely that humanity will ultimately develop AI and colonize space, which will vastly increase suffering.
- Liberal politicians are more environmentalist and hence tend to increase wild-animal suffering.
A question remains about whether to vote for Democrats or Greens or some other party. I still think there's a legitimate argument for voting Green if you support the Green Party, because Democrats are heavily corporate-controlled and don't care much about animals. People say a Green vote is a wasted vote, but this ignores the history of third-party movements and the game-theoretic importance of credible commitments -- i.e., if you always give in to the lesser of two evils, you lose bargaining leverage. (This is why third-party supporters should generally commit to voting for third parties even in swing states. If not, then there's no real threat being made against the "lesser evil" major party. That said, a third party getting popular votes from non-swing states still matters to the post-election narrative and possibly to public funding in the next election.)b
However, the big problem with the Green Party can be seen directly from its name: It's likely to encourage conservationism, with terrible results for suffering wild animals. While one might hope that the US Humane Party would be better than the Green Party, many animal-rights parties are also slanted heavily towards conservationism, so it's plausible that they also cause more harm than good.
On balance, I tend to vote for Democrats in elections, although on some issues (like habitat destruction), Republicans paradoxically reduce more suffering.
Where one is running, a libertarian candidate might make a reasonable compromise, since libertarians would plausibly reduce the military-industrial complex and religious fundamentalism at least as well as Democrats do, but they also care less about environmental protection. One major downside is that the libertarian ideology could be harmful if applied in other contexts. For example:
- Libertarianism would suggest not helping to reduce wild-animal suffering (unless specific people chose to engage in random acts of charity toward wild animals).
- If a far-future society adopts a libertarian stance toward what computations people can run in the privacy of their own homes, some people might run simulations of cruelty or other forms of suffering.c
Reducing big money's influence on politics seems probably more good than bad, because it's plausible that the populace cares more about protecting important moral values (animal welfare, peace, etc.) against commercial exploitation than corporations do. Of course, there may be exceptions, such as when citizens lobby against habitat loss that would reduce wild-animal suffering or when xenophobes oppose immigration that would actually benefit both big companies and social tolerance. And political donations played an important role in gay-rights victories. All told, I suspect that targeted lobbying on particular issues can have more positive effects than cross-domain work related to money in politics whose outcomes may be good or bad depending on the issue.
How important is politics?
When I was in high school, I thought politics would be my future. It seemed that the issues I cared about most could be tackled with highest leverage in the political realm. For instance, a regulation imposing a miles-per-gallon requirement on motor vehicles would accomplish vastly more per dollar than a campaign to set up one more local recycling system or to encourage carpooling.
In 2004, I attended a conference by Bread for the World, in which the speaker reported some statistic to the effect that if you divide the international aid given by Congress by the number of letters that people wrote to their Congressional representatives about the issue, it amounts to thousands of dollars per letter. And Bread for the World can gather dozens of letters at a single church. Of course, letters to Congress probably comprise a small portion of the total causal contribution to the aid, but even after you adjust for that, the effectiveness of political advocacy still appears pretty impressive.
When I encountered Peter Singer's writings, I was surprised how many of his ideas I agreed with, but I felt uncomfortable with his focus on direct Third World charity rather than funding political advocacy to lobby for more government aid. I still think government lobbying is generally more effective, and Singer's appeal to direct giving seems more appropriate for convincing people to take his philosophical arguments seriously rather than as an optimal philanthropy recommendation. It's harder for skeptics to dispute the positive value of Oxfam than of a political-lobbying organization.
However, as I moved from an emphasis on environmental and poverty issues to topics like wild animals, insects, and reducing far-future suffering, politics became no longer feasible. It can be hard enough to lobby for modest vertebrate animal-welfare standards. Any of the speculative issues would be well beyond the pale of political feasibility and will continue to be for decades to come. Yet, I think these issues are most important to work on because they're so neglected, which means that the marginal contribution of early pioneers is potentially very high. As a result, my altruistic focus has mostly shifted away from politics -- except in rare cases where advocating political changes is possible, such as mainstream animal welfare or maybe AI safety.
That said, I still enjoy conventional politics, and I consume political news as a primary form of entertainment. Learning about it also has some direct value insofar as it expands one's view of how the world works, how power dynamics play out, and how interest groups pitch their messages for maximum rhetorical effect.
That said, standard political debates are often not an area to have maximum impact. Lobbying on abortion, gun control, health care, Mexican immigration, etc. are probably not the best use of marginal resources because these fights are so well worn along conventional battle lines. An issue that's too widely known probably doesn't have maximum return on investment. On top of that, far-future effects of policies in these areas aren't obvious anyway, although we can make some informed guesses based on how they would move nearer-term social trajectories.
In general I would focus on unexplored altruistic territory targeting the long term. This gives more weight to basic research, consideration of neglected but crucial considerations like AI, and targeting farsighted successes through changing core social values rather than just winning the next election. Of course, winning elections and other short-term policy effects may have significant impact on long-term values. Far-future focus does not equal hyperopia.
- At least, this was true for the liberalism I knew as a teenager in the early 2000s. The American Left as of the mid-2010s seems to have an increasing contingent of authoritarian, anti-free-speech tendencies. (back)
- I've updated toward thinking that, in plurality voting systems like those in US, challenging major parties in primaries is more effective than building a third party, unless the third party is mainly serving to provide symbolic value. Candidates in primaries have a chance of actually winning without splitting the general-election vote, and they can still force established candidates to update their policy stances. For example, Democratic primary challenger Bernie Sanders had a much more significant impact on the 2016 US presidential election and the Democratic Party itself than did Green Party candidate Jill Stein. (back)
- Of course, libertarians don't want people to harm others, but there's always a spectrum between how much harm is being done vs. how much freedom is being preserved. For example, late-term abortion may sometimes involve significant suffering for the fetus, but libertarians often come down in favor of the mother's right to choose. (Note: All things considered, I'm pro-choice for a variety of other reasons. But I think fetal pain control should be required for late-term abortions except in extreme cases.)
Also, most of the beings who might be harmed in a hypothetical libertarian future would probably not be legal humans. I'm not an expert on libertarian views regarding animal rights, but some quotes from this thread don't make me optimistic:
- "most libertarians don't think animals can be defended by using violence against the owner."
- "typically rights derive from the premise that humans act, so in that sense animals would be like a property right that you can do whatever you want with without any individual rights."
- "an animal cannot have rights because it is not an economic actor."