Effective altruism (EA) is the fairly simple idea that in charitable giving as in financial investment, you should aim to put your money where it would do the most good – be it earning the highest returns, or helping the maximum number of people. It is a laudable enough goal, though the ideas behind it are hardly new or revolutionary – I recall Jeffrey Sachs touting the superiority of anti-malarial nets over other higher-profile forms of development aid on cost-effectiveness merits back in the mid-2000s, well before “effective altruism” was on anyone’s radar. And I agree with the approach in principle. How could anyone not? Because the core of EA is just helping people live better, richer, healthier lives in clever and cost-effective ways, e.g. anti-malarial nets over dams, $40 trichiasis operations over $40,000 guide-dogs for the blind, machine intelligence research to ensure our future robot overlords don’t kill us all, and – open borders.
Wait, what? Here is where we come to some “problematic” aspects of EA. On paper, it is all about being rationalist. In practice, it is composed of people. What kind of people? EA demographics overlap a lot with that of LessWrong, which has carried out detailed censuses of its members – only 2% of them describe themselves as conservatives, while another 2% describe themselves as neoreactionary (where else would you get that kind of breakdown?), while the other 95% are mostly liberals, libertarians, social democrats, and anarchists of various stripes. They are composed primarily of upper-middle class Americans more compelled to engage in passive aggressive status signalling than to reliably carry rationalism through to its logical conclusions, no matter how unpalatable they might be liberal sensibilities. A few are just outright sperglord level autists.
A good litmus test for this hypothesis would be to see their attitudes on the current immigration engulfing Europe. The LessWrong boards are almost dead, and as far as I can see all the most intensive discussions are occuring on Facebook. A Sailerite Ctrl-F on EA’s biggest Facebook group shows 33 results for “refugee” and 22 results for “migra” just this past September.
Even if we were not all evil racists who don’t want any filthy foreigners aroun… or, merely accept the validity of discounting the welfare of outside groups relative to that of our own countrymen, there would still be some very legitimate arguments against open borders fundamentalism even from a pure EA perspective.
Here are some of the obvious ones:
- As anyone with eyes to see has noticed, and as even the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has admitted in a recent report, the overwhelming majority of the current migrant wave into European is composed of young adult males. Not women or children, who are typically the biggest war victims.
- Of which only half are from Syria.
- Will in general be people who can afford the ~$10,000 needed for the Mediteranean route in the first place, or the ~$5,000 route to Norway via Murmansk so it’s not clear how much in the way of cash and other material aid they really need in the first place.
- So we are really talking about maximizing utility, so wouldn’t it be more logical to make this more targetted and efficient by importing a few million of the most destitute people in say the D.R. Congo as opposed to Syria or Iraq, which however wartorn they might be are still far more prosperous than most of Sub-Saharan Africa?
- But where precisely do you stop? 640 million people want to emigrate around the world, most of them from the Third World to the First.
- Will First World countries composed overwhelmingly of Third Worlders continue to remain First World? More importantly from an EA perspective, would they retain the ability to substantively help the teeming multitudes of the Third World, or even hold conferences on topics such as “effective altruism”? The answer to this question might seem obvious to Unz Review readers, but will likely only confuse and bewilder many self-styled rationalists and EA’ers, many of whom are cognitive and racial blank slatists (this includes their high prophet Eliezer Yudkowsky if his magnum opus HPMOR is anything to go by).
And some of the less so obvious ones:
- One dollar of spending money goes about five times further in poor countries than it does in First World countries due to purchasing power differences. (And that’s without considering the “extras” in the form of extra policing, language courses, welfare spending, etc. that First World nations would have to provide in order to pay for all the new vibrant diversity). If conditions in Syria are so utterly unacceptable that young males have no choice but to emigrate, surely it would be more effectively altruistic to encourage them to settle elsewhere in the Third World – say, why not a relatively stable and Islamic but poor country, like Tanzania, Senegal, or Bangladesh? The $10,000 they pay the Italian or Greek mafias to smuggle them into Europe would probably be enough to buy a nice house there!
- European EA’ers could even subsidize them with a few $1,000s for the first few years to help them settle in their new homelands and encourage them to stay put. A Syrian doctor or engineer would be a great boon to a typical $1,000-$2,000 GDP per capita African country, where there are very few such specialists in the first place. In a European country, there are no substantive shortages of high IQ specialists, and your Syrian doctor or engineer would be just as likely to end up as a taxi driver (or would it be Uber now?) as to make relevant use of whatever professional qualifications he might have. There are 4 physicians per 1,000 people in Germany, compared to 1.5 in Syria and just 0.4 in Bangladesh, 0.1 in Senegal, and 0.0 in Tanzania. Having a Syrian doctor be a taxi driver in Germany is a bad skills misallocation on the global level, one that easily incurs an opportunity cost in the $10,000s, and it should elicit howls of outrage from any truly rationalist EA’er.
- Or how about at least channeling some of this money to the few million real refugees stuck in drab refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey? Those people at least won’t be throwing food away like the desperate starving illegals at Calais:
- When a Syrian migrates to Germany or Sweden, he effectively triples his carbon dioxide emissions. When he migrates to the US, he almost doubles it again. If we are talking about an Eritrean instead, the increase is more on the order of a hundredfold. Exploding populations in the First World means carbon dioxide emissions increasing much more rapidly than if it had taken place in a relatively poor country like Syria, let alone in the most destitute countries like Eritrea. More carbon dioxide emissions means more rapid global warming which in turns means even greater challenges to increasing prosperity in the countries of the Global South. AGW is a topic typically beloved of by progressives, but for some reason they don’t tend to mention it much in the context of immigration debates.
- How about just stop funding Islamist crazies and support Assad, who according to opinion polls enjoys the most legitimacy of any political force in Syria? That would be not just the EA’iest but also literally the easiest low-effort, high-impact action of them all.
- Unfortunately, that is unlikely to happen, since the people opposing this are considerably more powerful than the Left’s anti-immigration racist bogeymen and most rationalists appear to have lapped up their propaganda as readily as most other Westerners.
Now some of the comments on immigration in the Effective Altruism Facebook discussion group are within the rationalist spirit of EA and are intelligent and relevant even if they fail to challenge the broader “open borders” dogma. (I see no reason to blank out names since this is a public group).
Ines Ve sounds like a nice enough if naive person. Let’s hope she doesn’t get too disabused of her notions, like this fellow did:
And predictably you have the SJWs, down to the non-ironic use of “problematic” in casual conversation. I can’t even!
Highly authoritarian and typically of only fairly modest intelligence, they are the death of any mildly interesting or intellectual movement that embraces them. I would not bet much on EA’s future.