This post interrupts the Has Life Gotten Better? series to talk a bit about why it matters what long-run trends in quality of life look like.
I think different people have radically different pictures of what it means to "work toward a better world." I think this explains a number of the biggest chasms between people who think of themselves as well-meaning but don't see the other side that way, and I think different pictures of "where the world is heading by default" are key to the disagreements.
Imagine that the world is a ship. Here are five very different ways one might try to do one's part in "working toward a better life for the people on the ship."
|Meaning in the "ship" analogy||Meaning in the world|
|Rowing||Help the ship reach its current destination faster||Advance science, technology, growth, etc., all of which help people (or "the world") do whatever they want to do, more/faster|
|Steering||Navigate to a better destination than the current one||Anticipate future states of the world (climate change, transformative AI, utopia, dystopia) and act accordingly|
|Anchoring||Hold the ship in place||Prevent change generally, and/or try to make the world more like it was a generation or two ago|
|Equity||Work toward more fair and just relations between people on the ship||Redistribution; advocacy focused on the underprivileged; etc.|
|Mutiny||Challenge the ship's whole premise and power structure||Radical challenging of the world's current systems (e.g., capitalism)1|
Which of these is the "right" focus for improving the world? One of the things I like about the ship analogy is that it leaves the answer to this question totally unclear! The details of where the ship is currently trying to go, and why, and who's deciding that and what they're like, matter enormously. Depending on those details, any of the five could be by far the most important and meaningful way to make a positive difference.
If the ship is the world, then where are we "headed" by default (what happens if we have more total technology, wealth, and power over our environment)? Who has the power to change that, and how has it been going so far?
These are important questions with genuinely unclear answers. So people with different assumptions about these deep questions can get along very poorly with each other.
I think this sort of taxonomy provides a different angle on people’s differences from the usual discussions of pro/anti-government interventionism.
Next I will give some somewhat more detailed thoughts on the case for and against each of these pictures of "improving the world." This is not so much to educate the reader as to help them understand where I stand, and why I have some of the unusual views I do.
I talk a bit about the "track record" of each category. A lot of the point of this analogy is to highlight the importance of big-picture judgments about history.
I use "rowing" to refer to the idea that we can make the world better by focusing on advancing science, technology, growth, etc. - all of which ultimately result in empowerment, helping people do whatever they want to do, more/faster. The idea is that, in some sense, we don't need a specific plan for improving lives: more capabilities, wealth, and empowerment ("moving forward") will naturally result in that.
Rowing is a contentious topic, and it’s contentious in a way that I think cuts across other widely-recognized ideological lines.
To some people, rowing seems like the single most promising way to make the world a better place. People and institutions who give off this vibe include:
- Tech entrepreneurs and VCs such as Marc Andreessen (It's Time to Build) and Patrick Collison (progress studies).
- Libertarian-ish academics such as Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok (see their books for a sense of this).
- The many institutions and funders dedicated to general speeding up of science, such as the Moore Foundation, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and CZI Biohub.2
- The global development world, e.g. nonprofits such as Center for Global Development and institutions such as the World Bank, which seeks to help "developing" countries "develop." This generally includes a large (though not exclusive) focus on economic growth.
I sometimes see rowing-oriented arguments tagged as “pro-market” or even “libertarian,” but I think that isn't a necessary connection. You could argue - and many do - that a lot of the biggest and most important contributions to global growth and technological advancement come from governments, particularly via things like scientific research funding (e.g., DARPA), development-oriented agencies (e.g., the IMF), and public education.
To many people, though, advocacy for “rowing” seems like it’s best understood as a veneer of pro-social rhetoric disguising mundane personal attempts to get rich - even to the point where the wealthy create an intellectual ecosystem to promote the idea that what makes them rich is also good for the world.
On priors, I think this is a totally reasonable critical take:
- In practice, a lot of the folks most interested in "rowing" are venture capitalists, tech founders, etc. who sure seem to have spent most of their lives primarily interested in getting rich.
- It seems "convenient," perhaps suspiciously so, that their story about how to make the world better seems to indicate that the best thing to do is focus on "creating wealth" (which usually aligns extremely well with "getting rich"), just like they are. This doesn't mean that they're deliberately hiding their motivations; but it may mean they naturally and subconsciously gravitate toward worldviews that validate their past (and present) choices.
- Furthermore, the logic of why “rowing” would be good seems to have some gaps in it. It’s not obvious on priors that more total wealth or total scientific capability makes the world better. When thinking about the direct impacts of wealth and tech on quality of life, it seems about as easy to come up with harms as benefits.
- Clear benefits include lower burden of disease, less hunger, more reproductive choice and freedom, better entertainment (and tastier food, and other things that one might call "directly" or "superficially" pleasurable), and more ability to encounter many ideas and choose from many candidate lifestyles and locations.
- But clear potential costs include environmental damage, rising global catastrophic risks,3 rising inequality, and a world that is chaotically changing, causing all sorts of novel psychological and other challenges for individuals and communities. And many of the obvious dimensions along which wealth and technology make life more "convenient" do not clearly make life better: if wealth and technology "save us time" (reducing the need to do household chores, etc.), we might just be spending the "saved" time on other things that don't make our lives better, such as competing with each other for wealth and status.
These concerns seem facially valid, and they apply particularly to rowing. (If someone works toward equity, there could be a number of criticisms one levels at them, but the above issues don’t seem to apply.)
In my view, the best case for “rowing” is something like: “We don’t know why, but it seems to be going well.” If I were back in the year 0 trying to guess whether increasing wealth and technological ability would be good or bad for quality of life, I would consider it far from obvious. But empirically, it seems that the world has been improving over the last couple hundred years.
And with that said, it's much less clear how things were going in the several hundred thousand years before the Industrial Revolution.
So my current take on "rowing" is something like:
- Despite all of the suspicious aspects, I think there is a good case for it. I don’t understand where this ship is going or why things are working the way they are - maybe the ship happens to be pointed toward warmer or calmer latitudes? - but rowing seems to have made life better for the vast majority of people over the last couple hundred years, and will likely continue to do so (by default) over at least the next few decades.
- On the other hand, I don't think the track record is so good as to assume that rowing will always be good, and I'm particularly worried and uncertain about how things will go if there is a dramatic acceleration in the rate of progress - I'm inclined to approach such a prospect with caution rather than excitement.
Steering sounds great in theory. Instead of blindly propelling the world toward wherever it’s going, let’s think about where we want the world to end up and take actions based on that!
But I think this is currently the least common conception of how to do good in the world. The idea of utopia is unpopular (more in a future piece), and in general, it seems that anyone advocating action on the basis of a specific goal over the long-run future (really, anything more than 20 years out) generally is met with skepticism.
The most mainstream example of “steering” is probably working to prevent/mitigate climate change. This isn’t about achieving an “end state” for the world, but it is about avoiding a specific outcome that is decades away, and even that level of specific planning about the long-run future is something we don’t see a lot of in today’s intellectual discourse.
I think the longtermist community has an unusual degree of commitment to steering. One could even see longtermism as an attempt to resurrect interest in steering, by taking a different approach from previous steering-heavy worldviews (e.g., Communism) that have fallen out of favor.
- Longtermists seek out specific interventions and events that they think could change the direction of the long-run future.
- They are particularly interested in helping to better navigate a potential transition brought on by advanced AI - the idea being that if AI ends up being a sort of “new species” more powerful than humans, navigating the development of AI could end up avoiding bad results that last for the rest of time.
- It’s common for longtermists to take an interest in differential technological development - meaning that instead of being “pro” or “anti” technological advancement, they have specific views on which technologies would be good to develop as quickly as possible vs. which would be good to develop as slowly as possible, or at least until we’ve developed other technologies that can make them safer. It seems to me that this sort of thinking is relatively rare outside the longtermist community. It's more common for people to be pro- or anti-science as a whole.
Why is it relatively rare for people to be interested in “steering” as defined here? I think it is mostly for good reasons, and comes down to the fact that the track record of “steering” type work looks unimpressive.
- There are some specific embarrassing cases, such as historical Communism,4 which explicitly claimed to aim at a particular long-term utopian vision.
- There is also just a lack of salient (or any?) examples of people successfully anticipating and intervening on some particular world development more than 10-20 years away. People and organizations in the longtermist community have tried to find examples, and IMO haven’t come up with much.5
Despite this, I’m personally very bullish on the kind of “steering” that the longtermist community is trying to do (and I’m also sold on the value of climate change prevention/mitigation).
The main reason for this is that I think defining, long-run consequential events of the future are more “foreseeable” now than they’ve been in the past. Climate change and advanced AI are both developments that seem highly likely this century (more on AI here), and seem likely to have such massive global consequences that action in advance makes sense. More broadly, I think it is easier than it used to be to scan across possible scientific and technological developments and point to the ones most worth “preparing for."
In the analogy, I’m essentially saying that there are particular important obstacles or destinations for the ship, that we can now see clearly enough that steering becomes valuable. By contrast, in many past situations I think we were “out on the open sea” such that it was too hard to see much about what lay ahead of us, and this led to the dynamic in which rowing has worked better than steering.
Other reasons that I’m bullish on steering are that (a) I think today’s “steering” folks are making better, more rigorous attempts at predicting the future than people who have tried to make long-run predictions in the past;6 (b) I think “steering” has become a generally neglected way of thinking about the world, at the same time as it has become more viable.
With that said, I think there is plenty of room for longtermists to do a better job than they are contending with the limits of how well we can “steer,” and what kinds of interventions are most likely to successfully improve how things go.
I think our ship draws close to some major crossroads, such that navigating them could define the rest of our journey. If I’m right, focusing on rowing to the exclusion of steering is a real missed opportunity.
In practice, it seems like a significant amount of the energy in any given debate is coming from people who would prefer to keep things as they are - or go back to things as they were (generally pretty recently, e.g., a generation or two ago). This is an attitude commonly associated with "conservatives" (especially social conservatives), but it's an attitude that often shows up from others as well.
As someone who thinks life has been getting better over the last couple hundred years - and that we still have a lot of important progress yet to be made on similar dimensions to the ones that have been improving - I am usually not excited about anchoring (though the specifics of what practices one is trying to "anchor" matter).
Some additional reasons for my general attitude:
- I think the world has been changing extraordinarily quickly (by historical standards) throughout the past 200+ years, and I think it will continue to change extraordinarily quickly for at least the next few decades no matter what. So when I hear people advocating for stability and trusting the established practices of those who came before us, I largely think they are asking for something that just can't be had. (One way of putting this: as long as things are changing, we may as well try to make the best of that change.)
- I am particularly skeptical that the previous generation or two should be emulated. There is obviously room for debate here (I might write more on this topic in the future).
- I think there is a general bias toward exaggerating how good the past was that we need to watch out for.
There is a version of "anchoring" that I think can be constructive: asking that changes to policy and society be gradual and incremental, rather than sudden, so we can correct course as we go. In practice, I think nearly all policy and societal changes do end up being gradual and incremental, at least in the modern-day developed world, such that I don't currently have a wish for a stronger "anchoring" force than already exists in most domains that come immediately to mind (unless you count the "caution" frame for navigating the most important century).
Of the five different visions of what it means to improve the world, equity seems the most straightforward and familiar. It is about directly trying to make the world more just and fair, rather than trying to increase total options and wealth and rather than trying to optimize for some particular future event.
Equity includes efforts to:
- Redistribute resources progressively (i.e., from rich to poor), whether via direct charity or via advocacy.
- Amplify the voices and advance the interests of historically marginalized groups including women, people of color, and people born in low-income countries.
- Improve products and services aimed at helping people who would be under-served by default, including via education reform and improvement, and scientific research (e.g., the sort of global health R&D funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation).
You could argue that successful equity work also contributes to the goals of rowing and steering, if a world with less inequality is also one that’s better positioned for broad-based economic growth and for anticipating/preparing for particular important events. But work whose proximate goal is equity tends to look different from work whose proximate goal is rowing or steering.
Most people recognize equity-oriented work as coming from a place of good intentions and genuine interest in making the world better. To the extent that equity-oriented work is controversial, it often stems from:
- Arguments that it undermines its own goals. For example, arguments that advocating for a higher minimum wage could result in greater unemployment, thus hurting the interests of the low-income people that a higher minimum wage is supposed to help.
- Arguments that it undermines rowing progress, and that rowing is an ultimately more important/promising way to help everyone. Dead Aid is an example of this sort of argument (picked for vividness rather than quality).
I've talked about the track record of rowing and steering; I'll comment briefly on that of equity. In short, I think it's very good. I think that much of the progress the world has seen is fairly hard to imagine without significant efforts at both rowing and equity: major efforts both to increase wealth/capabilities and to distribute them more evenly. Civil rights movements, social safety nets, and foreign aid all seem like huge wins, and major parts of the story for why the world seems to have gotten better over time.
With that track record in mind, and the fact that many equity interventions seem good on common-sense grounds, I'm usually positive on equity-oriented interventions.
Mutiny looks good if your premises are ~the opposite of the rowers'. You might think that the world today operates under a broken "system," and/or that we fundamentally have the wrong sorts of people and/or institutions in power. If this is your premise, it implies that what we tend to count as "progress" (particularly increased wealth and technological capabilities) is liable to make things worse, or at least not better. Instead, the most valuable thing we can do is get at the root of the issue and change the fundamental way that power is exercised and resources are allocated.
Unlike steering, this isn't about anticipating some particular future event or world-state. Instead, it's about rethinking/reforming the way the world operates and the way decisions are made. Instead of focusing on where the ship is headed, it's focused on who's running the ship.
This framework often emerges in criticisms of charity, philanthropy and/or effective altruism that point to the paradox of trying to make the world better using money obtained from participating in a problematic (capitalist) system - or occasionally in pieces by philanthropists themselves on the importance of challenging the fundamental paradigms the world is operating in. Some examples: Slavoj Žižek,7 Anand Giridharas,8 Guerrilla Foundation,9 and Peter Buffett.10. Often, but not always, people in the "mutiny" category identify with (or at least use language that is evocative of) socialism or Marxism.
Of the five categories, mutiny is the one I feel most unsatisfied with my understanding of. It seems that people use language about fundamental systems change to (a) sometimes mean something tangible, radical, and revolutionary like the abolition of private property; to (b) sometimes mean something that seems much more modest and that I would classify more as "equity," such as working toward greatly increased redistribution of wealth;12 and to (c) sometimes mean a particular emotional/tonal attitude unaccompanied by any distinctive policy platform.13 And it's often unclear which they mean.
(a) is the one I'm trying to point at with the "mutiny" idea. It's also the one that seems to go best with claims that it's problematic to e.g. "participate in capitalism" and then do philanthropy. (It's unclear to me how, say, running a hedge fund undermines (b) or (c).)
I am currently skeptical of (a), because:
- I haven't heard much in the way of specific proposals for how the existing "system" could be fundamentally reformed, other than explicitly socialist and Marxist proposals such as the abolition of private property, which I don't support.
- I am broadly sympathetic to Rob Wiblin's take on revolutionary change: "Effective altruists are usually not radicals or revolutionaries ... My attitude, looking at history, is that sudden dramatic changes in society usually lead to worse outcomes than gradual evolutionary improvements. I am keen to tinker with government or economic systems to make them work better, but would only rarely want to throw them out and rebuild from scratch. I personally favour maintaining and improving mostly market-driven economies, though some of my friends and colleagues hope we can one day do much better. Regardless, this temperament for ‘crossing the river by feeling the stones’ is widespread among effective altruists, and in my view that’s a great thing that can help us avoid the mistakes of extremists through history. The system could be a lot better, but one only need look at history to see that it could also be much worse."
- As stated above, I broadly think that the world has made and continues to make astonishing positive progress, which doesn't put me in a place of wanting to "burn down the existing order" (at least without a clearer idea of what might replace it and why the replacement is promising). I'm particularly unsympathetic to claims that "capitalism" or "the existing system" is the root cause of global poverty. I think that global poverty is the default condition for humans, and the one that nearly all humans existed under until relatively recently.
To be clear, I don't mean here to be advocating against all radical views. A radical view is anything that is well outside the Overton window, and I have many such views. And I am sympathetic to many views that many might call "anticapitalist" or "revolutionary," such as that we should have dramatically more redistribution of wealth.
I am also generally sympathetic to both (b) and (c) above.
Here's a mapping from some key combinations of rowing/equity/mutiny to familiar positions in current political discourse:
|The radical left|
|The less radical, but still markets- and growth-skeptical, left|
|Many conservatives ("anchoring")|
|Libertarians, economic conservatives|
|"Neoliberals," the "pro-market left"|
I've left out steering because I see it as mostly orthogonal to (and usually simply not present in) most of today's political discourse. I've represented "anchoring" as a row rather than a column, because I think it is mostly incompatible with the others. And I've left out worldviews that are positive on both rowing and mutiny (I think there are some worldviews that might be described this way, but they're fairly obscure).14
We can make up categories and put people in them all day. What does this taxonomy give us?
The main thrust for me is clarifying what people in different camps are disagreeing about, especially when they seem to be talking past each other by using completely different definitions of “improving the world.”
I think this framework is also useful for highlighting the role of one’s understanding of history in these disagreements. It’s far from obvious, a priori, whether the best thing to work on is rowing, steering, anchoring, equity, or mutiny, especially when we are so foggy on where a ship is heading by default. It really matters whether you think that increases in wealth and technological capability have had good effects so far, whether this has come about through deliberate planning or blind “forging ahead,” and whether there are particular reasons to expect the future to diverge from the past on these points.
Accordingly, when confronting one camp from another, I think it’s helpful when possible to be explicit about one’s assumptions regarding how things have gone so far, and regarding the broad track records of rowing, steering, anchoring, equity and mutiny. History doesn’t give us clear, pre-packaged answers on these questions - different people will look at the same history and see very different things - but I think it’s good to have views on these matters, even if only lightly informed to start, and to look out for information about history that could revise them.
Though as discussed below, it's often unclear what "capitalism" means in this sort of context. ↩
For example, The Precipice argues that "Fueled by technological progress, our power has grown so great that for the first time in humanity’s long history, we have the capacity to destroy ourselves." The book sees "anthropogenic" global catastrophic risks as the dominant ones, and I agree. ↩
I use the term "historical" in order to be agnostic on whether this was "true" Communism or reflects badly on Marxist philosophy. ↩
See AI Impacts' attempts to find examples of helpful early actions on risks and Open Philanthropy on historical long-range forecasting. Other examples that have been suggested to me: early action to stop damage to the ozone layer, nuclear nonproliferation action, perhaps the US's approach to the Cold War. ↩
See Open Philanthropy on historical long-range forecasting for what past efforts look like. There are many longtermist discussions of long-range predictions that seem significantly better on the dimensions covered in the post. ↩
"There is a chocolate-flavoured laxative available on the shelves of US stores which is publicised with the paradoxical injunction: Do you have constipation? Eat more of this chocolate! – i.e. eat more of something that itself causes constipation. The structure of the chocolate laxative can be discerned throughout today’s ideological landscape ... We should have no illusions: liberal communists [his term for the Davos set] are the enemy of every true progressive struggle today. All other enemies – religious fundamentalists, terrorists, corrupt and inefficient state bureaucracies – depend on contingent local circumstances. Precisely because they want to resolve all these secondary malfunctions of the global system, liberal communists are the direct embodiment of what is wrong with the system ... Etienne Balibar, in La Crainte des masses (1997), distinguishes the two opposite but complementary modes of excessive violence in today’s capitalism: the objective (structural) violence that is inherent in the social conditions of global capitalism (the automatic creation of excluded and dispensable individuals, from the homeless to the unemployed), and the subjective violence of newly emerging ethnic and/or religious (in short: racist) fundamentalisms. They may fight subjective violence, but liberal communists are the agents of the structural violence that creates the conditions for explosions of subjective violence." ↩
""If anyone truly believes that the same ski-town conferences and fellowship programs, the same politicians and policies, the same entrepreneurs and social businesses, the same campaign donors, the same thought leaders, the same consulting firms and protocols, the same philanthropists and reformed Goldman Sachs executives, the same win-wins and doing-well-by-doing-good initiatives and private solutions to public problems that had promised grandly, if superficially, to change the world—if anyone thinks that the MarketWorld complex of people and institutions and ideas that failed to prevent this mess even as it harped on making a difference, and whose neglect fueled populism’s flames, is also the solution, wake them up by tapping them, gently, with this book. For the inescapable answer to the overwhelming question—Where do we go from here?—is: somewhere other than where we have been going, led by people other than the people who have been leading us." ↩
"EA’s approach of doing ‘the most good you can now’ without, in our opinion, questioning enough the power relationships that got us to the current broken socio-economic system, stands at odds with the Guerrilla Foundation’s approach. Instead, we are proponents of radical social justice philanthropy, which aims to target the root causes of the very system that has produced the symptoms that much of philanthropy, including EA, is trying to treat (also see here and here) ... By asking these questions, EA seems to unquestioningly replicate the values of the old system: efficiency and cost-effectiveness, growth/scale, linearity, science and objectivity, individualism, and decision-making by experts/elites ... " ↩
"we will continue to support conditions for systemic change ... It’s time for a new operating system. Not a 2.0 or a 3.0, but something built from the ground up. New code." (Though also note this quote: "I’m really not calling for an end to capitalism; I’m calling for humanism.") ↩
(Footnote deleted) ↩
For example, see the "Class" chapter of How to Be an Antiracist, where the author speaks of capitalism and racism as "conjoined twins" but then states that he is defining "capitalism" as being in opposition to a number of not-very-radical-seeming goals such as increased redistribution of wealth and monopoly prevention. He speaks positively of Elizabeth Warren despite her statement that she is "capitalist to the bone," and says "if Warren succeeds, then the new economic system will operate in a fundamentally different way than it has ever operated before in American history. Either the new economic system will not be capitalist or the old system it replaces was not capitalist." ↩
For example, a self-identified socialist states: "There’s a great Eugene Debs quote, 'While there is a lower class, I am in it. While there is a criminal element, I am of it. And while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.' That’s not a description of worker ownership — that’s a description of looking at the world and feeling solidarity with people who are at the bottom with the underclass. And I think that is just as important to what animates socialists as some idea about how production should be managed ... People focus a lot on the question of central planning. But I’ve been doing interviews of socialists, interviewing DSA people around the country, and the unifying thread really is not a very clear vision for how a socialist economy will work. It is a deep discomfort and anger that occurs when you look at the world and you see power relationships and you see a small class of people owning so much and a large number of people working so hard and having so little. There are socialist divides over nearly every question, but this is the one thing that socialists all come together on." ↩
I sometimes encounter people who seem to think something along the lines of: "Progress is slowing down because our culture has become broken and toxic. The only hope for getting back to a world capable of a reasonable pace of scientific, technological, and economic progress is to radically overhaul everything about our institutions and essentially start from scratch." I expect to write more on the general theme of what we should make of "progress slowing down" in the future. ↩