How to do good in politics

80,000 Hours lists “party politics” as one of their top career choices for people who have the background and aptitude for it. But there seems to be remarkably little discussion in the effective altruism community of what you would actually do to make a difference in politics, once you got in.

Indeed, compared to the excellent advice 80,000 Hours gives on other parts of the site, the politics career profile is a bit disappointing. Unlike earning to give or trying to found the next Against Malaria Foundation, politics is a career path that I suspect most talented college students have at least thought about, if only briefly. They’re unlikely to be surprised by being told things like, “If you have aptitude for the job, then your expected influence is very large” but “it may be hard to stick to your values while seeking power and needing to make political compromises.”

The question we should be talking about is what to do about these commonplaces. One way to look at the problem is not in terms of being “corrupted” by power, but in terms of being constrained in how to use it. If you’re a rich person deciding where to donate money, you can basically do whatever you want. If you’re founding a startup or new non-profit, you’ll probably need support from at least a few other people, but not too many, and you’ll still have a lot of flexibility.

Politicians, on the other hand, need to worry about getting elected, then re-elected, and can do little without the support of other politicians also worrying about re-election. What’s the solution? In his book The Myth of the Rational Voter, economist Bryan Caplan argues that how much “slack” politicians have varies greatly by issue. On issues the voters care greatly about, politicians have little choice but to do what the voters want. On other issues, though, politicians have more freedom.

Caplan is mainly interested in how politicians can use this slack to pursue policies more in line with what experts, including economists, would recommend. But this concept can also be applied to questions of values, such how much value to place on the interests of foreigners, or animal welfare. So if you’re looking to do good in politics, I would recommend the following approach: be prepared to act like other politicians most of the time. But always be on lookout for issues where you can do much better, at little political cost.


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