What does effective political advocacy look like? There is an entire school of thought dedicated to effective altruism. Givewell.org exists solely to evaluate and promote efficient, high-impact charities to help donors maximize the value their donations create. But what about political advocacy? It doesn’t fall neatly within the realm of altruism or charity – there is certainly nothing wrong with advocacy on behalf of yourself or a group you count yourself among, but it’s not altruistic in the classic sense. It also doesn’t conform to the neater forms of dollar efficiency or target outcome analysis that a charity might be evaluated along. Political outcomes don’t always lend themselves to intuitive metrics, or even agreement over whether an outcome should be counted a good or bad thing. There’s nothing especially convenient about political advocacy as a tool for welfare maximization, but that doesn’t free us from its necessity. Abandoning politics for it’s frequent ugliness concedes the power of of governance to the ugliest among us.
Political advocacy requires, nearly by definition, to interface with government institutions. In the case of a democracy, this means working within the limits and incentive structures of politics, and all of the complexity that entails. Leaving behind the relatively straightforward prices and incentives of the marketplace, as well as the fungibility of direct charitable donations, politics demands coping with indirect routes to measurable outcomes and, most importantly, the inevitable arrival of oppositional forces. It doesn’t take long in any meaningful advocacy engagement before the arrival of people and resources working explicitly, if not directly, counter to your efforts. This is not something you have to deal with in most charitable endeavors – efforts to shutdown city food banks and block textbooks from reaching African schoolchildren are thankfully rare.
So, again, what might an effective advocacy practice look like? I imagine it would bare scarce resemblance to your modal election campaign, where the emphasis is on manufacturing turnout in a zero-sum competition with your opponent. I also doubt it would look like most lobbying efforts, where the dollars at work represent the selection-effects of classic collective action problems. Rather than the efficient welfare maximization that a hypothetical EffectiveAdvocacy.org would aspire to, the lion share of lobbying simply represents the interests of firms and groups who have identified a bundle of policies whose benefits are sufficiently concentrated within them that it is worth organizing, while at the same time the broader social costs are sufficiently spread out that an opposing forces cannot similarly get over the organizational hump (Yes, I know this is a restatement of the standard Olsonian collective action model of lobbying. Bear with me.)
Effective advocacy would demand working with not just the limited resources of a group without a built-in constituency of concentrated benefits, but also a focused strategy of identifying welfare-maximizing policies unlikely to generate organizable opposition. That’s a tall order. I mean, if you’re going to convince me such a thing is feasible, an example would go a long way. Can you name one?
I’m glad I asked.
The good people at Marginal Revolution posting a link to a paper about the de facto banning of HIV home tests that has been in effect at the FDA for almost 40 years. Suffice it to say, the banning of home tests for a deadly communicable disease is a horrifying policy, one that has without question killed people by the thousands at best and the millions at worst. I imagine the origin story of this regulatory horror is not dissimilar from the opposition to the HPV vaccine – a macabre desire to raise the costs of an undesired behavior. Homosexuality was viewed by many in the not distant past as a choice, HIV/AIDS was killing homosexuals, and a home test would feasibly lower the risk to gay men, so advocates successfully blocked the development of tests. Why did opposition to HPV vaccines find less success? Because HPV is connected to cervical cancer in everyone, and being pro-cancer in the 2010’s enjoyed less popular support than being anti-gay in the 1980s.
This story is a tragic history, but it also represents an opportunity for effective advocacy. The policy, born of homophobia, would never enjoy such popular support today. It survives almost exclusively of regulatory inertia today. A minimum of lobbying resources could feasibly end the policy in large part because it’s originating constituency is diminished and would be unlikely to successfully organize.
This, in a nutshell, is the opportunity for effective advocacy – the strategic search for welfare-harming policies whose originating constituencies have shrunken or disappeared. It’s not particularly exciting, the notion of combing through policies on the books, agency by agency, looking for harmful policies with little to no continuing political support, but it is in that lack of excitement within which the opportunity lies. Reform of headline- and chryon-inducing policies have built in opposition. Any political or politics-adjacent effort that garners significant media attention always promises similar attention for opposing forces. It is within the boring stuff, the bureaucratic protocols and categorical bans produced at the margins of historical political battles, where advocacy, particularly crowd-sourced efforts, motivated by the same sentiments behind effective altruism and efficient charity might make contributions to our government institutions in the best way possible: by making changes that nobody can get attention from opposing.
That’s just one opportunity for effective altruism: inattention. There are no doubt more, but I suspect many will share at least a sliver of unsexy monotony. A better world through boredom.