Why not socialism?

I. Introduction and a prima facie case

It seems to me that most (perhaps all) effective altruists believe that:

  1. The global economy’s current mode of allocating resources is suboptimal. (Otherwise, why would effective altruism be necessary?)

  2. Individuals and institutions can be motivated to change their behaviour for the better on the basis of concern for others. (Otherwise, how could effective altruism be possible?)

(1) suggests that we should explore alternative ways of allocating resources. (2) suggests that alternatives involving more altruistic motivation, and less of the self-interested motivation that dominates our current mode of resource allocation, could be both feasible and superior. There is an old name for the movement and ideal associated with pursuing an economic system based on more altruistic motives: socialism.[1] This is a prima facie case for EAs to engage with socialist thought and politics. However, I see little of this kind of engagement.[2] In this post I ask why that might be and how I think EAs might best engage with socialism. My aim is to start a productive conversation, and all comments are welcome.

II. Why not socialism?[3]

a. Scepticism about the tractability of systemic change

The first reason for the lack of effective altruist engagement with socialism is that effective altruists care about the tractability of interventions. Perhaps a socialist utopia would be much better than our current world. But it seems difficult to get from here to there.

Tractability is often interpreted as tractability for individuals. It is difficult – perhaps impossible – to see or evaluate how an individual could radically change an economic system.[4] So, the focus of much effective altruism has been piecemeal improvements under capitalism.

But radical change is more tractable on the level of large social groups and movements. These non-individual agents can (and have) changed the world in ways that individuals could not, including large-scale changes to the economic system. Effective altruism’s emphasis on the individual has been much criticised[5] and effective altruism has become increasingly less individualistic.[6] Longtermism has contributed to this change, since many of the interventions that could plausibly affect the very far future are changes at the political, institutional or structural level.

Thinking in terms of group rather than individual agency makes transition from capitalism to socialism appear more tractable.

b. ‘Socialism doesn’t work’

The second possible reason for the lack of effective altruist engagement with socialism is the widespread belief that socialist economies do not work as well as capitalist ones.[7] This, however, is far from clear. Of course, one would rather have lived in West Germany than East Germany, and the human costs of some socialist experiments and failures were immense. But the same can be said of some instances of capitalism (especially if colonialism and climate change are taken – as many think – to be closely connected with capitalism). And some socialist economies have had some successes (human development in Kerala, economic growth in China, the USSR’s role in space technology and smallpox eradication, Cuba’s healthcare system). In addition, socialist influence or pressure has played a vital part in reforms within capitalism – such as the expansion of public services, redistribution and decolonisation – which have almost certainly been positive for welfare.

Moreover, even if we think that twentieth-century socialism was an utter failure, it is not obvious that with more time and research and better technology, socialist economies couldn’t work better – and better than capitalism – in the future. Recall the prima facie case: our current economic system is suboptimal, and people’s economic behaviour can be changed for the better on the basis of altruism. The socialist hope is that such change can, somehow, be delivered on a large scale.

All in all, if EAs have neglected socialism because they emphasise individual over systemic change, and they believe that socialist economics doesn’t work, then this neglect seems undermotivated. How, then, should effective altruists engage with socialism?

III. How to engage with socialism

Firstly, EAs should be more willing to fund and conduct research into alternative economic systems, socialist ones included. As stated above, we agree that the current system allocates resources suboptimally. It distributes too much to those who need it the least, and too little to causes such as malaria prevention and treatment, AI safety and pandemic prevention. Could an alternative do better? Why not a socialist alternative, that is, one in which people are motivated to a greater extent by altruism and a lesser extent by self-interest?

Secondly, effective altruists should learn about socialist ideas and the history of the socialist movement. The socialist movement is not unlike the effective altruist one. It is a community of people trying to make the world better, by their lights, across a wide range of policy areas, appealing to principles that are beyond common-sense morality and distinguished by being egalitarian and roughly welfarist. Its successes and failures may be instructive for EAs. Contemporary socialist thought, moreover, offers different ways of thinking about many of the things EAs are interested in – different ways but rooted in a reasonably similar moral outlook, such that they should be legible to EAs. For instance, there is much recent socialist literature on climate change[8], on movement-building and strategy[9], and on the economics of the future[10]. Engagement with socialist thought, especially socialist critiques of capitalism, might have woken EAs up to the dangers associated with dependence upon billionaires and the current competitive race to AI at an earlier date.

Thirdly, EAs who want to have impact through politics should regard socialists as natural allies. The socialist movement is largely made up of people who agree with core EA tenets about the importance of redistribution, equality, global health and development, cosmopolitanism, altruism and the long-term. Socialism is also in a state of ideological flux, so there is a possibility of getting EA-friendly policies into the nascent twenty-first century socialist programme. Moreover, socialists hold a reasonable degree of political power, and so aiming to influence and co-operate with them may have significant impact. The Chinese Communist Party is the obvious example, although this is a very different form of socialism to that we find in the west, where it is quite possible that democratic socialists of one kind or another will be in government in the UK and France reasonably soon, and are (amazingly) growing in influence in US politics, as well as governing Brazil.

Conclusion and a risk

I spend a lot of time amongst socialists. They are often hostile to effective altruism. Partly this is due to misunderstandings of what effective altruism is,[11] which is another thing that more EAs engaging seriously with socialism would correct. But partly it is due to effective altruism’s proximity to capitalists. The main risk to EA of greater engagement with socialism is that it will scare away capitalist donors. But, as stated above, all EAs, including capitalist donors, agree that the current mode of resource allocation is suboptimal – and altering their behaviour or beliefs to suit the fears of donors would be a dangerous path for effective altruists to go down. Moreover, I do not advise that all effective altruists should start flying the red flag. Rather, it is a claim that it would be good for effective altruism, as a movement, if some EAs took socialism more seriously: some should engage in research about socialist economic alternatives, socialist history and ideas, and some should aim to engage with and aim to influence socialist political movements.

[1] Socialism thus defined includes a wide diversity of more particular movements, including reformist social democrats, Marxist revolutionaries, some anarchists, market socialists, Soviet-style state socialists and so on.

[2] I would be very grateful if readers could point out any that I have missed, in the comments.

[3] The title of this post is a reference to G A Cohen’s very readable book of the same name. Highly recommended if you want to see why many people are attracted to socialism.

[4] See for instance, Peter Singer in his New Yorker interview: “You don’t need a social revolution—or the social revolution is too difficult to achieve, and rather we should focus on getting individuals to change their practices.”

[5] See for instance Amia Srinivasan (2015) and Alexander Dietz (2019).

[6] See for instance Benjamin Todd (2018) and Robert Wiblin (2015).

[7] Effective altruists often point to the massive improvements in technology and welfare made in the capitalist era (e.g. Muehlhauser). It is important to clarify here that socialists need not deny this – Marxists, in particular, tend to be very clear that capitalism is an improvement on what came before it. The socialist claim, rather, is that we can now replace capitalism with something superior.

[8] See Malm (2016) and (2021), Pendergrass and Vetesse (2022) and Lawrence and Laybourn-Langton (2021).

[9] See Bevins (2023) and Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor (2024).

[10] See Frase (2016), Williams and Srnicek (2016) and Varoufakis (2023).

[11] I tried to correct some of these in my ‘A Socialist Guide to Effective Altruism’. An alternative title for this post might be ‘An Effective Altruist Guide to Socialism’.