Hiski Haukkala: Policy Makers Love Their Children Too

The poli­ti­cal sci­en­tist Hiski Haukkala used to be­lieve that as tra­di­tional power struc­tures weak­ened, we would be able to change the world by cre­at­ing to­tally new struc­tures. Now, how­ever, he thinks that some work within ex­ist­ing sys­tems, like na­tional gov­ern­ments or in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions, will be nec­es­sary. In this talk from EA Global 2018: Lon­don, Hiski en­courages effec­tive al­tru­ists to be­come in­volved in poli­cy­mak­ing and the poli­ti­cal pro­cess more broadly.

A tran­script of Hiski’s talk is be­low, which CEA has lightly ed­ited for clar­ity. You can also watch this talk on YouTube, or read it on effec­tivealtru­ism.org

The Talk

Good day ev­ery­one. First of all I would like to ex­press my ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the in­vi­ta­tion to at­tend this EA Global. It’s my sec­ond event, and it’s re­ally been great to see the growth of this move­ment, and the peo­ple that it brings to­gether. I’m re­ally happy, hon­ored, and priv­ileged to be ad­dress­ing you here to­day.

1530 Hiski Haukkala

How­ever I think I’m afraid I have to start with a con­fes­sion of sorts, maybe even two. The first one is that the ti­tle of my pre­sen­ta­tion is a ruse. It’s a ploy. I’m not go­ing to give you tips or hands-on ad­vice on how to be amaz­ingly effec­tive in the world of policy mak­ing. I think it’s prob­a­bly con­traspe­cific any­way, and I’m happy to dis­cuss it later. But it’s a ruse for a good pur­pose. I have a big­ger fish to fry and I hope and al­most semi-promise that I will get to the point that you prob­a­bly were ex­pect­ing, at the very end of my talk.

The sec­ond con­fes­sion is this: it’s not as­pira­tional, like “I have a dream.” It’s more bit of a let­down like “I used to be­lieve.” But I think it’s still pow­er­ful and im­por­tant and some­thing that de­serves our con­sid­er­a­tion. Be­cause what I used to be­lieve is that we can by­pass the prob­lems of state-cen­tric gov­er­nance and de­vise work­ing solu­tions to the press­ing prob­lems of our age, in­clud­ing that of the fu­ture.

1530 Hiski Haukkala (1)

I was an op­ti­mist for quite some time. I thought that, and I think I was see­ing through my own schol­ar­ship and read­ing a lot of liter­a­ture, that power was diffus­ing. It was go­ing away from states and for­mal, old struc­tures. But it wasn’t clearly go­ing nec­es­sar­ily any­where, at least at first. It gave me this hope that we could build differ­ent forms of new reg­u­la­tion, spon­ta­neous or­ders, and so­cial move­ments like effec­tive al­tru­ism, to gen­er­ate the pos­i­tive out­comes that we need. For me, for quite some time, the world seemed awash with fea­si­ble al­ter­na­tives. But un­for­tu­nately I do not fully be­lieve this to be the case any­more. The rea­son is that the change we so des­per­ately re­quire sim­ply doesn’t come fast enough. We see the paral­y­sis of ex­ist­ing forms of gov­er­nance to a cer­tain ex­tent, and I will say a few words about that, but we are not see­ing mas­sively and suffi­ciently effec­tive forms of new gov­er­nance com­ing in­stead. The clock is, un­for­tu­nately, tick­ing.

Yet quit­ting is not an op­tion. The stakes are sim­ply too high. We have been talk­ing about these new is­sues, new prob­lems, new forms of threats, x-risks, catas­trophic risks. We have been talk­ing about cli­mate change and so on and so forth. Th­ese are all things that des­per­ately re­quire our at­ten­tion and cre­ative work­ing solu­tions. The con­clu­sion that I have drawn from all of this, my past five years work­ing for the gov­ern­ment and wit­ness­ing in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion first­hand and the at­tempts, how­ever fee­ble and at times fal­lible in terms of de­vel­op­ing in­ter­na­tional gov­er­nance, is that we ac­tu­ally have a mas­sive amount of ex­ist­ing struc­tures and mechanisms and things in place that we need to im­prove.

So ba­si­cally, even though I used to be­lieve some­thing that was as­pira­tional and I think is still worth our con­sid­er­a­tion, and work­ing to­wards, I’m more con­vinced, at least for the time be­ing, that we ac­tu­ally also have to steer some of our en­er­gies into get­ting things done here and now, us­ing the mechanisms and lev­ers we already have in place. This means en­gag­ing many of the struc­tures that per­haps you, through your own work, feel a cer­tain level of aver­sion or dis­trust to­wards. What I want to try to do here to­day is to make a case and ar­gue that per­haps some of these things de­serve a sec­ond thought, and more im­por­tantly de­serve the kind of in­puts that only peo­ple like you can give.

1530 Hiski Haukkala (2)

What ails us? What is the prob­lem and what is the is­sue that is bring­ing us down and keep­ing us from achiev­ing the re­sults that we so badly need? Well this is the bit of good news that I have. Lead­ers that I have met, and I have ac­tu­ally met quite a few dur­ing my ca­reer, are on av­er­age both in­tel­li­gent and eth­i­cally high level. Not all of them, with­out nam­ing any names, ab­solutely not nam­ing any names, but in­tel­li­gent and eth­i­cally high level. I’m fully con­vinced that they gen­uinely want to make the world a bet­ter place. This is the feel­ing that I’ve got­ten from watch­ing lead­ers in ac­tion, from ba­si­cally all cor­ners of the earth. Th­ese peo­ple have ba­sic ca­pa­bil­ities and as­pira­tions, which have mo­ti­vated them into en­ter­ing the game of poli­tics, and to be­come policy mak­ers or even poli­ti­cal lead­ers.

Yet they keep mak­ing de­ci­sions that are detri­men­tal to our long-term well-be­ing. This is a clear para­dox. Why are we not get­ting the kind of re­sults that we would like to have, and need to have, even though, on prin­ci­ple at least, the peo­ple are of the right cal­iber and qual­ity, and have the best in­ter­ests of their na­tions, but also of hu­man­ity, at heart? Well, this is a 20 minute talk. What I’m go­ing to go through next is a sem­i­nar se­ries last­ing for six months, but I’ll try to give a quick run through some of the prob­lems of our, in par­tic­u­lar, west­ern liberal democ­ra­cies. Th­ese lead­ers are, to a large de­gree, con­strained by vested in­ter­ests. There are all kinds of in­ter­est groups, in­dus­tries, trade unions. All kinds of peo­ples with spe­cific needs, and there are vested in­ter­ests that are work­ing very hard and at cross pur­poses, to re­tain or en­hance these very sec­toral spe­cific in­ter­ests. By do­ing so they in fact cre­ate policy paral­y­sis, in­com­pat­i­ble agen­das, and cre­ate very difficult situ­a­tions for poli­ti­cal lead­ers, who in the fi­nal anal­y­sis are always look­ing for re-elec­tion, which is an­other fac­tor that challenges this sys­tem.

This re­sults in short-ter­mism, over­all ero­sion of our demo­cratic sys­tems, which is visi­ble in many of our coun­tries to­day. We are liv­ing in a world that equates lead­er­ship with pop­ulism, where lead­ers are usu­ally putting out their an­ten­nae, and try­ing to listen to the sig­nals from the elec­torate. What does the elec­torate want? What are the vested spe­cial in­ter­ests that they should cater to? They fo­cus on this, in­stead of pro­vid­ing us with long-term think­ing and solu­tions. This is com­pounded with in­for­ma­tion over­load, which I can tes­tify as a former civil ser­vant is mas­sive in terms of the policy mak­ing cir­cles, that fur­ther of­ten en­courages pre­sen­tist think­ing and easy and/​or quick solu­tions.

This is re­ally a big round of prob­lems fac­ing any­one who is in­ter­ested into mak­ing a pos­i­tive differ­ence in the world of policy mak­ing. This is some­thing that any­one work­ing in this world will en­counter, one way or an­other. On top of this there’s an­other, an ad­di­tional fac­tor which I think is very im­por­tant, and which should force us to per­haps re­con­sider our own po­si­tion con­cern­ing poli­tics and our poli­ti­cal sys­tems. I think we as cit­i­zens are let­ting our poli­ti­ci­ans and poli­ti­cal sys­tems down. We are ex­pect­ing less and less. We are de­mand­ing less and less in terms of good out­comes from these sys­tems, and as a con­se­quence we are get­ting less and less in terms of good out­comes from them. This ero­sion of trust in our in­sti­tu­tions is richly de­served to a de­gree, but at the same time be­com­ing a self-fulfilling prophecy that is erod­ing our ca­pac­ity for na­tional de­ci­sion mak­ing, na­tional poli­tics, and also sen­si­ble in­ter­na­tional poli­tics at the same time.

So this is an area of diminish­ing re­turns that we have en­tered into, which is feed­ing back into this fur­ther dis­illu­sion­ment on the part of the pop­u­la­tion, and also feed­ing into pop­ulist poli­tics which seem to be offer­ing easy sound bites and easy vic­to­ries for peo­ple who are fed up with the busi­ness as usual. I will get back to this no­tion of busi­ness as usual in a lit­tle while.

So what I’m ad­vo­cat­ing here to­day is that poli­tics and policy mak­ing ac­tu­ally would benefit from in­ter­ac­tion and from more par­ti­ci­pa­tion from in­di­vi­d­u­als like effec­tive al­tru­ists. I will make the case in the very fi­nal slide why I think this is so, al­though I’m quite sure that this is not the mes­sage that most of you are nec­es­sar­ily very happy or ex­cited about. But you don’t have to go all the way in or­der to make a differ­ence. You can de­vise differ­ent strate­gies of how to go about mak­ing or effect­ing change in ex­ist­ing poli­cies, if you are in­ter­ested in af­fect­ing this poli­ti­cal game and this mak­ing of poli­cies on the na­tional or in­ter­na­tional level.

1530 Hiski Haukkala (3)

The first strat­egy I call mix with the an­i­mals, and you can think who these an­i­mals might be. I think the world is full of op­por­tu­ni­ties for a per­son who is in­ter­ested in effect­ing change from within the sys­tem. In this re­spect there is good news, be­cause lead­ers that I’ve been de­scribing are always on the look­out for the next big idea. They are in­tel­lec­tu­ally cu­ri­ous, and they are look­ing for solu­tions to pre-ex­ist­ing prob­lems. They are also look­ing for new fram­ings of prob­lems and is­sues, and solu­tions that they are not yet aware of.

So this ac­tu­ally opens up a pretty lu­cra­tive and promis­ing mar­ket for knowl­edge­able and tal­ented in­di­vi­d­u­als to come and act as ad­vi­sors or ex­ter­nal con­sul­tants to gov­ern­ments. This is a po­si­tion that I have held over my ca­reer and I have found it fruit­ful and re­ward­ing, and I’m happy to share my ex­pe­riences later on, per­haps dur­ing my office hours. How to go about pro­vid­ing and offer­ing these ser­vices, and what is en­tailed and in­cluded in these kind of things.

But it is not the only way to go about these things. Another im­por­tant facet, or group of in­di­vi­d­u­als in policy mak­ing that are not policy de­ci­sion mak­ers per se is the role of civil ser­vants, who play at times a key role in plan­ning and ex­e­cut­ing poli­cies. There is also the op­por­tu­nity of be­com­ing one your­self. Think about en­ter­ing bu­reau­cra­cies through what­ever the na­tional pro­cesses might be, or in­ter­na­tional bu­reau­cra­cies, there are a lot of those as well, that de­velop policy re­sponses that have a for­ward-ori­ented lean­ing in their work. Which will give you a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties to also pro­duce policy out­comes that you are in­ter­ested in.

But there is an im­por­tant caveat. Please be aware that if you play this kind of “mix with the an­i­mals” strat­egy, you are always act­ing in a sub­servient role to power. This always has its own limits. Be­cause in the fi­nal anal­y­sis, the ma­jor change we need and the ma­jor de­ci­sions that will be taken, will not be taken by bu­reau­crats or ad­vi­sors or con­sul­tants, but they are ac­tu­ally taken by poli­ti­ci­ans, elected offi­cials, and so on so forth. The lead­ers who in the fi­nal anal­y­sis weigh in the differ­ent op­tions, differ­ent op­por­tu­ni­ties, and differ­ent costs. I say this even though I think this strat­egy is num­ber one, and it is the one that I have played my­self for prob­a­bly very good rea­sons. I think I would be an awful poli­ti­cian, to be hon­est.

But I’ve also come to see the limits of these kind of roles through ex­er­cis­ing that kind of power, even at a fairly se­nior level that I have been work­ing dur­ing my own ca­reer. The ques­tion of se­nior­ity is in­deed a wor­thy con­sid­er­a­tion for young ex­perts and young pro­fes­sion­als such as you are, be­cause I think the bad news in fol­low­ing this route is this one: 80,000 hours is a very long time. Climb­ing the greasy pole of be­com­ing a very effec­tive and very se­nior civil ser­vant ad­vi­sor, prob­a­bly takes a very long time in most cases. This would seem to dic­tate against the ques­tion of time, which I was refer­ring to ear­lier on. So think­ing that we could some­how make the rad­i­cal change we re­quire take place through this route alone is prob­a­bly not cor­rect think­ing, be­cause we most prob­a­bly will not have the time to make sure that we have all the right and sen­si­ble peo­ple in all the right and cru­cial po­si­tions to start mak­ing and effect­ing the change that we need. So al­though I think this is a wor­thy route to fol­low, and it is very im­por­tant and prob­a­bly very im­pact­ful in many re­spects, it is prob­a­bly not suffi­cient in terms of achiev­ing the kind of change that we need.

1530 Hiski Haukkala (4)

Which has led me to think­ing about this. I would be happy to hear your views about what you make of this one. So the start­ing point is ba­si­cally what I have already been say­ing. It’s that the change we need is un­likely to ma­te­ri­al­ize from within the cur­rent poli­ti­cal struc­tures and the modus operandi. Be it our na­tional poli­ti­cal sys­tems or the sys­tems of in­ter­na­tional gov­er­nance. I have al­luded to the prob­lems already, pre­vi­ously. To my mind the im­per­a­tive thing that needs to change is our very poli­ti­cal cul­ture. Less short-term think­ing, more long-term think­ing. Less ego­tis­ti­cal val­ues, na­tion­al­ism, and nar­row-minded think­ing, more cos­mopoli­tan think­ing, more ap­pre­ci­at­ing and ac­cept­ing the fact that we are in­creas­ingly start­ing to op­er­ate on the level of hu­man­ity with our poli­cies and our effects and our un­in­tended con­se­quences with­out ac­tu­ally hav­ing the poli­ti­cal in­sti­tu­tions nec­es­sary to deal with many of these is­sues yet. Prob­a­bly not fully be­ing able to build those in­sti­tu­tions, at least very quickly or un­con­tro­ver­sially.

So we need a change in our poli­ti­cal cul­ture, and I think it is a change that can only come from the bot­tom up be­cause this other sys­tem, this ex­ist­ing poli­ti­cal cul­ture and our ex­ist­ing poli­ti­cal lead­ers, will most prob­a­bly not be able to de­liver on this kind of change. The good news is that to my mind the world, or at least sig­nifi­cant parts of it, are ready for quick poli­ti­cal changes. We have seen this for bet­ter or for ill. We saw the rapid rise of Mr. Trump from ba­si­cally from an un­electable can­di­date to the Pres­i­dent of the United States of Amer­ica, who has been able to take over also the Repub­li­can Party. I’m not say­ing this is a par­tic­u­larly pos­i­tive or happy ex­am­ple nec­es­sar­ily, but it is an ex­am­ple of how quick poli­ti­cal changes are pos­si­ble in even mas­sively big and well strat­ified poli­ti­cal sys­tems such as the United States.

Another prob­a­bly more hope­ful and pos­i­tive ex­am­ple is the Pres­i­dent of France, Macron, who came from similar ob­scu­rity very quickly, cre­at­ing a poli­ti­cal plat­form and sweep­ing the whole French poli­ti­cal sys­tem in the pro­cess. So I think the po­ten­tial is there. Peo­ple are fed up with busi­ness as usual. They are look­ing for al­ter­na­tives. My con­cern is that right now many of these al­ter­na­tives are not com­ing from a par­tic­u­larly happy or op­ti­mistic place. They are com­ing from xeno­pho­bic, pop­ulist, nar­row-minded cir­cles in many places who want to turn the clock back at ex­actly the time when we need new think­ing, new forms of co­op­er­a­tion, new forms of gov­er­nance. So not only are they po­ten­tially squan­der­ing our abil­ity to move for­ward, they are ac­tu­ally ag­gres­sively and very de­ter­minedly try­ing to turn the clock back into the yesteryear. This is clearly some­thing that we sim­ply can­not af­ford.

So what we need is peo­ple, new ideas, new move­ments, that can steer these en­er­gies that are there into a di­rec­tion that is con­ducive to pos­i­tive changes in the world. That can ar­tic­u­late as­pira­tional and pos­i­tive vi­sions that peo­ple will want to flock to, vote for, and work for, in or­der to achieve the change that we need. I sim­ply can­not think of many more pos­i­tive sign­posts to hu­man­ity than the EA move­ment. I mean your prin­ci­ples, your think­ing, I think is ex­actly the recipe for the day. This is some­thing that we all, I think, in­ter­ested in the fu­ture well-be­ing of hu­man­ity and hu­man be­ings and the life on this planet, will have to work very hard to pro­ject and to help grow, and to get new fol­low­ers, and to make it an ac­tion­able pro­gram in our lives and in our poli­ti­cal sys­tems.

I’m at the end of my time, so it’s prob­a­bly worth clar­ify­ing what I’m not propos­ing here to­day. I’m not propos­ing turn­ing effec­tive al­tru­ism into a poli­ti­cal move­ment. I think you are perfect the way you are, and I do not say that you should change in this way and take that kind of route. But I think that effec­tive al­tru­ism is a piece of par­tic­u­larly won­der­ful and ex­cit­ing soft­ware. We have a very ro­bust and very pow­er­ful and effec­tive piece of hard­ware, which is our states, our na­tional bu­reau­cra­cies, our forms of in­ter­na­tional gov­er­nance and so on. So what I would like to see and what I think needs to take place is that this par­tic­u­lar piece of soft­ware is in­serted into this par­tic­u­lar piece of hard­ware. I don’t see any a pri­ori mis­match or in­com­pat­i­bil­ity here. No need for hos­tility or aver­sion be­tween these two wor­lds. On the con­trary, I think this par­tic­u­lar piece of hard­ware would benefit im­mensely from in­ter­act­ing much more with the soft­ware that you have to offer.

So in or­der to an­swer my ques­tion how to be more effec­tive in the world of policy mak­ing, is that I think some effec­tive al­tru­ists, or at least some peo­ple lean­ing into this par­tic­u­lar in­tel­lec­tual di­rec­tion, would have to be­come poli­ti­ci­ans, and poli­ti­cal lead­ers, and I think this is called for. So I thank you for your pa­tience, and this in­vi­ta­tion. Thank you.

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