What Helped the Voiceless? Historical Case Studies
[Shorter version here]
Summary and Introduction:
Future generations, non-human animals, and other voiceless groups are harmfully neglected in today’s policy making. What strategies for changing this can advocates of neglected groups learn from times when excluded groups gained political protections?
People in the EA community have called for investigating moral and political progress. Still, before this report, there were (as far as I’m aware) no EA-motivated accounts of why countries other than the UK abolished the slave trade and slavery, of why countries around the globe became democracies, or of why these international shifts happened around the industrial revolution. This report aims to provide such an account, and to argue that it has certain implications for how we can best help neglected groups.
(In addition to the most immediately relevant takeaways from case studies, it seems broadly useful for effective altruists to better understand historical causes of the improvement and deterioration of well-being.)
I examined historical case studies of global policy shifts that greatly benefited excluded groups (especially groups with limited or no capacities for self-advocacy):
The abolition of the slave trade and slavery
Extensions of the voting franchise over economic lines
Climate change mitigation
Genetic engineering governance
Of these, I focused on abolition and democratization. Summaries of these case studies are available here.
In many of the cases studied, policies were created mainly for the benefit of powerful groups, and they happened to greatly benefit excluded groups. In other cases, excluded groups benefited because some political actors tried to benefit them for their own sake. Benefits come more reliably when powerful actors try to benefit a group, so durable political power would be extremely valuable for excluded groups, such as future generations.
These case studies motivate the question: How do groups gain or lose relatively durable forms of political power—legal protections and political representation? I introduce and argue for a qualitative, rational-choice model that makes predictions about political inclusion. It makes the simplifying assumptions that political inclusion or exclusion is the outcome of interactions between two groups, and each group acts strategically if it can do so, mostly to advance its own economic self-interest.
Together with some empirical assumptions, the model suggests that these factors make it more likely that transitions to political exclusion will occur and persist:
Opportunities for profitable exploitation
Costs of inclusion
The model also suggests that these factors make it more likely that transitions to political inclusion will occur and persist:
A group’s capacity for resistance
We can summarize the model with this picture:
Looking back to the case studies, the presence or absence of each of these factors appears to have had the (retroactively) predicted effect several times in the histories of slavery and democracy [edited 11/30/20]:
Slavery rose where and when it was most profitable, and major factors that contributed to its decline (to different degrees in different places) were slave resistance (and the threat of it), humanitarian movements, political leaders seeing slavery as a military liability, and international pressure.
Economic restrictions on voting rights rose and persisted where economic inequality was most extreme—where the rich had the most to lose from populist governments—and they largely declined through the resistance of the public, or the threat of it, and sometimes through elites’ expectations that they would gain economically or politically from extending the voting franchise.
(The briefer case studies of climate treaties and genetic engineering governance didn’t involve the creation or elimination of durable political protections, so they are less relevant for this model.)
This model and the case studies behind it suggest that, while inclusive values have mattered for inclusive progress, several other motives have each tended to be similarly influential, or more. This casts doubt on previous theories of moral circle expansion, insofar as these claim that history’s inclusive progress can be explained mostly or entirely by explaining changes in social values. Inclusive values have been influential, but they haven’t—as is often assumed—been the main drivers of inclusive progress, at least not when major economic interests have opposed inclusion [edited 11/30/20].
To respond to potential objections:
You might ask: If political inclusion hasn’t been mainly caused by changing social values, why do we have relatively inclusive values today? An explanation that better fits historical evidence is that social values mainly changed retroactively to become more inclusive, after other factors motivated political inclusion. There are several plausible ways such retroactive value shifts might have happened.
You might also wonder: If these other factors motivated inclusion, why have inclusive shifts been so frequent in the modern era? Much of this is arguably because, through several mechanisms, economic growth/industrialization strengthened the capacity of excluded groups to resist exclusion, while making elites more vulnerable to conflict (and therefore more willing to make concessions). And in some other cases, policies mainly aimed at benefiting powerful groups happened to benefit powerless groups.
What implications do these case studies and this model have for supporting groups that cannot exert influence, particularly future generations? I make these provisional recommendations:
Given the historical importance of the influence of excluded groups and luck, don’t strongly expect, on the basis of past trends toward greater inclusion, that political inclusion will eventually extend to voiceless groups.
On specific issues that matter a lot for future generations, focus on showing powerful actors that it is in their own interests to take actions that happen to greatly benefit future generations.
Pursue support that is concentrated at the national level to have some support on the international level, which is extremely valuable.
When opposing a policy, emphasize highly salient downsides: those that are very concrete (easy to imagine), horrifying, and believable (highly plausible/already present).
Take advantage of differences in patience—pursue policies whose lasting benefits and potentially concentrated costs will not come for years or decades.
When designing any Future Generations institution, include an explicit mandate for it to consider long-term prosperity (in addition to existential risks arising from technological development and environmental sustainability), in order to get more lasting support from business.
When you have power, do not aim to make the biggest improvements you can; aim to make improvements that are accepted widely enough to persist, even after you lose power.
Other implications include:
When considering long-term risks of extreme suffering, we should assign more weight to scenarios in which maintaining some form of large-scale suffering is in the interests of powerful actors, and less weight to scenarios in which it is not, since suffering is more likely to persist in the former cases.
If it is not accompanied by other developments that push in different directions, the automation of human labor at massive scales will, by default, severely erode democracies globally.
More detail is available below. If you only want to read some of this report, you might be especially interested in the following sections:
“The Model, Condensed” (a qualitative model of when transitions to political inclusion occur and persist, and when they don’t)
“Historical Examples” (examples of the mechanisms identified by the model)
“Other Implications” (brief discussion of implications involving risks of extreme suffering and artificial intelligence)
Context and Acknowledgements:
This is a report of the most useful-seeming parts of the research I conducted over the summer, through the Stanford Existential Risks Initiative (SERI). The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect those of SERI or any affiliated organizations.
I’m not a professional historian, so, to an even larger degree than usual, all important implications should be heavily scrutinized and considered together with the implications of other analyses.
[edit 10/29/20] Another caveat: I hope this research is seen as a useful reference point for future work, rather than as something that crowds out work in this area; there’s still plenty of room to dig into these and other case studies.
I’m very grateful to Jeremy Weinstein for his mentorship, to SERI for its support, to Felipe Calero for recommendations on biosecurity readings, and to Linchuan Zhang as well as Zach Freitas-Groff for their feedback. Remaining errors are my own.
Historical Case Studies:
Will you not embrace it? So much good has not been done by one effort as in the Providence of God it is now your high privilege to do. May the vast future not have to lament that you have neglected it!
- “The Civil War in America,” an 1862 article from the UK’s Belfast Newsletter, calling on Americans to abolish slavery
I describe historical case studies of times when policy change greatly benefited excluded groups, mainly: modern abolition, democratization, climate change mitigation, and genetic engineering governance. The case studies are comparative or international in their focus. After the introduction, below, summaries of the case studies are available. These reviews are not exhaustive; they do not include all important nuances.
Policy has shifted in ways that greatly benefited largely or completely voiceless groups in the past. Studying how these changes happened may yield valuable insights for how people can bring about another such change: the establishment of serious political protections for future generations. For this purpose, I investigated several historical instances when policy shifts greatly benefited groups with limited or no capacities for self-advocacy.
Here, I give international accounts of four broad policy shifts, restricted in scope to the modern era: the abolition of slavery, expansions of voting rights, the mitigation of climate change, and the governance of genetic engineering. I discuss other aspects of the environmental movement, animal advocacy, and children’s advocacy more briefly. Discussion of implications is saved for later. While I focus on future generations, I expect these case studies to be highly relevant for advocates of other voiceless groups, such as non-human animals.
Case Study Summaries:
Case Study Summary—Abolitionism:
Although millions still live in slavery, the most extreme forms of slavery have seriously declined, both in absolute and relative numbers, since the beginning of the 19th century. The following are very brief accounts of the abolition of the slave trade and slavery in many countries during the modern era, the only era in history when there has been significant organized opposition to these systems.
In Haiti, formerly Saint-Domingue, enslaved people freed themselves and abolished slavery through violent revolution.
In Britain, civilians led a mass movement against the slave trade and slavery, succeeding by making skillful use of unique political opportunities—times when Britons invested in slavery had little ability to stop them. British emancipation extended throughout the British Empire, including British North America, Jamaica, Cape Colony, Australia, and—after more years of delay—India.
British abolitionism then became a major international force for ending the slave trade, with support from British plantation owners who wanted to hurt their business competitors. The British pressured many other countries into abolishing their own slave trades.
In France, revolutionaries ended slavery twice: first in an unsuccessful attempt to keep control of their rebelling colony of Saint-Domingue, and again in the next revolution (after Napoleon had reinstated slavery).
Then, in Central and Eastern European countries—including Russia, Austria, Poland, and Prussia—rulers ended serfdom to avoid its perceived contributions to military weakness.
In the United States, abolitionists ended slavery relatively quickly, but only where slavery was not very profitable. Later, antislavery activity in Northern states made slave-holding Southern states secede, in fear for their institution of slavery. Civil war followed, and it ended slavery by empowering Northern abolitionists, while creating strong military incentives for them to pursue emancipation.
Spain ended slavery in its colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rico because expansions in civil liberties increased the influence of abolitionists, while a Cuban war for independence made the continuation of slavery a military liability for Spain.
The Ottoman Empire ended most of its slave trade because of pressure from Western European empires—especially the British, and the leaders of the Young Turk Revolution then abolished slavery.
By the 1870s, European countries had passed emancipation for their colonies (although some colonies did not listen), and the Atlantic slave trade had effectively ended.
Europeans used the banner of antislavery to help justify their conquests in Africa and Asia, and, following an agreement, they gradually reduced the slave trade and chattel slavery in areas they conquered. Following the Second World War, nations declared slavery a crime against humanity. Anti-colonial states pressured remaining European countries to agree to end modern slavery in their colonies. In 1956, nations agreed to internationally prohibit modern slavery.
Case Study Summary—Democratization:
Voting rights have expanded dramatically over the past few centuries, both officially and in practice. These trends toward political inclusion involved two kinds of democratization: the creation of democracies, and the removal of many restrictions on who could participate in them. As a case study, the removal of economic restrictions is especially relevant to efforts aimed at creating lasting protections for future generations.
A wide range of evidence—the timing of democratization, statements by historical politicians, assessments by historians, and various empirical studies—supports the claim that, most of the times when democracy was created and extended along economic lines, this occurred because of non-elites credibly threatening (or sometimes actually carrying out) violent revolution. Empirical evidence is unclear about whether these conflicts are driven by conflicting preferences over government redistribution; other values may be at play.
Democratization has mostly occurred in industrial countries because industrialization empowers revolutionary threats. Through several mechanisms, industrialization makes democratization less costly for elites, and it makes conflict more costly for elites. At the same time, industrialization makes it easier for non-elites to coordinate into forcing elites to choose between democratization and conflict. In the shorter term, national crises often shift power in ways that strengthen revolutionary threats.
While revolutionary threats have arguably been the main drivers of democratization, other factors have also been important. Changes in values may have been significant contributors to franchise expansions, but only if they were driven by the mass agitation of the disenfranchised. In addition, there are some historical cases that the revolutionary threat hypothesis struggles to explain, especially early US democratization. In cases like these, elites’ expectations that they would receive military, political, or economic support from citizens in exchange for granting them the vote seem to have been crucial contributors to democratization. Other major waves of democratization—women’s suffrage—followed the world wars, and there are several highly plausible mechanisms by which world wars boosted suffragist movements.
Case Study Summary—Environmentalism (Climate Agreements Focus):
Modern mass environmentalism surged in the US in the 1960s, along with several other movements for change, and it achieved early successes.
Significant victories in the early 1970s may have happened because Nixon saw green policy as a way to please reformers without agreeing to more radical demands for change.
Early US regulation in the 1970s featured efforts to limit pollutants that were directly harmful to human health.
Decades of climate diplomacy have been limited by international disagreements.
Countries began to negotiate on climate change in the late 1980s, following a campaign by concerned scientists, the Montreal Protocol, and an intense heat wave.
Since then, likely because of differences in economies and electoral systems, Europe has pushed for more serious climate action than the US.
After establishing a framework for climate agreements in the 1992 Earth Summit, nations signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. It established specific, binding commitments for reducing carbon emissions. However, these only applied for developed countries, and the US never ratified the Protocol.
The 2015 Paris Agreement was designed to bypass some of the obstacles that had blocked previous international efforts, but its results have been mixed.
Despite their major limitations, climate action and environmentalism more broadly have accomplished much:
Climate change mitigation policies that have already been implemented are estimated to reduce global warming by 2100 by about 1.5℃, relative to what would have happened with no climate action.
Environmentalism has also had major successes in environmental conservation, and even more success in the regulation of directly harmful pollutants.
Case Study Summary—Governance of Genetic Engineering:
In 1972, nations signed the Biological Weapons Convention, agreeing to not develop biological weapons.
In 1973, biologists invented genetic engineering techniques that could result in the creation of novel, devastating pathogens. Concerned, leading biologists called together top biologists worldwide to a conference at Asilomar, where they developed guidelines for the responsible use of genetic engineering in research.
While genetic engineering has not resulted in the mass outbreak of disease, governance has been highly limited:
As genetic engineering technologies have proliferated, oversight continues to center on the initial guidelines developed at Asilomar, and regulators mainly enforce limits through funding restrictions.
On the international stage, diplomats have not agreed to equip the Biological Weapons Convention with serious enforcement mechanisms, and the Convention did not stop the Soviet Union from developing a massive program of genetically engineered bioweapons.
Case Study Summary—Very Brief Case Studies:
Animal advocates have had some significant successes in banning relatively small forms of animal exploitation and cruelty altogether, improving the living conditions of many farmed animals, and starting technological and legislative initiatives that may eventually result in the end of factory farming.
However, animal advocates have not yet succeeded in establishing serious, lasting political protections for farmed animals, whose direct exploitation is especially profitable, is practiced on a scale many times larger than humans’ exploitation of other humans, and continues to increase.
Children have historically been subjected to many forms of abuse, with little protection. In the modern era, action from philanthropists, governments, and international organizations has helped create some protections for children.
Children have benefited from advocates’ perceptions that protecting children is a promising way to prevent social problems, as well as from technological and scientific advances that have improved parent-child relationships.
Others affirm that the rule of a master over slaves is contrary to nature, and that the distinction between slave and freeman exists by law only, and not by nature; and being an interference with nature is therefore unjust.
- Aristotle, Book I of Politics, c. 330 BCE
At the end of the 18th century, forced labor was, as it had been throughout history, the global norm. As one historian put it, “Freedom, not slavery, was the peculiar institution.” Slavery and the slave trade involved mass cruelty and suffering. Two centuries later, slavery has been outlawed everywhere (Hochschild, 2005).
Since the beginning of the 19th century, the number of humans in conditions of chattel slavery and serfdom has declined significantly in absolute terms, and even more drastically in relative terms. The following original charts, made with estimates from historian Seymour Drescher (2017) and the International Labour Organization (2017), illustrate the dramatic global decline, over the past two centuries, of the most extreme forms of slavery.
(These estimates have significant limitations: earlier data is sparse, the estimate for 1950 probably understates a surge in the use of forced labor by authoritarian governments, and the estimate for 2016, while it only counts forced laborers under conditions other than debt bondage, still probably counts some forms of forced labor that were not included in earlier estimates. Still, the clear broader trends of significant decline are likely robust to these degrees of error. This spreadsheet, also linked in Appendix A, has more detail about the data.)
The demise of slavery over the last few centuries offers a relevant case study for advocates of future generations. Two groups have faced some similar challenges: both groups have been highly limited in their capacities for self-advocacy (slaves were frequently prevented from receiving educations and forming associations, while future generations cannot influence their ancestors), and both groups have had wealthy interests invested in economic activities that harm them. The fact that opponents of slavery faced these broadly similar obstacles but had major successes anyway suggests that advocates of future generations may have much to learn from the history of abolition.
The following are comparative accounts of how the slave trade and slavery ended. The British Empire and the United States are reviewed most extensively. Abolition and emancipation in India, France, Haiti, Central and Eastern Europe, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Ottoman Empire, and international diplomacy are reviewed more briefly. The time period covered is mainly between the 18th century and the mid-20th century; before this era, organized opposition to the slave trade and slavery was almost entirely limited to numerous slave rebellions that were ultimately crushed (Drescher, 2017). At least two countries—China and Brazil—are not included despite their historically large slave populations, as the author has not had time to find satisfactory historical information on abolition in these countries.
(Research nonprofit Sentience Institute has a very detailed narrative (Anthis, 2017) of the movement to abolish the slave trade and slavery within the British Empire. The narrative below may be useful to readers interested in a shorter read, with somewhat different arguments about why things happened.)
The emergence of organized abolition (Hochschild, 2005):
Large-scale organization against the slave trade and slavery began in Britain. Much of Britain’s wealth (by some estimates, around 5% of the national income) came from its system of slave trade and slavery, through its trade with British colonies in the West Indies. Many wealthy Britons were heavily invested in slavery and the slave trade. In the 18th century, evangelical movements called for the revival of spiritual life amidst perceptions of immense sin (such as gambling), influencing some Britons who would later become leading abolitionists.
Before 1787, there was a little abolitionist activity in Britain. A 1772 legal case with an early abolitionist prosecutor, the Somerset case, was widely interpreted as freeing all of the few slaves in England, although the actual decision had been milder. The Quakers had been early, staunch opponents of slavery, but they were politically and culturally marginalized as a result of their religious identity.
Reports and incidents involving the cruelty of the slave trade trickled into Britain, motivating a few Anglicans to ally with Quakers in pursuing abolition. Reasonably, opponents of slavery believed that ending the slave trade was much more feasible than ending slavery itself, and that slavery in the West Indies would dwindle without the slave trade (as planters depended on the importation of slaves to make up for the regular deaths of slaves from brutal working and environmental conditions). This motivated abolitionist allies, in 1787, to found the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade.
The first mass campaigns for abolition (Hochschild, 2005):
Abolitionists began a mass campaign against the slave trade. Thomas Clarkson, the Society’s only full-time organizer, worked determinedly to found and contact local abolitionist chapters (which mostly had middle class leaders) and to investigate the slave trade. The Society published pamphlets and books, made popular petitions, and pioneered the use of newsletters, mail fundraising, a logo (a kneeling man with the text “Am I not a man and a brother?”), and other iconic images (especially diagrams of slave ships). Buoyed by new publications and Manchester activists’ mass petition organization, public interest in the debate over the slave trade soared in 1788. The Committee also helped start a Sierra Leone colony of freed slaves, but the colony faced severe economic and leadership problems.
The first abolition bill was defeated by supporters of the slave trade. The West Indian interest was widely seen as the strongest lobby in Britain at the time, a time when organized interests other than religious sects and trade groups were rare. Lobbyists engaged in extensive propaganda and managed to initiate extensive hearings. By doing this, they delayed the first abolition bill proposed by Wilberforce, an ally of the Society and an independent MP. Lobbyists argued, among other things, that the slave trade was good for Africans and economically crucial for Britain. Abolitionists wrote hundreds of books calling for British abolition. However, abolition was hurt by its association with the recent eruption of violent revolution in France. In 1791, Parliament voted down the first abolition bill.
In response to their 1791 defeat, abolitionists redoubled their efforts. Women led a mass sugar boycott (Wollstonecraft’s first feminist manifesto soon followed). Abolitionists made mass petitions. Why did a mass abolition movement emerge in Britain, but not in other slave trading powers? The following factors probably contributed: good organizing, perhaps industrialization, unusually dense communication networks, British valuations of their freedoms, the physical distance of slaves (meaning that few perceived abolition as a threat to their ways of life), and the despised, similar practice of mass naval impressment. Dense communication networks were likely boosted by urbanization and communication technologies that had been less present in earlier eras (Pinker, 2011).
Despite abolitionists’ efforts, support for the slave trade had more influence in 1792. The West Indian interest ran a media campaign, streaked with denialism, defending the slave trade. Support for the slave trade was strengthened by the recent beginning of what would come to be known as the Haitian Revolution, a massive slave revolt in what was then the French colony of Saint-Domingue; the revolt provided rhetorical ammunition against abolitionists (e.g. critics blamed abolitionists for slaves’ ideas of rebellion), and it boosted the profits of British slave owners by hurting their French competitors. Slave interests were influential enough in the House of Lords to stop that year’s abolition bill.
The bleak decade (Hochschild, 2005):
In the decade that followed, abolitionist activity and success was minimal. This was largely because Britain was engaged in war with Revolutionary France. Fear of radical French influence led to an intense crackdown on civil society and dissent; abolitionists, some of whom had been publicly honored by the French, prudently kept low profiles, while much of the public shifted their attention to the wars. This added to abolitionists’ discouragement from their defeat in 1792.
Meanwhile, the French Revolution had helped inspire the revolution in Saint-Domingue, the crown jewel of European colonies, and it was far more successful than ruling France had expected. Seeking to maintain control over the colony, France freed all its empire’s slaves in 1794 (although Napoleon would later undo this). Britain, hoping to gain spoils and quash ideas of rebellion among slaves, sent scores of troops to Saint-Domingue. Unprepared for tropical disease, they retreated after British armies experienced devastating losses, and some men returned with bleak views of Caribbean slavery. Through another revolt, Saint-Domingue rebels then repelled the invading forces of Napoleon, and in 1804 they established the independent Republic of Haiti, which was already afflicted by economic devastation, authoritarianism, and ethnic conflict.
Abolition (Hochschild, 2005):
War with France then created a major vulnerability for the slave trade, and abolitionist lawyer James Stephen noticed this. Following Napoleon’s rise to power, Britain was still warring with France. By then, however, France had been fighting to restore slavery in Saint-Domingue, so British war patriotism had shifted to favor abolitionists. Stephen convinced Wilberforce to propose a ban on the exportation of slaves to foreign powers, on the justification that trade with neutral powers—which themselves were trading with France—empowered Britain’s military enemies.
This was a brilliant move. Ingeniously, the bill split the West Indian lobby, because it called for seizing enemy trade ships—an appealing prospect for many merchants—and it would weaken the competition of plantations in British colonies. Few noticed a major effect the bill would have, which abolitionists were careful to avoid emphasizing: by cutting off much slave trade that was owned by Britons but based in foreign powers’ colonies, the bill would effectively end a large portion—by some estimates, two thirds—of the British slave trade. Boosted by war patriotism and Clarkson’s petition-gathering, the bill passed in 1806.
Several factors assisted the expansion of this bill into a complete abolition of the British slave trade the following year. First, depressed sugar prices reduced planters’ interest in importing new slaves (and hence in protecting their ability to do so). Second, the new Prime Minister, Grenville, was more committed to abolition and could gather support for it in the reluctant House of Lords. Third, the Haitian Revolution sunk claims that France would dominate the sugar market if Britain ended its slave trade. In addition, the previous bill had probably slashed incentives to maintain the slave trade—perhaps it even incentivized some plantation owners to support complete abolition, to hurt their competitors who still benefitted from importing slaves.
In 1807, Britain—the world’s largest slave-trading power—abolished its slave trade, and it then began to enforce abolition internationally. The UK prohibition included a ban on the purchase of slaves. This incentivized the West Indian interest to lobby for the internationalization of the prohibition and its enforcement, in order to weaken their competitors. It did so, and the UK enforced the ban at sea. By 1815, the UK government succeeded in getting the French king to abolish the slave trade, although this was not enforced.
Antislavery efforts continued after the abolition of the slave trade. The end of the slave trade, it turned out, was not enough to end slavery in the West Indies. Perhaps wealthy Britons identified with slave owners more easily than with slave traders, and emancipation likely seemed more threatening to their business interests. Some abolitionists founded a society for gradual emancipation, while a younger generation pushed for immediate emancipation. The latter efforts were led by women, and these efforts included another mass boycott on slave-produced sugar, expanded to boycott any stores that sold it. Still, the abolitionists went more years without major victories (Hochschild, 2005).
A surge of activity and a major slave revolt in Jamaica then contributed to emancipation. In the early 1830s, bills for electoral reform in the UK received massive popular support. Encouraged by the movement for reform, more abolitionists pushed for immediate emancipation—the number of local groups soared, with lower and middle classes offering the highest rates of support. The surge in abolitionist activity may have inspired Jamaicans, in the end of 1831, to initiate the largest slave revolt that ever occurred in British colonies. The revolt was quickly defeated, but it offered rhetorical ammunition to abolitionists based on the costs of slavery and the vengeful mistreatment of white missionaries (Hochschild, 2005).
Electoral reform also weakened supporters of slavery. Bills for electoral reform passed the House of Commons in 1831 and 1832. When the House of Lords attempted to block electoral reform, mass riots threatened lords with popular uprising, forcing them to pass the Reform Act 1832 (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2000). The reform reduced the representation of wealthy landowners, halving the wealthy pro-slave block in parliament (Hochschild, 2005). Popular agitation may have also motivated elites to pass emancipation as a way to satisfy popular pressure without meeting more radical demands for domestic reform (Anthis, 2017). In addition, the recent mass disturbances in response to lords’ opposition to popular bills likely gave lords good reasons to fear the political consequences of trying to block another popular bill just a year later.
By 1833, with abolitionists strengthened and their opposition weakened, the UK passed emancipation throughout most of its empire, with caveats. This included Jamaica, Cape Colony, Australia, and British North America (which became the “North star” for American fugitive slaves). However, emancipation came with an asterix: an effective 4-year delay (which would have been years longer if not for antislavery pressure), massive compensation for former slave owners (equivalent to about 40% of the UK’s national budget—private property rights were treated as sacrosanct in the UK), and exceptions in South Asia (Hochschild, 2005).
The success of British abolitionists was highly consequential for the international history of slavery, as Britons went on to promote abolition in other regions by spreading abolitionist literature, providing organizational support to other abolitionist organizations, associating free labor forces with military power (merely by having both), extending abolition to British imperial possessions, directly pressuring other governments to abolish their slave trades, and enforcing bans on the slave trade (Drescher, 2017).
By the mid-19th century, the British Empire controlled much of India through the British East India Company. When the UK abolished slavery in 1833, it initially exempted these territories. Antislavery activity continued in the UK, now with fewer opponents. In 1843, the UK delegalized slavery in India. This meant that courts would no longer enforce or otherwise assist slavery; slaves could leave the owners they had been bound to, but there were no agencies publishing this fact. This amounted to a non-disruptive and “slow death for slavery”—gradual abolition—which British taxpayers saw as an appealing alternative to another expensive act of compensation for slave owners (Drescher, 2017).
France and Haiti:
First emancipation and its partial reversal (Hochschild, 2005):
Soon after the French Revolution, slaves in France’s most productive slave colony organized a massive revolt. By the late 18th century, France’s colonial possessions included Caribbean islands that were heavily invested in sugarcane plantations worked by African slaves. In 1789, the French Revolution overthrew France’s aristocratic monarchy, but revolutionaries were not quick to extend their principles of liberty to their colonial slaves. Two years later, a massive slave revolt erupted in Saint-Domingue (later named Haiti), the extremely productive “crown jewel” of European colonies.
The Saint-Domingue slave rebellion was highly successful. Several factors likely contributed to the rebellion’s unusual strength: rumors of the French Revolution helped inspire and coordinate rebel action, people of mixed descent (as a class, wealthy second-class citizens who rarely joined slave rebellions) supported the rebel slaves, and many of the slaves had lived and gained military experience in Africa before they were enslaved.
Rebellion brought about an initial end to slavery in Saint-Domingue. In 1794, after several years of fighting between Saint-Domingue rebels and French soldiers, France emancipated all its slaves. In doing this, France was following the lead of a senior official who believed that emancipation was France’s best shot at maintaining control over Saint-Domingue. Following France’s emancipation, multiple colonial powers and rebel armies continued to fight for control of Saint-Domingue. Rebel leader Toussaint Louverture was victorious, and he established a military dictatorship in which slavery was abolished.
Napoleon then tried to bring back slavery, but his success was limited. In 1799, Napoleon seized power in France, and he sent troops to invade Saint-Domingue. French forces were temporarily successful, and Napoleon reinstated slavery in France’s colonies in 1802. Slaves again revolted. Together with tropical disease, slave rebels imposed massive casualties on French troops, forcing them to retreat from Saint-Domingue. In 1804, rebels established the independent Republic of Haiti, with slavery abolished. The Haitian Revolution had been the most successful slave revolt in history, but Haiti was already beset by economic devastation, authoritarianism, and ethnic conflict.
Second emancipation and its persistence:
Organized support for abolition had never thrived in France, and it remained minimal in the decades after Napoleon’s power grab. Domestic abolitionism had dim prospects in France; authoritarian government long repressed civil society, and the devastating Haitian Revolution as well as British abolitionist pressure soured French people’s attitudes toward abolition, while associating patriotism with the defense of slavery (Drescher, 2015).
A second emancipation only came through another revolution. In 1848, radicals again seized power in France, and they established the Second French Republic. Leaders sympathetic to the antislavery cause soon emancipated France’s slaves. Fearing delay, they chose to pass emancipation before the National Assembly first met, as they feared that legislators would delay emancipation until they had secured compensation for slave owners (Drescher, 2015).
In 1851, republican France again fell to authoritarianism. Under the rule of Napoleon III, France imposed 14-year periods of indentured servitude on former slaves. Still, France did not try to lastingly restore slavery, perhaps because the new emperor had learned from Napoleon I’s catastrophic attempt to do so (Drescher, 2017).
Central and Eastern Europe:
Tsar Alexander II, who held highly centralized power, emancipated Russia’s serfs in 1861. A major contributing factor to this was the Crimean War of the mid-1850s; Russia’s defeat at the hands of the then-free UK and France convinced Russia’s autocrat that serfdom caused unacceptable weakness on the international stage (Drescher, 2015).
Events developed similarly in other parts of Eastern Europe. Overall, in Eastern Europe, serfdom was a much more common form of compulsory labor and political disempowerment than chattel slavery. According to historian Seymour Drescher, European eliminations of serfdom followed a common pattern: “Most European serf emancipations,” notably Austria, Poland, and Prussia, in addition to Russia, “were made in anticipation of or response to military threat or defeat” (2017).
Early prohibition in Georgia:
All of the thirteen colonies of Britain that would later form the United States allowed slavery from their founding, except for Georgia. Georgia was initially under the influence of British trustees who prohibited slavery in the colony. Their motivations for doing this included wanting Georgia to be a colony of small farmers that provided opportunities to European debtors (which would not happen if Georgia was filled with large-scale slave plantations), and because they had security concerns (nearby Spanish Florida offered freedom to slave defectors).
The trustees’ charter expired, and Georgians, whose neighbors had made the profitability of slavery increasingly apparent, quickly created an economy with minimal restrictions for slave owners. This came after a brief period of more limited slavery, which might have been a failed attempt at damage control by the trustees—they knew their power was limited in time and degree (Georgians had started illegally importing slaves, and their appeal to security from the Spaniards had lost relevance after the Spanish were militarily defeated), so they tried to establish a better alternative to full-fledged slavery that colonists would accept (Hinks and McKivigan, 2007).
American colonies quickly diverged in the degree of their reliance on slavery. Environmental conditions in Southern colonies made the production of cash crops through slave labor highly profitable, and Southern economies quickly grew heavily invested in slave plantations. In contrast, slavery was never as profitable in New England colonies; environmental conditions did not favor cash crop production, wheat production mainly required seasonal labor, there was a higher supply of cheap non-slave labor (less tropical disease), and using slaves for other economic activities (e.g. fur trapping, timber production, and ship building) may have posed higher training, supervision, and security costs (“New England,” 2020; Fenoaltea, 1984).
After the American Revolutionary War and the wave of liberal ideas it brought, sectional differences in attitudes toward slavery and its expansion emerged. Between 1780 and 1804, Northern states—beginning with Quaker-led Pennsylvania—all abolished slavery. In the 1780s, every state that had a Black population lower than 6% passed emancipation laws, while every state that did not, did not (Before 1790, the US did not collect census data on slavery; estimates of Black populations are useful proxies for slave populations, although they are over-estimates) (“Colonial and Pre-Federal Statistics,” 1975). Between 1790 and 1804, New York and New Jersey—the two states that, out of slave states, had the lowest rates of slavery in those years—passed emancipation laws (“Recapitulation of the Tables,” 1864).
The US abolished the importation of slaves in 1807, but Southern plantations were not highly dependent on importing new slaves (slave populations increased naturally, as Southern plantations were not in the highly fatal business of producing sugarcane), and there would not be a widespread anti-slavery movement in the US for decades (Hochschild, 2005).
Organized support for slavery limited abolitionist activity and success for decades before slave states seceded. Abolitionist activity in Northern states was dampened by fears of Southern secession, which were heightened by the sectional nature of slavery’s division and the US tradition of federalism. Despite the Northern opposition to the expansion of slavery that did exist, Southern states’ influence maintained a balance of slave and free states in Congress for decades (in order to maintain federal representation of their interest in slavery), while going far to suppress discourse (Drescher, 2015). Within the South, up until the American Civil War and its aftermath imposed emancipation on Southern states, white people’s attempts at organizing for emancipation were repressed through means that included violence and censorship (Finnie, 1969).
In the mid-19th century, westward expansion revived sectional disagreements over the expansion of slavery, culminating in Southern secession. Abolitionists, boosted by organizers who learned from British predecessors and were inspired by America’s Second Great Awakening, gained the support of laborers who did not want the competition of slave plantations in new states. Fearing abolition, and clinging to the United States’ tradition of federalism, Southern states seceded from the Union in 1861 (Drescher, 2015).
Union states tried making concessions to seceding states, but these were unsuccessful. Congress, then controlled by the Republican Party (which had been founded seven years earlier to oppose the expansion of slavery), voted with a supermajority to propose the Corwin Amendment, a constitutional amendment that would have permanently protected Southern slavery from federal intervention. The Republican president Lincoln expressed that he did not oppose the amendment, and he sent it to state legislatures for ratification. This was not enough for the Southern Confederacy, which was by then committed to independence, and civil war began a month after Congress proposed the amendment (before the necessary number of states ratified the amendment) (Lupton, 2006).
Republicans’ support for the Corwin Amendment supports the claim that Northerners were not willing to go to war end Southern slavery; they wanted war to reunite the Union, and the war changed Northerners’ incentives, political opportunities, and perhaps values in ways that favored emancipation.
First, war empowered and incentivized abolitionists to pass temporary measures of emancipation, reducing conservatives’ ability and incentives to block permanent emancipation. In 1863, Lincoln passed the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring the freedom of all slaves held in rebelling regions. In doing this, he explained that the source of his power and motivation was war: his Proclamation was legitimate “by virtue of the power” of the president to enact “a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing… rebellion,” and it was made for that very purpose (Lincoln, 1863). The Emancipation Proclamation was militarily advantageous to the North because it turned Confederate slave laborers into Union soldiers. In addition, emancipation made the war a war over slavery, sinking the emerging will in cotton-hungry yet antislavery Britain to support the Confederacy (“Effect of the Emancipation”).
On top of this, the Civil War made it clear that, without the permanent emancipation of the 13th Amendment, conflict was likely to reemerge in the future. One Representative who changed his vote to support the 13th Amendment declared (“Record of the US House, 1865):
nothing short of the recognition of their independence will satisfy the southern confederacy. It must therefore be destroyed; and in voting for the present measure I cast my vote against the corner-stone of the southern confederacy, and declare eternal war against the enemies of my country
While, previously, it had seemed that pursuing emancipation would have the cost of risking civil war, by 1865 that cost had been paid, and permanent emancipation seemed necessary for preventing future war.
The Civil War did not only strengthen Northern incentives to end slavery; it also concentrated power in the hands of Northern abolitionists. Lincoln’s war powers, as noted above, empowered him to make the Emancipation Proclamation, and Union victory in 1865 allowed Union leaders to force Southern states to ratify the 13th Amendment (“Landmark Legislation”). In addition, military successes and war patriotism (the public’s desire to express unity, and perhaps desire for vengeance) contributed to Republicans having the electoral success in 1864 to pass permanent emancipation. Republicans had previously failed to pass the amendment in Congress, and they campaigned on it in 1864, declaring in their party platform that, “as Slavery was the cause, and now constitutes the strength, of this rebellion… justice and the national safety demand… a death-blow at this gigantic evil” (“Ratifying the 13th Amendment, 2012; “The Platforms,” 1864).
Permanent emancipation may have also benefited from the explicit consideration of future generations. When Lincoln learned that the 13th Amendment needed two additional votes to pass, he reportedly affirmed (Kaller):
The abolition of slavery by Constitutional provisions settles the fate, for all … time, not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come – a measure of such importance that those two votes must be procured
An 1862 British newspaper also called on Americans to end slavery, in terms that (other than their religious emphasis) sound like they belong in a Nick Bostrom book (“Effect of the Emancipation”):
Will you not embrace it? So much good has not been done by one effort as in the Providence of God it is now your high privilege to do. May the vast future not have to lament that you have neglected it!
The United States passed a permanent prohibition on slavery in 1865, just four years after legislators had almost permanently protected slavery.
Cuba and Puerto Rico:
By the mid-19th century, slavery remained common in Spanish Cuba and Puerto Rico, and slave owners were especially influential in Cuba. Cuba’s elite was highly dependent on sugar plantations worked by slaves. While the UK had managed to pressure Spain into agreeing to end the trade of slaves to its colonies, these bans were not effectively enforced. The Spanish repressed Cuba’s emerging abolitionism, partly because of its associations with “liberalism, anti-colonialism, and the ever-meddling British” (Bergad, 2017).
In contrast, abolitionist activity emerged in Puerto Rico. This was largely possible because, unlike Cuba, Puerto Rico had a large free labor force (a cheap supply of labor), and it was shifting to coffee production by non-slaves. Abolitionist concerns that emerged focused on how slavery created risks of slave revolution, and how the importation of slaves created demographic shifts that racists disliked (Bergad, 2017).
Military developments in Cuba then contributed to emancipation. In 1868, Cubans began their first revolt for independence from Spain. Rebels seized a part of Cuba that had fewer slaves, and Cubans from regions that relied more heavily on slave labor did not support the rebels. In 1869, rebels granted slavery to any slaves who fled to them, and the next year they abolished slavery in rebel-held territory. This meant that the continuation of slavery would weaken resistance to Cuban independence (pro-Spanish landowners would presumably be better off if they had to pay their laborers a little than if their laborers fled) (Bergad, 2017).
Then, military developments in Spain added to the pressure from Cuban rebels, finally bringing about emancipation. In 1868, Spain underwent a liberal revolution. This revolution ended Spanish repression of the new and impactful Spanish Abolitionist Society, which Puerto Ricans had helped found. Under abolitionist pressure from within and military pressure from Cuban rebels, Spain passed gradual emancipation for Cuba and Puerto Rico in 1870. Pressure from multiple sources (including international pressure) then escalated, leading the Spanish government to make emancipation come sooner, in 1886 (Bergad, 2017).
The Ottoman Empire:
The enslavement of people from Africa and Circassia was entrenched in the 19th century Ottoman Empire, with negligible domestic opposition. Ottoman practices surrounding slavery differed significantly from earlier European practices: it was customary for slave owners to free their slaves after seven to ten years of labor, and slaves were more often used for household labor. Domestic opposition to slavery was almost non-existent in the Ottoman Empire, as well as in other Islamic societies, perhaps because authoritarian rule repressed civil society (Ferguson and Toledano, 2016).
International pressure and domestic revolution then brought about the decline of Ottoman slavery. By the mid-19th century, the Ottomans were highly economically dependent on European powers, and Western European empires—especially the British—pressured the Ottomans to end their slave trade. In 1857, as a result of this pressure, the Ottoman sultan banned the slave trade and implemented partial enforcement. Pressure increased in the years leading up to the British-initiated 1889 Brussels Anti-Slavery Conference, compelling the sultan to strengthen enforcement of the ban. With increased enforcement, very little of the slave trade continued. In 1908, the liberal Young Turk Revolution overthrew the Ottoman Empire, and the Young Turks abolished slavery (Ferguson and Toledano, 2016).
British pressure and the end of the transatlantic slave trade:
When the UK banned its own slave trade, it began a long history of pressuring other countries to ban their own slave trades, likely because of strong domestic support for these diplomatic efforts. After British plantation owners lost their own ability to import slaves, they supported the internationalization of the ban on importing slaves, so that their business competitors would not have that advantage. Adding to business pressure, British abolitionists had built a large and influential network of organizers who could and did mobilize the British public against the slave trade and slavery. This left abolitionists with assets in experience, organization, networks, and public support, which they then turned toward international abolition. In addition to exerting international pressure through UK politics, British abolitionists helped fund and otherwise support other countries’ antislavery societies (Drescher, 2017; Hochschild, 2005).
British pressure for international abolition achieved significant successes in the negotiations following the Napoleonic Wars. Around 1815, the UK coerced several other European countries to end their colonial slave trades, and they made the international Congress of Vienna declare that
the slave trade has been considered by just and enlightened men in all ages, as repugnant to the principles of humanity and universal morality.
The UK then drew on this supposed consensus to pressure more countries into bilateral agreements for banning their slave trades, and for enforcing those bans with patrol ships. Various other Northern European countries soon emancipated their own slaves.
Abolitionist successes in other European states came later. Spain and Portugal continued to trade slaves for longer, and the US, before its own emancipation of slaves, prevented blockades against Cuba’s slave trade. Meanwhile, the French Empire had grown more liberal, allowing opponents of slavery to hold a large international antislavery meeting in Paris in 1867. Through continued efforts, by the 1860s and ’70s, European countries had passed emancipation for their colonies (although some colonies, e.g. Cuba, did not implement emancipation), and the Atlantic slave trade had effectively ended (Drescher, 2017).
The decline of the slave trade and slavery in European empires:
Antislavery activity then shifted to the Eastern Hemisphere, largely through colonialism. Europeans used the banner of antislavery to help justify their colonial incursions. Some countries, such as Japan, supported the abolition of the slave trade so they would be more perceived by Europeans as civilized. Abolitionist activity resurged after the 1885 Berlin Conference. The British initiated the organization of the Brussels Anti-Slavery Conference, which in 1890 signed an agreement to end the slave trade (while leaving slavery itself). Europeans, perhaps because they did not want others to kidnap laborers whom they could exploit, effectively reduced the slave trade as their colonial control expanded (Drescher, 2017).
Ending chattel slavery itself in parts of Africa and Asia controlled by Europeans was often harder for opponents of slavery. After all, European colonialists often depended on the cooperation of local slave-owning elites, and compensation would again be expensive. In addition, rallying public opposition was harder, as many Old World slaves had less brutal roles than Caribbean plantation slaves, and Europeans tended to have a lower sense of responsibility for slavery they had not started.
Still, chattel slavery declined in new European colonies. As a partial solution to the difficulties of emancipating slaves in Africa and Asia, Europeans who conquered much of Africa in the late 19th century tended to imitate the way the UK abolished slavery in its Indian possessions: gradual emancipation through the delegalization of slavery. The British Anti-Slavery Society also successfully demanded action against particularly extreme forms of exploitation by weaker colonial powers, such as Portugal’s Angola and Leopold’s Congo (Drescher, 2017).
World wars and the global prohibition of modern slavery:
The First World War created new opportunities for international antislavery. Following the war, states created the League of Nations. The League, led by Europeans, facilitated the international coordination of abolition. Working within the League, the UK led a commission that resulted in the Slavery Convention of 1926. This convention defined slavery as ownership of a person, and signing nations agreed to suppress the slave trade and end slavery. Europeans tended to see slavery as an institution in demise.
Slavery then declined further through international efforts after the Second World War. The war involved a temporary surge of forced labor, especially in Nazi concentration camps. After the Allied victory, Nazi leaders were charged, among other things, with slavery, as a crime against humanity. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights declared various forms of modern slavery (a broader notion of slavery, including not only chattel slavery, but also serfdom, debt bondage, and forced marriage) as violations of human rights. By 1956, most of the states in the United Nations had banned slavery. Anti-colonial powers—notably, the Soviet Union—demanded an end to modern slavery in European colonies, perhaps to reduce their European rivals’ revenue streams. The Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery of that year expanded the earlier Convention, internationally prohibiting modern slavery (Drescher, 2017).
Voting rights have expanded dramatically over the past few centuries. The following chart shows changes in official voting rights over time in a set of countries made up of the ten countries that today have the largest populations, and the ten countries that today have the largest economies (together, today these countries make up more than half of the world’s population) (Roser, 2019).
Further data suggests that this trend toward expanded voting rights has been accompanied by a genuine expansion of political power, although the latter trend is weaker. The following chart shows regional changes over time in the Vanhanen’s Index of Democracy, which serves as a proxy for equality in de facto political power by being proportional to both voter participation and the strength of opposition parties (Roser, 2019).
These trends toward political inclusion involved both the creation of democracies and the removal of various restrictions on who could participate in them. In many countries, the removal of economic and sex-based suffrage restrictions enfranchised the majority of adults, while the removal of religious, racial, and ethnic restrictions on voting rights enfranchised significant minorities.
Understanding elites’ removals of economic restrictions on the franchise seems especially relevant for figuring out how future generations can gain political protection. In both cases, powerful actors have had strong financial incentives to maintain exclusive power (the wealthy tend to not want voting rights to be extended to people who would vote for government redistribution, and present generations have incentives to not share intergenerational goods with future generations). Because of this similarity, I focus on the removal of economic restrictions on voting rights. Why did these changes happen?
Three broad explanations for democratization are best supported by historical evidence. Most commonly, elites extended the franchise to mitigate threats of revolution. In some cases, they may have been genuinely persuaded by the mass agitation of the disenfranchised. In the early United States, and perhaps in other cases, elites democratized to gain economic, military, or political support from the newly enfranchised. One highly plausible way to think about how these many motivations for democratization interacted is that there were many institutional “hurdles” that stood in the way of democratization, and various motivations were significant to different degrees for overcoming different hurdles (Aidt and Franck, 2019).
Threats of Revolution and Global Democratization:
A wide range of evidence supports the claim that, most of the instances when democracy was created and extended along economic lines, this was caused by non-elites credibly threatening or actually carrying out violent revolution.
In the UK, Sweden, France, and Germany, democratization usually followed mass disturbances, suggesting it was driven by fear of revolution. All three major cases of economic franchise expansion in the UK (in 1832, 1867, and 1884), as well as all three major cases of franchise expansion in Sweden (1866, 1909, and 1918), were preceded by mass agitation. In France, economic franchise expansion followed revolution in 1789 and 1848 (although in both cases the franchise was soon contracted, and genuine re-expansion only came after France’s military defeat in 1870, for reasons less clearly linked to the threat of revolution). In Germany, franchise expansion followed revolution in 1848, and (after expansion in 1870 that did not go far in extending de facto voting powers) the franchise was further extended in 1919, after mass agitation that bordered on revolution followed German military defeats (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2000).
The above examples are highly typical of democratization throughout modern global history. Reviewing historical research, political economists Acemoglu and Robinson (2005) conclude—with significant support from historians—that, in nation after nation, democratization has tended to follow mass disturbances:
As illustrated by the British, Argentinian, and South African political histories… most transitions to democracy, both in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe and twentieth-century Latin America, took place amid significant social turmoil and revolutionary threats. In addition, the creation of democratic societies in most former European colonies in the 1950s and 1960s was the result of pressure by the disenfranchised and relatively poor colonials against the colonizing power. Such threats of turmoil and social disorder similarly accompanied the recent spate of democratization in Africa (Bratton and van der Walle 1997) and Eastern Europe (Bunce 2003).
The timing of many cases of democratization, then, suggest that they were driven by non-elites creating threats of revolution.
Additional analyses provide further evidence for the revolutionary threat hypothesis—the view that elites perceiving threats of revolution was a major cause of democratization. In some cases, as quoted by Acemoglu and Robinson (2000), elites explicitly stated that this was their motivation:
When introducing the electoral reform to the British parliament in 1831, the prime minister Earl Grey said, ‘There is no-one more decided against annual parliaments, universal suffrage and the ballot, than am I . . . The Principal of my reform is to prevent the necessity of revolution. . . . I am reforming to preserve, not to overthrow’ (quoted in [Evans 1983]).
On top of such statements, more support comes from social scientists’ use of various metrics as proxies for elites’ perceptions of revolutionary threat. These have included bond yields in the UK (these are higher when people are less certain that the government will exist in the future) as well as records of riots near UK electoral districts, droughts in Sub-Saharan Africa (which tend to precede riots), and the occurrence of revolutions in neighboring countries. As reviewed by Aidt, et al. (2015), as well as Aidt and Franck (2019), these studies and others generally provide significant support for the revolutionary threat hypothesis.
Motivations for Conflict Over the Voting Franchise:
An appealing explanation for why non-elites threaten elites with revolution is that they want lasting, material benefits. Acemoglu and Robinson (2005) argue that non-elites attempt to change political institutions in order to turn short-lived power, such as a temporary boost in coordinating capacity from an economic crisis, into more lasting power: political representation. Non-elites want durable power, the argument goes, to make governments pass redistributive policy that materially benefits them, both in the near and long term. At the same time, elites’ expectation that democratization will bring redistribution incentivizes them to oppose democratization, especially in highly unequal societies. This view is supported by a consistent trend, although some other hypotheses also predict this trend: throughout the Western Hemisphere, greater inequality did in fact correspond with slower democratization (Engerman and Sokoloff, 2005).
However, empirical evidence is mixed about whether democratization actually causes increased redistribution (Horpedahl, 2011). Why, then, do non-elites support these revolutionary threats, and why do elites put up resistance?
Several explanations are highly plausible. One possibility is that elites and non-elites have had wrong expectations about the material consequences of political change. This would not be unique in political history; peasants who supported revolutions that were hijacked by dictators and brought about famines presumably had incorrect expectations. A second possibility is that people value voting rights, not for material benefits, but for reasons such as social status and civil liberties (while the elites need to be incentivized because they face a real or illusory risk of redistribution, or because they hold exclusive values) (Horpedahl, 2011). A third possibility is that democratization does cause redistribution, but measuring this is hard, so empirical studies have not yet yielded conclusive results. The ambiguity of the evidence might result from a mixture of these contributors. This lack of clarity suggests that the revolutionary threats which contribute to democratization are still far from well understood.
Democratization, Industrialization, and National Crises:
Another link is empirically clearer: democratization has mostly occurred in the modern era, especially in industrialized countries. Why?
One reason why industrialization would favor democracy is that industrial elites have less to fear from democracy than agricultural elites. Industrial elites can more easily avoid taxes (perhaps because their capital is easier to hide), so they have less to fear from democratization. This effect is even stronger with extensive globalization, which is to a large extent driven by industrialization’s contributions to communication and transportation technologies. In addition, industrial elites tend to be less invested in economic institutions that laborers strongly disfavor (e.g. slavery, which is more profitable for agriculture), so again they have less to fear from democratization (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2005).
Industrialization also favors democratization by creating elites who are more vulnerable to conflict. Relative to landowners, industrial elites have more vulnerable capital (human and physical capital is more easily destroyed than land), so it is more costly for them to respond to revolutionary threats with violent repression (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2005). Industrialization also increases economic specialization and interdependence, making it easier for one economic interest group to threaten others by withholding its services. This makes industrial elites even more vulnerable to angry masses. Industrialization, then, changes elites’ incentives in ways that favor democratization (Congleton, 2004).
On top of all this, industrialization contributes to democratization by improving non-elites’ ability to organize (Congleton, 2004). Industrialization increases population densities while improving communication and transportation technologies, making it less costly for non-elites to organize. In addition, industrialization raises incomes, increasing the public’s willingness to spend to pressure the government into providing public goods. Perhaps higher incomes also tend to empower citizens to fight for civil liberties, which later facilitate reformist or revolutionary organization.
Education might seem like another historically crucial contributor to pro-democracy organizers, but historical timing suggests otherwise. Some social scientists (Drazen, et al., 2007) suggest that industrialization’s contributions to education (e.g. through rising incomes, lower transportation costs, and industrialists’ demands for better trained workers) are crucial for non-elites’ abilities to organize effectively. However, expansions in public education frequently came after democratization, so it is not clear how they could have been its cause (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2000; Engerman and Sokoloff, 2005). Still, broader trends of rising literacy, perhaps resulting from the creation of technologies like the printing press, likely contributed to some degree to non-elites’ abilities to coordinate their resistance (Pinker, 2011).
In brief, industrialization favors democratization because it makes democratization less costly for elites, and it makes conflict more costly for them, while making it easier for non-elites to coordinate into forcing elites to choose between democratization and conflict.
While industrialization’s effects help explain long-term trends in the influence of revolutionary threats, national crises go far in explaining their shorter-term variations. Historically, democratization frequently followed war (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2000). As significant examples, military defeats and economic crises increase dissatisfaction with existing institutions, providing focal points of coordination for supporters of democratization, while reducing elites’ willingness and ability to deal with revolutionary threats through violent repression (economic devastation leaves elites with less to lose from redistributive policies, and it leaves governments with fewer resources for repression).
The Limited Role of Ideological Change:
Having considered the revolutionary threat hypothesis, we turn to considering other hypotheses for why democratization has occurred.
One variety of alternatives centers on ideological change, and claims (dubiously) that states often democratized because elites’ values changed in favor of inclusion. The timing of democratization, as discussed previously, is strong evidence against hypotheses that do not attribute a major role to the disenfranchised in bringing about expansions of democracy. If elites had become enlightened on their own, one would not expect the timing of democratization to so often coincide with non-elites posing threats (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2000).
Another view remains plausible: non-violent forms of mass agitation help persuade elites about the need for reform. This view has some support from the apparent influence of non-violent demonstrations on support for democratization in the UK in 1831, as well as later events of decolonization and civil rights in the US (Aidt and Franck, 2019). Ideological change driven by mobilization of the disenfranchised may have been particularly important in the US civil rights movement. Since enforcement of major legislation to protect African American voting rights focused on the South, political actors of other states may have had weaker incentives to maintain political exclusion, so they would have been more receptive to ideological change. Overall, the timing of democratization suggests that changes in values may have been significant contributors to franchise expansions, but only if they were driven by the mass agitation of the disenfranchised.
Early US Democratization and its Strategic Alliances:
The above hypotheses, which both involve mass mobilization among the disenfranchised, do poorly at explaining early democratization in the US. Over the early 19th century, many US states removed economic restrictions on who could vote, but, as historian Donald Ratfliffe (2013) writes, such changes usually “did not result from widespread popular demands for a wider suffrage.” Among these, US frontier states democratized especially quickly: no state that joined the Union after the thirteen colonies had property requirements for voting, and the few economic requirements some did have (e.g. tax-based requirements) were minor and short-lived. In contrast, the original thirteen colonies were generally much slower to remove explicitly economic franchise restrictions (Engerman and Sokoloff, 2005). The absence of popular demands for early US democratization suggests that it had motivations other than revolutionary threats, motivations that were especially strong in frontier states.
A third variety of hypotheses about elites’ motivations help explain early US democratization, especially in frontier states. These hypotheses assert that elites give some people the right to vote because elites expect these people to respond to new voting rights in ways that politically, militarily, or economically benefit elites. One hypothesis of this kind offers a well-supported explanation for the rapid democratization of US frontier states: elites in frontier states faced labor shortages, and they had to compete with other frontier states for settlers from older states. As a result, elites in frontier states passed many policies to attract settlers, including the appealing offer of voting rights for poorer settlers (as long as they were white men). In other words, elites in frontier states extended the franchise because they expected to benefit from the reaction of the newly enfranchised: immigration and economic services (Engerman and Sokoloff, 2005).
Similar motivations help explain democratization in the original thirteen colonies that formed the US, which were generally much slower to remove explicitly economic franchise restrictions. The timing of franchise extensions (e.g. soon after the War of 1812) and the surrounding debate suggest that these elites expected to gain a different benefit in exchange for democratization: more supportive military service, and perhaps more willing tax-payment, from the newly enfranchised (Horpedahl, 2011; Keyssar, 2000). Perhaps political opportunism—elites extending the vote because they expect the newly enfranchised to vote for them—had some role in US and UK democratization (although various aspects of UK democratization suggest that this motivation was minor in the UK, at most) (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2000; Aidt and Franck, 2019; Keyssar, 2000).
Perhaps these varied motivations were influential for early US democratization, but less influential for other cases of democratization, because in the early US there were relatively high levels of economic equality among white men (Engerman and Sokoloff, 2005). This may have caused US elites to not perceive as much economic risk in extending the franchise to other white men.
In short, elites’ expectations that they would receive military, political, or economic support from citizens in exchange for granting them the vote help explain cases that the revolutionary threat hypothesis struggles to explain, especially early US democratization.
Moving on from explicitly economic suffrage, the charts at the beginning of this section show that major waves of democratization—women’s suffrage—followed the two world wars. Why? Efforts for suffrage definitely did not begin after the wars; the US, for example, had had an active women’s suffrage movement for generations, and it had achieved significant success in Western states before WWI (Higgins, 2019). As with wealth-based restrictions, sex-based restrictions on voting may have been more vulnerable in frontier states because of these states’ greater economic equality. The differences in economic consumption between men and women may have been smaller than the differences in consumption between wealthy and poor men; this may have allowed for shifts toward inclusive social values to be major contributors to women’s suffrage, instead of being overridden by economic self-interest.
There are several mechanisms, with support from arguments that suffragists used, by which it is highly plausible that the world wars bolstered women’s suffrage (Higgins, 2019; “Women’s Suffrage,” 2018). First, world wars expanded the roles of women, undermining sexist beliefs that supported franchise restrictions. Second, world wars motivated Allied countries to portray themselves as beacons of democracy, further undermining the idea of banning half of the population from voting. Third, the devastation of the world wars increased men’s perceptions of the value of having an electorate reluctant to go to war, and men expected the electorate to be more pacifistic if it included women. Fourth, war bolstered a fairness argument, and perhaps the real and perceived risk of losing women’s support for future war efforts, as women had borne massive costs from wars they did not vote for. The success of women’s suffrage in some countries also probably accelerated success in other countries, as contemporaneous victories established the time in which women’s advocates were living as a focal point of coordination for intensified efforts.
Environmentalism (Climate Agreements Focus):
Environmentalism and especially climate diplomacy pose highly relevant case studies for people interested in bringing about victories for future generations. After all, environmental advocates have achieved significant successes for future generations, as well as other entities that have no direct political power: ecosystems. These successes have included major climate change mitigation efforts, as well as environmental conservation. With this motivation, the following is an account of international climate change politics. It pays additional attention to developments in the US as well as other environmental outcomes.
Emergence of Modern Environmentalism in the US:
The modern environmental movement arose most prominently in the United States in the 1960s. At least four factors were likely major contributors to the surge in concern and advocacy for the environment. First, it had been over a decade since the beginning of the US’ postwar economic boom. This provided Americans the economic comfort for considering seemingly distant problems, without newfound gratitude for the systems that provided this comfort (Dryzek, et al., 2002). Second, international developments spurred contemporaneous US movements for civil rights, feminism, and peace, increasing activists’ experience in mobilization and openness toward criticisms of current systems. Third, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, raising public awareness of the harms of humans’ unregulated treatment of the environment (Dunn, 2012). And fourth, in the US political system, interest groups had (as they still have) much access to influential politicians and voters, heavily incentivizing social movements to organize as interest groups (Dryzek, et al., 2002).
Around 1970, Nixon passed legislation that constituted major victories for the US environmental movement, including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the requirement that government agencies evaluate policies’ environmental impacts—policies that were internationally imitated (“Home”). Mass mobilization likely contributed to these successes; earlier in 1970, 20 million Americans participated in demonstrations for the first Earth Day (Combs, et al., 2020). A plausible explanation for Nixon’s enthusiasm for environmental legislation is that he saw it as a way to weaken movements calling for systemic change, as acting for the environment would be acquiescing to relatively moderate demands and making environmentalists more optimistic about existing systems (Dryzek, et al., 2002). Further US regulation in the 1970s featured efforts to limit pollutants that were directly harmful to human health (Combs, et al., 2020).
Emergence of Climate Change as a Global Political Issue:
Over the ’80s, scientists brought international attention to climate change. Continued research on earlier discoveries and improved computing capacities created a strengthening scientific consensus on the existence and dangers of human-caused climate change. A small group of these concerned scientists, boosted by sponsorship from sympathetic governmental and international organizations, used workshops, conferences, article publications, and their contacts among policymakers to raise the prominence of climate change as a risk that needed to be addressed, and to generate potential policies (Bodansky, 2001).
Two developments in the late ’80s accelerated climate action. First, the discovery of the dangers of ozone depletion, and the subsequent negotiations culminating in the promising Montreal Protocol of 1987, brought increased attention to the possibility and importance of harmful emissions to the atmosphere. Second, North America experienced a massive heat wave and drought in 1988, bringing increased attention to the costs of global warming. Following these events, governments began negotiations for international action on climate change (Bodansky, 2001).
Early Climate Negotiations and Differences:
Early negotiations revealed differences in countries’ desires that would prove contentious for decades to come. Europe pushed for strict limitations, while the US insisted on flexibility (Bodansky, 2001). Why these differences? One potential explanation is that fossil fuel production or consumption made up a much larger portion of the US economy than European economies, strengthening US economic and political incentives for lax climate action. The evidence for this explanation is limited. Around 1992, when nations met at the Earth Summit, the US did produce significantly more oil than the EU, but levels of coal production were similar. The US and the EU also had similar total levels of consumption for these two fossil fuels, as well as similar GDPs (Ritchie and Roser). These similarities suggest that differences in climate politics had other major causes.
Although US and EU levels of coal production were similar, the industry context of this was not. The US had large coal reserves that promised future profits, while countries such as Germany were paying the costs of coal subsidies (Bodansky, 2001). In addition, the ability of industry to turn wealth into political strength likely differed between the regions. US legislators still pay much attention to business’ potential to sway voters through attack ads, while European countries tend to limit the influence of wealthy interests through strict restrictions on campaign advertisement (Lizza, 2010; Atwill, 2009).
Another likely contributor to Europe’s stronger environmentalism is electoral systems. The proportional representation of much of Europe, in contrast to the plurality voting system of the US, means that environmentalists dissatisfied with major parties are incentivized to vote for alternatives (“Electoral Systems”). This incentivizes major parties to incorporate environmentalism into their platforms in order to avoid losing major constituencies, as happened in Germany (Dryzek, et al., 2002). Likely reflecting and reinforcing these differences, the US shifted control of climate policies from foreign and environmental ministries to domestic ones—where industry interests are better represented—much earlier than other developed countries did (Bodansky, 2001).
Another major division that showed itself early was that between developed countries and developing countries. While developed countries had created immense wealth in large part through unsustainable development, the emissions of developing countries were rising rapidly. Each group of countries tended to use one of these arguments to argue that the other group should bear the costs of climate change mitigation (Bodansky, 2001).
The FCCC and the Kyoto Protocol:
Following several years of negotiations, nations met at the Earth Summit in 1992 and signed the Framework Convention on Climate Change. As nations had wanted consensus, reluctant nations had much influence. The Summit mainly created a framework for future negotiations; it did not create legally binding commitments (Bodansky, 2001).
Then, countries began negotiations toward more concrete agreements. A 1996 declaration indicated that countries were willing to act without consensus, reducing the influence of major oil producers (Bodansky, 2001).
Culminating continued negotiations, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol established legally binding, specific commitments to emission reduction. These had major limitations: developing countries were not bound to emissions, and the US never ratified the agreement.
Months before Kyoto, the US Senate had passed a unanimous resolution, declaring they would not ratify any treaty that seriously harmed the US economy or did not mandate commitments for developing countries (Hovi, et al., 2012). Why, then, did nations sign an agreement strictly mandating emissions reductions from developed countries only?
Interviews with people who were delegates at the time suggest several reasons—centered on domestic political pressures—for why delegates passed a treaty the US would not ratify. It was not for lack of wanting US participation—European delegates made significant concessions intended to win US involvement. A factor that probably did contribute is that domestic political pressure pushed both European and Clinton-Gore delegates to pursue an ambitious agreement, even if this meant lower chances that it would be passed. Perhaps this was because it is easier to blame others for a treaty that others refused to ratify, than to blame others for one’s own creation of an unambitious treaty. The pursuit of an unrealistically ambitious treaty by the Clinton-Gore administration may have further contributed to the Europeans (who like other delegations focused mainly on treaty technicalities) overestimating the chances of US ratification (Hovi, et al., 2012).
Additionally, the dismal result of the treaty may have been less obvious than it seems for US delegates. They seem to have seen another path to ratification: winning over commitments from developing countries as side agreements. However, US negotiators did not succeed in creating side agreements; either they overestimated the ease of doing so, or they took a well-calculated risk that went poorly (Hovi, et al., 2012).
In the end, Clinton did not even submit the treaty to the Senate for ratification, leaving European countries as the main parties to the treaty (Hovi, et al., 2012).
US Domestic Climate Failure, 2010:
In 2010, US legislators raised promising climate change legislation, but it failed to pass. This was after Obama was elected president of the United States with congressional supermajorities, following a campaign in which he emphasized prioritizing climate. Powerful opposition likely contributed to the bill’s failure in several ways. First, US legislative procedures (especially the Senate filibuster) created many veto opportunities. Second, Republican partisanship was on the rise, and it involved intense obstructionism. Third, US campaign laws and political norms gave (as they still give) immense influence to wealthy interests—organized opposition and the threat of it diminished political support, while incentivizing bill sponsors to make major concessions.
Recent events and poor coordination also helped the bill’s opponents defeat it. The US had only recently begun recovery from the Great Recession, so the economic risks of climate action were especially salient. In addition, an unfortunately timed event—the Deepwater Horizon oil spill—made the bill’s concessions to offshore drilling have highly salient costs. On top of this, Obama and other leading Democrats failed to coordinate well with sponsors of the bill (perhaps because they had deprioritized climate action); their unstrategic actions took away leverage from sponsors of the bill, while their lack of support contributed to driving out Graham, a key Republican collaborator who feared for his own electoral risk (Lizza, 2010; Weiss, 2010).
In short, the 2010 Senate bill for climate action failed for reasons that likely included these: the US political system makes action against business interests difficult, and Republican partisanship, recent events, and coordination failures made action even harder.
The Paris Agreement:
After further failures, international climate negotiators lowered their ambitions. The 2015 Paris Agreement was created to bypass the factors that had doomed previous negotiations. Unlike previous agreements, which had sought top-down requirements to solve the collective action problem, the Paris Agreement focused on holding states to pledges they would determine for themselves. This difference was a major contributor to participation in the treaty by developing countries, which had argued that similar expectations for countries with different levels of development would be unfair. In addition, the agreement did not create bindings on legislatures, so Obama could pass it as an executive agreement rather than seeking supermajority approval from the Senate (Aschwanden, 2015).
Some aspects of the Paris Agreement were ambitious; others were not. Signing nations declared a global aim of limiting global warming to “well below 2℃,” and to try to keep it below 1.5℃. Largely because of US efforts, legally binding mitigation was weak. So were compliance mechanisms. On the other hand, the treaty involved strong procedures for escalating commitments and ensuring national transparency. Nations widely praised the agreement, asserting, among other praises, that it was fair. While its concrete obligations were vague, the agreement was symbolically significant: after decades of disagreement, nations had agreed on the need for multilateral action to seriously mitigate climate change.
Several factors contributed to this success. First, the US and China had signed a bilateral agreement the previous year. Second, the delegates’ French hosts managed logistics masterfully (they reduced the number of players by bringing together key players in negotiations secret from other delegations, and they presented a final agreement—in which all players had made significant compromises and received significant concessions—as “take it or leave it”). Third, the vast majority of countries had already created domestic climate plans. Domestic environmental efforts likely contributed to this; it may have also helped that delegates’ previous negotiations had engaged them with other countries’ arguments and examples, which persuaded them of the economic feasibility and importance of climate action (Dimitrov, 2016).
In the five years since, the results of the Paris Agreement have been mixed. On the one hand, many countries set insufficiently ambitious targets, many countries have failed to reach their targets, and the Trump administration has declared its intention to withdraw from the agreement as soon as it is legally eligible to do so, which will be in November (Roberts, 2019). On the other hand, major political entities, including India, the EU, and the US Climate Alliance, have taken major climate action since the agreement, such as investing heavily in renewable energy, while explicitly referencing the commitments made in Paris (“National Electricity,” 2018; “Clean Energy,” 2020; “Climate Leadership,” 2019).
Ozone layer: The ozone layer’s depletion stopped and has recently started recovery. The 1987 Montreal Protocol might not have been as directly impactful as some later agreements; alone, it was far from enough to stop ozone depletion (Ritchie and Roser, 2018).
Forest cover: Contemporary forest levels of forest cover are much lower than pre-industrial levels. Still, global forest cover has remained stable since at least 2000. This has presumably been because “[s]ince 1990 Europe has seen an increase in forests while Africa and the Americas saw forests declining” (Roser, 2013). Europe’s increase in forest cover is largely due to afforestation programs (programs that create forests where there had not previously been forests) at EU-wide as well as state-wide levels (Noack, 2014)
Air pollution: Deaths from pollution have declined significantly, largely because outdoor pollution has remained stable, while indoor pollution has declined steadily, at least since the ’90s (Ritchie and Roser, 2019). In the US, several forms of air pollution have declined significantly over the last several decades: sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide (major contributors to acid rain), lead (which is toxic), and ground-level ozone as well as particulate matter (which are harmful to inhale) (“Air Quality,” 2020).
Plastic: Plastic production has exploded, although management has significantly improved in developed countries, reducing ocean pollution (Ritchie and Roser, 2018).
Pesticides: Pesticide use increased fairly steadily in the 90s and 2000s, and it has largely levelled off over the past decade (Roser, 2019).
Climate change: Carbon dioxide emissions have massively increased, especially since the beginning of the 20th century, and even more so after the century’s first half. Recently, emissions in China have briefly stagnated, while emissions in other developing countries of Asia continue to climb. Analysis by Climate Action Tracker suggests that, with current policies, Earth will undergo about 3℃ of warming (relative to pre-industrial temperatures) by 2100, with catastrophic results. Even if nations created new policies sufficient to meet all their declared targets, about 2.7℃ of warming would still occur (Ritchie and Roser, 2019).
Still, climate action has achieved major successes. Analysis by Climate Action Tracker suggests that climate change mitigation policies that have already been implemented will reduce global warming by 2100 by about 1.5℃, relative to what they would have been if governments had made no policy changes. Contributing to this success, US, EU, and UK carbon emissions have dropped significantly, even after accounting for emissions that have been outsourced (Ritchie and Roser, 2019). The timing of these declines in carbon emissions suggests that they were caused by natural gas replacing dirtier fossil fuels in the US, and by the 2005 launch of cap-and-trade regulations in the EU (which at the time included the UK).
Governance of Genetic Engineering:
The governance of genetic engineering has reduced a significant threat to future generations: certain engineered pathogens could bring about human extinction, keeping future generations from existing. In the early 1970s, biologists and diplomats took significant steps toward ensuring the responsible use of genetic engineering technologies. Their service to future generations poses a relevant case study for those interested in future-oriented governance, especially for identifying tactics that have been successful for the responsible management of emerging risks, and for identifying areas where existing institutions that govern such risks could be improved.
Early Governance Initiatives:
Since the ’70s, the Biological Weapons Convention has been the main agreement governing state use of genetic engineering. Biological weapons had been an international issue since well before humans discovered ways to create novel pathogens. In the Second World War, various states had bioweapons programs. As a part of international efforts to pursue non-proliferation in the decades following WWII, states created the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972. Nixon had ended the US bioweapons program three years prior, and this had bolstered international support for such a convention. The convention forbade the development, production, and stockpiling of biological weapons and related technologies. (Later diplomacy clarified that the Convention also forbade the use of bioweapons). The Convention did not create mechanisms for inspection or enforcement (“Biological Weapons Convention,” 2003).
The following year, in 1973, biologists discovered how to create novel pathogens. Early genetic engineering involved removing parts of plasmids, loops of DNA in bacteria, and replacing them with DNA from another organism. While still rudimentary, genetic engineering promised to enable new advances in medicine and agriculture, while also creating the potential for scientists to create novel pathogens that could pose unprecedented risks.
In the same year, Soviet leader Brezhnev both signed the Biological Weapons Convention, and violated it by secretly initiating a program to genetically engineer pathogens for use in warfare. The Soviet program for genetically engineered bioweapons would soon become the largest such program in the world (F. Calero Forero, personal communication, Aug. 10, 2020).
In 1974, eleven concerned and esteemed biologists—including James D. Watson, co-discoverer of DNA—published a joint letter, initiating biologists’ self-governance on genetic engineering research. Noting the endorsement of two scientific associations, the authors called for a moratorium on particularly risky experiments in genetic engineering until guidelines were developed, as well as an international meeting to develop appropriate practices. The authors explicitly expressed commitment to precautionary action amidst high uncertainty that might not be easily resolvable.
Eight months later, and with financial support from prestigious scientific organizations, 140 of the world’s best molecular biologists gathered at Asilomar to develop proposals by which the scientific community could self-regulate research in genetic engineering. Seeing the use of genetic engineering in warfare as more distant, scientists explicitly chose to not raise that issue and instead focus on mitigating risks from inadequate caution. Following the conference, representatives from the National Institutes of Health used the meeting’s tentative conclusions to develop guidelines for genetic engineering research (Rogers, 1975).
Governance Since the ’70s:
Since those early governance initiatives, deaths from the irresponsible or military development of genetically engineered weapons have been minimal—far from the millions of deaths, or more, that seem like plausible outcomes of engineered pathogens. Still, this track record might not last, as governance has not improved substantively on early initiatives, while dangers have increased.
Palmer et al. (2015) write that, since Asilomar:
Our strategies and institutions for managing biological risk in emerging technologies have not matured much… conclusions [at Asilomar] led to the recombinant DNA guidelines still used today.
Oversight in the US, they explain, comes from an overlapping patchwork of committees and agencies that mainly restrict experimentation by restricting funding. Oversight of academic biotechnology research in other states has similar limitations.
International governance has also seen highly limited change. The Biological Weapons Convention remains “the foundation of the international biological arms control regime,” and it continues to lack mechanisms for inspection or enforcement. The absence of these mechanisms has been partly caused by the great difficulty of verifying bioweapons-related compliance; pathogens can be quickly produced or destroyed in large quantities, by facilities that can claim to be using their technologies for peaceful pharmaceutical purposes. Nations did agree on a measure for initiating investigations—through the UN Security Council—but this could not have done much to deter the Soviet Union from creating its massive bioweapons program, as it held veto power in the Council (“Biological Weapons Convention,” 2003).
Efforts to strengthen the Convention have not succeeded. Decades of diplomacy have managed to expand Convention membership and to create measures for building trust between participants (which may help make paranoia-driven defection less likely), but more substantive advances have been limited by delegates’ extensive postponement of decision making and failures to reach agreement (“Biological Weapons”). An Ad Hoc Group’s 2001 proposal of substantive measures for increasing compliance, including random inspections, may have been the nearest the Convention has come to serious enforcement. The US sank the proposal, arguing that it would mainly hurt legitimate actors such as pharmaceutical companies (“Biological Weapons Convention,” 2003).
Perhaps the most significant governance change that has occurred has not been a change to the Convention, but the decline of the Soviet bioweapons program. This occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the defection of a leading scientist (F. Calero Forero, personal communication, Aug. 10, 2020).
While governance institutions have not changed substantively, risk has greatly expanded. The 21st century has seen the acceleration of technologies for editing, synthesizing, and giving reproductive advantages to genes. Examples of these technologies include CRISPR and gene drives. As these technologies have improved, access to genetic engineering has proliferated between countries and within countries (S. Luby, personal communication, Apr. 15, 2020). In 2015, the Nuclear Threat Initiative estimated that 16 countries have had, or are currently suspected of having, biological weapons programs. At the same time, the technologies and knowledge for creating high-risk pathogens are much further within the reach of other states, terrorist groups, academics, and even amateurs than they were in the 1970s (“The Biological Threat,” 2015; S. Luby, personal communication, Apr. 15, 2020).
The increasing accessibility of genetic engineering constitutes a major risk. It would only take one particularly unfortunate accident or malevolent act to create catastrophe. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, global health systems’ capacities for handling global outbreaks of disease are highly limited.
Briefer Case Studies:
Animal Advocacy—Successes and Limitations:
This is a brief overview of successes and limitations of the modern animal advocacy movement. Because major shifts toward political inclusion have not occurred in these cases, I focus on the smaller changes that have happened. I also focus on animals that are under human control, rather than wild animals, because we know much less about the well-being of wild animals (although we do have good reasons to drop the idea that their lives are idyllic).
Rise of animal slaughter: As countries have grown wealthier and created cheaper ways to raise animals for slaughter and consumption, animal production and consumption has exploded.
Over the last 80 years, the number of land animals slaughtered globally has increased more than eight-fold, to more than 70 billion land animals a year. This number is the result of steady increase since around 1985. The vast majority of these are chickens. Meat consumption per capita has risen along with the total population (Ritchie and Roser).
Over the last 80 years, the production of aquatic animals has more than tripled. Per capita consumption has increased substantially. As production from capture (wild catch) fishery has slowed its increase, aquaculture (seafood farming) has increased massively, especially in East Asia and the Pacific. Aquaculture now produces a little more than half of all seafood (Ritchie and Roser, 2019).
The vast majority of animals used and killed by humans are chickens and fish, used and slaughtered for consumption. The use of animals for purposes such as races, product testing, fur, and circuses is comparatively tiny (“Why Farmed,” 2016).
Caged egg-laying hens: The EU has banned the use of battery cages for hens. In addition, six US states (California, Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, Michigan, and Colorado) have passed prohibitions on cages for egg-laying hens. Several did so through public referenda (Colorado did so through the credible threat of a further-reaching public referendum) (“Animal Welfare,” 2008; Brown, 2020).
Debeaking: Seven European countries, including Germany, have banned debeaking. In addition, “Austria engaged in a process whereby farmers who wished to continue to beak trim paid a penalty that was redistributed to farmers keeping intact-beak flocks, and by 2005 fewer than 5% of flocks were beak-trimmed” (Nicol, 2018).
Ag gag laws: As of June 2020, six US states have active laws criminalizing farm whistleblowing. Five other states had previously passed similar laws, but these have been struck down as unconstitutional. In 17 other states, attempts at passing such laws were defeated (“What is Ag-Gag,” 2020).
“Right to harm” amendments: As of 2019, 20 US states have passed constitutional amendments prohibiting hunting regulations, and 2 states (Missouri and North Dakota) have passed constitutional amendments “forever” prohibiting restrictions on modern farming practices. Some attempts at passing similar amendments in other states have been defeated. (“Ballot Measure,” 2019; “Right to Farm”).
Fur farming: Japan, California, and 14 European countries, including Germany and the UK, have passed laws banning or effectively phasing out all fur farming, in some cases by raising welfare standards enough to make it not profitable (“Fur Bans”). In Japan, the effective ban was motivated by concerns over invasive species escaping from fur farms (“Japan,” 2016).
Cosmetics testing: As of 2018, the UK, the EU, Israel, Norway, India, New Zealand, Taiwan, Switzerland, Guatemala, California, and Colombia have banned or phased out all animal testing for cosmetics (“Timeline: Cosmetics”; McClain, 2002).
Animals in circuses: Many small-scale jurisdictions, as well as California and Mexico, have banned the use of animals in circuses (“Circus Bans”).
Recognitions of animal status: Numerous countries, especially in Europe have legally recognized non-human animals as sentient or at least not “things” (Hudson, 2019).
Animal product alternatives: Interest in plant-based and cultured alternatives to animal products has surged over the past few years. Alternative protein companies have recently raised hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, major meat companies have launched meat alternative product lines, and retail sales of plant-based products topped $5 billion (Crosser, 2020).
Initiatives to ban factory farming: Over the past few years, legislative efforts to ban factory farming have been launched in Switzerland, France, and the US (“Swiss to Vote,” 2019; Klein, 2020; “France Launches,” 2020).
Advocacy for Children:
For much of history, children have been severely mistreated. Historically widespread forms of abuse have included neglect, fear-based manipulation, beatings, sexual abuse, infanticide, and enslavement. Lloyd deMause’s The History of Childhood (1974) provides a bleak summary of historical childhood: “Century after century of battered children grew up and in turn battered their own children.”
Opposition to these abuses was rare, but not entirely absent. In 374, for example, Rome criminalized infanticide, due to influences including the Christian Church and perhaps population concerns. In the West, Christianity strongly associated sex and sexual desire with sin, contributing to the idea that children were (at least in those respects) innocent. The later writings of Rousseau also contributed to the association between children and innocence. Organized children’s advocacy originated from the efforts of philanthropists, especially in states with laws that permitted citizen associations aimed at social reform. In 1741, British philanthropist Thomas Coram opened a hospital for abandoned children, because “he couldn’t bear to see the dying babies lying in the gutters and rotting on the dung-heaps of London” (deMause, 1974).
In the 19th century United States, industrialization, urbanization, and immigration made many children highly vulnerable to economic exploitation or other harms, while making children’s hardships and their later social costs (e.g. increased crime) more visible. In 1874, philanthropists who had helped found the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals founded the world’s first child protective agency, The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Within months, the Society began collaboration with local police to investigate and prosecute cases of child maltreatment. Over the decades that followed, US advocates of children’s protection attained major legislative victories, including some just a few years after the Society’s founding. Advocates formed more agencies to enforce these legal protections for children, which had previously been non-existent (“History”).
While exploitative child labor and other forms of child abuse remain widespread, children’s advocates have had significant successes. As noted above, many countries have passed legal protections for children, and they enforce these. In the US, children’s advocates took a few years to establish some legal protections for children, but it was not until several generations later—in the 1930s—that they managed to establish serious federal restrictions on child labor. Many countries have now passed children’s labor protections, which have been boosted by compulsory education laws (Bissell, 2015; “History”; Takanishi, 1978). Building on earlier international agreements and declarations, nations signed the Convention of the Rights of the Child in 1989, declaring their commitments to protecting numerous children’s rights. All UN member states except for the US have ratified the Convention (“Convention on the Rights,” 1989).
One likely contributor to the successes of children’s advocates was how, when industrialization made many social problems more visible in countries where public association for reform was feasible, reformers often saw child protection as a promising way to prevent social problems from arising. In other words, a major motivation of children’s advocates was not children’s own well-being, but children’s dangerous potential to grow up into adults who caused social problems.
In addition, advances in health, science, and technology may have also boosted children’s protection, by improving parent-child relations in several ways. First, the rise of birth control increased the proportion of children who were wanted. Second, reductions in child mortality made it less risky for parents to invest in emotional bonds with their children. And third, improvements in developmental psychology have helped parents better understand children’s needs (Hart, 1991; Takanishi, 1978).
Model and Implications:
In this part of this report, I draw on earlier parts to create and argue for a qualitative, rational-choice model that makes predictions about when shifts to political inclusion—which is uniquely beneficial—occur and persist. I then discuss the model and case studies’ implications for theory of moral circle expansion, political strategies, and institutional designs, with a focus on strategic implications for supporting future generations.
In many of the studied cases, policies were created mainly for the benefit of powerful groups, and they happened to greatly benefit excluded groups. In other cases, excluded groups benefited because some political actors tried to benefit them for their own sake. Benefits come more reliably when powerful actors try to benefit a group, so durable political power would be extremely valuable for excluded groups, such as future generations.
How do groups gain or lose relatively durable forms of political power—legal protections and political representation? I introduce and argue for a qualitative, rational-choice model that makes predictions about political inclusion, with support from many historical examples. The model suggests that these factors make it more likely that transitions to political exclusion will occur and persist: opportunities for profitable exploitation, costs of inclusion, and exclusive values. The model also suggests that these factors make it more likely that transitions to political inclusion will occur and persist: a group’s capacity for resistance, strategic alliances, inter-societal pressure, and inclusive values.
This model and these case studies suggest that earlier theories of moral circle expansion have overstated the historical importance of inclusive values. Several other factors, resulting from excluded groups’ capacities to exert influence, have each been as influential as inclusive values, or more. Inclusive values, then, are not so historically important; perhaps social values have changed retroactively to become more inclusive, after other factors motivated political inclusion. This suggests that we should not expect past trends toward greater inclusion to continue until groups that cannot exert influence, such as future generations, are also included. Inclusive shifts have been frequent in the modern era, not so much because of the expansion of compassion, but more because economic growth/industrialization strengthened the resistance of excluded groups, and in other cases, because policies mainly aimed at benefiting powerful groups happened to benefit powerless groups.
I draw on this study’s analysis of historical case studies to make provisional recommendations for advocates of future generations.
In the previous part of this report, I presented case studies of times when policy change greatly benefited excluded groups that had little or no ability to advocate for themselves. Here, I seek to generalize from those case studies to lessons for today’s efforts to benefit excluded groups, with a focus on lessons for protecting the interests of future generations. By “excluded group,” I mean a group with little or no official power to influence policy making. In this part of this study, to avoid redundancy, I often make claims about specific historical developments without offering supporting arguments; these arguments and more citations are in the previous part of this report.
Two Ways That Excluded Groups Benefit—Luck and Power:
The case studies from the previous part of this report suggest that it is useful to distinguish between two broad ways in which political actors benefit excluded groups: they might happen to benefit excluded groups while attempting to benefit a politically included group, or they might benefit excluded groups for their own sake.
In many cases, policies were created mainly for the benefit of powerful groups, and they happened to greatly benefit excluded groups. These benefits were unintentional, in the sense that political actors’ intentions to benefit excluded groups were not major causes of the policy that brought about these benefits. Instead, benefiting an excluded group was a means to, or a side effect of, benefiting a powerful group. The case studies from earlier offer several examples of times when excluded groups received major benefits, but largely for the sake of someone else:
Early efforts to govern genetic engineering have gone far in protecting future generations: they have made it harder for scientists to create novel pathogens that could keep future generations from existing (by wiping out humanity) or at least harm their well-being. However, these early efforts seem to have been driven by concerns over risks to present generations, who have much political power.
Neither the letter that called for scientists to convene at Asilomar nor the conference’s summary statement so much as mentioned risks to future generations (Berg, et al., 1974, 1975).
Major successes in environmental conservation have statements of intention that are almost entirely concerned with benefits to humans, not the environment. While these mission systems do suggest that their benefits to future generations were intentional, they also suggest that ecosystems and species have been mainly preserved, not for their sake, but because they happen to be convenient for humans.
The US National Parks Service describes its mission as preserving national parks “for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations” (“About Us”).
The main treaty protecting endangered species from international trade begins by declaring that endangered species “must be protected for this and the generations to come” (“Convention on International Trade,” 1973).
Advocacy for children was significantly motivated by its potential for reducing future crime and other social problems; children were often protected because they would be the “redeemers of society,” rather than because they already mattered (Hart, 1991).
Some (e.g. Williams, 1944) have argued that slavery declined because it ceased to be in the economic interests of powerful actors. In an extreme version of this hypothesis, the UK abolished slavery because slave plantation owners thought they would make more money if they received compensation for their slaves than if they continued using their slaves. If this were the case, it would mean that the abolition of slavery, too, was an example of excluded groups benefitting for the sake of someone else. Is this view about the decline of slavery correct?
This cynical analysis of abolition is probably too cynical. On top of many arguments that economic historians have made, the UK passed emancipation a year after electoral reform slashed the representation of West Indian plantation owners (Hochschild, 2005). This suggests that plantation owners had been blocking, not supporting, compensated emancipation. Also, in the US, the use of slaves increased until the Civil War, suggesting that US slavery was not in economic decline before emancipation (“Recapitulation of the Tables,” 1864). The abolition of slavery, then, was probably not a case of slaves getting lucky.
The examples of “benefits for someone else’s sake” above are a useful but unreliable form of protection; they will not go further than areas where the interests of included and excluded groups happen to overlap. Fortunately, there have been more reliable sources of benefits.
In other cases, excluded groups were benefited because some political actors tried to benefit excluded groups for their own sake. In these cases, some strategic actors aim for policies that are very beneficial for an excluded group, so they no longer need luck. Policies that greatly benefit the excluded group, while imposing small costs or no costs on an included group, will more often be passed. This means benefits come more reliably when some powerful actor is pursuing them for their own sake. Examples of these benefits include many cases of abolitionism, expansions of voting rights, and animal welfare protections. (Lawmakers who were coerced into democratization may not have been trying to benefit excluded groups for their own sake, but the powerful disenfranchised groups who did the coercing were trying to do just that.)
Because policies will more reliably benefit a group if some powerful political actor is trying to benefit that group for their own sake, a policy shift that is particularly valuable for any group is political inclusion—a relatively durable increase in a group’s political power, especially through legal protections or political representation. When an excluded group gains political power, its members will tend to use that power to gain a wide range of benefits for themselves; the excluded group becomes the powerful political actor seeking benefits for their own sake. For example, when former slaves gained some legal protections and political representation in the US, they used this new political power to secure access to public education (“African Americans and Education,” 2019).
In sum, excluded groups sometimes happen to benefit from policies; other times, influential actors try to benefit them. Benefits come more reliably when powerful actors try to benefit a group, so durable political power would be extremely valuable for excluded groups, such as future generations. (Of course, they cannot be directly empowered, but they can be empowered through proxies that have power to act for their interests.) Given the importance of political inclusion—its tendency to lastingly bring about a wide range of benefits for previously excluded groups—it would be useful to know what makes shifts to political inclusion happen and persist.
Qualitative Model—Contributors to Political Inclusion and Exclusion:
Background and Assumptions:
This model aims to make predictions about when transitions to political inclusion (e.g. legal protections or political representation) are more likely to occur and persist. It is largely inspired by Acemoglu and Robinson’s (2005) model of democratization. While Acemoglu and Robinson’s model focuses on voting rights, this model aims to be broader in application, making predictions about legal protections (e.g. protections from slavery) as well as voting rights.
As noted before, this model is about particularly durable forms of political inclusion: legal protections and political representation. These may be called de jure, or official, forms of political power. Unlike some other ways in which a group might gain political power (e.g. a surge of support in response to a national crisis), legal protections and political representation tend to be relatively long-lasting.
Why are legal protections and political representation especially durable? Because, if a country operates under the rule of law, withdrawing legal protections or political representation requires going through a difficult process for changing policy, and the new political power of a formerly excluded group makes it more difficult for people to successfully go through that process. Significant legal protections or political representation, once given, tend to be difficult to withdraw. This makes these powers especially beneficial for excluded groups, and the focus of this model.
The model makes the following simplifying assumptions:
There are two primary political actors: group A and group B.
The two groups may differ in official political power and wealth.
There are also political actors from other societies (e.g. the president of another nation). They may incentivize group A to be inclusive or exclusive.
Each group has coherent preferences over political institutions (official rules about who has power and how they can use it).
Groups’ preferences result from their perceptions of costs and benefits; groups prefer institutions that they perceive as more beneficial and less costly.
Groups mostly (but not entirely) care about their own material well-being.
(I make the above assumptions, not because I think they are obvious, but because they seem to make accurate predictions.)
Group A may hold some inclusive or exclusive values.
Group A can attempt to politically exclude (reduce the de jure power of) group B, or group A can politically include group B.
If group B is included, they will have more influence over what government policies are passed.
If group B is excluded, group A will be more able to exploit group B for economic gain.
Group B might be able to resist attempts at excluding it or keeping it in exclusion, e.g. through violent revolt (not applicable for future people).
This section uses the above framework to reason about the effects that several factors have on the likelihood of transitions to political inclusion, or away from it. The identification of relevant factors draws heavily from the historical case studies from the previous part of this report. Conclusions are summarized in the beginning of the next section.
Given the above assumptions, what makes it more likely that group A will choose to politically include group B, which has been excluded? In other words, what contributes to transitions toward political inclusion? Historical examples of such transitions include the emancipation of slaves and serfs, and expansions of the voting franchise.
In some cases of inclusion, group A willingly includes group B (this willingness may result from coercion), because group A is willing to pay the costs of including group B. What makes this likely?
Transitions to political inclusion are more likely insofar as group A’s perceived benefits from including group B are high. What factors, to the degree that they are present, contribute to this?
Effective resistance from group B, or the expectation of future effective resistance, means that inclusion allows group A to benefit from avoiding the costs of future resistance; this is especially influential if a focusing event/worsened conditions help group B coordinate, if repression is an unappealing alternative because group A has vulnerable human capital or few resources, or if group A has high-return investment opportunities other than overcoming resistance (high opportunity costs)
Strategic alliance: group A expects that, if included, group B will use its new power in a way beneficial for group A, such as by supporting group A politically or militarily.
Inclusive values: group A values increasing group B’s durable political power for non-self-interested reasons (this is more likely if members of group A have the organizational protections of civil liberties).
Inter-societal pressure for inclusion is strong, which is more likely if an influential international actor is not exclusive in the way that is being considered, and has inclusive values (perhaps insincerely, to justify/distract from its own harmful policies) or stands to gain from strategic alliances (e.g. weakening the exploiting group) or otherwise reducing rivals’ profits.
Transitions to political inclusion are more likely insofar as group A’s perceived costs from including group B are low. What factors, to the degree they are present, contribute to this?
Group A does not profitably exploit group B.
Under the inclusion being considered, inclusive institutions are not costly for group A, e.g. group B is too small or wealthy to pass high taxes unfavorable to group A.
In other cases of inclusion, inclusion happens without group A choosing it; group B uses its (perhaps unofficial) power to violently replace the existing government with one that includes group B (future generations lack this option). What makes this likely?
Group B’s perceived benefits from violent revolution are high. What contributes to this?
Current institutions are highly costly for Group B relative to those group B would create if included, e.g. ending very costly exploitation or redistributing wealth from a wealthy elite.
Group B’s perceived costs from violent revolution are low. What contributes to this?
Risk of failure or very costly victory is low, because group A has a low capacity to repress rebellion, or group B can effectively coordinate (this is especially likely following focusing events/worsened conditions, and if exclusion does not make coordination difficult/impossible through measures such as prohibitions on education).
What about transitions toward political exclusion? What makes it more likely that group A will choose to politically exclude group B, which has been excluded? Historical examples of such transitions include the enslavement of Africans, the escalating marginalization of Jewish people under the Nazis, contractions of the voting franchise, and authoritarian coups.
In these cases, group A is willing to pay the costs of excluding group B, which had been included. What makes this likely?
Transitions to political exclusion are more likely insofar as group A’s perceived gains from excluding group B are large. What factors, to the degree they are present, contribute to this?
Group A can profitably exploit group B, e.g. because group A has many (already existing or potential) resources that group A could seize, such as natural resources, wealth, or labor power (if the economy makes it profitable to use forced labor).
Group B has the motivation and formal power to make the current institutions costly for group A, e.g. by passing redistributive policies if group B is much less wealthy; excluding group B eliminates these costs.
Exclusive values: Group A values excluding group B for non-self-interested reasons (e.g. during or after war).
Transitions to political exclusion are more likely insofar as group A’s perceived costs from excluding group B are low. What factors, to the degree they are present, contribute to this?
Power is so asymmetric that group B has little power to resist exclusion imposed by group A (resistance creates costs directly, especially if group A is highly invested in human capital, and it creates risk of no/reduced benefit from attempting to exclude a group).
Lack of strategic alliances: group A does not see itself as benefiting politically/militarily from group B’s political inclusion.
Inter-societal pressure for inclusion is weak.
The Model, Condensed:
We can condense the above reasoning into the following summary. (The main simplification is only listing factors once if they both make transitions to inclusion more likely and transitions to exclusion less likely, or vice versa. In addition, violent revolution is grouped together with the threat of it, under “capacity for resistance.”)
The following factors, when high, make it more likely that transitions to greater political exclusion will occur and persist:
The degree of existing/potential profitable exploitation of the group under consideration
The costs of existing/potential inclusion (e.g. higher taxes)
Exclusive values (e.g. during/after war)
The following factors, when high, make it more likely that transitions to greater political inclusion will occur and persist:
The capacity of a vulnerable group to effectively resist transitions to/perpetuation of exclusion (strengthened by high coordinating capacity and vulnerable authorities)
Existing/potential strategic alliances between a vulnerable group and an influential group (e.g. the vulnerable group, if included, would electorally/militarily/economically benefit those who are already included)
Inclusive values (for these to emerge when ruling interests profit from exclusion, civil liberties are very helpful)
Inter-societal pressure for inclusion (motivated by inter-societal inclusive values, strategic alliances, or desires to otherwise reduce rivals’ profits)
A scale, visually representing contributors to political inclusion and exclusion. When factors on the left side—profitability of exploitation, costs of inclusion, and exclusive values—create stronger incentives for powerful actors, this model predicts that transitions toward exclusion are more likely to occur and persist. When the other factors—discussed above—create stronger incentives, this model predicts that inclusion is more likely to occur and persist.
This section offers examples of historical cases when the presence of each of the factors identified above, or their absence, seem to have had the predicted effect on transitions to inclusion or exclusion. While this is not too surprising—many of these examples informed the creation of the model—the model gains support from the wide range of cases that its relatively simple framework successfully predicts. These examples focus on abolitionism and democratization, because these are especially clear examples of durable political inclusion, and that is what the model makes predictions about.
Examples of opportunities for profitable exploitation favoring political exclusion:
The mass enslavement of Africans for the transatlantic slave trade was uniquely profitable.
Europeans’ trade in guns made it very profitable for some Africans to enslave other Africans, because guns were very useful. Europeans created this very large demand for slaves because sending African slaves to the Americans would be highly profitable, especially before the 19th century, for reasons that included the following:
Europeans had a large labor shortage in tropical regions of the Americas, which had great environmental conditions for growing cash crops. Especially before industrialization, this agricultural work was very labor-intensive, and it was relatively difficult for resistant laborers to sabotage it.
Africans tended to be more resistant than Europeans to tropical disease.
There were not yet countries taking major steps to block the slave trade.
Many African societies did not yet have many guns, so whole societies were highly vulnerable to slave captors armed with guns, making it relatively cheap for Europeans to exchange guns for slaves (Whatley, 2008).
In Haiti, the US South, the French colonial empire, and the Ottoman empire, slavery was only abolished once the government—which greatly profited from slavery—was violently replaced by another government that did not profit so much from slavery (Drescher, 2015; Ferguson and Toledano, 2017). In contrast, slavery was abolished relatively early in jurisdictions where slavery was not very profitable (e.g. New England, part of Western Europe) (Fenoaltea, 1984).
The use of intergenerational resources and the mistreatment of farmed animals has also been highly profitable, likely driving and sustaining the exclusion of future generations and non-human animals.
Scholars of genocide—studying genocides including those carried out by American colonizers and settlers, the Nazis, the Turks, Stalin’s regime, and Mao’s regime—have concluded that “economic motivations are extremely important to genocide” (N. Naimark, personal communication, May 19, 2020).
In all of these cases, oppressors perceived (accurately, or under the influence of misleading stereotypes) that the groups they sought to eliminate held great wealth, which the oppressors could take if they murdered these people.
Genocide is, in important ways, a case of political exclusion; eliminating a group lastingly reduces the group’s political power, e.g. their ability to keep others from stealing their wealth.
Examples of high costs of inclusion favoring political exclusion:
Throughout the Western hemisphere, states with more economic inequality—states where elites had more to lose from populist democracy—were slowest to democratize, and they frequently reverted to rule by the few (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2005; Engerman and Sokoloff, 2005).
Where these high perceived costs were absent (especially in the early US, and even more so in US frontier states, where disenfranchised white men were a relatively small and wealthy group—less threatening to elites), democratization happened relatively quickly (Engerman and Sokoloff, 2005).
In another case where high costs of inclusion were absent—the passage of laws protecting children from cruelty (not including child labor)—political protections came very quickly after organizations began advocating for them (“History”).
Examples of exclusive values contributing to political exclusion:
Dehumanization, especially during war, has been a frequent contributor to genocide (N. Naimark, personal communication, May 19, 2020). Wartime exclusive values have also frequently contributed to other forms of political exclusion, such as the US internment of Japanese Americans.
Racism has helped sustain race-based systems of oppression.
Examples of effective resistance contributing to political inclusion:
In Haiti, slaves used violent revolt to replace the existing government with one that abolished slavery (Hochschild, 2005).
Slave resistance was a significant motivator for the passage of abolition and emancipation by the British, whose antislavery efforts later became extremely influential internationally (Hochschild, 2005).
The UK’s 1806⁄7 abolition of the slave trade came a few years after Haiti, following the most successful slave rebellion in human history (which was devastating for French owners of slave plantations), established independence in 1804.
It was widely believed that slaves who had been kidnapped and enslaved were more likely to rebel than people who were born slaves, so fears of slave rebellions would have been strong motivators for abolishing the slave trade.
France’s loss of its wealthiest slave colony also meant the UK would have less to lose against French business competitors if it abolished the slave trade.
The UK’s 1833 passage of emancipation for most slaves in the British Empire closely followed the 1831-2 Baptist War—the biggest slave rebellion that ever occured in British colonies, and it destroyed the property of many slave plantations.
These influential cases of slave resistance tended to occur after rumors of antislavery political events increased slaves’ capacity to resist, by helping them coordinate their efforts.
Slave resistance more generally increased security and supervision costs, especially for certain types of labor (e.g. for labor tasks that were profitable in New England and Canada, as well as in industrial societies). This contributed to the reduced economic viability of slave labor in these societies, reducing the use of slavery and the support for keeping it (Fenoaltea, 1984).
During the transatlantic slave trade, many African societies did not have many guns, so their members had low abilities to resist enslavement by slavers armed with guns.
Most cases of democratization throughout history came through the disenfranchised organizing to directly threaten the elite’s interests (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2000, 2005; Aidt, et al., 2015; Dasgupta and Ziblatt, 2015).
When and where the capacity of the disenfranchised to resist has increased, democratization has been more frequent than in other cases. Examples of this include the following (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2000, 2005):
When European merchants living under monarchs gained wealth (empowering the Atlantic “bourgeois revolutions”)
When national crises (e.g. military defeats, depressions) or improved communication technologies helped the disenfranchised coordinate their resistance
When industrialization made elites’ wealth more vulnerable to violence
When world wars drained European rulers’ abilities to repress domestic as well as colonial resistance
In major cases when the voting franchise was contracted, a common feature was that the wider public had recently lost its ability to resist exclusion through ordinary lawmaking processes, because radical progressives who represented the wider public governed in ways that made them lose popular support.
Unpopular forms of governance by radicals have included mass executions, anti-Church policies, failing to end civil conflict, being associated with military defeat, and having gained power through violence.
(People might vote against politicians who represent them because political representation is not the only thing that voters care a lot about.)
This seems to have occurred in the First and Second French Republics, in the Reconstruction Era US South, in 1880s Colombia, and in 1920s Hungary.
Examples of strategic alliances contributing to inclusion:
In several cases, slave liberators expected that emancipation would directly or indirectly boost their military power:
In Central and Eastern European states—including Russia, Austria, Prussia, and Poland—rulers ended serfdom to avoid its perceived contributions to military weakness, presumably through the economic or military influence of peasants’ choices. This happened partly because rulers noticed the military strength of the UK and France (e.g. in the Crimean War), which by then only used officially free labor (Drescher, 2015, 2017).
Both Unionists in the American Civil War and independence fighters in Cuba’s Ten Years’ War offered freedom to slaves who ran away from enemy plantations (Bergad, 2017; Lincoln, 1863). Avoiding this military liability was one motivator for Spain’s emancipation of Cuban slaves. In addition, France’s first emancipation was largely an attempt to weaken Haitians’ support for independence (Hochschild, 2005).
Democratization was sometimes driven by elites’ desires to gain economically or militarily useful-to-the-elite contributions.
Frontier states in the US, competing for settlers who would fill their labor shortages, democratized quickly (Engerman and Sokoloff, 2005).
The original thirteen colonies in the US were not as incentivized to appeal to settlers, and they were slower to democratize (Engerman and Sokoloff, 2005). Still, when they did, a major motivation was wanting to gain more loyal support for militias, and perhaps for political parties, from the formerly disenfranchised (Horpedahl, 2011; Keyssar, 2000).
Examples of inclusive values contributing to inclusion:
The UK, New England, and Puerto Rico had influential abolitionist associations—which included many members who were horrified by slavery—that pushed for emancipation (Hochschild, 2005; Drescher, 2015, 2017; Bergad, 2017). In contrast, the influence of such organizations was largely missing in states that lacked strong protections for civil liberties (e.g. authoritarian France, the US South, and many societies in Africa and Asia); these tended to be much slower to abolish slavery, and they more often did so mainly in response to external pressures (Ferguson and Toledano, 2017; Finnie, 1969).
Early advocates of children’s protection seem to have had highly humanitarian concerns (deMause, 1974).
Examples of inter-societal pressure contributing to inclusion:
Inter-societal pressure motivated by inclusive values (including for PR reasons): Europe and especially the UK internationally promoted antislavery (Drescher, 2017; Ferguson and Toledano, 2017). International sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid regime may also have been an example of this.
Inter-societal pressure motivated by strategic alliances: states such as Spanish Florida offered freedom to slaves who ran away from rival colonies (Hinks and McKivigan, 2007).
Inter-societal pressure motivated by desires to otherwise reduce rivals’ profits: British plantation owners supported British diplomatic efforts for banning the importation of slaves to their competitors’ plantations, and anti-colonial states later promoted antislavery in European empires (Hochschild, 2005; Drescher, 2017).
This section elaborates on and clarifies several points about the model introduced in the above sections.
The model’s claims about transitions are equivalent to (different) claims about persistence; any state of affairs is more likely to persist when transitions away from it are less likely. In more absolute terms, persistence happens when the conditions necessary for a transition away from the present state are not met.
Policies are perpetuated because those in power, on balance, want to perpetuate them. As a result, changes happen when the collective preferences of those in power change (which may be because of a change of which people are in power).
The way in which this model is related to Parts 2’s qualitative model of institutional persistence and change is that this model describes specific cases of the other model’s much broader relationships.
Jacobs’ (2011) work can be usefully thought of as adding nuance to how the above factors work and interact:
The degree to which a cost/benefit becomes a perceived cost/benefit depends largely on how much attention one pays to it; some events (e.g. sudden catastrophes) increase how much attention people pay to some costs or benefits, while policies that obscure costs/benefits (e.g. by spreading them out) decrease how much attention these get.
Electoral risk, when it exists (e.g. when a political party in a democracy has a strong opposition), creates incentives that bring politicians’ perceptions of policy costs/benefits more in line with the perceptions of voters. This likely facilitates the exclusion of future generations; its impact on other often-neglected groups is less clear.
How easy/hard a political system makes it for actors to veto a proposed policy change largely determines the degree to which some included actors can block a policy, if they perceive that a policy change will be net costly for them, while other included actors consider it net beneficial.
The characteristics of included groups are sometimes changed by internal political shifts, which may be caused by internal changes (e.g. liberal revolutions, authoritarian coups, civil wars, shift in voters’ support for various political parties) or foreign interventions.
International pressure takes two main forms: negotiation with international incentives, and bolstering the excluded group’s capacity/willingness to resist (e.g. funding resistance, or offering freedom to runaway slaves).
Empowered actors can and often do use their power to alter the above factors to make the persistence of their preferred state more likely (e.g. abolitionists’ ban on the slave trade made re-transitioning to slavery, after emancipation, much more costly; wealthy people’s promotion of civil liberties in the early US seems to have helped them protect property rights).
Investment can favor the persistence of exclusion through economic investment into profitable exploitation, or through ideological investment into exclusive values (e.g. using exclusive values as justifications when challenged by other societies). Investment can favor the persistence of inclusion through investment (e.g. political/economic projects) reliant on strategic alliances, or through ideological investment into inclusive values (e.g. international promotion of inclusion).
Cases of political inclusion could be (over-simplistically) classified as: inclusion (willing or unwilling) due to the influence of the excluded, or inclusion due to the benevolent influence of the included.
Exclusion may come mainly from businesses that depended on exclusion. In these cases, inclusion destroys or weakens organized support for exclusion, making it harder for exclusion to re-emerge. Similarly, a decline in civil liberties may destroy organized humanitarian interests.
This model has important limitations, including these:
The factors identified are not straightforwardly disjunctive. This means that, when using the model, one should be careful to avoid double-counting a single shift in incentives. For example, if the economy changes so that slaves can more easily destroy capital, one might want to count this as increased capacity for resistance, or as decreased profitability of exploitation, but not as both.
The model is qualitative; it does not make very precise predictions.
There is some evidence (e.g. as discussed in the previous part’s section “Motivations for Conflict Over the Voting Franchise”) against the assumption that economic motives are much more influential than other ideological motives.
As further evidence, the influence in US politics (and perhaps in other countries) of the Christian right—which includes efforts to restrict access to birth control and abortions—seems to be an example of cultural/ideological motives being very influential, even when people have economic (and other) reasons to favor different policies.
The model is not exhaustive. There could easily be more factors that favor inclusion or exclusion, and different case studies might make these more clear.
And if all I can do is speak, it is for you I shall speak… the calamities that have no mouths
- Aimé Césaire, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, 30
Implications for Moral Circle Expansion:
In this section, I introduce existing theories about the expansion of people’s circles of concern—inclusive moral progress—which have emphasized the benevolence of powerful actors. Then, I argue that these views overstate the importance of inclusive values, as benevolence has only been one contributor among many to major historical shifts toward greater inclusion. I propose a different theory of moral circle expansion, one which does not have optimistic implications for the future inclusion of future generations. I also respond to two potential objections.
Philosophers and social scientists have noticed and theorized about historical trends toward greater inclusion, typically emphasizing benevolent values. Singer’s (1981) classic work on this subject, The Expanding Circle, notes: “The circle of altruism has broadened from the family and tribe to the nation and race, and we are beginning to recognize that our obligations extend to all human beings.” This, Singer argues, is the necessary result of humans’ collective reasoning on ethics: humans’ evolved desires for “a disinterested defense of one’s conduct” mean that “[e]thical reasoning, once begun, pushes against our initially limited ethical horizons, leading us always toward a more universal point of view.” This view suggests that inclusive values have been very important, and that they will continue expanding their scope.
Psychologist Steven Pinker and philosopher Allen Buchanan offer additional explanations of progress toward inclusion. In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, which draws explicitly from Singer’s earlier work, Pinker (2011) emphasizes the importance of “moral discovery” and Enlightenment humanism in explaining the decline of slavery and despotism. (Pinker does give some credit to denser communication networks for facilitating resistance against despots, but he mostly highlights changing values and ideas.) Approaching the issue with less sympathy to utilitarianism, Buchanan’s book The Evolution of Moral Progress emphasizes the importance of “safe and stable ecological and social circumstances,” which he argues “are hospitable to cosmopolitanism and encouraging of inclusive values” (Brownstein and Kelly, 2020). Despite their differences, Buchanan’s theory of expanding circles of concern makes the same suggestion as Singer and Pinker’s explanations: political changes toward greater inclusion have been mainly caused by the changing values of powerful actors.
With their emphasis on evolving social values, existing theories of moral circle expansion also suggest that, since inclusion has expanded in the past, it is highly plausible—perhaps inevitable—that inclusion will continue expanding, until the interests of currently neglected groups such as future generations have entered into decision makers’ consideration. Applying this idea to analogous concerns over animal welfare, research nonprofit 80,000 Hours (Todd, 2017) writes:
Will the future be better? [...] moral concern for other beings seems to have increased over time — the ‘expanding moral circle’ — so we expect that people in the future will have more concern for animal welfare
Some might take this to mean that people should be highly optimistic about civilization’s “default” trajectory, or that changing social values to favor inclusion is a highly promising way of helping excluded groups such as future generations.
However, historical case studies of inclusion cast doubt on these arguments. As I argue in the earlier case studies and analysis, the existing or potential influence of the excluded (what they did or would do with power) was usually a major force driving inclusion. At least, this was the case for two major instances of inclusive progress: the abolition of slavery, and extensions of voting rights. Inclusion so frequently required powerful actors to be coerced, violently replaced, or offered benefits in exchange for inclusion that theories which focus on benevolence completely miss most of the historical motivators of inclusion.
The historical importance of pressure from excluded groups means existing theories of moral circle expansion are, at best, highly incomplete. We might ask Singer and Buchanan: if trends toward greater inclusive values are as historically important as they suggest, why did it so often take rebellions, riots, and strategic alliances to bring about inclusion? Even if their theories about the causes of inclusive values are correct, the philosophers overstate the historical importance of inclusive values; benevolence has only been one of many historical motivators of inclusion.
The historical case studies reviewed earlier more strongly suggest a new theory of moral circle expansion:
Various factors—especially the resistance of the excluded, the potential for elites to ally with the excluded, and perhaps some inclusive values—motivate transitions toward greater political inclusion.
These transitions toward greater political inclusion tend to persist, largely because political power, once given, is uniquely difficult to take away.
After political inclusion occurs, social values change retroactively to be more inclusive. There are several ways in which this might happen:
The formerly excluded group might use its new power to spread values that are inclusive to itself, to avoid being re-excluded.
People tend to internalize their society’s norms into their own values (Henrich, et al., 2005, 2010). After inclusion occurs, people will be internalizing more inclusive norms.
Influential organizations might invest ideologically in the new inclusion, making it difficult (psychologically and for public relations) for them to oppose it (e.g. a labor union might advocate for better working conditions by arguing that current conditions resemble the evils of slavery, or a country might justify dubious international policy by appealing to the superiority of democracy).
The inclusion of a group often destroys businesses that depended on exclusion, so, after inclusion, there are fewer organizations motivated to spread exclusive values.
The first part of this hypothesis—on the causes of inclusion—is supported by the historical case studies and model reviewed earlier. The second part of this hypothesis remains speculative; I have not considered it in detail, but there are highly plausible mechanisms by which it could be the case. It also fits actual historical cases of inclusion much better than hypotheses which (wrongly) claim that inclusive values generally came before political inclusion, and were its main cause.
The claim that changes in ethical arguments are largely the effects—not the causes—of major political shifts also has significant support from findings in moral psychology. Studies suggest that, when we engage in moral reasoning, it is usually not to make up our minds, but to make up justifications for what we have already decided (Haidt, 2007).
If this view is correct, prospects for the inclusion of future generations and other totally powerless groups are relatively dim. Most of the historical motivators of deliberate inclusion required excluded groups to be capable of exerting influence, so these past trends do not give us much reason to expect that decision makers’ circles of concern will continue expanding until they include groups that lack this capacity, such as future generations:
Groups with no capacity to exert influence cannot effectively resist exclusion.
Groups with no capacity to exert influence cannot politically, militarily, or economically benefit those who include them; they are not appealing allies.
Inter-societal pressure is limited; it cannot be motivated by the prospect of a strategic alliance that cuts across societies, and it cannot work by boosting the resistance of the excluded.
In these cases, political actors still have some potential motivators for inclusion, but they have fewer: inclusive values, as well as inter-societal pressure motivated by inclusive values that extend across societies, or by desires to reduce rivals’ profits. At the same time, potential motivators for exclusion are no weaker for groups that cannot exert influence.
The following picture illustrates this:
When a group has no capacity to exert influence, many historically important motivators of inclusion cannot exist. As a result, the balance of costs and benefits, as perceived by powerful actors, is tilted—perhaps heavily—in favor of exclusion.
One might object: if progress toward greater inclusion has been caused mainly by the influence of the excluded, why has most inclusive progress happened over the last few centuries? This, very plausibly, has been mostly because economic growth—especially industrialization—has greatly increased the ability of excluded humans to gain and hold on to political inclusion.
One way that industrialization probably favors inclusion is by strengthening excluded groups. Industrialization improves communication technologies, and it drives increases in population density. These make it easier for excluded groups to organize resistance. Economic growth also seems to empower some newly wealthy actors to demand civil liberties, and these also make it easier for other excluded groups to organize resistance (Acemoglu, et al., 2005).
Industrialization may have also favored inclusion by causing elites to be more vulnerable to resistance, making exclusion less appealing. Slaves can more easily mess up industrial tasks than agricultural ones (Fenoaltea, 1984). Similarly, riots of the disenfranchised do not threaten landowners’ wealth as much as they threaten the machinery and human capital that makes up the wealth of industrial elites (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2005). In brief, we can explain the timing of these modern era increases in inclusion through the impacts of industrialization: making excluded groups more able to resist exclusion, and making conflict more painful for elites.
One might also object: if inclusive values are not very strong contributors to inclusion, then why have there been many policy shifts that greatly benefited powerless groups, including future generations? Actually, other historical events may appear to have been successes for the inclusion of voiceless groups, but they were mainly successes for groups that were already powerful. As argued earlier, environmental conservation and the early governance of genetic engineering (as well as children’s protection, to a lesser extent) seem to have been largely done for the benefit of existing, powerful actors.
Other policies that may seem to have helped future generations probably did not do so for their sake. Action on climate change has been highly limited, and the limited action that has been taken may have resulted from the great importance of climate change for present (empowered) generations. Other major successes of environmentalism have also offered (and emphasized) significant benefits for already powerful actors: the regulation of directly harmful pollutants, and ecological modernization (Combs, et al., 2020; Dryzek, 2002). In these cases, future generations mainly got lucky, so these events are not strong evidence for a reliable trend of ever-broadening benevolence favoring the inclusion of future generations.
In brief, while previous theories of inclusive progress have emphasized inclusive values, case studies of abolitionism, democratization, and other instances of inclusion suggest that inclusive values have only been one cause of inclusion many, and that the influence of excluded groups has been crucial for most historical motivators of inclusion. This suggests that inclusive values are not so historically influential (perhaps social values changed to become more inclusive, after other factors motivated political inclusion). This also suggests that we should not expect past trends toward greater inclusion to continue until powerless groups like future generations are also included. Under this understanding, inclusive shifts have been frequent in the modern era because economic growth/industrialization strengthened the resistance of excluded groups, and other cases of policies that benefited powerless groups were mainly aimed at benefiting powerful groups.
Implications for Political Strategy for Future Generations:
The case studies and analysis above suggest that certain political strategies are particularly promising for benefiting future generations. This is just one analysis, so its implications should be considered together with the strategic implications of other analyses, not adopted without scrutiny. While these suggestions focus on future generations, many are also highly applicable to advocating for other powerless groups, such as non-human animals.
On specific issues that matter a lot for future generations, focus on showing powerful actors that it is in their own interests to take actions that happen to greatly benefit future generations.
As argued above, historical case studies and my model based on them suggest that future generations’ lack of influence eliminates most of the usual motivations for inclusion. As a result, compared to groups that have historically gained political inclusion, the political inclusion of future generations is significantly less likely to occur, and if it occurs, it is significantly more likely to be reversed. This means that lasting political inclusion—arguably the most robust and durable way to benefit a group for its own sake, at least within societies that are already wealthy—will be very difficult to achieve for future generations. While policies that benefit future generations are less likely to be passed for their sake, another strategy remains as promising as ever: getting powerful actors to pursue their own interests in ways that help future generations. This strategy seems to have been behind major successes in environmentalism and the governance of genetic engineering.
For future generations, this approach has important limits: without institutions that value future generations for their own sake, the protection of future generations will be much less robust than it could be. Still, this broad approach seems highly promising for specific issues that threaten future generations, such as the irresponsible governance of decision-making computer systems. For ideas on how this approach could be used for creating institutions that do value future generations for their own sake, see the suggestion below about gaining the support of business.
Pursue support that is concentrated at the national level to have some support on the international level, which is extremely valuable.
If there is a little support for a policy, and significant opposition against it, in many countries, then the policy will probably have virtually no nations advocating for it on the international stage. If, instead, supporters of the policy are concentrated enough to be able to shape the international policy of a few countries, then the policy can have nations supporting it internationally. In other words, the same total amount of national-level support can mean different amounts of international support, depending on how it is distributed. Optimally, support is also not too concentrated, since the benefits of increased support fall sharply after a policy gets enough support to win political battles.
A similar dynamic should work at smaller scales, e.g. the US Senate will have more supporters of a policy if these supporters are not too diffused across US states. Historically, after the British Empire banned its own slave trade, its strong opposition to the slave trade on the international stage seems to have been massively influential for the international abolition of the slave trade.
This consideration suggests that advocates of the representation of future generations should concentrate their resources on a few nations—focusing on gaining international champions for future generations—rather than spreading out their efforts. On the other hand, differences in advocates’ comparative advantages, as well as diminishing marginal returns to effort, are reasons to not concentrate resources to an extreme degree. This optimal balance might look like building on existing efforts in the UK and other countries where there has been active support for the representation of future generations. If the tactics of these future generations advocates and their level of philanthropic funding have not been informed by the very high expected value of gaining an international champion for future generations, they should be.
When opposing a policy, emphasize downsides that are very concrete (easy to imagine), horrifying, and believable (highly plausible/already present).
Highly successful movements have frequently emphasized very concrete, horrifying, and believable downsides of the policies they opposed. Abolitionists put up diagrams of slaves crammed into slave ships. Environmentalists called ozone depletion a “hole in the ozone layer.” Early supporters of safety guidelines for genetic engineering research emphasized potential catastrophes that were already very plausible with existing technologies. Given how limited and important people’s attention is, it is highly plausible that these tactics are very helpful for helping people recognize the significance of policy downsides.
For advocates of future generations: In public advocacy, people concerned with reducing existential risks should put more emphasis on the large downsides posed by existing or near future technologies (e.g. synthetic biology, AI), with details and visuals that are difficult to forget, and less emphasis on relatively abstract arguments about risks to the very long-term future.
Organize, and think of organized interests as the most important actors in politics.
Just about every historical case study reviewed supports this view.
Draw heavily on prestigious influencers to shift norms within fields.
This seems to have worked very well for scientists who successfully normalized concern over risks from genetic engineering research.
Treat attention as a scarce and valuable resource—it is. Direct it toward the issues you raise, the benefits of the policies you propose, and the costs of policies you oppose.
This view has significant support from psychological studies (Jacobs, 2011), as well as the apparent historical importance of events that focused the public’s attention on certain costs (the Haitian Revolution, the Baptist War, Love Canal, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, various crises that catalyzed democratization, etc).
Highly promising ways of protecting future generations from authoritarianism include promoting international peace, promoting economic stability, having representatives of the wider public govern acceptably, and boosting the public’s ability to resist emerging forms of repression.
The wider public losing support for its representatives has been a frequent contributor to democracy shrinking or being destroyed. The public’s ability to organize resistance has arguably been the main driver of democratization. Another frequent cause of reversions to authoritarianism has been coups orchestrated by elites who are dissatisfied with democracy, but promising ways of preventing this are less clear.
When opportunities for change are limited, bide your time—lay the groundwork for taking future opportunities when they arise.
Many movements seem to have succeeded with this tactic, including movements for British abolitionism, US civil rights, women’s suffrage, and decolonization.
Implications for Institutional Design for Future Generations:
The case studies and analysis above suggest that certain institutional designs are particularly promising for benefiting future generations. As before, these suggestions should be considered along with other analyses, and many of these suggestions are also highly applicable to advocating for other powerless groups, such as non-human animals.
Take advantage of differences in patience—pursue policies whose lasting benefits and potentially concentrated costs will not come for years or decades.
Many of the biggest successes by opponents of slavery and climate action advocates came through the passage of policies whose lasting benefits and potentially concentrated costs would not kick in for years or longer. When it comes to political agreements and trades, people concerned with future generations have an advantage that should favor success over the long-run: greater patience. Political short-termism usually works against future generations, but it can work for future generations if politicians’ and lobbyists’ concern with the short term keeps them from strongly opposing commitments to one day care about future generations. This tactic should be especially useful in political trades: commitments to eventually prioritize the long term are cheap for short-termists and very valuable for longtermists.
For future generations, this might look like advocating for policies, such as committees or funds for future generations, that will not be implemented for a decade or more. The difficult part might then be to keep governments from reversing these commitments when the once-distant implementation date grows near. To prevent that, investing many actors in the policy seems very useful: offering prestigious positions to influential actors in advance; getting politicians to publicly declare their ideological commitments to the policy in advance (as a way to congratulate themselves on their then-recent accomplishment); and creating benefits (e.g. checks) for the public that start out small and gradually increase, while featuring reminders to recipients about how much the policy will eventually benefit them. More broadly, these commitments can be seen as a collective version of commitments that impatient individuals prefer to make, to deal with preferences that are inconsistent over time.
Any Future Generations institution should be explicitly mandated to consider long-term prosperity, in addition to existential risks arising from technological development and environmental sustainability.
As argued earlier, the economic motives of business are typically a major force working against the inclusion of future generations. So far, political institutions representing future generations have mostly focused on environmental sustainability, and Jones et al. (2018) argued compellingly that these institutions should also be tasked with the mitigation of existential risks. These past and present proposals seem to be missing a major opportunity for helping the political inclusion of future generations occur and persist: advocates of future generations can lastingly diminish the opposition of business interests—or turn it into support—by designing pro-future institutions so that they visibly contribute to areas where future generations and far-sighted businesses have common interests, such as long-term trends in infrastructure, research and development, education, and political/economic stability.
Studies of several investment trends suggest that businesses do tend to value long-term benefits—they are not that impatient—so these long-term benefits do have the potential to appeal to business interests (Jacobs, 2011). Perhaps surprisingly, there are good reasons to think this strategy is especially promising in the US. The US political system makes it relatively easy for attempts at making policies to get blocked by opposition, so when business interests have the option of benefiting through long-term investment, they rarely have a more appealing alternative of benefiting through redistributive policies. This argument is supported by past trends in US policy investment into pensions (Jacobs, 2011). So, especially in the US and also in other nations, advocates for future generations will have much better prospects for lasting success if they ally with business.
Historically, British abolitionism benefited greatly from designing the 1806 partial ban on the slave trade so that it gained the support of many slave owners and slave traders. Later, international abolitionism benefited immensely from the self-interested support of British plantation owners (who wanted to keep their competition from getting slaves). Similarly, the 2010 US Senate attempt for climate action, and the 2020 cage-free egg law in Colorado gained much support—perhaps crucial support—through this historically successful tactic: making concessions (or even ugly trades) to win the support of some of the usual opposition. Advocates of future generations, I suggest, should try something similar (after more carefully considering downside risks).
When you have power, do not aim to make the biggest improvements you can; aim to make improvements that are accepted widely enough to persist, even after you lose power.
Surges of political support rarely last, so any policy whose maintenance depends on one’s current level of power is unlikely to persist. Because of this, drastic, sudden policy changes are frequently reversed in the span of a few years, especially if they do not quickly create large constituencies invested in maintaining the policy (e.g. as emancipation does). For example, many victors of revolutions wrote radical constitutions that were quickly shredded by authoritarian takeovers. Similarly, the institutions that have most strongly represented future generations have been reversed (Jones et al., 2018). When advocates of future generations have the power to shape policy, they should aim for the best policies that will persist past the next administration.
Identify and pursue policies that incentivize those covered by them to support their further expansion.
Abolitionism benefited greatly from the built-in expansiveness of slave trade bans: once plantation owners could not import slaves, they supported diplomacy to keep their competitors from doing just that.
This seems most feasible when businesses cannot easily relocate and are competing with businesses in another nation, as well as when a larger network covered by a policy increases the policy’s benefits for each person covered.
Design and pursue policies that bypass typical sources of vetoes.
The Paris Agreement was relatively successful, in part because it was designed to bypass usual sources of disagreement, as well as the US Senate.
In addition to the implications discussed above, which focus on representing future generations, this report’s case studies have significant implications for other areas that many in the effective altruism community are interested in. As before, this is just one analysis, so its implications should be considered together with criticisms and other analyses.
When considering long-term risks of extreme suffering, we should assign more weight to scenarios in which maintaining some form of large-scale suffering is in the interests of powerful actors, and less weight to scenarios in which it is not, since suffering is more likely to persist in the former cases.
In several cases, such as the abolition of slavery in New England and much of Western Europe, the creation of the first mental health hospitals, and the creation of the first laws in the US against non-profitable cruelty to children, reform came very quickly (often within a few months or years) after organized support for reform began. In other cases, such as many cases of democratization or emancipation—when reform threatened wealthy interests—inclusive progress was much slower, often taking generations. This pattern (and its straightforward explanation, that policy outcomes are largely determined by the relative influence of organized interests supporting and opposing policies) suggests that extreme suffering is much more likely to persist in the long-term future if it advances the interests of powerful actors.
This is a reason to put less weight on risks from fringe actors being sadistic or from humans spreading wild animal suffering (since in both of these cases, under the questionable assumption that politics would be working roughly as it works today, there would be stronger political coalitions opposing than supporting this suffering), and more weight on risks from very powerful sadistic actors, blackmail, and research studies or cognitive labor involving large-scale suffering.
If it is not accompanied by other developments that push in different directions, the automation of human labor at massive scales will, by default, severely erode democracies globally.
While concerns about the impacts that artificial intelligence will have on democracy have often focused on media and surveillance technologies, these are not the only major dangers: the direct economic impacts of massive-scale automation might be enough to kill democracy. Studies of democratization suggest that transitions to democracy are often driven by the economic power of non-elites, and that these transitions tend to be much slower and more frequently reversed when there are very high levels of wealth inequality (presumably because, then, elites have more to fear from government redistribution of wealth). On its own, then, the automation of billions of jobs would massively boost the few owners of capital while sapping the economic power of scores of laborers, incentivizing elites to destroy democracies and making it more difficult for non-elites to bring democracy back.
Fortunately, several factors may prevent such a decline of democracy. If automation-based economies are highly vulnerable to hacking or other forms of conflict, elites may not be so willing to repress calls for democracy. Alternatively, if most elites do not care much for the difference between being very wealthy and being even more wealthy, they may be quite risk averse and therefore want to avoid conflict with non-elites who demand democracy. On the other hand, boosted surveillance and military technologies might make fears of revolution have little relevance.
Some Potential Questions for Further Study:
What do other case studies suggest about the hypotheses in this report, and what other hypotheses do they suggest?
It is not clear, for example, how well this model does at explaining decolonization, the US civil rights movement, or women’s rights movements.
In some cases, such as with some of the activities of religious groups in US politics, cultural concerns seem to override economic concerns. Do they? On a similar vein, how important has concern for future generations been in driving environmentalism?
If these are cases in which non-economic motives were very influential, how can altruists create similarly impactful cultural concerns for future generations or other neglected groups?
What does this imply for the assumption that political actors are mostly motivated by economic self-interest?
In more depth than what was covered here, what does existing research suggest about whether or not democratization causes wealth redistribution?
If it does not tend to, how would it be best to adjust this report’s model, which assumes that political decisions are mostly motivated by economic interests?
What are the flaws in and arguments against the recommendations made above? If these are less strong than the arguments in favor of some recommendation, what are concrete ways in which people can implement it?
What opportunities are there for politically active altruists (e.g. those working to end the large-scale mistreatment of non-human animals) to make progress by pushing for a policy that is in the interests of some of the usual opposition?
Future generations matter greatly, yet their well-being is harmfully neglected in today’s political decision making. What strategies for changing this can advocates of future generations learn from history? To gain insights into this question, this study examined historical case studies of instances when policy change did much to benefit excluded groups, mainly: abolitionism, democratization, climate action, and genetic engineering governance. As predicted by a rational-choice framework, these case studies suggest that several factors make political exclusion more likely to occur and persist: opportunities for profitable exploitation, costs of inclusion, and exclusive values. They also suggest that several factors make political inclusion more likely to occur and persist: a group’s capacity for resistance, strategic alliances, inter-societal pressure, and inclusive values.
This has important strategic implications for supporting future generations and other voiceless groups. First, the drivers of inclusion mostly depend on the influence of the excluded, or on excluded groups getting lucky, so past trends toward greater inclusion do not strongly imply that political inclusion will eventually extend to voiceless groups. Perhaps inclusive social values have mainly formed retroactively.
Additional suggestions for advocates of future generations include these: on specific issues, focus on showing powerful actors how helping future generations is in their own interest; concentrate resources in a few nations; emphasize salient downsides of policies you oppose; take advantage of differences in patience; mandate Future Generations institutions to consider long-term prosperity; and pursue policies with wider support than the strongest policies you could pass. Other implications are that risks of extreme suffering are much higher if they involve suffering that is in the interests of powerful actors, and that the direct impacts of automation would, if not alleviated by other factors, severely undermine democracy.
Appendix A—Quantitative Trends in Slavery:
This spreadsheet contains graphs, data, and elaboration (with sources) on demographic trends in slavery over the past two centuries, globally and in the US.
Appendix B—Abolitionist Quotes that Sound Like Effective Altruist Quotes:
Here is a list of these quotes.
Here is this report’s bibliography, organized by topics.