Reflections on the Effective Altruism Conference

This past weekend I attended the EAGlobal, the annual effective altruism conference. I came largely to promote the idea of free cities, as I think free cities are one of the best poverty alleviation tools.

First, some sociological notes. Effective altruists, broadly speaking, fit into three camps; existential risk, animal welfare, and anti-poverty. Existential risk seems to be primarily concerned with AI. Animal welfare with factory farming. And anti-poverty with malarial nets and deworming. While there is overlap between the groups, most people I talked to tended to strongly identify with one cause.

What surprised me was the lack of interest, or even awareness in economic growth. Economic growth is the best anti-poverty tool the world has ever seen. Anti-poverty discussions in EAGlobal tended to focus on tools that had level effects, not growth effects. Deworming and malarial nets are great, but long term economic growth is better. I suspect the lack of focus on economic growth is the difficulty in measuring the impact of various ‘interventions’ on economic growth as well as the more ideological nature of the inquiry.

I got the impression there was more discussion of policy this year than in previous years. Unfortunately, much of the policy discussions involved speakers from government or think tanks, standard mainstream stuff. For example, one speaker said they were looking for solutions to eliminate the kidney shortage. Of course, there is an easy but politically unacceptable solution, legalize kidney sales. Given the willingness of effective altruists to tackle problems involving existential risk, I was disappointed to see such unimaginative policy discussions.

On the positive side, there did seem to be an interest in free cities. Most people I talked to seemed aware of the idea, or at least similar ideas like Seasteading. There was less hesitancy in discussing the idea than in a Brookings event, for example. Several of the people in leadership roles demonstrated knowledge in free cities, which makes me wonder why no speakers were invited to opine on the topic.

In sum, I think the lack of awareness of the impact of economic growth on poverty is the primary barrier to effective altruists showing more interest in free cities. Until economic growth is adopted as a primary motivator of effective altruists, I doubt they will embrace free cities.

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