The problem with evidence based policy change is we don’t have evidence on the important policies

Peter Singer has a Boston Review piece telling us we should all be “effective altruists”—to make a difference by giving our time and our money, and giving only to causes that demonstrate their effectiveness through evidence.

There are many good replies, including from Angus Deaton and Daron Acemoglu. Here is Acemoglu:

More evidence is always preferred, but precise measurement of the social value of a donated dollar may be impossible. What is the social value of a dollar given to Amnesty International as opposed to Oxfam or an NGO providing vaccines or textbooks?

…But the problem is thornier still. A large body of research shows that economic development is the best way to lift millions out of poverty and improve their health, education, and access to public amenities. So one has to take into account how charities’ activities affect economic development, which is essentially impossible. If, as some economists and political scientists suggest, changes in political and economic institutions are critical for long-run economic growth, then watchdog organizations such as Amnesty may be essential for transforming dysfunctional regimes. Effective altruists don’t (yet?) see the importance of these more political organizations.

To his critique (and Deaton’s as well): Yes! At the same time, some reservations:

  • It’s hard to overstate how many stupid and dead end causes people give money to. Singer probably sees very rich people giving to idiotic boutique causes all the time. I avoid those people, but I have to contend with the World Bank and others spending billions on things like vocational training, which has basically zero impact. This is another way of saying Singer is right on the margin, Acemoglu is right as we move away from the marginal decision.
  • I’m not worried about “too much” effective altruism. It would be a problem if it happened, but the world won’t even get close. Aid donors and the very rich are (1) stubborn, and (2) don’t read.
  • But Acemoglu is right that institutional and political change are more important and the evidence-based crowd have done very little here. Most of that evidence is about anti-corruption or election monitoring or other things that I doubt change politics very much.
  • Meanwhile all the good political economy research (like Acemoglu’s) has no clear implication for social and political change in the world. There is a big disconnect. These scholars have mostly ignored this gap either because… I don’t know why. Maybe it’s too treacherous or hard, or they don’t find it interesting enough, or they are cynical about policy change. I don’t know. Someone explain it to me.
  • Actually, this is not entirely true. You could view a lot of research says “you should stop violent conflicts, and here are concrete steps to do so”. I can think of few better short-term investments. More work along these lines strikes me as a good thing.