Effective Action is Really, Really Hard

Let's talk about politics.

Imagine there is a cause you care about. This could be poverty, global warming, or something more humble like increasing the money your town spends on its youth, or removing these annoying speed bumps from your street.

You would like to take action to push you cause forward. How do you do that?

The simplistic answer is you vote for someone that promises to do something about your cause. This has many problems. First, some candidate must have promised he would do something for your cause. Second, you must be inclined to vote for this candidate, given the rest of his politics. Third, the candidate must try to keep his word, and must manage to pass the policies you desire.

That's a lot of ifs, but we havent even got to the biggest objection: you actually have no control over whether the candidate gets elected.

Here is a small scenario to illustrate: you live in a town with 1000 people, who all vote; and there are two candidates. Let's suppose everyone votes at random, except you. Your vote will make a difference, on average, one time out of a 1000.

Of course, people do not vote at random, but if you cannot influence their decision, the result is the same. Overwhelmingly, your vote will not make a difference. *

But there we have our solution: if you want to make a difference, you need to influence people. In this way, you can have more weight than your allocated 1/1000.

In fact, the most interesting definition of politics from wiktionary is:

Political maneuvers or diplomacy between people, groups, or organizations, especially involving power, influence or conflict.

So how do you influence people? The classical way is to make some kind of organization with this purpose then hold awareness events, protests, maybe distribute pamphlets, etc...

But this won't work, or won't work well enough. If you need to do this, you cause is not well established, and people won't care enough to attend your events. Your proselytism will mildly annoy them at best.

The problem with voting for candidates is that you are not voting on issues. You are (ideally...) voting for a program that takes a stance on many issues. Your advocacy of your cause is probably not enough to shift the balance from one candidate to another.

What else can you do? First, you could try to bypass the government entirely. You could raise money for the poor or the town youth. But global warming and the speed bumps? Forget it. Ultimately, most ways in which the world is fucked have a fundametally political dimension (this time in the sense that they involve the government, laws or international relationships).

What else can you do? Try to shape public opinion in favor of the candidate that favors your cause. We're now in the realm of mediatic (or even mass-mediatic) influence. Or, you could try to influence law- and policy-makers directly.

This is no longer something you can do on your spare time during the weekend. You must be in the media and have some decisionary power. You must know lawmakers and policymakers, and they have to value your input.

Should you dedicate your life to your pet cause, by engaging in a career only tangentially related to it, in the hopes that you rise high enough to influence decisions? Should you maybe even go into politics yourself? This all seems like very bad life advice. If you pick a carreer for the wrong (extrinsic) reasons, you probably wouldn't be good enough or successful enough at it to make a difference!

What am I saying? Maybe we should accept that, in most political matters, we have very little influence, hence possibility for action.

That may be revolting to a lot of you, and it runs quite contrary to the zeitgeist that says we're all special snowflakes meant to change the world. But search your feelings, and you'll know this to be true.

But I am not advocating for you to do nothing. Quite to the contrary, I would encourage you to think deep and hard about what you can actually do. It's likely that is much more than you realize, even if it's at a much more localized level.

Many important changes depend on the "the right man" being there "at the right place", and also at the right time.

To be the right man (or woman) at the right place, you first have to be at the right place. Many carreers will afford you some influence at some level (unfortunately, some carreers won't afford you any). Second, you have to be right.

Right means be the right influence. It means looking at all the facts and taking the best possible decisions. Because even if the thing you're weighting on doesn't matter that much to you, it may matter a great deal to someone else. It may even (gasp) be his own pet cause. You may want to listen to these people (and to the other side, if there is one).

So if you want to change the world, first be realistic about what your activism achieves (and if it does achieve something, by all means keep going), then start looking at what you can actually do, even if it isn't related to that thing you really want to change.

*: At this point, you may protest: "yes, but if everyone thinks like you, people won't go voting and the bad guys will win!". Well, you're entirely correct that this is a possible outcome. But that does not make my reasoning any less true. If you think so, you're falling victim to the Appeal to Consequences bias (aka wishful thinking): not believing something is true, because it being true would have bad consequences.

Cases where the thing that is individually optimal (in this case, not bothering to vote, since the impact is negligible) and the thing that is collectively optimal (everyone taking voting seriously) are well known. They are a generalization of the classical Tragedy of the Commons problem. This will be the subject of a further blog post. If you're familiar with the Prisoners' Dilemna, that's also the same kind of idea, although at a reduced scale.