Three methods of attaining change

post by Stefan_Schubert · 2014-08-16T15:38:45.743Z · score: 7 (8 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 10 comments

Say that you want to change some social or political institution: the educational system, the monetary system, research on AGI safety, or what not. When trying to reach this goal, you may use one of the following broad strategies (or some combination of them):

1) You may directly try to lobby (i.e. influence) politicians to implement this change, or try to influence voters to vote for parties that promise to implement these changes. 

2) You may try to build an alternative system and hope that it eventually becomes so popular so that it replaces the existing system.

3) You may try to develop tools that a) appeal to users of existing systems and b) whose widespread use is bound to change those existing systems.

Let me give some examples of what I mean. Trying to persuade politicians that we should replace conventional currencies by a private currency or, for that matter, starting a pro-Bitcoin party, fall under 1), whereas starting a private currency and hope that it spreads falls under 2). (This post was inspired by a great comment by Gunnar Zarncke on precisely this topic. I take it that he was there talking of strategy 2.) Similarly, trying to lobby politicians to reform the academia falls under 1) whereas starting new research institutions which use new and hopefully more effective methods falls under 2). I take it that this is what, e.g. Leverage Research is trying to do, in part. Similarly, libertarians who vote for Ron Paul are taking the first course, while at least one possible motivation for the Seasteading Institute is to construct an alternative system that proves to be more efficient than existing governments.

Efficient Voting Advice Applications (VAA's), which advice you to vote on the basis of your views on different policy matters, can be an example of 3) (they are discussed here). Suppose that voters started to use them on a grand scale. This could potentially force politicians to adhere very closely to the views of the voters on each particular issue, since if you failed to do this you would stand little chance of winning. This may or may not be a good thing, but the point is that it would be a change that would not be caused by lobbying of politicians or by building an alternative system, but simply by constructing a tool whose widespread use could change the existing system.

Another similar tool is reputation or user review systems. Suppose that you're dissatisfied with the general standards of some institution: say university education, medical care, or what not. You may attain this by lobbying politicians to implement new regulations intended to ensure quality (1), or by starting your own, superior, universities or hospitals (2), hoping that others will follow. Another method is, however, to create a reliable reputation/review system which, if they became widely used, would guide students and patients to the best universities and hospitals, thereby incentivizing to improve.

Now of course, when you're trying to get people to use such review systems, you are, in effect, building an evaluation system that competes with existing systems (e.g. the Guardian university ranking), so on one level you are using the second strategy. Your ultimate goal is, however, to create better universities, to which better evaluation systems, is just a means (as a tool). Hence you're following the third strategy here, in my terms.

Strategy 1) is of course a "statist" one, since what you're doing here is that you're trying to get the government to change the institution in question for you. Strategies 2) and 3) are, in contrast, both "non-statist", since when you use them you're not directly trying to implement the change through the political system. Hence libertarians and other anti-statists should prefer them.

My hunch is that when people are trying to change things, many of them unthinkingly go for 1), even regarding issues where it is unlikely that they are going to succeed that way. (For instance, it seems to me that advocates for direct democracy who try to persuade voters to vote for direct democratic parties are unlikely to succeed, but that widespread of VAA's might get us considerably closer to their ideal, and that they therefore should opt for the third strategy.) A plausible explanation of this is availability bias; our tendency to focus on what we most often see around us. Attempts to change social institutions through politics get a lot of attention, which makes people think of this strategy first. Even though this strategy is often efficient, I'd guess it is, for this reason, generally overused and that people sometimes instead should go for 2) or 3). (Possibly, Europeans have an even stronger bias in favour of this strategy than Americans.)

I also suspect, though, that people go for 2) a bit too often relative to 3). I think that people find it appealing, for its own sake, to create an entirely alternatively structure. If you're a perfectionist, it might be satisfying to see what you consider "the perfect institution", even if it is very small and has little impact on society. Also, sometimes small groups of devotees flock to these alternatives, and a strong group identity is therefore created. Moreover, I think that availability bias may play a role here, also. Even though this sort of strategy gets less attention than lobbying, most people know what it is. It is quite clear what it means to do something like this, and being part of a project like this therefore gives you a clear identity. For these reasons, I think that we might sometimes fool ourselves into believing that these alternative structures are more likely to be succesful than they actually are.

Conversely, people might be biased against the third strategy because it's less obvious. Also, it has perhaps something vaguely manipulative over it which might bias idealistic people against it. What you're typically trying to do is to get people to use a tool (say VAA's) a side-effect of which is the change you wish to attain (in this case, correspondence between voters' views and actual policies). I don't think that this kind of manipulation is necessarily vicious (but it would need to be discussed on a case-by-case-basis) but the point is that people tend to think that it is. Also, even those who don't think that it is manipulative in an unethical sense would still think that it is somehow "unheroic". Starting your own environmental party or creating your own artifical libertarian island clearly has something heroic over it, but developing efficient VAA's, which as a side-effect changes the political landscape, does not.

I'd thus argue that people should start looking more closely at the third strategy. A group that does use a strategy similar to this is of course for-profit companies. They try to analyze what products would appeal to people, and in so doing, carefully consider how existing institutions shape people's preferences. For instance, companies like Uber, AirBnB and LinkedIn have been succesful because they realized that given the structure of the taxi, the hotel and the recruitment businesses, their products would be appealing.

Of course, these companies primary goal, profit, is very different from the political goals I'm talking about here. At the same time, I think it is useful to compare the two cases. I think that generally, when we're trying to attain political change, we're not "actually trying" (in CFAR's terminology) as hard as we do when we're trying to maximize profit . It is very easy to fall into a mode where you're focusing on making symbolic gestures (which express your identity) rather than on trying to change things in politics. (This is, in effect, what many traditional charities are doing, if the EA movement is right.)

Instead, we should think as hard as profit-maximizing companies what new tools are likely to catch on. Any kind of tools could in principle be used, but the ones that seem most obvious are various kind of social media and other internet based tools (such as those mentioned in this post). The technical progress gives us enormous opportunities to costruct new tools that could re-shape people's behaviour in a way that would impact existing social and political institutions on a large scale.

Developing such tools is not easy. Even very succesful companies again and again fail to predict what new products will appeal to people. Not the least, you need a profound understanding of human psychology in order to succeed. That said, political organizations have certain advantages visavi for-profit companies. More often than not, they might develop ideas publically, whereas for-profit companies often have to keep them secret until they product is launched. This facilitates wisdom of the crowd-reasoning, where many different kinds of people come up with solutions together. Such methods can, in my opinion, be very powerful.

 

Any input regarding, e.g. the taxonomy of methods, my speculations about biases, and, in particular, examples of institution changing tools are welcome. I'm also interested in comments on efficient methods for coming up with useful tools (e.g. tests of them). Finally, if anything's unclear I'd be happy to provide clarifications (it's a very complex topic).

10 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-08-16T16:36:57.354Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you forget 4): Developing policy ideas

Thinking about how to regulate complex issues is not trival. Developing better ideas of how to solve a certain issues is an important task. It's a failure condition to look at an issue and think about it for an hour to come up with a policy to solve it and then go and lobby politicians to implement your policy.

Good policy thinking can take years to develop. Take a policy idea like "Measuring National Well-being". It takes a lot of intellectual thinking to come up with such a concept and bring it in a form where you can go to a politician and tell him: "Here a law to measure National Well-being, please make sure that the law get's passed".

Good governance isn't so much about debating whether we should raise or lower taxes. Both positions have good arguments in their favor. You don't get the maximum benefits if you focus on issues where both sides of the debate of good arguments in their favor. It's about thinking of how to reform the tax system so that filling your taxes takes less time and that there aren't loopholes in the tax code that allow people to avoid paying taxes for reasons that aren't good for the whole country.

comment by Emile · 2014-08-17T09:28:40.613Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would add 4) Promoting better understanding of the issues (similar to ChristianKI's, but more general).

This would cover:

  • writing plain English explanations of the topic
  • linking existing quality explanations, advocacy groups, etc. (or even better, linking all explanations and advocacy groups, but with reviews)
  • collecting and displaying information about how different parties involved see the issue
  • improving the Wikipedia articles related to the issue, finding scholarly papers
  • finding case studies of similar approaches in the past or in different countries
  • making nice graphical summaries of information
  • writing specific policy proposals
  • getting well-regarded experts to review policy proposals, summaries, etc.
  • collecting all that information in one place
  • paying people to do the above
comment by Stefan_Schubert · 2014-08-17T18:42:57.447Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Good. I'll reply to your and Christian's comment at once since they're fairly similar.

1) and 3) have one important thing in common, namely that in both cases you're trying to change the existing system rather than develop a new one.

I don't want to spend too much time on definitional questions, but it seems to me that, e.g. "finding case studies of similar approaches in the past or in different countries" can be seen as an (unusually evidence-based, but still) example of lobbying/influencing. What you're doing here is basically finding evidence that your view is the right one.

Specific policy proposals are not standard cases of influencing, though, since here you're rather accommodating some of the opponents' views. I see it rather as an example of a (smart) compromise, though. Typically you won't get exactly what you wanted from the start with this strategy.

I think I may have had two distinctions in mind when I distinguished 1) from 3). Firstly, there is the issue whether you're trying to influence those with direct power (e.g. in politics - politicians or voters - in companies, their boards and their shareholders) or those without direct powers (such as customers). When you're lobbying politicians or starting a new party calling for new regulations, you're doing the former, whereas when you're trying to get customers to use review systems that would have the same effect as new regulations, you're doing the latter. Boycotts is another example of the latter.

Secondly, when you're trying to influence people, you may either try to persuade them directly, or use more indirect strategies. Putting posters for your views throughout town belongs to the first strategy, whereas getting voters to use VAA's, or promoting better understanding of the issues in a way which isn't clearly partisan, would belong to the second.

This gives us four possibilities: you may influence either those with direct power or those with only indirect power, and you may do so either directly or indirectly.

I guess my main claim is that we should consider these indirect persuasion strategies more often, but I also think that we sometimes focus too much on those in direct power, whilst forgetting about those with indirect power.

A general problem for reformers is that people seldom care about their issues as much as they do. They might want more effective charities, better university education, or what not, but they have lots of other things, and other issues, to think about. For instance, on election day, other issues than yours might be more important. Therefore, creating different sorts of tools which are easy to use, and which, ideally, are beneficial in various ways to their users, can be more efficient means of implementing change than standard direct persuasion tactics.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-08-18T09:40:52.056Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Specific policy proposals are not standard cases of influencing, though, since here you're rather accommodating some of the opponents' views. I see it rather as an example of a (smart) compromise, though. Typically you won't get exactly what you wanted from the start with this strategy.

You don't get what you want with any system. People who broker compromises between different political forces usually get more of their desired political goals into public policy than people who aren't willing to compromise or look for compromises. You started the other post with claiming that you seek to further cooperation but here you argue that cooperation is not something worth seeking.

To get back to the VAA, you discourage politicians from compromising with each other if you want that the politician makes a lot of specific promises before a election and keep them. As far as practical illustrations goes look at the current US situation with Republicans who have pledged to never raise taxes. Politicians need a certain amount of flexibility to make compromises.

The general idea that most people have about lobbying is that you identify a policy that you want to promote and then you lobby for that policy while not changing what you are lobbying for. That means that you aren't seeking to update your own thoughts. You aren't willing to learn that maybe the policy that you advocate actually isn't in the best interest of the country.

Let's say I don't like big banks and want regulations that punish them. It's quite easy to lobby for a transaction tax. If I learn more about the topic I will find out that this means that market makers will make profits via having a higher ask-bid spread and that pension funds and people who hold SAP500 funds will get screwed as the SAP500 means that you change your shares four times every year and would have to pay the transaction tax four times per year.

It turns out a fairly nice idea about regulating big banks that might be bailed out because they are too big to fail is to let the reserve requirement of banks rise via a continuous mathematical function as the size of the bank grows. This gives banks an incentive to be smaller instead of being big entities. If you choose the function the right way you don't need a regulators that comes in and makes a decision to break up big banks, but they will decide on their own to split.

There are plenty of people in the left in Europe who like to punish the bad bankers and simply go for the choice of lobbying for the transaction tax instead of thinking about smarter ways to regulate. I want to live in a country with smart regulations and want a political system that optimizes for smart policy.

Fighting where the Blue people want policy A and the Green people want policy B doesn't leave room for rational discussion about which policies in the wide space of possible policies are smart. You are much more likely to convince other people if you are also open to change your own position when presented with good evidence.

For instance, on election day, other issues than yours might be more important.

Public policy is not made on election day. That's simply not how modern democracy works in practice. Any approach to politics that models modern democracy that way has a huge model error.

Election day is not for choosing policies of the next term but for providing feedback about the performance of politicians in the preceding term. If widely used the current VAA design encourages people not to give feedback on actions in the preceding term but focus their mental energies on what politicians promise to do in the next term.


Given your model what of your three categories do you think I'm doing at the moment? I think (4) with Emile definition is likely the best fit.

comment by hesperidia · 2014-08-18T07:33:11.351Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Another method is, however, to create a reliable reputation/review system which, if they became widely sued, would guide students and patients to the best universities and hospitals

That seems like an odd method of drumming up publicity.

comment by Stefan_Schubert · 2014-08-18T08:34:42.520Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Lol! Fixed. Thanks.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-08-16T16:53:03.762Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

For instance, it seems to me that advocates for direct democracy who try to persuade voters to vote for direct democratic parties are unlikely to succeed, but that widespread of VAA's might get us considerably closer to their ideal, and that they therefore should opt for the third strategy.

Berlin the city in which I live has a lot more tools for direct democracy than it had 20 years ago and I don't think that has anything to do with VAA's. It wasn't either about "persuade voters to vote for direct democratic parties". It's because we have developed a general consensus in Berlin that direct democracy is valuable that's shared among all stakeholders.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-08-16T16:16:48.618Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This could potentially force politicians to adhere very closely to the views of the voters on each particular issue, since if you failed to do this you would stand little chance of winning.

As I said before in the linked discussion given current VAA that are used in practice, that's only true for values of "adhere" that are about making verbal promises but not about values of "adhere" that are about making public policy and taking action.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-08-17T13:58:43.493Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

My hunch is that when people are trying to change things, many of them unthinkingly go for 1) [lobbying].

I'm not sure. People geneally use the methods available for good measure. Hirschman even gives quantitative measures for this in Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. Using Hirschmans terminology I'd map your points as follows:

1) I take it to lobby basically is to vote. That is choose among the options available.

2) To build an alternative system means to exit the existing system.

3) With to develop tools you seem to mean mainly communication tools. Ways to make the opinion of the people better known to all involved parties in one way or the other. And in Hirschmans terms this is a form of voice.

I'm not clear how the option 4) by ChristianKI and Emile figure in this scheme though.

In a way understanding the issue and devleoping (effective) ideas seems to be relevant to both 2) and 3). For 2) by building effective alternatives and for 3) by providing efficient tools and aggregating the desires.

EDIT: Formatting

comment by Stefan_Schubert · 2014-08-17T17:11:37.194Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the link to Hirschman. I'm talking of something slightly different than Hirschman, though. Those who try to build an alternative system do exit the existing system, but they do this for strategic reasons; because they think that this would further their goal more than the alternative strategies. People might exit organizations for all sorrts of other reasons.

I don't think that my 3) is an example of "voice", really. What you're doing here is not that you're trying to influence others directly by arguments or rhetoric. Rather, you're creating a device or a tool which, if generally used will change the social institution in question in the way you want (or so you hope). "Voice" gives me quite different connotations (e.g. lobbying seems to be a classic case of voice).