Wednesday 15 January 2014

Small Symbolic Contributions

Apart from ordinary niceness, I can think of three examples of small voluntary contributions people can make to society. Each of these contributions accomplishes very little on its own but in all three cases, millions of contributors in unison can make a difference.

The first example is voting. In reality, your vote is only very slightly better than worthless. But thousands of votes together start to matter a little bit. And millions of votes in one direction can matter a lot. So even though the world will be no better or worse if you vote or if you don't vote, if everybody votes, the world will probably be better than if most people don't vote.

The second example is recycling. In reality, your recycling accomplishes almost nothing. All the waste produced by all the homes in the world put together accounts for only a tiny percentage of the world's waste. But recycling still accomplishes a tiny bit of good and if everybody recycles, that can amount to something kinda sorta substantial.

The third example is vegetarianism. Boycotting the meat industry for the rest of your lifetime can save a certain number of animal lives - and that's nice. But given the vast amount of animals still living in torture and the fact that most of your peers will continue to eat meat, you aren't really accomplishing much in the grand scheme of things. You are, however, contributing to a good cause, playing a microscopic role in some larger movement. Mainly, you are signalling your interests and values. One vegetarian alone isn't accomplishing much, but if everybody went vegetarian, that would vastly improve the state of the world. 

All three of these situations require one to decide whether to play one's tiny altruistic part in a massive prisoner's dilemma or whether to say "fuck it" and worry about things they can actually control. 

Are you consistent across all three? If you think going vegetarian is a waste of time, do you have the same attitude about voting and recycling? If you're adamant about the importance of voting, are you equally adamant about recycling and vegetarianism? What is the crucial difference? 

I think all three of these are Good Things but I don't think too much emotion should be invested in any of them. If you forget to recycle something, too bad. If somebody you know doesn't believe in voting, who cares. If your friend refuses to give up meat, well whatever. You're playing a long term game to minimize expected suffering - it pays to be forgiving of small differences and offenses.


  1. I don't think any of these is purely or even primarily symbolic (although, especially if you're a popular person, the symbolic spillover value might dwarf the direct value). See "Does Vegetarianism Make a Difference?," and the same argument applies for recycling. As for voting, here's a quote from "Probability and Politics":

    "Last time I estimated a cost of $50 to $500 per vote from contributions, more in more competitive races (diminishing returns). So unless you have a high opportunity cost, you'd do better to vote yourself than contribute to a campaign in your own jurisdiction. The standard heuristic that everyone should vote seems to have been defended.
    But let's avoid motivated stopping. The above data indicate frequent differences of 1-2 orders of magnitude across jurisdictions. So someone in an uncompetitive New York district would often do better to donate less than $50 (to a competitive race) than to vote. (On the other hand, if you live in a competitive district [4], replacing your vote with donations might cost a sizable portion of your charitable budget.)"

    1. I call them "symbolic" in the sense that each individual instance has very low expected utility. The study Shulman cites says that even in the most competitive states, your vote has about a 1 in 10 million chance of determining the outcome. Then consider that the political differences between the two parties are often much smaller than advertised.

    2. Say the only issue on which the parties differed was international aid, with the Democrats giving $1 billion more than the Republicans. Then voting Democrat would be worth $100 of government-quality aid (which could be, say, ~$25-75 of donation to a GiveWell top charity). If you mail in the ballot, it can take well less than an hour to vote, so that's a decent return.

      In practice, the parties differ on many issues at least this important, including foreign policy. There's a decent chance Al Gore wouldn't have invaded Iraq and cost $2 trillion, plus huge costs to the US's international reputation and friendliness. $2 trillion times 1 in 10 million is $200K per vote. :) Of course, these savings are not nearly as useful as if you had total discretion on how to spend them, but it's still a huge deal.

    3. Sure, but people are never really placed in that situation because of flow-through effects, counterfactual costs, and uncertainty over whether parties will stay true to their advertised values and policies. I'm also not sure we can measure political progress in dollars when so much of progress has to do with social change, wellbeing, health, etc. I'm also not sure to what extent politics is an actual driver of change in non-crisis situations. Like you argue for charities, I don't think one political party is usually many orders of magnitude better than those it runs against.

    4. The Iraq war was one small example out of many, many cases where Democrats would be better than Republicans for the future of the light cone. Not just on dollars but also on social values, flow-through effects, and all the rest. Adding all those factors together gets a pretty big impact.

      We may have different views about which party is better on which issues?

      In the case of only two options, you'll have one that's worse than average and one that's better than average. There can be offsetting factors pushing both toward zero, but it still seems empirically to me that the difference between the two major parties is big enough that voting becomes pretty cost-effective.

    5. Hmm.. You're probably right that it's clearly better for the Democrats to win near-term elections.

      In my post, I'm not so much focusing on the "not cost-effective" part as I am on the "everybody plays a tiny role in a major decision-making process" part. I guess if we're thinking in probabilities and expected utility, your own vote (or act of recycling or vegetarianism) DOES accomplish something tangible. But if we're thinking in terms of how the world will be different whether we vote or not, well, it will be pretty much identical because it's extremely unlikely that any particular vote will decide the outcome.

      Before the election, my vote seems to have high expected utility.
      After the election, my vote seems to have not swayed anything.
      Could that be a EDT vs CDT thing? Or a case of taking pride in objectivity vs taking pride in being right?

    6. Yeah, decision theory can help motivate voting more strongly than just an expected-value argument, but even a pure CDTer should find it cost-effective ex ante.

      I agree that all these are cases where someone who doesn't care about small probabilities would be not very motivated.