The GiveWell Blog


I used to think of myself as a “political junkie,” because I had strong opinions about what should and shouldn’t be left to the free market, what we should and shouldn’t be doing with our military, etc.

At a certain point I realized that I wasn’t a political junkie, and had never been one. Political junkies don’t actually talk about whether we should have universal health care; they talk about whether we’re going to get it. They almost never talk about who should be President; they talk about who from their party has the best chance of winning. “Political stories” in the media are the same. Every time I watch a debate, there is zero analysis afterward of whether one person’s positions seem more reasonable than the other’s; there are ungodly amounts of analysis of who “appealed to the voters” and “won the debate.”

I’m interested in the question, “How should the world be?” Politics isn’t for people who are interested in that question; it’s for people who are convinced they already have the answer, and are interested in how they can manipulate others to make it come about.

I want to form a theory (about, say, how to close the achievement gap); read what others have already done to test the theory; revise my theory; then try my theory out on a small scale; test it; revise it again. Political junkies are sure they already know how to close the achievement gap (they generally, though not always, inherit their solution from their party), and spend all their time fighting to get their idea implemented across the whole nation, which is of course a battle that takes decades and leaves no room for testing or learning about their solution. Charity seems like a better place for someone who wants to actually try something, see if it works, and try something else.

The problem is, in charity I’m running into the same phenomenon. I’m dealing with fundraisers who are sure that what they do is the best way to help people, and they’re spending their lives raising money for it.

Yes, there are some issues that I think are clear-cut, and I respect the people that fight for the right side. But I wish more people would step back and say, “Helping people is hard, not easy. My guess at how to do it is a guess, not a divine truth opposed only by evil people and the dupes who listen to them.

“There are evil people and interest groups on every issue, but even if we struck them down, we’d be left with the question of what to do. That’s the question I’m interested in.”


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