In all the discussion of Leif Wenar’s critique of Effective Altruism , I haven’t seen much mention of the central premise: that development aid is generally counterproductive (unless, perhaps, it’s delivered by wealthy surfers in their spare time). Wenar is quite clear that his argument applies just as much to official development aid and to the long-standing efforts of NGOs as to projects supported by EA. He quotes burned-out aid workers “hoping their projects were doing more good than harm.”

Wenar provides some examples of unintended consequences. For example, bednets provided to fight are sometimes diverted for use as fishing nets. And catching more fish might be bad because it could lead to overfishing (there is no actual evidence of this happening, AFAICT). This seems trivial in comparison to the lives saved by anti-malarial programs

Update Wenar’s claim about bednets, as presented by Marc Andreessen, was thoroughly refuted by Dylan Matthews in Vox earlier this year. (footnote 1 applies) End update

It’s worth pointing out that, on Wenar’s telling, a project that gave poor people proper fishing nets (exactly the kind of thing that might appeal to the coastal villagers befriended by his surfer friend) might be even worse for overfishing than the occasional diversion of bednets.

Wenar applies his critique to international aid programs. But exactly the same kind of arguments could be, and are made, against similar programs at the national level or subnational level. It’s not hard to find burned-out social workers, teachers and for that matter, university professors, who will say, after some particularly dispiriting experience, that their efforts have been worse than useless. And the political right is always eager to point out the unintended consequences of helping people. But we have plenty of evidence, most notably from the last decade of austerity, to show that not helping people is much worse.

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Gina’s post on Indiana’s DEI-related law came at a fortuitous time for me, because last week I participated in a panel about State Legislatures, Academic Freedom and Public Universities. The panelists were given about 6 minutes to present some prepared remarks’ and discussion ensued. As far as I could tell there was just one state legislator present, and one administrator; otherwise the audience was students, faculty, and members of the public.

I did write out my remarks, but then I didn’t say exactly what I wrote, so below the fold is an attempt at a rough transcription of what I actually said:

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Crooked Timberish books and other writings

by Chris Bertram on April 17, 2024

I’m sure Crooked Timber readers would been keen to learn of exciting new books out just now from Daniel Davies and Kieran Healy. Marion Fourcade and Kieran Healy have published The Ordinal Society , arguing that “argue that technologies of information management, fueled by the abundance of personal data and the infrastructure of the internet, transform how we relate to ourselves and to each other through the market, the public sphere, and the state.” There’s a great review of the book by Diane Coyle at her blog. Dan has produced The Unaccountability Machine, drawing on the cybernetics of Stafford Beer to show how governments and corporations evade responsibility and how we might do better. Felix Martin has reviewed it for the Financial Times. And in other writings, Maria has a cracking piece with Robin Berjon on “rewilding the internet”, that draws on the work of James C. Scott, Elinor Ostrom and ecologists to think about how we might reclaim the internet from the tech oligopoly that has turned it into a small number of gated ad-mills.