How Much Should Governments Pay to Prevent Catastrophes? Longtermism's Limited Role

In Jacob Barrett, Hilary Greaves & David Thorstad (eds.), Essays on Longtermism. Oxford University Press (forthcoming)
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Longtermists have argued that humanity should significantly increase its efforts to prevent catastrophes like nuclear wars, pandemics, and AI disasters. But one prominent longtermist argument overshoots this conclusion: the argument also implies that humanity should reduce the risk of existential catastrophe even at extreme cost to the present generation. This overshoot means that democratic governments cannot use the longtermist argument to guide their catastrophe policy. In this paper, we show that the case for preventing catastrophe does not depend on longtermism. Standard cost-benefit analysis implies that governments should spend much more on reducing catastrophic risk. We argue that a government catastrophe policy guided by cost-benefit analysis should be the goal of longtermists in the political sphere. This policy would be democratically acceptable, and it would reduce existential risk by almost as much as a strong longtermist policy.

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Elliott Thornley
Oxford University


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