The rationalist community’s location problem
Basically ever since the first rationalists settled in Berkeley, people have been saying, “Why do you live in Berkeley, Berkeley sucks! You should all move to Location X instead, it’s so much better.” The problem has always been that no one agrees on what Location X is. Some common candidates for Location X:
A smaller, cheaper, friendlier US city
Somewhere with very low cost of living (often in Southeast Asia or Latin America)
A private island
and of course
Wherever the speaker is from
In the past I’ve brushed off all such suggestions, because it was just too hard a coordination problem to get multiple hundreds of rationalists to leave Berkeley, where they’ve gotten jobs, rented or even bought houses, established organizations, enrolled in schools, and established social circles.
But we’re in a unique time! Due to the pandemic, there’s far less reason to stay in any one place—work and school are remote, expensive leases can be terminated, and you can’t see your friends anyway. Most of the rationalist houses I know have moved or dissolved, and the former Berkeley rationalists are flung across all corners of the globe (yeah I know globes don’t have corners). A fair number of us have stayed, but I think for most of us it’s just because our friends are here, we’re hoping that someday the rest of our friends come back, and we’re not sure where else to go.
So, if ever there were a time when we actually had the chance to move the physical locus of the rationalist community, it’s now. Below, I’ll lay out what I believe to be some of the most important general considerations for deciding on a new location. I encourage people to make their case for a specific location, either in comments or in their own posts. (Looking at you, Mikk!)
Considerations for Location X
In order to settle in a location, you have to be able to legally live there long-term. Most Berkeley rationalists are US citizens, and those who aren’t have already paid the steep cost of acquiring US visas and learning US immigration law. This feels like a strong argument in favor of staying in the US somewhere, although it’s possible there are places where this wouldn’t actually be that much of an issue. In any case, it’s certainly an argument against countries with strict immigration laws, like Switzerland.
Relatedly, organizations such as MIRI, CFAR, Open Phil, BERI, etc are registered in the US. I don’t know how hard it would be for them to operate elsewhere and am unfamiliar with this domain in general.
Given that basically all rationalists speak English (since it’s pretty hard to read the relevant material otherwise), we should settle somewhere English-speaking; it would be very costly if everyone had to deal with a language barrier every single day (or learn a new language).
Notably this doesn’t automatically disqualify all locations in e.g. continental Europe—Habryka points out that you can get along just fine in Berlin if you only know English. But somewhere like e.g. Japan looks like a much worse prospect on this metric.
National political environment / culture
The rationality community often attracts controversy, so it’s important that we settle somewhere that protects freedom of thought and speech, and is generally friendly to weird ideas. We should definitely not move somewhere where political dissidents can be abducted willy nilly.
Some people are worried about unrest in the US, which might be reasonable, but on that metric it’s still better to live here than, say, Mali or Afghanistan.
Local political environment / culture
Same basic considerations as the above. California may be an increasingly hostile environment for our community, but it’s almost certainly still better to live here than in a town where people fly Confederate flags and openly carry guns.
It’s also really valuable to be near Silicon Valley. The Bay Area has a general culture of ambition and intellectual curiosity that’s hard to find.
People talk wistfully about private islands or about founding our own town, but my guess is that most of those people haven’t actually thought those ideas through. A place needs SO MANY THINGS to sustain a modern human population: roads, electricity, water, laws, buildings, police, medicine, commerce, trash collection… and those are just the basic necessities! Despite the appeal of building something from the ground up and thus controlling every aspect of its development, it just seems way better to move to a place that already has this basic infrastructure in place.
Other important considerations
Cost of living
A major complaint about the Bay Area is rental prices, and justifiably so. Obviously cost of living interacts with a lot of other factors, but on the whole, it would feel pretty silly to leave the Bay only to move somewhere with equally high rent.
Many municipalities, at least in the US, have laws prohibiting unrelated adults from sharing a home. This would render most group houses illegal.
Berkeley has fiber internet, 2-day Amazon delivery, a myriad of quick restaurant and grocery delivery options, and excellent coverage by Lyft, Uber, and bikeshares. I expect many would be reluctant to give up this level of convenience. This is a strike against private islands, remote castles, and developing countries, among others.
Walkability (/ bikeability / public transit)
Sparse suburban areas are terrible places to build community. In addition, driving is dangerous and owning a car is super annoying. We should settle somewhere where it’s possible to all live close enough together that we can visit each other on foot, and also ideally where the city center is within walking distance of our homes.
(Being able to bike safely and easily between homes and city center would also work. Sufficiently good public transit might also do the trick.)
It’s really important to have quick access to modern medicine – rationalists may largely be healthy 20-somethings, but healthy 20-somethings can still die of sepsis if they can’t get antibiotics quickly. This is an argument against many locations in developing countries. It could also be construed as an argument against the US, where medical care is theoretically available but often avoided due to expense.
Additional things to consider
All else equal, less crime seems better. If that’s not possible, property crime is better than violent crime. It’s really unpleasant to have your bike or laptop stolen, but it’s a lot worse when it happens at gunpoint (which happened to some of my friends when I lived in Chicago).
(Aside: High-trust environments are great, but I would guess that in general they’re also more insular, which might make it hard to pick up our ~300-person community, plop it down in an existing high-trust town, and have everyone maintain those high trust levels. No real action item here and I’m confused.)
Rationalists may be less likely than average to want kids, but that doesn’t mean none of us are having them. I don’t know if there’s anywhere in the world that has truly non-terrible schools, but at least some schools are a lot less terrible than others.
A lot of people who live in California really hate extreme weather. A lot of people have SAD and don’t want to live in a place that has winters. Natural disasters are bad too.
Call to Action
As I said above, I’d be excited for people to pitch their own favorite Location X! Write an essay making your case, or even just a bullet-pointed comment.
And please also let me know if there are additional considerations I missed.