The truth about giving

A recent holiday-themed 'charity' post over on Freakonomics prompted me to express the following thoughts. This is a deeply felt, and I believe deeply true, conviction that I've held for quite some time, but have never expressed quite so clearly, largely for fear of being perceived as a bad, bad, contemptible person.

All too often, fear of how we will be perceived prevents us from speaking what we know is the truth, when that truth is of a cynical nature; and this allows the spreading of naive, nice and rosy false beliefs. But we should not have a bias in favor of naive, nice and rosy beliefs. We should not speak the truth only when it is nice. We should speak it always, or else people will act on false premises, and do damage because they believe in nice falsehoods instead of doing good on the basis of sound, real truth.

So here it is. The truth about giving.

To give without reservation is to spoil. To give is to bleed in order to allow someone else to consume resources. To give with a complete lack of selfishness is to be, rationally speaking, stupid.

The only sensible form of giving is that which is calculated expecting more in return. Lending with interest is a sensible and healthy form of giving which benefits the giver as well as the givee.

Smile Train is an apparently nice and effectively run charity that helps children with cleft lips. By donating $250, you can fix the cleft lip of one kid.

But if the parents of children with cleft lips aren't willing or able to invest $250 in a better life for their offspring, why should you help promote their genes?

You might be able to justify the gift if you expect the kid to repay you as an adult; either directly, if you give them the gift as a loan; or indirectly, by your gift increasing their ability to contribute in the economy in such a way that you yourself will benefit substantially from their increased contribution.

But more often than not, gifts tend to hurt their recipients. See the Spiegel interview with James Shikwati, an African economist: "For god's sake, please stop the aid!"

For the most part, gifts with no strings attached only serve to perpetuate a parasitic rather than a symbiotic relationship. Loans encourage symbiosis; you can take in a time of need, but when you can, you need to give a bit more in return.

Unrestricted giving, however, encourages parasitism. You can take; and you can take. And you can take. See the pattern?

For the most part, uncalculated altruistic giving is not only stupid, because it hurts you; it's evil, because it allows a parasitic pattern to proliferate, allowing it to hurt others.

Think hard before you give. Don't think only about someone's urgent need. Think about how your gift reduces their risks for doing something damaging, and increases their incentive for repeating it, or increases the incentive for others to do it in the future. Think whether your gift is really one-time, or whether it perpetuates a destructive pattern.

If in doubt - do not give.

Update. Here's an example of a Whole Foods store apparently unselfishly giving away groceries while experiencing a technical glitch. This sort of behavior makes sense. But there's a thin line between smart giving and stupid giving in cases like these. Notice that there was no announcement of the freebies, and the situation lasted only a short while. This makes sure that the free groceries were given only to unsuspecting customers - people who didn't come with the intention of taking advantage, and are likely to reward the store for its largesse by shopping there in the future more frequently. Imagine now that the store announced that groceries are free, or that the situation lasted long enough for people to alert their friends to take advantage. What would be the consequences for the store then?

Now, knowing this, answer the rhetorical question posed somewhat stupidly by the article's author: "Imagine the kind of world we would live in if all corporations were run like Whole Foods." Indeed? Stores consistently giving away stuff below market price - what would that lead to?

Overconsumption? Queues? Shortages? Black markets?

Comments

tgjovik said…
Interesting point of view. Sounds like you've been reading Atlas Shrugged recently. My major point of contention is with your statement "Why should you help promote their genes?" You skate awfully close to racist (a better word might be genist? doubt it's a word) type thinking.
You are correct that uncritical giving causes negative ongoing problems. Today's welfare society being a prime example. But I wouldn't give up on giving entirely, my reasoning being that you and I have both benefited and thus produced because we have received first. Health, Intelligence, Family, Political stability, etc. things that are not at all attributable to your own effort. I claim to receive this from God, you might claim nature, or luck. I would assume that you consider yourself a net positive to the world, or the economy. A person without some of the above mentioned may not be able to do that without a little help. So if you help the unfortunate one, which may benefit the world, do you not benefit by extension?
Love your Blogs, and St. Kitts looks beautiful
denis bider said…
With regard to Atlas Shrugged, I have so far not yet read any of Ayn Rand's books - that one included.

People who have potential that requires external help to be realized, should get some help, if someone is willing to give them on the basis of a profitable long-term loan. If a loan scenario is not profitable, this indicates that the cost of external help exceeds this person's unrealized potential, and so help should not be provided.

Humans don't generally care much for the well-being of the chicken, cows and tuna fish we eat. An online poll I conducted a few weeks ago showed that 95% of those who voted are against a ban on eating meat. This means that we generally do not care for the well-being of creatures whose existence does not serve our ends. To be rationally consistent, we must apply this criterion to humans and chimpanzees as well as fish.
tgjovik said…
Not quite sure i follow your second paragraph. Correct me if i'm wrong. According to your reasoning, you would not help a victim of a car accident unless you could somehow come to an agreement whereby your assistance would later benefit you personally?

I would argue that participating and perpetuating a system where one helps another in need is to your benefit much like insurance is. Replace the victim in the car accident with yourself, and you would find that you would most likely benefit from a society of "good samaritans" as opposed to a society of individuals looking for their own immediate and personal benefit.
So my argument is not for uncritical giving, but to factor in a larger definition of personal benefit.
Of course i am aware of the slippery slope of my argument. Today we see bans on smoking, trans fat, and in the u.s. a coming ban on the incandescent lightbulb for crying out loud!
all under the guise of helping make a cleaner, healthier, and more energy efficient society.
Lastly regarding consistency, I have never come across a philosophy (save Christianity wink wink) whereby if consistently carried out to its logical end resulted in anything remotely acceptable. There are ALWAYS inevitable problems, which is probably why after all these years of humanity, we still argue over what is right and wrong, good and bad.
Chow, I'm off too start my day where there is STILL snow on the ground. ugh! You lucky bastard
denis bider said…
Unless there's something in it for you, you should only help a person on the road if you and that person are both members of a community, which community has fewer members than the Dunbar number for humans.

The Dunbar number for humans is somewhere between 100 and 200.

Up to that number of community members, people can keep track of what everyone else is doing, make sure that everyone is contributing and that no one is free riding, with informal means and without having to implement a formal hierarchy.

When the number of community members exceeds the Dunbar number by much, a community loses the ability for everyone to keep track of everyone else. Dark corners and dead angles start to appear, in which parasites begin to fester. In such a community, formal rules (such as the rules of money, or the rules of hierarchy) are required to keep the community in shape.

So, no, if there isn't something in it for you - such as that the person is a sexy lady you'd like to hook up with - then you shouldn't help a random person on the road. There are services that are supposed to do that, and the most you might do is help that person alert those services that he is in need of their assistance. Then the proper people will come and take care of the emergency.

Christianity taken to its extreme is the Middle Ages. The heaven you imagine if everyone adhered to Christian ideals is a fanciful illusion which is unworkable in practice just like communism is. Your basic supposition is "if only people were like X", ignoring that people are simply not like X, and never will be. Your Christian ruleset does not work because it is not designed for the world you actually live in.

The rulesets that are designed, and do work, for the world we actually live in, are somewhat cruel, but they are just. They are not fanciful, they can be cynical, but they do work.

And that is by far the most important property.
tgjovik said…
What rulesets are you talking about?
In regards to the Christian philosophy, taken to its extreme, I disagree that it would lead to the middle ages. I would agree that organized religion has and probably would again lead to that. However, I can't see the Christian philosophy properly applied would.
You are correct that the Christian ruleset does not work in the world I live in. That is the whole point! No one has followed the ruleset to the letter. to quote, "all have fallen short"
Christianity is not about following a set of rules, but being forgiven for failing at said rules. Thats a major difference between Christianity and other religions.
Be happy to discuss more on the subject, but getting back to our original argument;

regarding the car accident, there ARE services available to help people in need, or in an emergency, but only because we as a society have set it up to be so. A society that you have apparently bought into given your statement that "there are services that are supposed to do that"
Alternatively, acording to your philosophy, there wouldn't be services of this kind. i mean, what do these services get out of the deal? By services, I mean the fire dept. etc. (not your typical auto club)

You may never personally benefit from the fire department, but I imagine you willingly enter into the agreement where you pay for their services through your taxes. I can't imagine, when they put out a fire in your neighborhood, you would complain that they are receiving more benefit than you from the arrangement.


You still haven't responded to the fact that you yourself are a benficiary of good health, intelligence etc. enabling you to produce. Are you not responsible to pay this back, or forward as the case may be?

Sorry my response is a little scattershot, but there seem to be an increasing number of points to debate.

Have a good day Denis, I look forward to my smack down.
denis bider said…
In regards to the Christian philosophy, taken to its extreme, I disagree that it would lead to the middle ages.

History proves you wrong.


However, I can't see the Christian philosophy properly applied would.

Is that something like "the Marxist philosophy properly applied"?

Like Marxism, various forms of Christian philosophy have been applied numerous times. Their track record of success (or failure) is open for everyone to analyze.

Philosophies must be judged by how they work when applied by real people in real situations, not by fictional ideal people in fictional ideal situations.

Philisophies which work only when applied by fictional people in fictional situations are only fictionally useful.


regarding the car accident, there ARE services available to help people in need, or in an emergency, but only because we as a society have set it up to be so.

I am talking about services that provide you with help in exchange for a membership fee. You can generally call for help if you are a member of an automotive society that charges an annual fee for this privilege. If you call them without having become a member before, you need pay them then.

Yes, this is talking about when you need help with car problems. Help for medical emergencies in most places is free. I don't think it should be.


Alternatively, acording to your philosophy, there wouldn't be services of this kind. i mean, what do these services get out of the deal? By services, I mean the fire dept. etc. (not your typical auto club)

Services that help in medical emergencies should function like auto clubs. Fire departments used to be financed by insurance companies. (Cheaper to put out a fire than to pay out the fire insurance to everyone.)

Things have a way of working out that way.


You may never personally benefit from the fire department, but I imagine you willingly enter into the agreement where you pay for their services through your taxes.

Willingly enter an agreement where I pay for their services with my taxes?

Willingly? Taxes?


You still haven't responded to the fact that you yourself are a benficiary of good health, intelligence etc. enabling you to produce. Are you not responsible to pay this back, or forward as the case may be?

Have I taken anything from anyone, in order to pay it back?

Has anyone lent me anything?

Is anyone suffering from having less intelligence, because I have more?

Some inequalities simply are, and nobody owes anyone anything for it.

Otherwise we would not be catching fish and slaughtering chicken. And monkeys would benefit from our health care programmes.

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