I don’t enjoy being asked to make donations to charity, and not solely because I’m a tight, selfish bastard. It’s because it’s a form of bullying – you are put under social pressure to make a quick decision.
My response is to have an articulated approach to charitable donations, which serves as a defense mechanism and means I can avoid treating each request as something that requires my attention. I prefer to have a charity rule, rather than have to judge each request on its case-by-case merits. In a nutshell here it is:
- I believe that the best way to help people out of poverty is through economic liberalisation. I find the empirical and theoretical evidence compelling, and devote my career to pursuing it. This sounds glib and self-satisfying but writing a book about the power of markets is my chief contribution. Economics is my Ikigai and when my children ask my what I’ve done to make poverty history, my response is “public education”. And I sleep well at night.
- Of course, I can do more. However I’m very concerned about inefficiencies within the charity sector. Since they exist largely outside the profit and loss framework that I deem to be the cause of the success of markets, it is to be expected that they are subject to bureaucratic inefficiencies. I suspect that the charities I’m most familiar with, are not necessarily the most important. I suspect that the causes that generate most media coverage, are not necessarily the most pressing. So I try to discount charities that have good branding, good PR, and are emotionally draining.
- I think it’s important to have direct debits to charities that you believe in. I set a percentage of my income that I feel is appropriate and split that between a few well known charities. One is focused on democracy and basic human rights. One is focused on humanitarian assistance and medical aid. If another charity wants me to contribute to them, they’ll need to convince me either that (i) they are more deserving than a charity I currently support; or (ii) I should increase the percentage of my income I assign to charitable giving. A Tithe requires 10%, but I already donate more than that to the UK government to administer charitable giving on my behalf. So I don’t give 10%. Less than that. If the state shrank, I’d give more.
- I never donate based on cold calling, be it at home or in the street. This is a rule and the more you encourage me to break it, the more resolute I will be. Don’t bully me!
- I regularly make donations of clothes, toys, DVDs etc to my favourite local charity shop.
- Whenever I bet on beliefs I suggest to donate proceeds to charity.
- I am not as skeptical of government-to-government foreign aid as most free market economists, because I believe that even with large scale bureaucratic inefficiencies the end result could still be beneficial. If for every £1 that gets sent abroad 50p is lost to bureaucracy, 25p goes to prop up a bad regime, and only 25p goes to intended recipients; that may be better than 0. But there’s important incentive effects that should be considered.
- As an alternative to foreign aid, I’m delighted that the practice of giving cash transfers is generating more coverage. The economic logic is simple, and it seems that it’s working. Yes, they may spend it on booze. But as Chris Blattman points out this pessimism and paternalism is pretty unfounded (do read that whole article). Other good articles on cash transfers are this one and this one.
- There are also important incentive effects with direct charitable giving. I don’t give money to beggars or homeless people. It’s not because I believe that they’re most likely to be under cover police officers. But if there are rents, I expect rent-seeking. I also expect beggars to invest resources to acquire prime begging locations. And I don’t want to encourage self-mutilation. I assume that any dogs I see are borrowed or rented, and whilst I am tempted to give warm clothes or a cup of tea I find this to be too much hassle. That sounds awful, but I also try to place more weight on the needs of starving people in underdeveloped countries than those where I live, so I don’t feel too guilty from walking on by.
- I try to tip generously, but mostly when abroad. In many countries the service providers you encounter – taxi drivers, waiting staff, housekeepers – will be on low incomes, and so it’s directed at deserving people. This is a nice way to administer cash transfers. But in richer countries tipping is a horrible practice and I favour an automatic 15% service charge that gets split at the discretion of senior management.
- I have an annual budget to use for friends that ask for sponsorship. I don’t keep a close record but this generally means that if it’s someone dear to me I will sponsor. This is a nice way to ensure that I have a wider range of giving than if I chose the charity myself.
- I don’t wear ribbons and resist social media gimmicks. The fact that the Ice Bucket Challenge involved nominations and a deadline involved an amount of peer pressure that I consider to be a form of bullying. I find such expressive gestures self-satisfying and hollow and believe that genuine charity should be understated. Having said that, I’m also aware of evidence to suggest that the more public people are about their charitable activity, the more it encourages other people. Which is why I wrote this post. (Indeed just after writing it I went into town and would have ordinarily bought a Starbucks coffee. Instead, I realised that I’ve fallen below my voluntary “Tithe” and set up a new Direct Debit).
- Don’t conflate environmental concerns and other forms of “doing good” with charity. Avoid virtue signalling, which occurs when you value the image your project more than the solving of a problem. As an example, What you think about landfill and recycling is probably totally wrong. And understand the benefits of packaging before lamenting the costs.
One thing I haven’t mentioned is community work, and I’ve often wondered if I’ve used shyness as a mask for selfishness. However Brooks’ ‘The Road to Character’ reassured me that we shouldn’t overstate community involvement. He says, “community service is sometimes used as a patch to cover over inarticulateness about the inner life”. He provides an example of asking a headteacher how her school teaches character, and the response was the number of hours of community service. According to Brooks, “when I asked her about something internal, she answered by by talking about something external. Her assumption seemed to be that if you go off and tutor poor children, that makes you a good person yourself”. It isn’t a massive leap to consider “how can I use my beautiful self to help out those less fortunate than I”. He says (p.133),
Today, when we use the phrase “public-spirited,” we tend to mean someone who gathers petitions, marches and protests, and makes his voice heard for the public good. But in earlier eras it meant someone who curbed his own passions and moderated his opinions in order to achieve a larger consensus ands bring together diverse people.
If you struggle to find the balance between donating 80% of your income to charity and retraining as a doctor to work in a children’s hospital in Africa, versus doing nothing, I recommend ‘Stubborn Attachments‘ by Tyler Cowen. In particular, may this passage reassure you:
“the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who live faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs”