One person who’s more critical of charity than we are or than David Hunter is is the economist Robin Hanson. He has stated that “charity isn’t about helping” and spelled out this view somewhat in a post about the founder of Rite Aid:
when folks like Alex spend their later years trying to “do good” with the millions they were paid for actually doing good, they usually end up pissing it away. We already have too much medicine and academia, because such things are mainly wasteful signals. We didn’t need and shouldn’t be thankful for more hospital wings or lecture halls. Imagine how much more good could have been done instead via millions spent trying to make more innovative products or organizations.
Of course most innovations attempts fail, and that wouldn’t have looked so good for Mr. Grass. I’m sure those hospital wings and lecture halls came with grand ceremonies attended by folks in his social circle, saying what a great guy he was. And I expect people in his social circle are more likely than most to actually use those hospital wings and lecture halls; he was showing loyalty to his clan by buying such things.
- But when I think of all the good that could be done by philanthropists who actually wanted more to do good than to look good, it makes me sad. At it doesn’t make me sympathetic toward the tax deductions and other social support our society offers for these wasteful signals.
Prof. Hanson tends to imply that charitable giving should be essentially ignored in favor of pro-poor causes like allowing more immigration.
What response can the nonprofit sector marshal to arguments like this? I must say that, in fact, much of the nonprofit sector fits incredibly better into Prof. Hanson’s view of charity as “wasteful signaling” than into the traditional view of charity as helping.
- Donors often prefer to “give local.” This makes no sense if you’re trying to help those in need (if you have a lot of disposable income, chances are your community is one of the ones that needs your help the least) but lots of sense if donating is primarily about impressing your acquaintances.
- Foundations generally try to exist in perpetuity, which makes no sense if they’re trying to maximize good accomplished but makes lots of sense if they’re all about their funder’s legacy.
- Donors and charities tend to deny the basic concept of triage. This makes no sense if you’re trying to help people; lots of sense if you’re using charity as a way to signal that you find certain causes important.
- Even analytical hedge fund types seem much more interested in basing their giving on social events than on information.
- And as we’ve argued at length, charities fundamentally behave as though they’re serving donors, not clients.
Perhaps ironically, if you want a good response to Prof. Hanson’s view, I can’t think of a better place to turn than GiveWell’s top-rated charities. We have done the legwork to identify charities that can convincingly demonstrate positive impact. No matter what one thinks of the sector as a whole, they can’t argue that there are no good charitable options – charities that really will use your money to help people – except by engaging with the specifics of these charities’ strong evidence.
Valid observations that the sector is broken – or not designed around helping people – are no longer an excuse not to give.
Because our Bayesian prior is so skeptical, we end up with charities that you can be confident in, almost no matter where you’re coming from.