Sunday, October 15, 2006

Selfish Charity

A few years ago I got into a discussion about being charitable and the reasons why we would be so. I had come to the conclusion that we give to the poor, or donate money to AIDS research, because it makes us feel good not because we believe in altruism : "the principle of unselfish concern for, or devotion to, the welfare of others."

Of course my thoughts were not new. Ayn Rand back in the 40s and 50s put forth the irrationality and immorality of altruism in her tour de force Atlas Shrugged. She believed that people must choose their values and actions by reason; that the individual has a right to exist for his or her own sake, neither sacrificing self to others nor others to self; and that no one has the right to take what belongs to others by physical force or fraud, or impose their moral code on others by physical force.

Now I've come across an article in Slate entitled "Charity is Selfish" by Tim Harford. It sets out the economic case against philanthropy:
Selfishness is one of those issues where economists seem to see the world differently. It's not that economists are incapable of imagining—or even modeling—altruism. They can, but they usually don't. And there's a good reason for that: People aren't selfless.

The Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project estimates that charitable giving in the United States was 1.85 percent of the size of the economy in recent years, 0.84 percent in the United Kingdom, and as little as 0.13 percent in Germany. By this reckoning, then, the Germans are 99.87 percent selfish, and even the Americans are more than 98 percent selfish. That's not 100 percent, but it's pretty close...

In fact, the closer you look at charitable giving, the less charitable it appears to be. A recent experiment by John List, an economist at the University of Chicago, and a team of colleagues, showed that donations are less than magnanimous after all. Using controlled trials to compare different methods of door-to-door fund-raising, professor List's team discovered that it was much more effective to raise funds by selling lottery tickets than it was to raise funds by asking for money. This hardly suggests a world populated by altruists seeking to do the maximum good with their charitable cash. Read the full article.

Now while I'm skeptical about altruistic motivations for giving, I guess it really doesn't matter what motivates us. What really matters is THAT we give. the teach

No comments: