Listening to a recent talk on African development by Karol Boudreaux, I noted that in general we here have two very different channels of influence on them there: Direct – For some things we do, our main declared purpose is to influence them. Eg., World Bank, USAID, or GiveWell.
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Your argument about how a desire to signal things about oneself distorts charitable and development assistance, would explain some strange inconsistencies among environmental do-gooders' policy positions also.
See this BBC piece, which notes that many climate change activists strongly push for mechanisms to contain carbon emissions that constrain economic growth (their social milieu values anti-capitalist policies); while they mostly oppose nuclear power.
A better explanation is that it is too easy for observers to attribute your indirect policy adjustments to non-altruism motives. Your support for more open immigration could be attributed to your free market ... inclinationsI would not recognize any interpretation of (classical) liberalism which would explicitly deny it to be, functionally, a subset of altruism.
1. Actually help a lot, but be mostly unable to take social credit for your help, or 2. Help a lot less, but do so clearly and visibly, so you can take social credit. I am a huge gamer, and this is an extremely prominent feature of team-based online video games. When something can be loosely correlated with team victory, it's usually included on a "scoreboard". To make an analogy, if the team is building a car, a scoreboard statistic might be "metal contributed to car", while an unlisted statistic might be "plastic contributed to car". In many games, someone who actually understands the goal of the game (a car, mostly metal, some plastic) must often make a choice: either do whatever needs to be done to help the team win and risk appearing useless if those actions do not correlate with a strong scoreboard standing (more plastic), or do the majority action of obsessively pursuing scoreboard status (more metal) and risk losing as a team because you failed in the overall goal by under-supplying what were already low-demand tasks. Better games sniff out better scoring systems that are more indicative of real contribution, but the quality of the scoring system and the degree to which individuals of a group seek high scores are utterly unconnected. Most gamers seem to find it preferable to be outstanding on a losing team (which you can then blame, absolving oneself) than be a little above-average on a winning team (which has several people claiming more credit than you). I'm not sure what that says about us as a species, but frankly I'm amazed we manage to collaborate on anything.
I think the definition of “altruism” is what is important and what the donor is trying to accomplish. If the donor is trying to raise his/her status with a particular group by being “altruistic”, he/she will donate according to whatever group those he/she is trying to influence considers beneficial. The actual objective benefit/harm ratio doesn't matter, only how his/her signaling will influence the group he/she is trying to influence.
For example donating to a church that preaches hatred against gays and advocates legal death penalty for them (as in Uganda) will not buy an increase in status among the GLBT community. Donating to Planned Parenthood will not curry favor with pro-life groups.
To me, spending money to try and curry favor with someone is not “altruism” (even when that money is spent to try and curry favor with the person being donated to). I used the example of the Carter Center in the comment above because I think that the idea of donating to the Carter Center would be anathema to many conservatives, not because of the good works that the Carter Center is doing, and how efficiently they are being accomplished with donor funds, but because Carter is a liberal Democrat and donating to the Carter Center will not curry favor with other conservatives.
If people won't donate to efficient charities because of the politics of those running the efficient charities, they should not get an increase in status from displaying altruism because they aren't displaying altruism.
I appreciate they won't think that way, they will consider that they are being “altruistic”, but only to the people that “count”, people that are like themselves. In the limit, being altruistic to people that are “just like you” is like being “altruistic” to yourself, or as Ross said, just being selfish.
Definitely valid concerns, Cournot. In the intellectual circles frequented by many commenters around here (Overcoming Bias, Less Wrong, Future of Humanity Institute, etc.), the standard reply would be to direct you toward the studies at GiveWell.org, which make a pretty good case that there are in fact a few charities which do efficient good with their donations.
In any case, even if you weren't convinced by GiveWell and you thought that helicopter drops over underdeveloped regions of Africa were a more efficient form of charity, this wouldn't really refute my point that, from an individual's standpoint, supporting the political goals of more open boarders (which I take Robin Hanson to be advocating here) is much less effective---and therefore much more suspicious of being non-altruisitc---than direct giving.
The Carter Center
There has been some helicoptering of money into impoverished regions. That is one way that ransoms are delivered to Somali pirates. I do not think that helicoptering still more money into Somalia would be an effective charity operation.
Can you give me an example of one major charity where the benefit to the poor is demonstrably (to a skeptic) dispensed more efficiently than just dropping the total monies donated to the org from a helicopter?
Most charities are bad at keeping track of the outcomes of their giving, they have self serving measures of the efficiency of their aid, and they keep no information about the negative consequences of their donations.
What about welfare for the poor?
Generally, I find most economists (and myself) support just giving them cash directly as freedom maximizing and distortion minimizing.
This also has the benefit of being a fairly clear charity/priority signal.
I know many many people who are dead against this idea and would rather use more indirect methods like job programs, in-kind aid, training programs, etc.
I would swallow that there are psychological factors, but I think you're reducing the size of the cost, distortionary, measurement problems that indirect aid has.
I usually hear economists argue the opposite side of this issue, saying that you should not let moral considerations alter your market behavior (e.g., by buying Fair Trade) because it won't work. Instead you should just buy what you like, and channel your moral concerns into charitable donations.
I also agree with Carl Shulman.
Not denying that people are motivated by what you cite. But why not appeal to individual feelings of powerlessness with respect to the political system, but empowerment about writing personal checks? ("If I write this check, it will probably help someone. Who knows whether I can do anything about the government's trade policies.")
Robin, something you appear to ignore or discount is that, in the personal sphere at least, loyalty signals per se can be of significant value to the recipient. It's not ONLY the thought that counts - but the thought does count.
What Carl Shulman said. Unless you can can provide an example where more good can be done by one person than by donating to a GiveWell-recommended charity, you have no evidence that people so donating are doing it for signaling (or any other non-altruistic) reasons.
Put another way: what type of charity would you take as evidence of true altruism? So far you have argued that direct-charity donations, political donations, and awareness-raising actions are really about signaling. (Correct me if I'm over-simplifying your position.)
im reading atlas shrugged right now and totally wanted to make some comment like this too
I think it would be simpler if you first tried to disentangle gift giving itself. Why do some cultures tolerate high deadweight loss in gift giving (e.g. AER paper on deadweight loss of Xmas) whiile other cultures (e.g. East Asia) consider monetary gifts in weddings, etc. as perfectly normal and acceptable? The former is certainly a signaling equilibrium, while the latter says that giving useful gifts (i.e. money) is more important than signaling effort in gift selection.
This should be an easier problem, but the more I think this through in Hansonian fashion, the harder it is to come to a clear explanation.
Maimonides defined eight levels of charitable giving: See http://judaism.about.com/od...
Are you not just pussyfooting around the edges of John Galt's speech or Ayn Rand's "The Virtue of Selfishness"?