Charitable behavior says something about us. It is a way for us to advertise ourselves to the world in a discrete manner, so that everyone can see us and take away a message without us having to tell each person something about ourselves in a direct manner. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in The Elephant in the Brain, “The most obvious thing we advertise is wealth, or in the case of volunteer work, spare time.”
It seems strange that we would use charity in this way. I hear arguments from time to time that we should just have higher taxes and use government systems and structures to address social problems. As a change to the current system, we could build more government agencies and provide more support for the kinds of programs and functions that we currently ask non-profits and charities to assist with. A frequent argument against this idea is that it would be inefficient and we couldn’t rely on government to consistently address the kinds of problems that charities and non-profits pop up to address. An argument that I don’t hear very often, but that I think plays a role, is that we would not be able to signal our generosity and extra wealth if we just expanded taxes and the role of government.
“In effect, charitable behavior says to our audiences, I have more resources than I need to survive; I can give them away without worry,” continue Simler and Hanson. The fact that our donations are often public and are often directed to causes that make us feel warm and fuzzy are evidence that we are not really using our donations to try to solve real problems. Asking the government to step in and play a bigger role might really address the problems that are out there, but it wouldn’t give us the warm fuzzy feeling we are looking for, and wouldn’t allow us to advertise to others about how charitable we are. This is why it is so hard to say no to people soliciting donations at grocery stores. We don’t know anything about the charitable cause they are asking us to support, but if we don’t take the chance to advertise how generous we are, we inadvertently advertise how inconsiderate we might be, or how little resources we have to spare. These little charitable behaviors end up being more about ourselves than about the good we are trying to do.