Another interesting consideration about charitable giving addressed in The Elephant in the Brain has to do with which charities we chose to donate large sums of money to. If part of our charitable donations is intended to impress other people and show them how generous and caring we are, then we want to make sure everyone understands how good our donation is.
As an example, I have an automatic recurring donation set up with the Against Malaria Foundation. If I wanted to tell someone about the charitable donations that I do and convince them that what I was doing was meaningful, I would have to convey to them what exactly malaria is, what the foundation does, and why it is effective. Just saying that I donate to the Against Malaria Foundation may not resonate with people the way that me telling them that I was donating to the Children’s Leukemia Support Network would. Malaria is not common in the United States and most people probably don’t understand how debilitating yet preventable it can be. Many people in the United States have heard, however, about Leukemia and probably know it is a type of cancer. Many people also probably have experience in their families of cancer (of one form or another), and know how devastating it can be. Attaching our donations to a terrible disease that people have experience with and trying to support a population such as children is a much easier sell in some regards than convincing people to donate to a charity aimed at malaria which impacts people living far away.
Simler and Hanson write, “Original research generates private information about which charities are worthy, but in order to signal how prosocial we are, we need to donate to charities that are publicly known to be worthy.” This leads us to donate to the Children’s Leukemia Support Network, even though the charity’s entire existence is a scam, rather than the Against Malaria Foundation which GiveWell identifies as one of the most effective charities.
The important thing is that we don’t really do much background with our donations and set out primarily to make big donations to well known charities that tackle things that we think we, or people close to us, might face directly. We want to feel a warm glow about our donations, and we want people to see our donations and immediately recognize what a positive difference we are making. Smaller but more effective charities that address less well known causes are left behind in favor of the bigger more well known charities, even if we could have a bigger impact on the world by making a donation to the smaller charity that people don’t immediately recognize.
An argument that Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson present in their book The Elephant in the Brain is that when we donate to charity, we are signaling to others how caring and generous we are as humans. The actual good that our donation will do is secondary to being the kind of person who is caring enough and generous enough to help out with what ever cause we donate toward. It is not, the authors argue, the suffering of other people or creatures that we are concerned about, it is whether or not we think of ourselves and are seen by others as the kind of person who cares about it.
Simler and Hanson write, “Occasionally, we’re even happy to donate without knowing the most basic facts about a charity, like what its purpose is or how donations will be spent. “Within two weeks of Princess Diana’s death in 1997,” writes Geoffrey Miller, “British people had donated over 1 billion pounds to the Princess of Wales charity, long before the newly established charity had any idea what the donations would be used for, or what its administrative overheads would be.” When we analyze donation as an economic activity, it soon becomes clear how little we seem to care about the impact of our donations. Whatever we’re doing, we aren’t trying to maximize ROD [return on donation].”
If we were very concerned about making sure that we made a difference in the world with any money we donate, then we would take steps to ensure that our donation was going to make a difference. We would want to see a spreadsheet showing how the foundation used our money. We would want to know how many people were helped and in what way. We would want to know how much money went to the salaries of the employees of the charity, what money was spent on office furniture, and how much money was simply used as fixed office costs that didn’t benefit the cause we wanted to support.
Instead, the charities we donate to very rarely present any information along these lines. Our donations and charity are something we feel in our hearts, not something we think about in a rational way. Effective Altruists have argued that if you want to actually make a difference you can feel good about, if you actually want to show that you are a caring person, you should make an effort to understand how much good your donation is doing. We act as if that is why we donate, but then we don’t do any of the things (most of the time) that would support the argument that we care. A much more simple explanation of our donations is that we want to look good and feel good internally about our generous and charitable behavior, even when our generosity and charity is effectively wasted on organizations that are ineffective.
In the United States we don’t like the way our politics looks from the outside. We don’t like the fact that special interests lobby and seem to buy legislators. We don’t like that it is hard to have a voice and to have a say in what happens. We don’t like that political families seem to stay in power for long periods of time. Our primary solution to all of these problems is to try to make our country more democratic and to increase participation in our governing process.
We have focused on increasing participation because it feels like the right thing to do. Increasing voter turnout and making it easier for people to vote is one solution we have pushed for in certain areas. Another strategy has been to encourage more political outsiders to run for office and for average voters to support candidates through individual donations. These strategies however, do not necessarily address the problem that we face with governance and the things about government that frustrate our public. It is possible for us to address the challenges of government by evaluating and changing processes, rather than by changing the mix of people who participate.
Jonathan Rauch looks at what can happen when government is directed by political amateurs rather than career politicians. He is skeptical that political amateurs can navigate the political landscape and build necessary coalitions to help move good legislation forward. Rauch quotes a New York University School of Law professor to demonstrate his fears of increased participation from political outsiders, “In the midst of the declining governing capacity of the American democratic order, we ought to focus less on ‘participation’ as the magical solution and more on the real dynamics of how to facilitate the organization of effective political power.”
Stability is underrated yet drastically important in any political system, and often times stability comes from relationships and coalitions within government. Political outsiders and amateurs are focused on specific issues and often brand themselves as being outside the normal relationships and spheres of influence within the political system. There are certainly times to inject politics with new faces and new relationships, but to continually stock legislatures with amateur politicians makes the overall process of governing more difficult and makes the organization of political power a greater challenge and battle. Changing the “who” of politics does not solve all of our problems alone.