A Plea For Efficient Giving

Even among the econ blogs, there have been kind-hearted folk calling for donations to tsunami relief. Whatever happened to the dismal science? In keeping with the spirit of the holidays (the spirit of Scrooge, that is), let's snap out of this virtuous haze and criticize how and when people choose to give to charity. Making you feel bad about doing good - now that's proper economics :razz:

Here's the problem: unexpected events tend to rouse much greater emotions than expected ones. The tsunami was a freak occurence that swept out of nowhere. It made for great headlines and news stories, and was discussed anywhere people congregated. The result was a much higher reaction to death ratio than we have for more commonplace sources of mortality. This problem of drama, availability, and surprise is nothing new. It occurs in many settings - the behavioral economists call it "Availability Bias". In this situation it leads to regrettably inefficient giving, meaning that gifts here do not save as many lives as if they were directed to another cause.

The obvious alternatives are the Big 3 of infectious disease: Malaria, Tuberculosis, and AIDS, each of which kills more than a million people a year. That means that every month, year in and year out, each of these scourges takes a tsunami-sized toll on humanity. This devastation occurs steadily, no extraordinary events required, and silently, with few major headlines. Relief for a one-time occurence can only help once. Relief for a worldwide infectious epidemic can help find new methods of treatment which will help continuously, saving lives month in and month out for years to come.

Now, there is one difficulty with this argument, and that is that people who give to tsunami relief may be increasing their charity, rather than simply substituting. Hence if one approves of charity, then even this inefficient charity is a good thing. To that I would reply that my argument is not "Don't give to tsunami relief". Rather I urge all of you to give in to those charitable emotions, let them inspire you into getting out your checkbook, and then just change your target. You can use services like justgive.org to find charities like the Infectious Disease Research Institute, which "targets diseases with the highest prevalence, incidence, and mortality to humans of all ages. Together, these diseases kill more than six million people each year. Paradoxically, most governments and pharmaceutical companies neglect these diseases because they affect mostly the poor people of the so-called developing countries." That sort of policy makes much greater utilitarian sense than tsunami relief.

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Probably the reason Bill

Probably the reason Bill Gates donated millions to malaria research. He did the math a long time ago. Dinar for dinar, thats where you'll get your biggest bang, as an altruist. thats why it seemed like such an odd cause to most people and typically was dropped almost instantly by the general media '

Yep, the Gates Foundation is

Yep, the Gates Foundation is a great example of efficient giving.

As blogged yesterday at

As blogged yesterday at http://vark.blogspot.com:
Google lists 17 places where one can give away money to help tsunami-related clients.
Google does not list any places for investing in helping tsunami-related clients.
I think this is a huge mistake.
I'm not singling out google - even catallarchy, which should know better, takes the same approach.
Most people don't invest in places like sumatra because it's too high risk, and hard to get information to manage the risk. But when the same people are willing to donate, not just risk but with a certainty lose the whole investment, high risk is no longer an obstacle. Donating is a win/lose game. It tends to be a fad of the week kind of thing.
Investing is a more sustainable over the long haul, and returns from investment at one site can be plowed back into the next crisis center.
This is related to why I don't donate blood. I have sold plasma, which is legal, and worked, not very hard, to legalize blood sales.
Donating to tsunami clients - why? How much? How long?
Why is the idea of markets still so foreign to us?
Apparently other people see the world very differently than I do, and this frustrates me.
Meanwhile I did nothing useful today....

aardvark,thats an

aardvark,thats an interesting line of reasoning. i'm going to think about that. thanks for the tweak.

Tsunamiana Tsunamiana - It's

Tsunamiana
Tsunamiana - It's not just the first week of the month, but the first week of the year. In other...

"Relief for a one-time

"Relief for a one-time occurence can only help once."

That's not a bug - it's a feature!

The tsunami victims are largely self-supporting (in the absence of large volumes of water). Once they're back onto their feet, there's a very good chance that it really is a one-time thing, or at least, a very rare thing. The marginal good one does with a donation is probably fairly large by comparison to buying food for starving people in Africa via Oxfam, because even if you keep such folk alive for a while they are likely to perish from something else - war, disease, etc.

As for malaria research, well, it's unclear to me that the marginal gains there are really high. $20000 might fund a researcher-year. It will also probably put four Malaysian families back on their feet.

At the very least one can note that funding research is no sure thing - maybe there'll be a breakthrough on your buck, maybe not. So risk-averse philanthrapists might prefer the relatively surer "returns" from tsunami victims.

That said, I haven't given anything for the tsunami victims. I'm still focused on creating libertarianism in one country, and there ain't it. If I get generous I'll do what you suggest - give an extra $100 to IJ.

Your point about risk

Your point about risk averseness is an interesting one. It makes sense that people would get more altruistic pleasure from a contribution they are sure will go directly to help someone than one which provides some probabalistic benefit, even if the latter has a higher expected value.

On the other hand, when you have mass amounts of aid for a big tragedy like the tsunami, I suspect efficiency goes way down. Notice the stories about aid sitting stacked in warehouses and similar effects. You hit delivery bottlenecks. Plus the large amounts of aid probably encourage more skimming. So it might actually do more good to donate to Oxfam or whatever.

Hard to say. What I mostly care about is that people are thinking about these types issues and framing the debate in terms of maximum bang for the buck.

What if I take pleasure from

What if I take pleasure from acting in ways that utilitarians say I must not act? Why should I care about being "efficient", especially when it involves someone else's priorities and values?

Sabotta, I'm not sure what

Sabotta, I'm not sure what you are asking. Efficiency takes values as a given; it describes the relationship between means and ends. What Patri is saying is that if your means are dollars and your ends are helping save lives, your money might be better spent elsewhere.

I respond,

I respond, Ghertner:

http://www.no-treason.com/archives/2005/01/04/utilitarianism-unleased/

"I plan to do just that, Danzig...hat"

That's not a response.

That's not a response.

Give Wisely and Well Patri

Give Wisely and Well
Patri Friedman asks that we give efficiently, and not just to those causes that happen to catch the attention of the mass media at a given point in time (he also demonstrates that libertarianism isn't necessarily just a thin camouflage

What does giving in to one's

What does giving in to one's emotions mean? If it doesn't mean indulging in irrationality then why call it "giving in"?

Micha, "What Patri is saying

Micha,

"What Patri is saying is that if your means are dollars and your ends are helping save lives,..."

But what makes you think those *are* the ends of those inspired to help tsunami victims? What makes you think people value all lives equally? Ought they?

aardvark, If you're just

aardvark,

If you're just talking about investing there for the sake of helping out it amounts to charity anyway.

What's needed instead is a viable business plan which shows investors how they can profit from the tsunami disaster.

"Needed” by whom,

"Needed” by whom, John?

The evidence is abundantly clear, to me at least, that there are more than enough individual "investors” whose donations to disaster reliefs bring them "profit” in the form of feeling good about themselves.

Needed by anyone who wants

Needed by anyone who wants to see a lot more money go there.

What does giving in to

What does giving in to one’s emotions mean? If it doesn’t mean indulging in irrationality then why call it “giving in"?

Why is it that Randroids are the only people who have difficulty understanding the role that emotions play in human behavior? Eating is giving in to one's emotions. Evacuating waste from one's body is giving in to one's emotions. Making love is giving in to one's emotions. Turning on the air conditioner when it is hot or the furnace when it is cold is giving in to one's emotions. Donating charity to those who suffer from hardship is giving in to one's emotions.

Are all of these acts examples of undulging in irrationality? Only if we refuse to accept the fact that humans are animals, not robots, and that we experience a wide range of emotions triggered by instinct, biochemical reactions, social construction, and so forth. One can be rational and still recognize these facts.

But what makes you think those are the ends of those inspired to help tsunami victims? What makes you think people value all lives equally? Ought they?

Why should Americans, most of whom have no closer personal connection to a child living in Sri Lanka than to a child living in Ethiopia, value lives in one place more than the other? They only do so now because, as Patri mentioned, the deaths caused by the Tsunami are better publicized, more dramatic and more surprising than the millions more who suffer from malaria, tuberculosis, and AIDS.

This is precisely what happens whenever there is a well-publicized school shooting. The Brady Bunch gets lots of media attention, even though children are many times more likely to die from drowning in a five-gallon bucket than from a school shooting. The media makes money by presenting the sensational, but not necessarily by accurately prioritizing the truth.

>> What does giving in to

>> What does giving in to one’s emotions mean? If it doesn’t mean
>> indulging in irrationality then why call it “giving in"?
>
>Why is it that Randroids are the only people who have difficulty
>understanding the role that emotions play in human behavior?
>Eating is giving in to one’s emotions. Evacuating waste from one’s
>body is giving in to one’s emotions. Making love is giving in to
>one’s emotions.

How can activities which are *necessary for existence* be "irrational" when undertaken?

You're erroneously equating irrationality (literally: abdication from reason) with physiological compulsions or necessities. i.e., apples to oranges.

"Why is it that Randroids

"Why is it that Randroids are the only people who have difficulty understanding the role that emotions play in human behavior? Eating is giving in to one’s emotions. Evacuating waste from one’s body is giving in to one’s emotions. Making love is giving in to one’s emotions. Turning on the air conditioner when it is hot or the furnace when it is cold is giving in to one’s emotions. Donating charity to those who suffer from hardship is giving in to one’s emotions."

Who has to be counseled to "give in to their emotions" to eat, or evacuate, or make love or turn on the air conditioner?

Which emotions do you give into when you eat and evacuate and turn on the air conditioner anyway?

"Why should Americans, most of whom have no closer personal connection to a child living in Sri Lanka than to a child living in Ethiopia, value lives in one place more than the other? They only do so now because, as Patri mentioned, the deaths caused by the Tsunami are better publicized, more dramatic and more surprising than the millions more who suffer from malaria, tuberculosis, and AIDS."

Yes it is by chance that many people now want to help this specific set of victims. It doesn't follow that they really want to help just any people rather than these specific ones. Whatever it's origin, the desire is specific. It doesn't follow that the sympathy which has been evoked for certain people can be transferred to others.

Only an economist would try

Only an economist would try to explain the cause of a human wanting to eat as "giving in to an emotion." I would argue that the most immediate explanation for what causes us to want to eat can be found in biochemistry, not economic metaphors.

Micha: Over at NT you commented that the human emotional apparatus lags evolution, i.e. natural selection supposedly "selected" those emotions in us that further our reproductive success, but that happened millions of years ago during our hunter-gather phase, a context we no longer live in. So the story goes.

It seems to me that if you believe this hypothesis is really true, then at least some of our emotions are out of date, that is they are no longer useful for their selected "purpose." If charitable giving were such an emotion, then caving in to it would be irrational. After all, since we're now wise to natural selection's "purpose," what modern and *rational* evolutionary argument could there be for helping complete and utter strangers in the antipodes? Or any genetically unrelated individual for that matter. If the charitable emotion is "out of date," we can rationally ignore it, cognitively override it if you will, and maximize our reproductive success by acting selfishly. Just like nature made us in the first place. So the story goes.

"Only an economist would try

"Only an economist would try to explain the cause of a human wanting to eat as “giving in to an emotion.” ?

I'm not sure anyone but Micha would.

How can activities which are

How can activities which are necessary for existence be “irrational” when undertaken?

I have no idea. I never implied that giving in to one's emotions was irrational. Kennedy did.

Don Boudreaux, chair of the Department of Economics at George Mason University and blogger at Cafe Hayek defined rationality in an excellent article for TechCentralStation:

Take the assumption that people are rational. It is not an assumption that people are emotionless automata like Star Trek's Mr. Spock. Nor is it an assumption that emotions never distort decision-making, or that people are omniscient. It is merely the following three-pronged understanding that the typical human adult

- is goal-oriented
- learns
- has preferences that are transitive.

For more detail, read the rest.

You’re erroneously equating irrationality (literally: abdication from reason) with physiological compulsions or necessities. i.e., apples to oranges.

I made no such equation. I claimed precisely the opposite: that giving in to one's emotions is not an abdication of reason.

Who has to be counseled to

Who has to be counseled to “give in to their emotions” to eat, or evacuate, or make love or turn on the air conditioner?

Anorexics, bulimics, coitophobics (those who fear sexual intercourse), cheimaphobics (those who fear the cold), and those who suffer from constipation caused by psychiatric disorders or bad habits such as refusing to use the toilet away from home.

Further, to use the more common eating example, most people have a healthy urge to eat, but an unhealthy urge to eat the wrong things or too much food in general. There are evolutionary-biological reasons why a natural human appetite in the modern world can be unhealthy. Glen Whitman recently blogged about why many people may instinctively eat too much. I'm sure you can find similar articles on human sugar and fat intake.

These are examples where giving in to our emotions is healthy, but unless channelled properly and intelligently, can be extremely unhealthy.

Which emotions do you give into when you eat and evacuate and turn on the air conditioner anyway?

I don't know the technical psychological or neurobiological names for them. There are a quite a few doctors and scientists who read this blog; maybe they can help answer your question.

Yes it is by chance that many people now want to help this specific set of victims. It doesn’t follow that they really want to help just any people rather than these specific ones. Whatever it’s origin, the desire is specific.

I concede the possibility that I am wrong and most people actually care more about either (a) people who live in Sri Lanka over people who live in Ethiopia or (b) people who suffer from earthquakes and tsunamis over people who suffer from malaria, tuberculosis, and AIDS. I concede this possibility, but based on introspection, and observation of other people I have spoken with, I find it much more likely that the appropriate explanatory factors are the ones that Patri mentioned: better publicity, drama and surprise. Do you disagree?

It doesn’t follow that the sympathy which has been evoked for certain people can be transferred to others.

True. It's not always easy getting people to act rationally and efficiently with respect to their overarching goals. As I'm sure you already know.

Only an economist would try

Only an economist would try to explain the cause of a human wanting to eat as “giving in to an emotion.” I would argue that the most immediate explanation for what causes us to want to eat can be found in biochemistry, not economic metaphors.

Um, where did I give an economic metaphor as an explanation for eating? I said that our urge to eat is an emotion which we "give in to" or satisfy by putting food in our mouths and chewing. This emotion can be explained in terms of biochemistry as well as psychology. I don't recall saying anything about economics or economic metaphors as an explanation of our urge to eat.

It seems to me that if you believe this hypothesis is really true, then at least some of our emotions are out of date, that is they are no longer useful for their selected “purpose.” If charitable giving were such an emotion, then caving in to it would be irrational.

That doesn't follow. It is true that some of our emotions are out of date, but that doesn't mean caving in to any of them is irrational. Our urge to form clans and murder our enemies is out of date for a modern civil society, but it can still be channelled into positive outlets like defensive war or law enforcement, or channelled into neutral outlets like sports. Our urge to eat as much fat and sugar as possible is out of date for a prosperous society, but the absense of such an urge is also unhealthy. Some emotions result in favorable consequences and can be given in to as much as we please, some emotions result in mixed or negative consequences and must be redirected or countered completely.

However, it is much easier to redirect emotions than it is to eliminate them completely. This is Adam Smith's famous observation about capitalism - that it channels natural human selfishness into beneficial consequences for society. The Marxists took a different route and tried to eliminate our selfish urges altogether. They failed miserably and created a hell on earth.

So even if our charitable impulses led to bad consequences (which they sometimes do - see: support for minimum wage laws), the solution is not to eliminate these urges altogether, but to redirect them to more favorable pursuits. That is precisely what Patri is trying to do.

After all, since we’re now wise to natural selection’s “purpose,” what modern and rational evolutionary argument could there be for helping complete and utter strangers in the antipodes? Or any genetically unrelated individual for that matter. If the charitable emotion is “out of date,” we can rationally ignore it, cognitively override it if you will, and maximize our reproductive success by acting selfishly. Just like nature made us in the first place. So the story goes.

I have no idea where you are getting this stuff from, but it certainly isn't from me.

Here's my argument: our instincts, emotions, urges, or whatever you want to call them are given. They can sometimes be changed with lots and lots of psychological conditioning, but this is often a difficult, lengthy, expensive, and even cruel process. They can also sometimes be changed with lots and lots of social conditioning--take the taboo against homosexuality, for example--but this too is difficult, expensive, and and painful. Sometimes this difficulty, expense and pain is worth the cost, such as the taboo against and social repurcussions of murder. Even though it is costly to enforce these repurcussions and often painful to those who naturally feal the urge to murder, the alternative of no repurcussions would be even worse.

Now, you ask about natural human compassion. I believe this is partly instinctual, and partly influenced by social conditions. Both nature and nurture, if you will. You ask "what modern and rational evolutionary argument could there be for helping complete and utter strangers in the antipodes?" First of all, this question is poorly formed. As you've already acknowledged, my argument is not that human biology and psychology needs to be explained in evolutionary terms related to modern society, but rather in evolutionary terms related to hunter-gatherer society. They are good reasons why compassion provides an evolutionary advantage to people living in a hunter-gatherer society, which I will not go into here, but which Robert Axelrod discusses in "The Evolution of Cooperation."

As for good reasons why we should continue to help each other even at our own expense, that is beyond the scope of this discussion. There are good reasons in many cases - but the only one that matters here is the one we were already discussing, namely: our natural urge to do so. The question is not why we should continue to give in to this motion. Rather, the question is why we should want to discontinue giving in to this emotion. Remember, rechannelling a natural urge is costly and stopping it completely is even moreso. Why implement social repurcussions against charity when most of us consider charity a good thing?

ISTR reading somewhere that

ISTR reading somewhere that mosquitoes are responsible for about 50% of all of the deaths in human history.

Why has Bush not declared war on 'skeeters?

"I don’t know the

"I don’t know the technical psychological or neurobiological names for them."

Common names will be fine.

Let's see... common names

Let's see... common names for emotions describing the feelings a person experiences when he or she wants to "eat and evacuate and turn on the air conditioner"? Hungry, crowning, and hot.

Is it the word "emotion" that is giving you trouble? The dictionary defines the term as "A mental state that arises spontaneously rather than through conscious effort and is often accompanied by physiological changes; a feeling." I don't know if all of these feelings meet the psychological definition of emotion, but they seem to fit the dictionary definition. If it makes you feel better, simply replace the word "emotion" with "feeling."

I don't think that most

I don't think that most people contributing to victims of this disaster want only to save lives as efficiently as possible.

I think that they have become psychologically engaged in this incident and want to play a role. They have chosen their role and are contributing to fulfill it. Transferring their contributions to increase the expected life-saving will not help to achieve their chosen goals. Similarly, most people don't vote in order to have the maximum instrumental effect on public policy that they can, they vote to play a particular role in the process. We can say that people should choose their goals better than this, but we shouldn't consider them irrational for acting this way based on their choices.

I think evolutionary psychology can help to explain why we tend to have certain urges, but it doesn't explain what we should want to do. What we should want to do is, I think, to choose our values wisely and act to promote them (not to spread our genes as widely as possible; that's what they "want" us to do, but it doesn't make sense for us to want that).

Gil, I think you're right in

Gil,

I think you're right in a descriptive sense. But for the same reason I find voting silly, I can't wrap my head aroung the emotive aspects of inefficient charity. It's like the people who donate lots of money to some well-publicized murder victim's family who they don't personally know, but don't send a dime to much needier murder victims elsewhere.

And I agree on your last point. Evolutionary psychology doesn't explain what we should do, but it sometimes explains what we should not do, when doing so would be prohibitively costly or impossible.

Micha, How do you decide

Micha,

How do you decide which of your preferences are the standard by which you will judge results to be good or bad, and which are the preferences that must be rechannelled to maximize good results?

That's a good question and I

That's a good question and I don't have, nor I do I think there exists a completely satisfying answer. One problem is the question of what we should maximize or minimize: happiness? suffering? wealth? poverty? life? quality of life? Wealthy is a good proxy, but it does have its problems.

The urge to murder those who compete with us for resources is antithetical to nearly all of our other life goals, and if society does not redirect this urge towards less harmful ends, that society will not survive for long. Which is why we don't see any society currently in existence that lacks at least some sort of restiction on murder. So a rule against murder is pretty easy, unless you enjoy violence for its own sake and enough to outweigh your other goals.

When evaluating legal rules and social norms, it is useful to recognize that redirecting natural urges is difficult and costly. This leads to a bias in the direction of fewer rules. This may be another reason why the burden of proof should be on those who propose restrictions on human behavior rather than on those who want to remain free.

People give to charity

People give to charity because it makes them feel good. (It is not altruistic, its just as selfish as anything else.) Charities play on this fact, despite the fact they won't admit it. You want your charity to get the most, make your message as appealing to that part of the human psychy as possible. You make a person feel obligated to give (ie he will feel guilt if he doesn't) you will do well.

[...] t, so far, Wizbang has

[...] t, so far, Wizbang has a collection. Neither am I talking about a rather good piece on the charity industry by the good folks over at Catallarcy. I am talking about th [...]

Economist magazine

Economist magazine participated in the Copenhagen Consensus last year. The project asked, "What would be the best ways to spend additional resources on helping the developing countries?"

The article is now premium content, so you won't be able to read it without a subscription or by sitting through a long but innocuous ad. If I recall, addressing TB, AIDS, and malaria made it to the short list of things worth spending money on (in the context of their assumptions), and freeing agricultural trade both saved money in rich countries and benefited developing countries.

Kennedy: "What’s needed

Kennedy: "What’s needed instead is a viable business plan which shows investors how they can profit from the tsunami disaster."

There already is one:

1. Start a charity
2. Solicit donations from people
3. Pass on the majority of the donations to those needing help

Um, where did I give an

Um, where did I give an economic metaphor as an explanation for eating? I said that our urge to eat is an emotion which we “give in to” or satisfy by putting food in our mouths and chewing. This emotion can be explained in terms of biochemistry as well as psychology. I don’t recall saying anything about economics or economic metaphors as an explanation of our urge to eat.

I should have said "evolutionary metaphor" because your defense of Patri's argument over at NT involved some stuff about the original evolutionary purpose of our emotions. It's unclear what explanatory work that stuff is supposed to be doing in your defense of his argument. It sounded strangely familiar to other neo-darwinian "explanations" for various human behaviors that I've read over the years.

That doesn’t follow. It is true that some of our emotions are out of date, but that doesn’t mean caving in to any of them is irrational. Our urge to form clans and murder our enemies is out of date for a modern civil society, but it can still be channelled into positive outlets like defensive war or law enforcement, or channelled into neutral outlets like sports. Our urge to eat as much fat and sugar as possible is out of date for a prosperous society, but the absense of such an urge is also unhealthy. Some emotions result in favorable consequences and can be given in to as much as we please, some emotions result in mixed or negative consequences and must be redirected or countered completely.

First of all, I didn't say *any* emotion, I stipulated that if (and only if) charitable giving were an out-of-date emotion, then... And I still think it's just plain weird to refer to the human want of eating as an emotion.

Outside of that, I don't have any important disagreement with your paragraph above, but I don't see how it helps your overall argument. The question, it seems to me, isn't how we should rationally (or consequentially, or whatever) redirect the output of certain emotions, but rather to first ask ourselves if we shouldn't simply ignore *some* of them.

I think the emotion has been misidentified here. The emotion isn't charitable giving, per se, that's the output of the emotion. I would guess that for many people, tho not necessarily all, a "feeling of guilt" is the emotion underlying their charitable giving. They see Sri Lankans, for instance, who have lost everything they had, their belongings, even their children or parents in some cases, and this produces in them "a feeling" that a large disequlibrium now exists in the world. These people feel, "I have so much, and I live in such relative abundance and comfort compared to these poor people, that I want to give them some of what I have in an effort to re-adjust the equilibrium." Not because they feel responsible for the disaster, or that they could have done anything to avoid it, but for whatever reason they "feel" unsettled with this sudden disparity in the world. Again, I don't think this has to be the precise emotion underlying all giving, some may argue they are motivated by a sense of empathy.

What I really don't understand here is why you and others think this *particular* emotion is subject to a "rational economic analysis" in the first place. Regardless of the emotion that supposedly caused it, what economic rationale could there be for helping people who are complete and utter strangers? If I am to follow your counsel and capitulate to my emotion (assuming I have that emotion), why shouldn't I redirect my charitable giving to my own children, or someone genetically close to me. That, of course, would be the "Hamiltonian" thing to do.

The more interesting question for me is why people who have these ordinary emotions *don't* give. My guess is they represent the majority of people in the world. It's not obvious to me that if you insist on casting this issue in economic terms, why these people aren't in fact the most rational ones.

Patri, thanks very much for

Patri, thanks very much for posting on this...I had been very disturbed to see the herd mentality approach to giving that's come about, and you've done a great job of identifying the problem and some alternative courses of action. --Ian

Stedman, Okay, that's

Stedman,

Okay, that's viable but weak. I think you could do a lot better.

What I really don’t

What I really don’t understand here is why you and others think this particular emotion is subject to a “rational economic analysis” in the first place. Regardless of the emotion that supposedly caused it, what economic rationale could there be for helping people who are complete and utter strangers?

First of all, I don't think giving in to a particularly strong emotion is irrational. It can be very pleasurable to help others. Second, it can be costly to completely suppress a powerful emotion, and less costly to redirect it. Third, while I agree with you that it makes more sense to help one's friends, family, and neighbors first and foremost, there is some truth to Rawlsian contractarianism, or the Golden Rule, or whatever you would like to call it, which tells us to put ourselves in the other person's shoes. If we were suffering from hardship, we would want total strangers to help us. That is the essence of empathy. Is giving in to empathy rational for Homo Economicus? Whether it is or it isn't, I certainly wouldn't want to live in a world where no one cares about strangers.

Micha, you live in one now.

Micha, you live in one now. the 'care for strangers' they exhibit is pure, beautiful 'selfishness'.

First of all, I don’t

First of all, I don’t think giving in to a particularly strong emotion is irrational.

Neither do I.

It can be very pleasurable to help others.

Sure, but my personal belief, pace Hamilton, is that pleasure here falls off proportional to the distance of the relationship between benefactor and her recipient. In the case of me in Alaska and them in Indonesia, the pleasure approaches zero. Because of this, I suspect many people who donate money are doing it to soothe their emotion of guilt, as I mentioned before, not because they stand to get any direct pleasure from having donated. Interestingly, both motivations -- pleasure or guilt relief -- are fundamentally selfish.

Second, it can be costly to completely suppress a powerful emotion, and less costly to redirect it.

How so? What cost is there for someone who says, "You know what, I empathize with the victims of the Tsunami in Indonesia, but I'm not going to let that cause me to donate money to the relief effort there. It doesn't seem rational for me to give money to complete strangers, simply because they're victims of a natural disaster, or others who are ravaged by illness or disease. Bad things are happening all the time."

Third, while I agree with you that it makes more sense to help one’s friends, family, and neighbors first and foremost, there is some truth to Rawlsian contractarianism, or the Golden Rule, or whatever you would like to call it, which tells us to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. If we were suffering from hardship, we would want total strangers to help us. That is the essence of empathy.

Just to nitpick, I would say the essence of empathy is the ability to imagine oneself (emote) in another's predicament, but it doesn't necessarily include *acting* on that emotion. I can certainly empathize without doing anything about it.

Is giving in to empathy rational for Homo Economicus? Whether it is or it isn’t, I certainly wouldn’t want to live in a world where no one cares about strangers.

That's right, from an evolutionary point of view, ideally we would want to live in a world of mostly selfish agents, and just enough altruists to take care of us when we err, or are victims of a disaster. ;-)

But what I'm still not getting is how a "proper knowledge of economics" (NT comment) leads to the conclusion you seem to be defending.

the ultimate outcome of this

the ultimate outcome of this tragic disaster will be to set precedent a la Ethiopia and cause even more suffering in the future, somehow. thats what altuism does.in the larger sense it causes problems , not solves them.

I did not, and will not

I did not, and will not donate to the tsunami relief efforts any further than I already do with my normal donation to the Red Cross, and the advertisements on my blog for the missing people, and aid organizations.

The majority of my charitable donations go to my church and local community and frankly, if I had more to comfortably donate -- that's the way I would keep it.

If it takes a tsunami to get some folks involved in the world, I guess so be it -- but it really would be nice if they could get involved in their own neighborhoods once in a while. Hell, even my church wants to send money and missionaries to Mexico every year when I think there would be plenty for them to do right here in Metro-Detroit. It does get awfully cold here in the Winter, though. *sniff*

-Diana

But what I’m still not

But what I’m still not getting is how a “proper knowledge of economics” (NT comment) leads to the conclusion you seem to be defending.

If I recall correctly, I made that comment in a defense of Patri's proposal - that people should direct their charitable efforts where they will do the most good. I was taking the urge to act on empathy as a given, and going from there. Economics doesn't tell us what our preferences or goals should be - only how best to satisfy or achieve them.

Micha, Patri, Micha wrote:

Micha, Patri,

Micha wrote: "Economics doesn’t tell us what our preferences or goals should be - only how best to satisfy or achieve them."

Suppose what you want is for very large amounts of relief aid to be rapidly used to help the victims of the recent tsunami. Isn't it quite likely *under existing circumstances* that government can bring more help to bear than private charity? Aren't *some goals* best achieved by government?

John, Sure, insofar as one's

John,

Sure, insofar as one's goal is to bring as much relief to these victims as possible and as quickly as possible, that might be an argument in favor of coercive taxation. But remember: even for people who value this goal highly, this isn't the only goal they value highly. In order to satisfy this goal with these means, they have to give up other goals.

Further, I think what Patri and I question is whether people's goals are so specific with respect to this particlar event, or whether this is just a well-publicized and noticable instance of a more general goal, which is to help innocent victims. I think the latter is more likely to be true.

"Sure, insofar as one’s

"Sure, insofar as one’s goal is to bring as much relief to these victims as possible and as quickly as possible, that might be an argument in favor of coercive taxation."

Wouldn't you as an economist argue in favor of coercive government as the most efficient means to those particular ends?

Wouldn’t you as an

Wouldn’t you as an economist argue in favor of coercive government as the most efficient means to those particular ends?

Even if we accept the claim that coercive government is the most efficient means to attain these particular ends (which I don't necessarily accept; after all, if capitalism can produce that much more wealth than coercive redistributionism, even if people voluntarily give less than they would if they were coerced, the total amount may still be more), this ignores the point I just made: that nearly all of us have other goals besides aiding victims of the tsunami. The existence of a powerful government with the ability to coerce aid means sacrificing other goals.

..., this ignores the point

..., this ignores the point I just made: that nearly all of us have other goals besides aiding victims of the tsunami. The existence of a powerful government with the ability to coerce aid means sacrificing other goals.

You could say that about any goal (that it requires the sacrifice of other goals) including the one Patri favors in this piece. But you didn't.

And I explicitly said I was asking within the context of how things are now. That powerful government exists. It's not going away because you don't use it to aid tsunami victims.

On Social Security reform you said you favored a "second best" plan, but now you're talking like anarchy is the proper alternative to tsunami aid. Why are those approaches so different?