Saturday, February 19, 2005

Rethinking Charity

People always look at me weird when I say I trust corporations more than NGOs, especially when it comes to science. I never understood why. In an excellent opinion piece for the Guardian, Dick Taverne cited polls that concluded “people do not trust scientists who work for industry because they only care about profits…Scientists who work for environmental NGOs are more highly regarded.”

But it is because scientists care about profits that I trust industry more—in order to get those profits the science has to work. There’s a much higher standard because millions of dollars are at stake. NGO scientists can’t make profits and don’t sell goods or services. They depend on donations and therefore they sell a very different product: fear. Most non-profits advocate panic because it’s the best way to raise funds quickly and since it doesn’t actually have to be true to work, shoddy science is rarely checked. In fact, fraud is (implicitly) encouraged. Environmental groups are the worst offenders (claims of DDT, greenhouse gases and genetically engineered food are all exaggerated and the panic is responsible for killing people).

Taverne points out all of this but he makes a fatal flaw. He says, “Motives are not irrelevant, and unselfish motives are rightly admired more than selfish ones.” The context convinced me he wasn’t thinking of selfishness (self interest at the expense of others) but trade (self interest with the cooperation of others). Thus the common claim: philanthropy is morally superior to pursuing profit.

But look at the world around you. We live in greater prosperity and opportunity not because people donated their time but because they sold it. The private sector makes the technology of our lives and entrepreneurs don’t labor 80 hours a week because they are saints. So what if there are rewards for contributing to exchange? Philanthropy has its own rewards, too (attention, satisfaction, getting a building named after you).

Trade is better—it’s responsible for more progress and it’s sustainable. It’s created more jobs, abundance and safety than all the donations in the world. Instead of thinking of philanthropists as holy men, we should treat them like lawyers—necessary and sometimes noble, but susceptible to immense corruption.<


Kerry said...

not that this has anything to do with your're an IHS alum!? I'm a two time alum actually...Though I often find myself won over by political philsophies that provide me with free beer.

David said...

Sure am an alum. Looking forward to going to my next one in this summer. For me the big attraction was an excuse to visit a friend of mine that was in LA. That and the oh so elegant lodgings at Pitzer College.

Chris said...

ha, ha. Yes, the "oh so elegant" lodgings! Good one, David.