Charity Free Riding

December 15, 2009 | 17 comments
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samaritanAs we all know, the gospel is overrun with economic doctrine.  On that note, I noticed a quote about free riding from President Monson (which I just saw at Mormon Times):

“I am confident it is the intention of each member of the church to serve and to help those in need,” he said. “At baptism we covenanted to ‘bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light.’ How many times has your heart been touched as you have witnessed the need of another? How often have you intended to be the one to help? And yet how often has day-to-day living interfered and you’ve left it for others to help, feeling that ‘Oh, surely someone will take care of that need.’”

Under reasonable assumptions it is not hard to show that if people only give out of an altruistic desire to see others better off, and they have no personal gain (emotional or otherwise) from being the giver, than most people will free ride and leave the giving to the very rich (who have nothing better to do with their money).  Since this doesn’t happen as much as that theory suggests, a likely cause is that givers are those who perceive some individual gain from giving — either because it makes them feel good or, as King Benjamin pointed out, it was essential to their salvation.

Thus “pure altruists”, as defined by those who have no personal gain from the gift, free ride.  Givers are those who see a personal need to give.

Perhaps this is related to the phenomenon that religious people systematically give more than the less religious.   The less religious are less inclined to be moved by doctrines about how charity is essential to salvation, thus they more strongly perceive a free riding problem and so systematically are more likely to prefer government solutions to overcome free riding problems in charitable giving (i.e. welfare programs).

Or not.  The point is we probably all should be giving more to a charitable cause.

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17 Responses to Charity Free Riding

  1. Julie M. Smith on December 15, 2009 at 10:22 am

    “The less religious are less inclined to be moved by doctrines about how charity is essential to salvation, thus they more strongly perceive a free riding problem and so systematically are more likely to prefer government solutions to overcome free riding problems in charitable giving (i.e. welfare programs).”

    I don’t know if this is true; it probably is. But I do know that my re-examination of certain biblical texts has led me to support government solutions to social problems in a way that I did not ten years ago. Of course, the ideal would be for people to freely give, but inasmuch as we don’t approach that ideal in the fallen world, I think govt programs are the second best solution (despite all of their very real problems) and allowing people to suffer in order to avoid the problems of govt aid to the poor is not the second best option.

    So I don’t dispute your statement; I merely wanted to point out that while it might be true for many secularist liberals, there is a path to (sorta) liberal social policy that makes sense to some LDS.

  2. Frank McIntyre on December 15, 2009 at 10:28 am

    Julie, Indeed this is not a post attempting to describe why every person believes as they do. Many people believe as you describe, though they are apparently in the minority.

  3. Alex T. Valencic on December 15, 2009 at 10:34 am

    In my mind, there is a difference between helping someone in need, and allowing someone, who would be perfectly capable of caring for themselves, to mooch off of others because they don’t understand or appreciate principles of self-reliance. In the first case, it is a matter of selfless service; in the latter, it is a matter of allowing one to be a free rider. Do you consider both situations to be indicative of free riding?

    I believe the Scriptures clearly teach the need for us to care for the poor, the needy, and the downtrodden (whether spiritually or temporally so in any case). I don’t believe that the mooch/leech/parasite/lazy-bum-on-the-corner-who-could-have-a-job-but-doesn’t-and-is-not-to-be-confused-with-the-guy-on-the-corner-who-has-tried-to-get-a-job-but-has-not-been-successful should be supported in his/her slothfulness, which is what I think of when I think of the free riders.

  4. Alex T. Valencic on December 15, 2009 at 10:37 am

    And before the firestorm starts (Lord, how I wish there was an edit feature to leaving comments!), I do not believe it is my place to judge who is truly in need and who is just trying to take advantage of the system. I will gladly offer assistance, as I can, to any who ask. But when it comes to providing long-term assistance, I leave it to those who are in a position to judge (whether they be professionals or church leaders called to do so).

  5. Frank McIntyre on December 15, 2009 at 10:39 am

    Alex, the Pres. Monson quote is about the other side wherein people free ride on other’s charitable giving so that they don’t . But certainly it cuts both ways. I think this is why the Church’s welfare programs have oversight by Bishops who are to determine what will best help the families and whether or not they need to be pushed to be more self reliant. I imagine that would be pretty hard to figure out in some cases.

    Happily, I don’t have to worry about that in my calling as a Sunday School Teacher. I just write a check once a month :).

  6. Frank McIntyre on December 15, 2009 at 10:40 am

    And while I wrote that, Alex, you wrote a comment saying the same thing. Obviously, we must both be right.

  7. Tim on December 15, 2009 at 10:48 am

    “Perhaps this is related to the phenomenon that religious people systematically give more than the less religious.”
    Maybe, but I’d be interested in seeing how much the religious donate that does not go to the poor and needy. Subtract my tithing (the vast majority of which does not go to the poor) and the amount I give to charity drops drastically.

  8. Dave on December 15, 2009 at 10:51 am

    Frank, I think it is best to separate material gain (and an expectation of material gain) from good feelings (and the expectation of good feelings). We all tend to question the charitable motives of someone who gives of their time or substance with the expectation of material gain from the transaction. Yet most of us are willing to call someone charitable who gives with no expectation of material gain, but who nevertheless feels good about their choice to give. They seem like two disctinct cases to me.

    Then there is a third case of someone who gives with the expectation of feeling bad about giving but who does so nonetheless from a sense of moral duty. Such people are either the only truly virtuous people among us (Kant’s view) or, if they enjoy the pain of giving, are practicing an unusual form of masochism. I don’t find the first or third case very convincing in the practical sense of aligning with the way we actually think about moral choices. So I’m of the opinion that the second case — folks with no expectation of material gain but who do allow themselves to feel good about their charitable giving — is as close to morally praiseworthy giving as we can get.

  9. Frank McIntyre on December 15, 2009 at 11:12 am

    Dave, this second case was the one I was thinking of. But in order to mitigate free riding the emotional or spiritual gain has to be not simply from the fact that someone was helped, but rather from the fact that _you_ helped them. Hence the “personal” part.

    Tim, As I recall, the relationship still holds. Of course, tithing is _exactly_ the case of giving where what you care about is that _you_ are the giver. The neighbor paying his tithing doesn’t cut it for you.

  10. john f. on December 15, 2009 at 11:29 am

    “The less religious are less inclined to be moved by doctrines about how charity is essential to salvation, thus they more strongly perceive a free riding problem and so systematically are more likely to prefer government solutions to overcome free riding problems in charitable giving (i.e. welfare programs).”

    And this brings us back to Kant who might feel inclined to remind us that perhaps those irreligious people who still give are therefore more moral because they are doing their moral duty without any perceived gain from doing so. I don’t think we necessarily have to go there but your formulation here trends that direction — we religious people who give are only doing so out of selfish reasons and not because we are doing something just because it is the right thing to do (and we are obligated to do so).

    Perhaps economics as such plays less into the scriptures than your first sentence implies. Perhaps the Gospel is trying to teach us something about becoming the type of beings who will do the right thing because it is the right thing and not out of a cost-benefit analysis. This does not imply that economics is not a wonderful and fruitful endeavor in the telestial world; but is it really part of God’s “economy”?

  11. john f. on December 15, 2009 at 11:30 am

    Oops, just saw Dave’s comment, which refers to Kant much more skillfully.

  12. Frank McIntyre on December 15, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    “but your formulation here trends that direction ”

    I don’t think I said anything about that. This is just descriptive work, rather than prescriptive.

    “Perhaps the Gospel is trying to teach us something about becoming the type of beings who will do the right thing because it is the right thing and not out of a cost-benefit analysis. ”

    And yet it is only “right” if it passes a cost-benefit analysis (from an eternal perspective); just not a selfish one.

    “This does not imply that economics is not a wonderful and fruitful endeavor in the telestial world; but is it really part of God’s “economy”?”

    Economics is perfectly at home in a celestial framework, you just have to be careful about re-defining all the costs and benefits and weighing others net benefits as much as your own. So you’d change some assumptions, but the basic optimization framework that lies at the heart of econ would be much the same.

  13. john f. on December 15, 2009 at 12:07 pm

    That may well be true. Interesting to think about.

  14. Dan on December 15, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    Frank,

    Your title is very misleading. I was actually looking forward to someone talking about economics in the scriptures, but your post bears very little to the title.

  15. Frank McIntyre on December 15, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    good point, Dan. I forgot to change the title after I took the post a different direction. I’ll fix it.

  16. Stephanie on December 15, 2009 at 11:58 pm

    I had a thought (kind of) related to this today. I hear often that people don’t want to give to charity because they don’t want to support “free-riders”. Well, then support someone else. There are enough people in need in this world that if you really can’t bear to give money to one, give it to another. If you really can’t bear to support this charity, go find another to give it to. If you really can’t bring yourself to give $5 to the man on the corner because he’ll buy beer with it, give $5 to the homeless shelter. Basically, I agree with the point of the post: The point is we probably all should be giving more to a charitable cause.

  17. Robert C. on December 19, 2009 at 10:27 pm

    [Frank #12:] “Economics is perfectly at home in a celestial framework, you just have to be careful about re-defining all the costs and benefits and weighing others net benefits as much as your own.”

    Many sociologists, theologians and philosophers have been challenging this premise, and I think they make some very good points. The problem, only poorly captured, is that economic reasoning requires “known unknowns” (i.e., forecasts), but it doesn’t work well with the unknown unknowns. Theologians argue, essentially, that grace and revelation are unknown unknowns, and hence beyond the scope of cost-benefit reasoning.

    Here is link to a review of a book by a Mormon philosopher (Adam Miller) who makes an argument along these lines.