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Looking good, doing good

January 17, 2010

Imagine two lawyers, Al and Bob.  They are very successful lawyers – so successful, in fact, that they manage charge $300 per hour for their services. Despite being lawyers, they both want to do good in the world as well.  Al spends three hours volunteering at the local soup kitchen every month.  Bill, on the other hands, sits in his warm home and writes out a check to $3,000 to the soup kitchen every year.

Who is more charitable?  Who’s helped more homeless people?

Our instinct, of course, is to laud the hands-on Al and wag a finger at the aloof Bill. But let’s think about this a bit.  Al provides the soup kitchen with 36 hours of unskilled and unspecialized labor.  At $3,000, Bill is sacrificing 10 hours of his working time – much less than Al.  But with $3,000, the soup kitchen could afford to hire, for the same 36 hours, FIVE equivalent soup-sloppers at a recession-busting rate of $15/hour.  If we make allowances for gains from specialization, Bill’s aloof donation is an order of magnitude more effective than Al’s noble sacrifice.

Ironically, I’m about to play Al’s role, by taking part in Princeton’s InterAction service program, a three-day romp through various community service initiatives. There are several very good reasons why this would be a good use of time – I can learn about different service initiatives, expose myself to the lives of the less fortunate, and, were I female, advertise my altruism to potential mates – but efficiently making a difference is not one of them.  Indeed, the costs of training and logistics may well outweigh the benefit of three days’ unskilled labor.

We care a great deal about who is altruistic and who is not, but we’re not particularly good at judging who’s actually being helpful.  Our intuitions seem well suited for living in small primitive tribes, where it’s very important to know whether your tribesmen will leave you to be eaten by lions if you break a leg, but have not adapted to comprehend technology and market economies.

Thus we prefer direct, visible acts – volunteering at a hospital, say, rather than abstract donations of time or professional services.  And this has consequences beyond the status posturing of Ivy League lawyers – our affinity towards those who appear altruistic leads many people to support pernicious policies, from rent control to Communism, that can be formulated as directly “helping people.”

None of this means that volunteering is a bad thing.  Quite the opposite – if it takes the ambition of a hundred premeds to make the beds at Princeton Medical Center, well, the beds still get made.  But it does mean that we should beware our intuitions when judging who’s naughty and who’s nice, and think more critically about how we choose to support worthy causes.  And, as ever, beware politicians who just want to help.

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