Social Justice, Current Events

Effective Altruism for BHL’s

In Peter Singer’s new TED talk, he tries to answer the question of how to give most effectively. The talk starts with a short summary of his famous argument for giving. The argument can be stated like this: 1) “If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it;” 2) it is in our power to prevent bad things like malaria and starvation from happening to the global poor by giving money to charity organizations without compromise anything morally significant; so 3) morally, we ought give some of our money to charity organizations.

The most powerful thing about this argument is how little there is for anyone to disagree with, no matter what you think of social justice. At this point in the argument, Singer isn’t saying that you are required to give or that you are blameworthy if you don’t (though he does think this). He’s only saying that you morally ought to give and it is morally better if you do. Singer also isn’t saying that you can be forced to give (though some have taken this line). All he’s saying is, you should give some of your money to charity. You should.

But some readers may resist (2) on the grounds that donating money to charity organizations will be ineffective at preventing bad things from happening to the global poor. During the talk, Singer addresses the concern that large charities, like states, are often not effective, accountable, or transparent. He then endorses a wonderful website, Givewell, which rates charities on these dimensions. First in the Givewell ranking is the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF), which distributes insecticidal nets to populations at high risk of malaria. My family has been giving to AMF for a while now and we will probably continue to support it, but I’ve recently become more interested in the second-ranked charity, GiveDirectly, which provides direct cash transfers to poor households in Kenya.

The average recipient of a GiveDirectly transfer lives on $0.65 a day. Recipients use the transfers to improve their homes, pay school fees, and to buy food or invest in livestock. I decided to shift some of our giving to GiveDirectly because I think it is effective and also because it comports with my values of rejecting paternalism and giving everyone the opportunity to make choices that reflect her own values. After looking into it a bit, I think GiveDirectly is an ideal charity for BHL’s, here are five reasons why:

  1. Direct transfers are not paternalistic: The GiveDirectly website writes that “Recipients use transfers for whatever is most important to them; we never tell them what to do.” No strings attached. The goal is to “empower the poor to set their own priorities.”
  2. Direct transfers are an effective intervention for reducing the depth and severity of poverty (PDF)
  3. Direct transfers encourage investment: Recipients often save the money or pursue business opportunities and training. This investment helps their local economies to grow and creates further economic opportunities.
  4. GiveDirectly is data-driven: They use randomized controlled trials wherever possible to assess the impact of different distribution strategies and improve their operations.
  5. GiveDirectly aims to change the industry standard for evaluating charities. As Jacqueline Fuller writes, “GiveDirectly has a new concept: What if cash transfers are used as a standard benchmark against which to measure all development aid? What if every nonprofit that focused on poverty alleviation had to prove they could do more for the poor with a dollar than the poor could do for themselves?”

The organization is also remarkably transparent and it has just received a Global Impact Award to expand its operations. My favorite thing about GiveDirectly is that it shows how much good can be done by simply providing non-paternalistic judgment free assistance to those who need it most.

I also think that the cash transfer model could have revisionary implications for political philosophy. Here’s why—GiveDirectly changes the burden of proof for anti-poverty programs. Instead of asking whether an aid organization minimizes its operating costs or if it is comparatively effective relative to other organizations, we should instead judge aid organizations against the benchmark of cash transfers.

This model not only tells in favor of a new standard by which we should judge other charities, but also a standard by which we should judge the state. Many philosophers believe that coercive institutions should be arranged to make the worst-off in society as well-off as they can be. The people who endorse that position typically support a large welfare state to pull this off. Yet even if you think that distributive equality is required by justice (I don’t) we should still hold the state to the same standard as other aid organizations. So instead of asking whether more state programs are needed to benefit the worst-off, we should instead ask whether any particular state program makes the worst-off better than they would be if we just wrote them a check instead.

  • matt b

    Anyone who has read my comments knows I’m a lot more sympathetic to the welfare state than most libertarians. However the international aid discussion is an area where I’m more persuaded that government intervention is the biggest problem. As Bryan Caplan has said, the world’s poor would need far less charity if trade was completely free and borders completely open. In other words, respecting negative rights would dramatically expand positive liberty and ensure a far greater degree of human well being.

    • Jessica Flanigan

      I totally agree about the open borders point! Even with open borders though, some people might still be extremely poor and in those cases this argument would still apply. But yeah, simply refraining from interfering with people through border enforcement, trade restrictions, and war would go a long way towards helping the world’s worst-off.

      • matt b

        Yes absolutely it would still apply but fortunately it would be less of a problem. I think this is an issue where us BHLers can appeal to the left though you may be surprised by how nationalistic some leading “progressives” can be and therefore how much resistance would exist even on this question. Exhibit A would be popular leftist Thom Hartmann’s opposition to freedom of movement and his portrayal of supporters of free movement and free trade as corporate stooges who are “against American interests.” Indeed, what I think distinguishes BHL and philosophers generally is cosmopolitanism. It’s sadly an all too rare value.

        • Jessica Flanigan

          I totally agree! I think that cosmopolitanism is one of the best most distinctive things about BHL 🙂 I also agree that a lot of progressives are really anti-cosmopolitan and I think there are two mistakes that lead to this. First, most people don’t see coercive nationalistic policies as being similar to institutional racism, even though in many ways i think the two are relevantly similar (x group is distinguished by some morally irrelevant trait so then the state coerces them in ways that make their lives much worse). Second, if you are really committed to the welfare state and employing the domestic work force and you have a (false) empirical belief that immigration and trade will undermine those commitments, then you are liable to make the moral mistake of thinking that you can coerce non-citizens for the sake of domestic workers. That second moral mistake rests on an empirical mistake too, and I think false empirical views about the effects of trade or immigration also explain a lot of the resistance. All of which is i guess to say, i agree! What do you think?

          • matt b

            I agree with every word you wrote. I’ve had a lot of discussions on immigration with people on the left and they often appeal to the idea of “charity begins at home” and “we have to take care of our own first” They often adopt the far right, reactionary metaphor of America as a big family and argue that just as it’s not immoral to help our families first it’s not immoral to help our country first. Apart from the silliness of comparing 300 million people you don’t know to a family, the fallacy here is that coercively preventing people from meeting their needs through free movement is a morally acceptable form of helping others. For example, if you handcuffed all of your child’s job competitors to a pole everyone would say that’s wrong. At the end of the day people will often say “You know you make some challenging points but it’s just about protecting ourselves.” In other words, it’s okay that our policy impoverishes much of the world because we have a right, as a nation-state, to protect our economic interests (the false empirical beliefs come into play here again of course as most people start sputtering with incoherent rage when you bring up comparative advantage). So I’m not sure how we move the needle here as there’s an unholy alliance of nationalist economic leftists and xenophobic “this ain’t no Taco stand” nationalist rightists.

          • Damien S.

            Well, as I’ve pointed out before, one could also argue that we collectively own the US, and keeping non-Americans out is no different than a property owner keeping out trespassers. If the rich aren’t obliged to give away all their wealth above a bare minimum, why are we obliged to let everyone in?

            One can argue that immigration makes us wealthier too, but that’s a different argument, and also highly non-intuitive to lots of voters. Also unclear if it would even be true, were immigration rates increased by one or two orders of magnitude.

          • matt b

            I’ll respond to your points about immigration in one post since it’s a little more organized. Okay so sure you could argue that but it seems pretty weak. By what moral measure do you have the right to impoverish millions of people by prohibiting them from moving about freely? I mean the typical argument is we were here first which is of course not really true (the Indians were) so by that logic the ancestors of all of us white Americans could have been prevented from coming.

            Krugman’s argument is extraordinary weak He’s saying we might be justified in restricting immigration which would bring about a massive increase in global welfare because it might bring about some measure of decrease in the welfare of the top 10 percent of income earners in the world. So some octogenarian might not get a third hip surgery… bring out the violins. I mean it’s just so painfully obvious that open borders would be the greatest welfare program ever created.

          • Damien S.

            They’re not “prohibited from moving about freely”, they’re prohibited from moving into our country, just as homeless people are prohibited from moving into someone’s summer home or vacant condos. We could increase welfare by taking rich people’s second (and third, and fourth) homes and giving them to the homeless, could we not? Same moral measure, either way.

            Krugman’s not making an argument there, he’s describing the conflict liberals tend to feel about immigration. As for the safety nets, we’re not talking just elderly hip replacements, but food stamps and full employment policies. Your “octogenarian… third hip replacement” is a classic example of cartoonizing your opposition so as to dismiss them.

            “it’s just so painfully obvious”

            Not to everyone.
            For one thing, a huge component in national wealth is social capital: trust and institutions and law and order. Or in another word, culture. Can unrestricted immigration undermine that?

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Gosh, I didn’t think this was even conceptually possible, but for the first and possibly last time I actually agree with something you have said, i.e. your very last point regarding “culture.” See this:

          • Damien S.

            Competitive markets are often awesome. Most existing zoning laws suck. Limited numbers of taxi licenses suck. Requiring hairdressers to be licensed sucks. We shouldn’t be throwing people in prison for using drugs or selling sex or gambling. Sanctions on Cuba suck.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Okay, let’s not make a habit of this.

          • Jessica Flanigan

            What would it mean to collectively own the US? I am skeptical of that idea. I don’t think we collectively own the US. But say we grant it. Do we justly own it? Probably not. But say we do, say we all justly collectively own the US. Does that mean that I am a part-owner? If so, then why can’t I invite some of my non-citizen friends to come live in my neighborhood? Why is it only the people who want to restrict immigration whose ownership claims we need to respect? If I own my house I can invite whomever I want to come and stay. Since I collectively own the state does that mean that I need to get the consent of every other citizen before I can invite someone to come live here? How many owners need to favor free migration to outweigh the other owners. Does it matter if the pro-migration co-owners have better reasons than the anti-migration co-owners? Just because someone is an owner doesn’t mean there aren’t moral reasons in favor exercising those ownership rights one way or the other. If I were to grant your ownership premise, I would think the moral reasons tell in favor of exercising those ownership rights in a way that allows migration.

          • Damien S.

            Some of those questions are good; an answer could be that we own the US in a way like a condo or homeowner’s association, with even more restrictive covenants. Or a club.

            “Why is it only the people who want to restrict immigration whose ownership claims we need to respect?” Because they’re in the majority and set the rules per the Constitution, obviously. Conversely you don’t need to get everyone’s consent, just enough to change the rules. Basic civics.

            “If I own my house I can invite whomever I want to come and stay.”

            But if you’re a member of a club you may or may not be able to invite whoever you want to come visit club properties.

            “Does it matter if the pro-migration co-owners have better reasons than the anti-migration co-owners?”

            As judged by whom?

        • Sean II

          American progressives aren’t just not cosmopolitan, they’re also shockingly ahistorical. Their worldview is puny in both spatial and temporal terms.

          The starting point is always “it’s 20xx and I live in the United States where the GDP per capita is $50,000”, with no counter factuals, no how’d-it-get-this-way, no what-would-I-do-if, and certainly NO original positioning.

          For these guys, the third world exists as a kind of novelty shop: “Oh, so that’s where they make the brown people and quaint little cultures I pretend to adore. Neat!”

          • matt b

            I agree with a lot of what you wrote in terms of a general absence of economic literacy and historical awareness but I think the last paragraph is quite unfair. People on the left, apart from unions who don’ give a fuck about poor third workers and simply want to further enrich their relatively well off members, do care about the third world. They generally have the wrong ideas about how to help people living there but they genuinely do care. I would also say that you have some people on the left like Freddie Deboer (hope I spelled that right) who say rip down the borders tomorrow so there is some measure of cosmopolitanism.

          • Damien S.

            Matt Yglesias is pretty pro-immigration.

            But Krugman had a good analysis, I think:

            Democrats torn individually, between helping the global poor and having strong social safety nets. Republicans tending to be torn partisanly, between big business “let in cheap labor!” and opposed nativists and populists.

            Not mentioned is the impact of immigration on democracy shared values. What happens if Libertopia starts, is as economically successful as libertarians think, so lots of socialists move there for jobs then start voting for a welfare state?

          • Sean II

            “They generally have the wrong ideas about how to help people living there, but they genuinely do care.”

            You have no evidence for that last part…so why do you say it? Why do you keep saying it?

          • matt b


            Why do you insist on saying that all the people who disagree with your views on means must not care? Do you really believe that, say, Michael Moore does not car that millions in the third world are suffering? I’m not talking about unions or left wing establishment figures but your typical, Nation magazine reading, fair trade coffee buying lefty. Again, wrong on means (including fair trade to some extent). I also dislike how you imply the things I say are controversial when pretty much every libertarian I’ve ever known has said “The left the left the left: big heart, soft head about policy.” Your view that these people are just faking it or something is a minor and marginal one.

          • Damien S.

            Demonizing one’s opponents and believing they’re dishonest is a great way of avoiding thinking about what they say. One can simply Know that one is right, rather than having to argue it and prove it. After all, argument would be wasted on the evil and dishonest!

            I note Sean also leapt to accuse me of being a troll. Might indicate a pattern to how Sean thinks about those who disagree with him.

          • Sean II

            Take note Matt B: when you’ve got Damien rushing to your defense, the time for a soul-searching gut-check is at hand.

          • Sean II

            You should try answering my question, instead of whatever the hell that was. I’ll ask again: Why and on what grounds do you assume the sincerity of people who claim to pursue an objective and then persistently back policies inimical to that objective? Why?

            That question deserves an answer…not a speech, not a complaint that the question offends you…just an answer.

            If a man throws lighter fluid on a fire once or twice, he can perhaps be allowed to claim he thought it was water, and that his real intention was to put out the fire.

            But when a man says he wants more than anything to put out the fire, and then throws lighter fluid on it for 100+ years, the only possible conclusion is that he cares more about throwing the lighter fluid than he does about putting out the fire…and from that it follows that he doesn’t much care about putting out the fire.

            No one in that situation would ever say: “We both want to put out the fire equally, but we differ slightly as to means. I prefer dousing it with water or sand, whereas he prefers feeding it with a constant supply of volatile fuel.”

            You wouldn’t say that then, so please…tell me why you say something of equivalent absurdity now? Why?

          • matt b


            You claim that the left does not care about the people it claims to care about. Your evidence for this claim is that they back policies which are at odds with helping the people they claim to care about. That’s certainly possible. Another possibility is that they really do care but, because they are mistaken regarding the empirical evidence and wedded to false a series of false beliefs, they support mistaken ideas. I think you would grant this is also a possibility. Okay so we’ve established that leftists pretending to care is a possibility and that leftists caring but being mistaken is a possibility. What is more the more plausible answer here? I would just say, not that this is conclusive, but I would just say that almost every libertarian from Friedman to Hayek to Buchanan to the gang at CATO and Reason reply by saying that it’s the later and not the former judging by their articles, videos, speeches, and so on and so forth. So it’s possible that all of those individuals and institutions, not to mention me, are terribly wrong and you are right and these people really are, for what reason perhaps you can enlighten us, pretending to care, while secretly knowing the policies they advocate hurt the people they claim their hearts bleed for. So we’re left with the question if whether their advocacy of misguided policies is best explained by ignorance/ flawed understanding or malevolence posing as righteousness. As someone who holds what can be charitably characterized as the minority view I would say the burden falls on you to argue for why all of these people are big liars.

          • Damien S.

            Of course, there’s another possibility: that the tiny minority of all libertarians are jointly mistaken about leftist policies not helping the poor…

          • matt b

            I’m not sure how tiny the “libertarian minority” is. Note that conservatives are largely libertarian on economics and progressives are largely libertarian on social issues so that right there means millions of people are half-libertarians in a sense.
            All of the libertarians who say tax funded social programs are immoral also believe they don’t work, however they do assert that even if they did they would still be wrong since property rights outweigh considerations of equality, utility, and so on and so forth. I myself, being more sympathetic to the welfare state, wouldn’t say all leftist policies hurt the poor. Programs like the EITC are fantastic but direct interventions in the market (minimum wage for example) are quite bad for the poor.

          • Sean II

            So now you have it that popularity determines burden of proof? A minority view requires more evidence than a majority view? Or is it just that the majority view requires no evidence at all?

            It hardly matters, since I already gave you my answer:
            The first or second time a man throws fuel onto the fire, he can claim he thought it was water. After that, he must be presumed to intend the consequences of his repeated behavior.

            So let’s apply the principle here. The misty-eyed idealists of socialism in the early 1800s, they get a pass. Who could know then what we know now? The first big wave of central planning enthusiasts in the 1900s, they qualify for a less compelling version of the same defense. But what if it’s 1982 and your position on communism is that “it’s mostly just misunderstood”? Nope. Fuck you, guy. There’s no way to innocently hold that belief at that point in time.

            What if you’re a 55 year-old law professor who, in the early 2000s still thinks of politics in terms of “pass a law, get a cost-free benefit” and “give power to the state, change humanity for the better”? Is that view excusable for that man at this point in history? Absolutely not.

            Part of our moral responsibility, Matt, includes a requirement that we carefully gather information and fearlessly expose our views to criticism. And guess what? If you’re an intellectual by trade, this burden falls even more heavily on you, since it becomes part of your professional ethic.

            You want to use “holding false empirical beliefs” as an excuse, a mitigating factor. On the contrary, if one does it long enough, and in defiance of enough plain evidence, “holding false empirical beliefs” is itself a morally culpable act. In a professional intellectual, holding a vast set of clearly false empirical beliefs over a long period of time with dire social consequences issuing as a result… becomes a moral outrage.

            Now of course we must say that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, for the creature known as “pardonable statism”. The innocent young student taken in by that old chickenhawk law professor can be forgiven for the error of borrowing his “false empirical beliefs”, but only for a time. At some point she too must either change those beliefs or be held to account.

            Indeed, Matt…it is you who have been caught holding the eccentric view here, since you’re saying “people should be held responsible for everything but their beliefs, and if their beliefs lead them to do irresponsible things, then they should not be held responsible.”

            That’s fu…messed up, my friend. The correct view is: “People should be held responsible for their beliefs, as they are held responsible for anything else”.

          • matt b


            Please don’t attribute positions to me that I never articulated and do not hold. I did not say that people bear no responsibility for the consequences of their advocacy of false notions. The question was whether these individuals were mistaken and malevolent or mistaken and sincere. You then moved on to the separate question of culpability without writing one word in defense of your original assertion that all of these people are really faking interest in the plight of the poor and human welfare more broadly. On the question of responsibility, I would say you have a stronger case though, being more sympathetic to liberal welfare state arguments than you, I don’t think every interventionist measure supported by the academic left is mistaken.

          • Sean II

            That was evasive. Let’s get back to the original problem.

            You said: “They [leftists] generally have the wrong ideas about how to help people…but they genuinely do care.”

            I asked why you would say such a thing. You didn’t answer. You still haven’t answered. So I’ll ask again:

            It’s 2013. Centuries have passed since Locke, Mill, Smith, and Ricardo. Decades have passed since Hayek, Mises, Rand, Rothbard, Nozick, Friedman, Buchanan, etc. Even people who don’t read books can compare North to South Korea, or compare the Post Office to UPS, or public school classrooms to the internet, etc.

            If, after all that, someone today still defaults to “markets bad, government good”, what’s his excuse? Especially if he is an intellectual, what’s his excuse? And why do you assume his sincerity? Why?

          • matt b


            What bothers me is your tone. You act as if my view that they do genuinely care is some strange, minority view when virtually every libertarian I have ever encountered shares it. Do you deny that my view is more common than yours? I’m not suggesting that how common or uncommon a view is necessarily has anything to do with how true or untrue it is, only that it seems rather strange to adopt this “I can’t believe what I’m hearing” tone when the position I’ve espoused is far more common than yours among libertarians, including hard libertarians who agree with me that “They care but they don’t get it.”

            So why do I believe they still care? Because I see no reason not to take them at their word. You say the bad ideas they hold… to me that’s explained by confirmation bias and rational irrationality and other concepts laid out in poli-sci literature on the psychology of political and moral commitment.

            One last point. There are Naomi Klein-esque leftists who hold silly views that can be shot down in about 30 seconds. But it’s not all so obvious as your framing of NK versus SK implies. Believing, for example, in some government funding of education or in a carbon tax or the idea that some health and safety regulation may be needed is not crazy. It may be wrong but it’s far from crazy. I think you should go and read the works of JB’s colleagues to your left. Many of them defend markets in most instances but they have reasonable concerns about market failure/ partial success in some areas.

          • Sean II

            This time, if no other, I’m not letting myself (or you) get distracted from the main point. We are not here talking about people who favor voluntary cooperation in 90% of all social interactions, but who make carefully reasoned exceptions for carbon taxes, emergency room care, etc.

            We are talking about left-statists, progressives, whatever you want to call them, when you mean “people who are generally suspicious of the free market, and generally enthusiastic about government coercion.”

            Now, one of the characteristics of these guys is that they make big, bold claims about how much they care for other people, especially the poor. Not everyone does that. In fact, most people don’t do that. Most people manage to get through life making only modest claims about their own social concern. Maybe they listen to a “blessed are the fucked” sermon every once in awhile, or maybe they turn up the volume around Christmas or after an especially newsworthy tornado, but that is merely the exception. The rule is that they’re usually up front about reserving their concern for themselves, their families, and their friends.

            Progressives and lefties, they’re not like that. They never shut up about about how much they care for people they don’t know and rarely care to meet. So the first thing to understand is that they are claiming something unusual, and something implausible. In a species well known for it’s angle-shooting and self-seeking behavior, they are loudly and incessantly claiming to be doing it all for the other guy. They are denying what the rest of us more or less admit, most of the time – namely, that like typical human animals, we’re pretty good about caring for 100 direct contacts or less, and not so great once you step beyond that circle.

            But hey, maybe all those lefty-progs are telling the truth. Maybe they really are better people, and the rest of us are just selfish little shits.

            One way to know that would be if their policies worked. But they don’t. Another way to know that would be if they were willing to admit their policies don’t work, and maybe even talk about why, or discuss different means of reaching what they claim to be their goal. But they don’t do that either. They have this one method they like – state coercion – and they use it whether it works or not (their deep concern for that method is not in dispute, because they show it every day).

            Still another way to know that their concern was genuine would be to see them making deep, painful, personal sacrifices instead of just preaching ineffective policies for other people to enforce and follow. But guess what? Most of them don’t do that either.

            So, in the end we have only two reasons to think that the statist left cares about the poor: 1) They never stop telling us, and 2) They advocate policies which reliably hurt the poor or leave them behind, but they totally swear that’s no part of what they intended, and if we just give them more power…

            You said, Matt, that you saw no reason not to take them at their word. You said “…but they genuinely do care”. The truth is that you never had a reason to believe as you do, and you’ve continued to believe it long after I (and your own experience) have given you ample reason not to.

            You wonder why my tone shows impatience with this argument, and I’ll tell you now: you call yourself a libertarian, and that’s supposed to mean certain things.

            It’s supposed to mean you understand the economic view of human behavior, which tells you that action matters more than talk…and which, when combined with history and the sum of accumulated observation, also tells you when someone claims to care meaningfully about people they don’t know, with no incentive for themselves, it’s usually…to borrow a term favored by Ricardo, fuckin’ bullshit.

            It’s supposed to mean you’re committed to intellectual due diligence, so that you don’t accept “false empirical beliefs” as an excuse for something, when the beliefs are so demonstrably false, and when they’ve been held for so very long, and when the something to be excused is terribly harmful.

            It’s supposed to mean you don’t demand different and higher standards of evidence for alleged minority views, while releasing majority views from their proper burden of proof. Lord knows, if libertarianism means anything, it has to mean that.

            And being a libertarian should mean one other thing: it should mean you’ve spent enough time arguing with the other team to know a few of their secrets. Secret #1 is, they’re mostly full of shit, because they adopted their views by consensus rather than study, and not 1 in 20 of them could not pass n Ideological Turing Test. Secret #2 is, they’re mostly highly privileged white people who are very busy caring for their own lives (and not so much available to spare concern for, or even spend time with, the global poor). Secret 3# is, if you argue with them just a little bit, they turn into some of the most hateful, fallacy-spouting, bile-spewing bigots you’ve ever met (again making it unlikely that they’re winner in the international competition for moral awesomeness).

            Matt, I’m sorry to say this but I’m going to say it: you probably don’t know all that because you spend too much time arguing with your own kind, and not enough out in the front-line trench, arguing with people who don’t share your values at all.

          • matt b


            I spent a lot of time debating leftists and I, as a libertarian, often get utterly bilious responses which imply that my opposition to Obamacare means I delight in the deaths of poor people or when I say that having first world safety standards in third world factories would hurt the poor I’m told that this means I’m racist or a lap dog for corporations or whatever. So I’ve got the battle scars and I think those people suck as much as you do.

            I think their failure to see the light really comes down to confirmation bias and rational irrationality. I’m sure you’re familiar with those concepts and their often troubling implications. The reality is that for so many their entire identity is bound up in their politics so admitting they are wrong about institutional arrangements is kind of a big deal. So there’s a great deal of unconscious resistance to any new information and a fear that we may be right and I think that’s why the insults come in.

            I’ll give you the last word but I just want to say one more thing: I don’t think saying you care about millions of people you don’t know should get others bullshit meters going. I mean as a libertarian I oppose the drug war, licensing laws, police abuse, the prison-industrial system, educational structure, and so on and so forth. A lot of that does not really affect me. I’ve smoked pot once, don’t work in a field where licensing is an issue, never have had any trouble with a cop, never known anyone whose been arrested, don’t have kids in school and don’t plan to. I mean at the end of the day a lot of my advocacy comes down to a belief in abstract ideals which I believe do the best job of serving the goal of ensuring human dignity, happiness, and liberty. I think that’s true of a lot of us so while you rightly hit the left I don’t think you should hit them for that.

          • Sean II

            Oh yeah, and let me save us both some time:

            After you read my comment, you’ll be tempted to say something like “good points, Sean…but I just think we’ll really turn people off if we press those points and accuse our opponents of…”

            Before you do that, let me just remind you about #4:

            “You might be a cartoon BHL if…when the merits of an argument turn against you, you insist your position is really a superior form of outreach.”

          • good_in_theory

            Might want to check your caricature of unions against reality. Could they be more liberal? Probably, but this is not exactly protectionist close the borders stuff:


          • matt b

            It’s not Pat Buchanan/ Lou Dobbs so I’ll give you that but yes not as liberal as it could be is a bit of an understatement.

          • good_in_theory

            Are there any more liberal policy options on the table? They aren’t pushing the frontiers of possibility, but I don’t get the sense they’re pushing against some more liberal option that would pass if only for the dastardly unions. Anti-immigration lobbying efforts come from specifically anti-immigration organizationss, often largely funded by Scaife money, and religious groups.

          • matt b

            The politics of immigration are murky and complex. Some unions are down with the restrictionists though some are not. Some right wingers- the WSJ editorial board- are very pro-immigration, to the point of editorializing in favour of open borders during the Reagan era and continuing to do so after though abandoning the term open borders because of how effectively the Buchanite right made it sound evil. Religious groups are sometimes ahead, including those staffed by some pretty socially conservative folks though some are of course quite extreme. It’s really an issue that divides all sides, including libertarians,

  • mikegiberson

    A useful adjunct to reading Flanagan’s post is this recent podcast from Planet Money, “It’s hard to do good,” which reports on a guy who raised money and supervised construction of a new school building in Haiti, and came to the view that he may have done more good just giving cash to the families that sent their children to the school.

    • Jessica Flanigan

      How did I miss this !? I like planet money but I somehow overlooked this one, I’ll be sure to check it out, thanks for the suggestion 🙂

    • Jessica Flanigan

      Do you read the billfold? It’s a personal finance site that I really like, and one day after your comment they posted this!

      it’s a neat coincidence and I thought you’d be interested 🙂

  • “Singer isn’t saying that you are required to give or that you are blameworthy if you don’t (though he does think this). He’s only saying that you morally ought to give and it is morally better if you do. Singer also isn’t saying that you can be forced to give”

    Hold on a moment. It is true that ‘you morally ought to’ does not entail ‘you can be forced to.’ But what you morally ought to do = what you are morally required to do. So Singer is saying that you are morally required to give. Perhaps you are reading him as saying that it is supererogatory to give? But that seems not to be his view.

    Incidentally, I think we are morally required to help others when we reasonably can. The difficulty, of course, is finding a way of doing so that does not make things worse. That difficulty is magnified when the people are far away in corrupt and brutal statist regimes, as the people who most need help usually are.

    • Jessica Flanigan

      Singer is a utilitarian so he would say that you are required to give, and also that in a sense you are blameworthy if you don’t (though I suspect he’s also a utilitarian about practices of blaming, so probably we shouldn’t blame everyone who fails to give to the level of marginal utility). But at this point in the argument that I presented (1-3) the set of claims does not rely on utilitarianism or even bringing the language of requirement into the conversation at all.

      This is because it is not necessarily the case that what you morally ought to do is what you are required to do. Like you said, giving could be supererogatory. In any cases where the balance of moral reasons tell in favor of x-ing but you are nevertheless not required to x then failing to x is failing to do what you morally ought to do, but not failing in a requirement. This isn’t singer’s
      view, but it’s a view that is compatible with the first and most
      powerful stage of his argument (what is sometimes called the weak singer

      • “In any cases where the balance of moral reasons tell in favor of x-ing but you are nevertheless not required to x then failing to x is failing to do what you morally ought to do.”

        I find that an unusual use of words. Is it your own, or does it reflect a practice amongst some sub-group of philosophers?

        There are a number of philosophers who distinguish ‘ought (pro tanto)’ from ‘ought (all things considered)’ in contexts of conflicts of obligation. But they say that ‘ought (all things considered)’ amounts to ‘morally required.’

        I agree there can be a moral consideration in favour of something that does not amount to an obligation. For example, if Mr A will die if he does not get a kidney soon, and there is no kidney available for him, that is a moral consideration in favour of me giving him one of my kidneys; but I am not obliged to give him one of my kidneys. But, then, nor is it the case that I morally ought to give him one of my kidneys.

        Perhaps I am being unusually strict in my reading of ‘ought.’ It is certainly true that in ordinary speech we use ‘ought’ in less-strict ways (even ‘it ought to be sunny tomorrow’). But I was under the (apparently mistaken) impression that it was standard practice amongst philosophers to use ‘ought’ to imply a moral requirement.

        • Jessica Flanigan

          I don’t think you are being unusually strict in reading ‘ought’ because this seems to be a conversation that comes up a lot when i say this. But if you think that you ought to do what is supererogatory but you are not required to do so, then you already recognize this space. If so, then failing to do what is supererogatory is acting in a way that you ought not, but not really failing in any requirement.

          We can ditch the language of requirement her too and the same distinction will repeat at the level of blameworthiness, even for utilitarians. For example, utilitarians will say that you ought to give as much as you can but that you are not blameworthy for failing to do so (presuming they are instrumentalists about blame and there is some story that a practice of blaming in that case would make things worse off than not blaming or something).

          So there are lots of ways to recognize some space between what you ought to do and what you are required to do and appropriately blamed for not doing. But if you don’t buy the distinction that’s ok too because it sounds like you kinda think you are required to rescue in the drowning child case. That line was directed at people who think there is no such requirement, even if they are right, you still ought to give.

          • I think that what this shows is that the term ‘ought,’ as it is ordinarily used, is useless for ethical theory. Either we define it in a specific (theoretically-loaded) way and stick to that usage; or we stop using it altogether and introduce new terms which are given senses that are important for theory. Up to now, I have adopted the former practice: in my own writing (at least for the last couple of years) I always explain how I use ‘ought,’ namely, as applied to actions that are required by morality. Being used to that use of the term in my own thinking, I balked when I read what you said. In the light of our exchange, however, I think it would be better to stop using the term altogether in theoretical discussions. It just sows confusion. It is a difficult word to do without, though!

    • Sean II

      “The difficulty, of course, is finding a way of doing so that does not make things worse.” And that is a difficulty Givewell cannot address. I think we can start with two things that seem nearly beyond dispute:

      1) Giving (probably even some of the less efficient giving) has saved or vastly improved the lives of many individual people.

      2) Giving is one of many factors that help to blunt the consequences and thus delay the day of reckoning for bad politicians and bad policies.

      The first may not be a good enough reason to risk the second, and the second may not be a good enough reason to forego the first.

      Even on micro-scale, I find this incredibly difficult. There’s a homeless guy who used to sleep at the bus stop outside my office. Other people would give him sandwiches from time to time. But like a good libertarian value subjectivist, I’d just give him a spare $5. There are two things I never doubted: a) the $5 improved his life in immediate terms, most likely by helping him fend off delirium tremens, and b) the expectation of occasionally receiving my $5 (+ whatever he got from other people) was quite enough to stop him seeking more fundamental improvements.

      I haven’t seen that guy in many weeks. Perhaps I paid for his final, fatal dose. But in much the same way, when a bunch of people get killed by some African kleptocrat, we have to ask: did we pay for that, too?

      • matt b


        Are you familiar with Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid? I think she was on everybody’s favourite mustachioed libertarian John Stossel’s show recently (fairly recently anyway) and she made a lot of great arguments

        • Sean II

          Let me get this straight: there’s a charming and beautiful libertarian-leaning economist from southern Africa, in a movement where people like Nick Gillespie are considered telegenic front men, and you think there’s a chance I’d be unaware of Dambisa Moyo. Think again.

          • matt b

            Hahahahahah. The “movement where people like Nick Gillespie are considered telegenic front men” line almost made me spit out my water. I should know by now not to read your posts while drinking. I still say Michelle Fields from Students for Liberty is our most attractive female advocate. It’s not fair because all the hotties in Hollywood are liberals, both male and female, well almost all. I’m pretty sure Jenna Jameson is a libertarian though (yes people pretend you have no idea who she is).

      • matt b

        Sorry that sent before I was done. So she made a lot of great arguments about the many failures of aid and suggested a lot of libertarian solutions as alternatives. It was very provocative stuff, certain to get a Naomi Klein reading Western 1 percenter Marxist radical to spit out his 4 dollar Starbucks drink.

  • Kevin

    There is nothing fundamentally immoral about someone being poor, so there is no inherent moral compunction to simply give people money. This is my fundamental moral problem with Rawls and most BHLs.

    We here do share a moral compunction to help prevent deaths from readily preventable malaria and starvation. This is necessarily paternalistic since we are substituting our moral priorities for the recipient’s.

    So, the market for charity is based upon the morality of the giver, and if you are going to make the argument for the superiority of cash transfers, it will have to be based upon statistics regarding what that cash is used for and its net effects, as GiveDirectly does.

    “Recipients use transfers for whatever is most important to them; we never tell them what to do.”

    Is this really true? Are they not selective in who they give money to? How do they prevent abuse of free money?

    Micro-lending would seem to make more moral sense precisely because it is a cash transfer _with_ strings attached.

    • matt b

      I guess it depends what you mean by “nothing fundamentally immoral.” If a guy is poor because he refuses to work, drinks, gambles, and so on and so forth it would be understandable if someone said “Look buddy you made your bed, don’t ask us to build you a new one.” However, if somebody is poor through no fault of their own that is morally problematic unless you think the suffering of innocents should not trouble us morally. More fundamentally, liberalism, both modern and classical, is all about expanding autonomy and giving more people control over their lives. Ending poverty is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for bringing about that expansion.

      • Kevin

        More money always means more autonomy, so do you consider simply having less money than someone else to be “the suffering of innocents”?

        Flanigan notably flipped from a moral argument for preventing malaria and starvation to giving cash to the poor, but our moral compunction is significantly different between saving a life and other uses of the funds.

        • matt b

          Of course not. I have less money than Bill Gates and I’m not suffering and that’s true of the vast majority of us. But people who can’t afford food or basic medical care, who call garbage heaps home, yeah I would say they’re quite clearly suffering. With that being said, I think making people richer is a pretty clear libertarian aim. I mean, apart from a belief in the essential moral superiority of free exchange over central planning, that’s the biggest reason we’re in favor of markets right?

          • Kevin

            Right, it comes down to specific basics, not money.

            I wouldn’t quite say that making people richer is a libertarian aim; liberty is the aim. But it certainly is a desirable and inherent side effect of liberty, since both sides become richer from a free exchange (otherwise we wouldn’t choose to make the exchange).

  • ThaomasH

    And the poor in the US would probably be better off with a guaranteed minimum income than food stamps plus Medicaid/ACA/Medicare plus housing vouchers, plus public day care, (plus public schools?), etc.. Which side of the political divide would be more likely to support that kind of change if it were not just a way to reduce total public expenditures, tax expenditures and mandates in lieu of expenditures?

    • matt b

      Bill Clinton apparently seriously considered personal retirement accounts but the media thought talking about his penis was more important than the future of our oldest entitlement program. More recently, Democrat Ron Wyden partnered with Paul Ryan to advance a serious plan for Medicare reform (unsurprisingly he was one of the only Democrats to join Rand Paul’s filibuster against President Barack Cheney). So I think we need to, as libertarians committed to making both parties more pro economic and social liberty, point these efforts out and encourage them as loudly as the economic statists will denounce them.

      • ThaomasH

        I left Social Security out of the list of programs that might well be replaced with direct income transfers for a reason: it is already a direct income transfer.

    • Kevin

      Do you think Democrats would really go for that? What happens if a person spends their GMI and they are still hungry or hurt or homeless, etc.?

      • ThaomasH

        If it happened on a large scale, they would probably think there was something wrong with the amount, but I doubt they would think to go back to the collection of benefits we have now. The criticism I heard on liberal blogs of the Ryan Medicare plan was that it was just a way to reduce expenditures to prevent tax increases, not that recipients would buy their own insurance.

      • Damien S.

        Do you see liberals/Democrats worrying about retirees wasting all their SS money, or food stamp recipients selling all their stamps on the black market? No, you don’t. So you’re bringing up a straw man.

        • Kevin

          SS is redistribution on top of food stamps, Medicaid/ACA/Medicare, etc. so of course they wouldn’t bring it up. It’s only because GMI would replace all of that that the issue of misallocation becomes relevant.

          I don’t see Democrats bringing up GMI much at all and I personally think there’s good reason for it: GMI does not address the underlying moral issue.

          Let’s say someone does squander all of their money. Does that mean you’d feel ok letting them starve to death? I wouldn’t.

          As an aside, I’ll also mention that there is a fundamental problem with turning charity into an entitlement: charity elicits gratitude, while entitlement elicits spoiled arrogance.

          • Damien S.

            Uh, no. Existing welfare (“general assistance”) and food stamps could be misallocated.

            GMI wouldn’t replace Medicaid/ACA in liberal eyes, anyway; the problems with individual health insurance are inherent to the market and can’t be solved just by giving people money.

            One could just as well say that having to ask for charity elicits resentment, fear, subservience, humiliation and loss of status, while an entitlement/right preserves dignity and power and encourages risk-taking (good and bad.)

          • Kevin

            Ah, well we seem to be talking about significantly different GMIs. Libertarian versions like NIT use it to replace welfare of all kinds, not supplement them. I have no problem believing that Democrats favor your version.

            Some of those emotions are warranted and even motivational, but do people really resent receiving gifts that they don’t deserve? Resentment specifically derives from believing you are being wronged, which, if it is associated with charity as opposed to entitlement, is misplaced. You also miss the dignity in charity that someone voluntarily cares about you. The dignity from feeling like you deserve gifts, on the other hand, is a false dignity.

          • Damien S.

            Arguably universal health care isn’t welfare, but replacing failed markets in health care and health insurance.

            Resentment comes from having to beg for help to live, or prove neediness to strict scrutiny welfare systems.

            Would you say dignity from the possession of inherited wealth is also false dignity?

          • Kevin

            Yes, dignity merely from inherited wealth would also be false, and quite possibly similarly damaging. Of course, it is still the right of the parent to give it, or not.

        • matt b

          That’s a really interesting point. I think Democrats are skeptical of vouchers for medical care because they think that insurance companies, unlike say grocery stores, cannot be trusted. Most people basically think grocery stores are alright, you know they want to make money but it does not cost 5076 for chicken whereas they view insurers as uniquely avaricious people who will charge you ridiculous amounts and give you little in return. There is definitely some truth to this view but what I always say is that it comes down to a lack of competition. The state has created a structure that makes a market in health insurance almost impossible and that benefits existing players who don’t have to offer great deals to stay in business. I’m not sure how to get that point across to people on the left as they always seem to misinterpret it as a defense of insurance companies.

          • Damien S.

            I’ve seen estimates that 50% of people with individual health insurance who get severely sick will be kicked off their insurance. Rescissions are a real problem. As for competition, insurance inherently benefits from economies of scale — the whole point is to pool risk, the more risk the better. Small states can’t support many insurers. Interstate competition? Either means federal regulation, or regulation by the most insurer friendly state a la corporations mostly registering in Delaware.

            Even with somehow better corporate intentions, the fundamental problem is adverse selection. Well, plus the widespread belief that people should not be allowed to die for lack of money. You’re not going to get your “point across” if you don’t even address those.

          • matt b

            A genuine free market, with limited government intervention in the form of vouchers for the poor, would be a huge improvement over what we have now. Recessions are a huge problem but they are often a creation of government (2008 financial crisis, the Great Depression, and many others) so again another argument for limiting government. Health insurance regulation might be justified at some minimal level if we had the right people in charge but in practice government regulation of health insurance has massively increased costs to the benefit of acupuncturists and chiropractors and other special interests who buy off pols who then mandate we buy ridiculously overstuffed plans.

            I would recommend this piece from Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron regarding the other concerns you raise

          • Damien S.

            Recessions often aren’t a creation of government, like the 2008 financial crisis, but anyway I wasn’t talking about recessions, which would be a non sequitur, but rescissions. That’s a different word.

            As for your link… “Full or substantial government insurance trades one problem — the high
            cost of private insurance for some people — for a different problem: an
            inefficient and expensive health care system.”

            But he’s wrong. If we look at the real world, rather than our theories, we see that the most inefficient and expensive health care system is that of the USA. “Socialized medicine” is far cheaper while having better outcomes.

            “just as broad subsidies for health insurance would guarantee runaway expenditure and a distorted health care system.”

            Again, he’s wrong. The US is spending around 17% of GDP on health care; most other rich countries are spending 8-10%. The runaway expenditures are here, not in the countries with universal subsidies.

            These aren’t exactly obscure facts. Has he somehow remained ignorant of them, or is he dishonest?

          • Michael Philip

            socialized medicine isn’t cheaper and it doesn’t have better outcomes either. lets not pretend that those die-while-you wait systems are somehow a better alternative than the broken american system that we have today

          • Damien S.

            They spend less and live longer. Here’s real world data I collected back in 2006.

            It’s hard to be ignorant *and* dishonest at the same time. But the numbers are on my side.

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