On Poverty and Fancy Cars

So here’s an argument we’ve all heard:

It would be wrong of me to choose not to help a child in peril in order protect some kind of material good—a fancy car, expensive clothes, etc. Each of us, however, is in a morally comparable position every day, able to help a needy child at the cost of relatively modest amount of money. Specifically, modulo some plausible calculations, by donating $200 or so to an effective charity we can extend the life of a child living in extreme poverty. So, by choosing not to donate the $200, each of us who are in a position to do so are as morally culpable as the person who allows a child to perish for the sake of a car.

Now, versions of this argument—offered most famously by Peter Unger and Peter Singer in various places over the years—have probably done a whole lot of good, certainly more than most philosophical arguments. And I would hardly want to discourage people from donating to the likes of Oxfam. Still, it is a transparently bad argument, or so it seems to me.

Here’s the problem. The argument presses a supposed analogy between the needy child my donation might help, and the hypothetical child in Singer’s drowning kid example, or Unger’s Bugatti example. But there is no such analogy, because there is no child I am in a position to save by donating $200 to an organization like Oxfam. The attempted analogy depends on a basic misrepresentation of how organizations like Oxfam or UNICEF actually work.

Oxfam America, just to use them as an example, has an operating budget of around $85,000,000, with annual revenues in the neighborhood of $90,000,000. Around 45% of that revenue comes from donations from individuals. The thing is, these donations all go into OA’s operating budget, not directly to starving children—there’s no one to one connection between each individual donation and some child. To be very clear: OA pays for very valuable programs out of their budget, and their doing so helps very many people—I’m not at all suggesting otherwise. But simple math tells us that an additional $200 individual donation represents a tiny, tiny, tiny potential increase in one revenue stream, and an even tinier potential increase in the total amount of money available to pay for OA’s programs—much too small to affect what OA is or is not able to do in any given year. (A comparable percentage pay raise would net for me an additional 15 cents or so a year—my standard of living wouldn’t notice.) The upshot: whether I give $200—or $2000 for that matter—to OA is not going to have any bearing on the welfare of any particular child, because the organization will not do more have received my donation than they would without it. So it’s just not like the Bugatti or drowning kid cases. At all.

What would make a difference to what OA can do is a sizable enough increase in their total revenue, but this is not something any individual this side of the ultra rich can bring about single handedly—nothing I can do individually is going to matter much to an $80,000,000 budget. What OA really needs is an increase in the total number of individuals donating as well as an increase in how much donors typically give. And this tells us where the real moral failing is when I don’t donate: it’s a version of the free rider problem. If I value what groups like Oxfam America do—and I should—I should contribute. Not because if I don’t some child will die. That is about as plausible as supposing that if I don’t donate to public radio then “All Things Considered” will go off the air for a fraction of a second sometime next week. No, I should donate so that I am doing my part to support an essential public good, rather than free riding on the good will of others.