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December 27, 2010

Looking over post scheduling for this week I noticed that I didn’t have anything particularly Christmasy. This didn’t really bother me but when I heard a podcast of a money-management radio show discussing gift-giving I suddenly realized that I did have a half-formed post on a rather Christmasy topic floating around in my head.

The show discussed the inefficiency of gift-giving. Normally when I buy something the thing I buy is worth more to me than what I pay for it – that’s why I was willing to pay for it. However, when I buy something for someone else I guess and hope that what I buy will be worth more to them than what I paid for it. Whenever I’m wrong there’s inefficiency. I might pay fifty dollars for a gift that is worth twenty to its final owner. Now, make no mistake, I find this to be a fascinating outcome of market forces. The show was very interesting and the experiment done to demonstrate this inefficiency was wonderful. However, ultimately there’s something wrongheaded about this approach.

In fact, this wrongheadedness is pretty common. About a year ago I heard another show on giving to charity. The discussion centered, again, entirely on efficiency. Now, obviously we’d all rather give to a charity that is efficient in distributing money to those who need it. An inefficient, or deliberately wasteful or nefarious, charity is a bad thing. But is that the only criteria by which we should measure gift-giving and charity? It’s harder to see why this would be wrongheaded. I’ve never yet met a person who thought we should never give anyone gifts (although I’ve met principled individuals who eschew gift-giving at Christmas to protest the commercialization of Christmas) but charity is always a bit more contentious.

The most obvious reason one should continue to give gifts is that it shows thoughtfulness. It may be economically inefficient and it might make more sense just to hand over a wad of cash but we care about the thought. However, this is still a single dimension of gift-giving. We are still focused on the other person. This is not entirely surprising – we spent a lot of time focused on how we affect others (and how others affect us) but little time on how we affect ourselves. If we took a moment to think about gift-giving from our own perspective we would discover something else: the practice of generosity cultivates generosity. When we actively go through with something generous we change ourselves to be a little bit more likely to be generous again. Now at Christmastime gifts are often expected and this can sometimes ruin real generosity. If you’re getting gifts for people because you feel obligated, that’s hardly practicing generosity. Although, again, one could practice getting gifts for others in a spirit of generosity and not obligation. In this case it may also be worth examining one’s family traditions and changing them – in my family, for instance, I don’t feel any real pressure to get people gifts. I do get people gifts and it would be weird if I didn’t but I don’t feel pressured at all. I can practice generosity rather than patience in suffering.

Obviously this idea of practicing to become a generous person spills over to charity. Unlike gift-giving charity often involves people you don’t know at all. I am convinced that the way we give charitably depends strongly on whether we recognize this element of self-change in charity or not.

The part of charity that is most contentious is giving to beggars, especially beggars who may be obviously drunk or on drugs. There certainly are people who will take your money and go and buy drugs with it. Should we give to these people? The argument often runs in a simple fashion: no, because that’s inefficient. We want to convert money into help and converting money into heroin or a stiff drink for an alcoholic is pretty much the opposite of what we intend. In fact, even direct aid like food can be problematic because if a beggar gets a sandwich from you they might simply take their sandwich money and use it for drugs. The normal conclusion of this argument is that money should only be given to charitable organizations with high efficiencies.

The problem with this is not with charities. Indeed, I think that people should give sizable amounts of money to charities and that sizable amounts of money should only be given to charities in most cases. There are always exceptions, especially if you know the person in need, but a $300 donation should go somewhere with some oversight. This, though, is partly because we tend to feel the effect of each act of giving and not the dollar amount. Give five people a dollar each and you’ll feel like you’ve done more giving than if you gave one person five dollars. A big check to a charity is one act- perhaps a very generous one, but a single act nevertheless. Cultivating a spirit of generosity would seem to require more acts even if they only involve single-digit dollar amounts. What’s more, giving to a charity is in some ways easy. Charities go out of their way to tell you what good they’ve done with your money, to thank you, and to give you a positive and hopeful picture of what your donation has done. Charities rarely tell you about the inevitable losses. A drunk guy on the street corner blowing beer fumes in your face asking incoherently for money is far less easy to see as an object of mercy. He is a tragedy in action asking for the funds to continue his downward spiral. He may be hostile towards an offer of food instead of cash. Someone who is working to better themselves can be seen as deserving. Someone who is busy making their condition worse seems equivalently less deserving. However, as people who are trying to make ourselves better it would seem that the practice of generosity might require some hard cases. I once met a guy who lifted only weights that he thought were easy to lift and lifted them only until he felt some strain. Needless to say he never grew any muscle mass. If we wish to be generous people we need to practice uncomfortable generosity – although always with an eye to producing good outcomes.

Ultimately, we desire two outcomes when we give. We desire that the person who receives feel cared for and be better off. We also desire that the giver become more like Christ – more generous, more loving, and more willing to see others as import and worth time and effort. The exact balance between these two is tricky. I have provided some practical examples of how I work these things out in my own life and a few hesitant recommendations. However, I feel most confident when I assert that we should pay attention to both demands of charity, and that we strive to both help and shape ourselves into the likeness of Christ.

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