The New York Times continues to provide high-profile platforms for prominent critics of contemporary charity. This past Sunday, in the Review section, the turn belonged to Princeton University bioethicist Peter Singer, who, in “Good Charity, Bad Charity,” uses a deft, if ill-founded argument, to demonize much contemporary philanthropy. Giving that is directed to “arts, culture, and heritage” is a particular focus of his ire.
As he does in his 2009 book, The Life You Can Save, Singer—perhaps best known for laying the groundwork for the animal rights movement—argues that charity should avoid what some would call status goods (art museums and symphony orchestras) in favor of organizations which can provide direct, bona fide, life-saving assistance to those in dire need. His example is that of a $100 donation to an organization which, for that relatively modest amount, can prevent trachoma, a disease which causes deterioration of vision and ultimate blindness. As he puts it, “In general, where human welfare is concerned, we will achieve more if we help those in extreme poverty in developing countries, as our dollars go much further there.” Crucially, he asserts that “serious evaluation of charities helping people in extreme poverty” now make it possible to support one you can be confident will be effective.
It is not easy to take issue with someone who specializes in (effectively) seizing the moral high ground in his arguments. By personalizing suffering—whether that of humans or animals—Singer puts his opponents on the defensive. But there are, indeed, serious reasons to take issue with his view in the Times.
I’ll take the hardest case first—that of defending philanthropic support for “arts, culture, and heritage.” These may, for some, be little more than a vehicle for attaining personal prestige. But one must also take their actual missions quite seriously. Doing so can lead in directions other than those imagined by Singer. Why are developing countries poor, after all? One line of explanation, famously expressed by Harvard economic historian David Landes, author of The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are Rich and Some So Poor, emphasizes intangible factors as those dismissed by Singer. Writes Landes: ”If we learn anything from the history of economic development, it is that culture makes all the difference.”
With that in mind, it may be indirect—but not uncaring—to believe it important to preserve and study the development of cultures which have produced such great wealth that hundreds of thousands of their people could afford to send $100 to the developing world. That many believe the norms underlying Western culture are weakening might strengthen the conviction of the museum or university philanthropist. One might even believe it important to promote and transmit that culture to the developing world, in the hopes it might produce the wealth to reduce the incidence of trachoma. Think here of Singapore, for instance, which, as recently as the early 1960s, was little more than a tropical backwater where beriberi was common. Today, a regime based on property rights and private investment, has led to developed nation status and a strong public health system.
Second, Singer assumes far too easily that because an organization has been judged effective at helping a handful of the poor avoid eye disease, it can, logically and inevitably, grow to provide the same service “at scale.” This is no simple task, as those who have, for instance, followed the travails of the U.S. early education program Head Start can attest. A pilot program in Michigan showed great promise—but, notwithstanding billions in annual spending, successive subsequent studies have shown disappointing long-term effects as measured by achievement of Head Start students in later years. Singer would do well to heed the classic, cautionary book by the political scientists Aaron Wildavsky and Jeffrey Pressman, Implementation: How Great Expectations in Washington Are Dashed in Oakland, in which they argue that “the technical details of implementation proved more difficult and more time-consuming than federal donors, local recipients, or enthusiastic observers had ever dreamed they would be.”
Third, Singer, by painting philanthropic choices as so starkly black-and-white, lays the groundwork for public policy to encourage some choices over others. One such policy change would involve limiting the charitable deduction only to those donations which are directed, as Singer suggests, to helping the poor directly. The idea already has attracted both academic and political support. (I elaborate on this battle in my forthcoming book Philanthropy Under Fire.) There are multiple risks here. First, it would politicize philanthropy by deeming some causes more worthy than others; second, it fails to appreciate the long-term potential to help the poor through vehicles far less direct than shelters and food banks. I think here of the Thiel Foundation (founded by venture capitalist Peter Thiel of PayPal and Facebook fame) and its grants of $100,000 to potential entrepreneurs who agree to leave college to try to bring their business plans to fruition.
Who is to say that one of these entrepreneurs will not commercialize an inexpensive cure for trachoma?
The logic of Singer’s “Good Charity, Bad Charity,” drives directly, however, toward the picking of winners and losers, about which policy should be cautious—if not indifferent. American civil society, fueled by charitable giving, has long been robust and diverse. There were millions of impoverished Americans in 1890. Would Singer rather John D. Rockefeller had given $100 to each instead of endowing the University of Chicago? For his part, Rockefeller called the $34 million he directed to the university, “the best investment I ever made.”
Original Source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/howardhusock/2013/08/15/peter-singers-seductive-and-dangerous-anti-charity-reasoning/