“Get Off My Lawn” vs. “I Gave at the Office”

Last week, I developed the idea of needlessly fragile equilibria, states of political balance that are thrown out of whack by false beliefs, which generate unreasonable expectations. Faith in government is one of these, and it’s way out of balance these days.

Jeff Weintraub has a recent post on related issues, “Can democracy work when people are idiots?” It talks about patently false beliefs American voters have about the nature and size of different government expenditures, and how these generate self-contradictory expectations about how to reduce the size of government.

This is related to the idea that people hold unreasonable expectations about their fellow citizens, assuming there are shirkers all about who are leaching off government largesse. You dislike them, and you think the government is either stupid for believing their sob stories or actively complicit in rewarding their shirking. In either case, the needlessly fragile equilibrium of faith in government is thrown out of balance.

How is one’s view of philanthropy and the nonprofit sector affected in such a scenario? Is the problem really the shirking or the public largesse? If it’s the shirking, then you wouldn’t be inclined to give to charity. Call this the “Get Off My Lawn” position: go away taxman, go away charity fundraiser. If the problem is public largesse, and you don’t object to those in need receiving help, but just to having public funds appropriated for that purpose, then you’d probably be generous to charity. Call this the “I Gave at the Office” position: go away taxman, c’mon over charity fundraiser.

For these types of (non)givers, the depersonalized nature of charity in the contemporary world reinforces their positions. If people’s experience of the need for which funds are being raised is arm’s-length, this does nothing to change the (false) beliefs they hold about those in need. Not that that’s any particular charity’s job, necessarily, to change those beliefs, but it points to the role philanthropy can sometimes play in a democratic society. Done a certain way, it reinforces the needless fragility of the equilibrium of faith in government.

What might be another way? Tomorrow, I’ll consider some alternatives, in the context of the “season of giving” that’s coming upon us.

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One Response to ““Get Off My Lawn” vs. “I Gave at the Office””

  1. The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" » Blog Archive » Social distance and the season of giving Says:

    […] The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" BETA version, new title in the works. New post each Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday (for now). « “Get Off My Lawn” vs. “I Gave at the Office” […]

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