What would happen if you gave a long-term homeless man $100,000? If he wasn’t mentally handicapped, would it turn his life around? Would he suddenly be like any normal, productive citizen? Well, someone actually tested this idea in real life, as described in this video from the “Today I Found Out” YouTube channel:
As presented in the video, the mentally sound homeless man, Ted Rodrique, was given $100,000 to do with as he chose. He was even given the benefit of a financial adviser. But within a year, Ted was already broke and homeless again, now with debt he hadn’t had before. In short, Ted was slightly worse off for having been given the $100,000.
So, what was the problem? Why didn’t Ted take proper advantage of this huge opportunity thrown his way? He didn’t take advantage because he didn’t really value the things required to maintain the small fortune given to him. He didn’t value hard work, planning and discipline, but rather, living day-to-day, guided by his whims.
This points to an important truth about human nature: Our personal well-being does not depend on purely material resources, but requires that we develop certain spiritual values–i.e. goals and pursuits in our own minds. These values are not determined by our material circumstances–by how much money we have–but by our choices and the way we think. In order to have a self-sustaining well-being, or happiness, you must choose to be the sort of person who earns wealth and pursues values for yourself. If you don’t choose the proper values that allow you to be self-sustaining, then you are wholly dependent on the work of others for any “prosperity” you have and any goods you consume.
So now let’s ask: If someone else is “in financial need,” when might charity genuinely help them in the long term? Not when they have poor values. They will merely squander your contribution and be right back where they started, if not worse off. People with bad values–those who won’t be productive in any way, or who won’t be responsible in their lives, or who want to live by their whims–are busy digging a pit for themselves. You giving them money is like throwing a little dirt into the pit. They will just dig their way through it and need more. You can give as much as you want, and they will always end up in the same pit.
You giving such a person money is not helping them, because it won’t change their values. It’s just a pointless sacrifice on your part. You’re just temporarily insulating the person from the full consequences of their choices, giving them the illusion that they can make bad choices with impunity. The appearance that others will always be there to bail them out of their bad choices will reduce their motivation for serious self-improvement.
Again, I want to emphasize that this sort of charity is pure destructiveness. To the extent you give such charity, it is a waste of your life and a hindrance to the life of the recipient. It would be better for the recipient if you flushed your money down the toilet. (To understand why this sort of charity should also be regarded as morally wrong, I recommend Ayn Rand’s book, The Virtue of Selfishness.)
Now a very different kind of charity is that which you might choose to give to a person with good values, who is in financial trouble through unforeseeable or unavoidable circumstances. Say, if someone is robbed by criminals, or has his house burned down by a wildfire. Charity in this sort of circumstance can actually help someone.
This person is presumably dedicated to creating value and earning wealth in the long term, becoming self-sustaining when possible. This person uses the resources at his disposal to build, and so doesn’t function as a bottomless pit for the resources created by others.
To be clear, I still do not consider this potentially helpful charity to be a moral duty. If one’s own circumstances mean that one cannot afford to give, or that one has specific, higher priorities for the money, then it is not a strike against one’s character to refrain from donating. Any donations should be weighed and proportioned based on the recipient’s positive importance to the life of the donor, with larger donations to those who are more important, and smaller ones to those less so. (See here for more on the issue of the proper, proportional treatment of others.)
This deep difference between harmful sacrifice and benevolent charity can be seen, not only on the personal level, but also on the international level. Some African countries, like Somalia, Sudan, and Uganda, as well as Caribbean and Central American countries, like Haiti and Nicaragua, have received lots of international aid and charity over long periods of time, yet they have remained impoverished, with frequent “humanitarian crises.” Why? Because they have the societal equivalent of bad values. They have high rates of mysticism, tribalism, and self-sacrificial attitudes.
This leads people to not regard themselves as responsible for their own lives, and discourages them from pursuing their own well-being as individuals. This also leads to bad political institutions that hold people down, through excessive regulation, bureaucracy, and governmental corruption. The individuals of these countries are mostly unwilling and/or unable to lift themselves up out of poverty. They see themselves as helpless, and anything they’re meant to have, God and/or the government will provide. They are easily provoked into tribal wars that kill people, destroy productivity and set economic progress back by decades.
Thus, these places stay impoverished “shitholes.” They continue to serve as bottomless pits for richer countries to throw their wealth into, to demonstrate their “compassion.” All international aid does for these countries in the long term is to enrich their corrupt government officials, while making ordinary people increasingly dependent on handouts from above to survive. This helps the government officials maintain power and continue to oppress their citizens. Aid thus discourages people in these countries from developing the mindset that would lift them out of poverty: namely, that they want to be left free to start new businesses, create wealth and improve their own lives. (For more detail on the harmful effects of international aid to ideologically corrupt countries, see the documentary, “Poverty Inc.”)
The opposite of this harmful charity on the international level would be when individuals and non-governmental organizations help to alleviate suffering from unforeseeable disasters in countries with mostly good values and institutions. This sort of aid was given, for example, in the wake of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
Whether in personal interactions or international affairs, the sacrifice of the productive people for the sake of the unproductive-by-choice does not achieve its alleged goal of lifting up the unproductive. All it does is drag down the productive and discourage the unproductive from changing for the better. It may even make the “beneficiaries” worse off in other ways, as well. (This is part of the reason that governmental welfare is so destructive: because it doesn’t discriminate between those with good and bad values.)
If you want to help those whose choices and values lead them to poverty and suffering, the thing to do is not to give them money or material goods. The thing to do is to provide a good example of the type of person (or society) that achieves prosperity and well-being. And, if you think they’ll hear and consider it, give them a little advice on how to achieve what you (or your society) has achieved: Develop good values, including rationality, long-term planning, hard work, honesty, and taking personal responsibility for your life. Advocate for political freedom and inalienable, individual property rights in your society.
For more on these values and how they contribute to prosperity and well-being, see the works of Ayn Rand, Dr. Leonard Peikoff, and Dr. Tara Smith, especially The Virtue of Selfishness, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, and Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics.