Sat, 10 Sep 2005


I asked a few friends why a significant number of people feel that it's not enough for your actions to help people; you have to have intended to help people. Also why some people think that actions intended to help people is sufficient regardless of whether the actions help or hurt them.

I got a reply from J.D. Von Pischke which I will explain in my own way below. Credit for the idea goes to J.D.; blame for a poor explanation of it goes to me.

There is a simple explanation for this: humans do not easily comprehend indirect effects. In Biblical times (which is to say the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim tradition), institutions were much simpler. Actions and results were linked more directly, and chains of actions were fewer. If you wanted to make yourself better off, you did more of the same thing. A carpenter would build more chairs or cabinets; a shoemaker more shoes; a baker more loaves. Indirect action was rare. If you wanted to help someone, you gave them help directly.

Slowly, over time, institutions became more sophisticated. People's interactions with each other and with groups became more complicated. If you want to help someone, you can still help them directly, but there are now groups and people whose life work is helping others. Your help is probably more effective when it is indirect: helping the helper.

Look at today's situation: you could drive down to the Gulf Coast to help people, but without good logistical support, it's quite possible that you could become a victim in need of aid yourself. This certainly happened a bit more than a hundred years ago at the Johnstown Flood, where the first people on the scene brought no food or water and needed to be fed alongside the victims later. Your aid is better done indirectly, by donating to the many groups who are helping. Are you helping? Surely. But because of the indirection, nobody is in a position to comprehend everything that's being done.

Just as aid organizations have become more sophisticated and effective, so have institutions which improve welfare and create wealth. They're harder to understand because they operate indirectly. Because of this, people look for simpler explanations. These may be based on scripture, such as the Biblical suspicion of material wealth -- a view was based on the creation and use of wealth in those simpler times. Other simple explanations have been used to obtain political power, as Marx's followers so devastatingly demonstrated in the past century.

Look at how Wal-Mart prepared for the storm. They knew from past experience that some of their stores would need extra supplies, so even before the storm hit landfall, they had many trucks loaded with relief supplies. They did this to make money, but indirectly they were helping people. They have also given millions of dollars in donations.

Today wealth is much more widely spread than in antiquity, as represented by modern liberal societies' great institutions, including education, health, commerce, justice, government, etc. These are also more difficult to explain and comprehend. A challenge for economists and many others is to sort out the dimensions of simplicity. This is an exceedingly complex task in an exceedingly complex world in which indirect leverage, i.e., complexity, has increasingly greater effects than direct action.

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