Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Selfish Altruism

By David G. Young

Washington DC, September 4, 2007 --  

Volunteering may serve to make people feel good, but it's usually not the best way to improve the world.

A hoard of yuppies gathered outside Stuart-Hobson Middle School last weekend, dressed in faded and fraying clothes from J. Crew, and ready for work. On the annual DC Public Schools Beautification Day, people from around the neighborhood and across the metropolitan area volunteer to spend a day improving the grounds of public schools. It's a non-controversial charity that everyone can agree on -- the kind that corporate sponsors (including my employer) love to get involved in. After all, the DCPS Beautification Day helps children, and who could possibly be against the children?

Well, I could, I guess. As a continually soaked taxpayer in Washington, DC, I am horribly offended at the idea of being asked to volunteer to clean up the schools, when thousands of my tax dollars1 pay the salaries of people fail to get the job done. Per pupil spending in Washington, D.C. is third highest in the nation at $12,979,4 yet residents are regularly inundated with stories about the decrepit nature of the system's structures, with collapsing roofs and buildings that don't meet fire code. Student performance, is equally abysmal -- three quarters of students fail to meet math standards.5

What the DC school system needs are not volunteers to fix the schools, but people to audit the books of the wasteful system and force a change in the guard to stop its mismanagement. But this reality of need didn't deter the volunteers. And that's probably due to a common phenomenon about volunteering: it's not so much about actually doing good, but about making the volunteers feel good.

Consider, for example, America's Peace Corps program. Each year, thousands of elite young Americans join the program, which burns through $300 million6 and tons of fossil fuels to move the kids to the far corners of the world to do charitable work that could be done more easily and cheaply by local people -- local people who would be thrilled to have the jobs themselves.

But again, it's not about results. It's not about the people being helped. It's about the volunteers -- and their selfish desire to enrich their lives through the perception that they are helping others, efficiency and consequences be damned.

It must be stated that there are some benefits of volunteering. Volunteering raises awareness of deficiencies in society, and can make people feel more connected with others. But these very personal benefits should never be confused with solving problems in the community, which is relatively rare in volunteering.

For wealthier citizens of the world (meaning pretty much everyone reading this) who actually want to do good instead of feel good, it is much better to donate money to well-run charitable organizations. These groups can spend money to hire professionals to do good works much more efficiently than amateur volunteers ever could. This is an example of the economic principle of specialization of labor. It is more efficient for a mechanic to fix cars for a living and pay money for clothes made by others than it is for the mechanic to take time away from his job to muddle through making clothes for himself. Likewise, if people really want to do good, they are much better off working overtime or at a second job and donating the proceeds to reputable charities.

Should you choose not to follow my advice, you are certainly free to do so. You may spend your free time watching television, gardening, or volunteering at a homeless shelter. Just remember how selfish you are when you do.


1. The DC public school system's budget of $800 million2 is about 9 percent of the 9.1 billion city budget.3 Assuming my tax dollars go to public schools at the same rate, I figure I've spent about 0.09 x $3000 x 8 years =$2,160 into to system since moving to DC.

2. DC Fiscal Policy Initiative, What's in the FY 2008 Budget for Education? August 17, 2007

3. DC Office of the Chief Financial Officer, FY 2008 Proposed Budget and Financial Plan, June 7, 2007

4. Reuters, U.S. Spends Average $8,701 Per Pupil on Education, Reuters, May 24, 2007 5. Washington Post, Can D.C. Schools Be Fixed? June 10, 2007

6. Peace Corps, Congressional Budget Justification Fiscal Year 2008