What I want for Christmas: money for people

There’s a great episode of Seinfeld where George, in a desperate attempt to get out of buying Christmas gifts, tells his coworkers he’s made a donation in their name to The Human Fund, a charity with the slogan ‘money for people’.

The gag, of course, is that The Human Fund does not exist. And part of the joke is the slogan, which is intentionally supposed to be absurdly simplistic and vague. What would a charity dedicated to ‘money for people’ do?

Well, maybe they’d just give money to people.

Just as Erykah Badu and André 3000 took George’s joke baby name idea and turned it into a real thing, some economists did the same with George’s joke charity idea. It’s called GiveDirectly, and they just take your money and give it to other people. CULA has raised money for them before, and they regularly rank highly on evaluations of cost-effective charitable interventions.

What I love about GiveDirectly is how fucking liberal they are – they might be the most liberal organisation on the planet. Liberalism, on its surface, is a pretty straightforward doctrine, rooted in some seemingly-obvious almost-platitudes about rights and harm and pluralism and yada yada yada… But underneath that, at its best it is a deeply iconoclastic and weird ideology, celebrating nicheness and individuality and the wonderfully odd uniqueness of each human being.

Likewise, GiveDirectly’s premise is so simple people often ask, ‘is that it?’ But behind its seeming obviousness is a deeply fucking weird, new, and almost unsettling approach to charity: one that goes against the grain of so many deeply embedded assumptions that the Seinfeld writers unthinkingly turned it into a joke.

GiveDirectly works with some of the poorest people in the world, who typically live on less than £1.50 a day (and yes, that number is adjusted for purchasing power). You may have seen charities that propose giving these people new water pumps, or buying them goats, or sending them shoeboxes, or a million other things that are supposed to help them out. This seems perfectly normal and sensible to the vast majority of people. But, if you have a liberal mindset, you might ask: who are we to decide what these people need? Why can’t they do that themselves?

People in poverty are human; they want a better life; they have an unique individual potential that should be celebrated. Their only problem is that they are trapped in a situation that doesn’t allow them to achieve that potential: they don’t have enough money. So why not just give them more? It’s a surprisingly radical idea, because it’s a deep part of human thought to assume – often subconsciously – that individuals don’t know what’s best for them. We’ve generated whole systems of thought to rationalise this intuition, from the right-wing worry of ‘dependence’ to Marxist nonsense about ‘false consciousness’. Liberalism is so radical because it calls this out as the bullshit that it is; and that is exactly the point of GiveDirectly.

It’s sometimes said that there’s a tension at the heart of liberalism: how can we demand that people achieve their unique potentials individually, when the social issues that keep people down demand collective solutions? GiveDirectly shows us the answer, and it’s literally just throwing money at the problem. If we give people in poverty some of our money, we are helping them out collectively while still letting them make individual decisions about how to improve their lives.

And so, this festive season, I have something very simple on my list: money for people. It’s cliché to say that Christmas is a time of giving, but it’s true nonetheless. When you buy your friends and family a gift – a copy of the Orange Book, a Nick Clegg body pillow, a music box that plays ‘The Land’, whatever it is – you partake in a genuinely magical tradition; we tend to forget how incredible the basic idea of Christmas giving is because it’s cultural background noise by now, but it really ranks as one of our best inheritances from Christianity (second only to the writings of St Paul). The only two ways it can be made better are giving altruistically and giving based on your deeply-held values. This year, you have the chance to do both: donate to GiveDirectly, and combine the warm glow of charity with the chad energy of liberalism.

And, in the spirit of Christmas, if the giving mood strikes you and you donate to GiveDirectly before or on the Epiphany, I’ll match you. Email me proof of your donation (pm664@cam.ac.uk) and I’ll donate the same amount.* Feel free to use a burner email if you want it to be anonymous. This is proper matching, not like a lot of campaigns – I’ve donated to GiveDirectly already this month, so if people don’t take up my offer I’ll be spending the money on nice whiskey or something. Consider it a gift exchange, if you like: you’re offering me the gift that George’s coworkers thought they were getting, and I’m giving you the same in return. (Alternatively, if you don’t like me, consider it an opportunity to fuck me over.)

No, charity is not a panacea: there are obviously problems in the world that need other approaches. But it’s really amazing how far charity can go, at least when it’s the right type of charity. Precisely because it’s been so common for almost all of human history, it’s easy to forget that extreme poverty is just as important as climate change or immigration reform or land reform or whatever else people are writing about for this competition. The greatest achievement of liberalism has been its consistent ability to lift people out of extreme poverty, all across the globe. And GiveDirectly is contributing, in a small but certainly not insignificant way, to this project. This Christmas, I want liberals to join in and give the gift of money for people.

*I reserve the right to stop this if some people get insane with it and it threatens my ability to pay rent, but I will go as far as I can with it. Let’s set the absolute maximum at £1000 total, or £100 from any one individual but I imagine that the actual numbers will be much smaller than that.

** The offer is now closed, but CULA readers managed to take a rather large (£629.70) chunk out of my bank account balance.


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