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Posts tagged Charity

On Mutuality in Aid

Bill Easterly recently wrote a brief article on the importance of attending to issues of complexity and spontaneous order in debates about government foreign aid transfers (and the small army of planners, developers, charity-workers, et al. that come along with those grants). It’s interesting enough, but I’m mentioning it because there are a couple comments from David Ellerman beneath the post, which are really worth noticing. First:

One could go on but I might try to cut to the chase and indicate why theories that may give some insights when applied to physical systems (e.g., self-organizing sand piles) and insect societies may rather "miss the boat" when applied to human affairs.

The mistake in applying complexity theory to human relationships such as the education, management, development aid, and helping in general is that the basic problem is NOT that the human systems are complex, messy, nonlinear, etc. The basic problem, across the whole range of the human helping relationships (like aid) between what might be called the helper and the doer, is that success lies in achieving more autonomy on the part of the doers, and autonomy is precisely the sort of thing that cannot be externally supplied or provided by the would-be helpers. This is the fundamental conundrum of all human helping relations, and it is the basic reason, not complexity, why engineering approaches and the like don't work. Thus the application of complexity theory to development aid–as if the basic problem with aid was the complexity of the systems–is unhelpful from the get go.

— David Ellerman (19 January 2011, 1:21pm), in re: Complexity, Spontaneous Order, blah, blah, blah…and Wow

Of course, human social life is complex, messy, nonlinear, and whatever else, and if you aim to study it, or to do something on the basis of your study, then you had better keep that in mind. But what you had best keep in mind, when it comes to the doing something part, is not so much some theoretical insight about top-down views of patterns of human activity, which you could have observed from Mars, say, through a very large telescope; it’s something about the human relationships that you are entering into — how you think about and how you treat the people you are supposedly coming along to help out with all their problems. (And just who are you? What are the problems you’re trying to solve, and whose are they, really?) For those who are interested in such things, this is of course the issue at stake in the Anarchist analysis of the difference between mutual aid and charity.

The second worth noticing are the comments on how this kind of discourse gets packaged, and how it spreads. I think the bits about the role of management theory as a vector for the fads to spread throughout institutionalized aid economics are especially insightful, and important:

Sticking to applications of complexity theory in the social or human sciences (the notion of a spontaneous order is an older and more profound topic), one should consult Ben Ramalingam's ODI paper at: http://www.odi.org.uk/resources/download/583.pdf . Ben and colleagues make a sustained attempt to usefully apply complexity theory to the problems of development aid–but I fear with little success. One can always reformulate some bits of old wisdom (openness, restraint, humbleness, courage) in terms of the jargon of some new faddish theory, but that is hardly a distinctive contribution of the theory. As Ben notes, there has for some time been a craze in organizational theory and business management to apply the buzz and jargon of complexity theory but with little if any results that are new or distinctive. Interconnectedness! Nonlinearity! Sensitivity to initial conditions! Unintended consequences! Adaptive agents! Wow!...

— David Ellerman (19 January 2011, 1:21pm), in re: Complexity, Spontaneous Order, blah, blah, blah…and Wow


Ben, I do appreciate that your uses of complexity theory have been guarded and (as one can see from my book) I am certainly a great fan of eclecticism and interdisciplinary thinking. If anyone comes to some insights through complexity theory (as I also have, e.g., the series-parallel interplay between "exploitation versus exploration"), then that is great–even though other routes may also have been available. … My problems lie in how seemingly every advance in the natural sciences is turned into a fad, usually first in management theory, which is then used to avoid looking at deeper persistent sources of dysfunctionality. In business enterprises, management sits astride huge organizations based on the employment relation, but then constantly tries to escape the resulting dysfunctionality by surfing the latest fads popularized from the natural sciences. Similarly, we see the large development aid bureaucracies that are deeply failing for structural reasons but constantly grasping for the latest fad-theories to explain why it wasn't working as expected and to provide rhetorical cover for their new ways of doing development assistance.

In short, my message is: eclectic interdisciplinary approaches to development, Yes; new popsci cover stories for the failures of the development aid bureaucracies, No.

— David Ellerman (19 January 2011, 9:25pm), in re: Complexity, Spontaneous Order, blah, blah, blah…and Wow

(Via Will Wilkinson @ The Fly Bottle 2011-01-20.)

See also:

On Big Charity

I’ve talked here a couple times before about the notion of mass education and targeted persuasion and how important it is to what I take myself to be doing in writing a crazy-ass blog about all my crazy-ass positions like I do. (The basic notion here is that one way to advance crazy-ass radical views — views which you’re not likely to convince many people of, just as they are, outside of a relatively small, somewhat self-selected target audience — you can still move the conversation forward in really important ways just by taking the time to put the position on people’s intellectual radar — by explaining the view, and why some people might hold it, clearly enough that you thereby push out people’s horizons of intelligible dissent. Most folks still won’t accept your position, but if you do it right, you will get them to where they’ll consider it as a position that’s open for discussion. And just doing that much has a big damn effect on where discussions can go.)

Anyway, the point of mentioning all this is to bring up a really fine post that Roderick put up last month, entitled Wild Cards, which I think does some really important work towards just that kind of dialectical project. After some excellent introductory material which introduces several of the same notions, in other terms, Roderick comes around to this really quite excellent effort to distill the left-libertarian position down to six key points:

Our vital task, then, is to get the word out that there is a position out there that includes the following theses:

  1. Big business and big government are (for the most part) natural allies.

  2. Although conservative politicians pretend to hate big government, and liberal politicians pretend to hate big business, most mainstream policies – both liberal and conservative – involve (slightly different versions of) massive intervention on behalf of the big-business/big-government elite at the expense of ordinary people.

  3. Liberal politicians cloak their intervention on behalf of the strong in the rhetoric of intervention on behalf of the weak; conservative politicians cloak their intervention on behalf of the strong in the rhetoric of non-intervention and free markets – but in both cases the rhetoric is belied by the reality.

  4. A genuine policy of intervention on behalf of the weak, if liberals actually tried it, wouldn't work either, since the nature of government power would automatically warp it toward the interests of the elite.

  5. A genuine policy of non-intervention and free markets, if conservatives actually tried it, would work, since free competition would empower ordinary people at the expense of the elite.

  6. Since conservative policies, despite their associated free-market rhetoric, are mostly the diametrical opposite of free-market policies, the failures of conservative policies do not constitute an objection to (but rather, if anything, a vindication of) free-market policies.

Of course we should be prepared to defend these theses through economic reasoning and historical evidence, but the main goal at this point, I think, should be not so much to defend them as simply to advertise their existence. We need to make our red spades and black hearts a sufficiently familiar feature of the intellectual landscape that people will be able to see them for what they are rather than misclassifying them – at which point we'll be in a better position to defend them.

— Roderick Long, Austro-Athenian Empire (2009-09-10): Wild Cards

Read the whole thing.

Now, part of the point of this kind of thing is to provoke discussion. And here’s Stephan Kinsella’s reply to principle (1) in particular:

As I noted there, Do you mean big business as it exists in today's world, or big business per se? If the former, you have a point (and from my quick read I don't disagree with any of your other points). But to argue for the latter interpretation would imply that there could be no big business in a free society.

It seems that the bigger a company is, in today's world, the more they have to play ball to prosper. I'm not sure, though, why this observation is limited to big business, or even business in general. Even individuals drive on public roads, and are incentivized or coerced into using public schools, say. And what about Big Medicine, Big Education, Big Research, and so on? (And let's not forget Big Labor!)

Come to think of it—most larger charities I'm aware of continually seek state partnerships and funding, and encourage state redistribution schemes. Down with charity!

— Stephan Kinsella, The LRC Blog (2009-09-15): Big Charity

Sometimes with Stephan, it’s hard to tell whether he intends this kind of but-what-about, doesn’t-everybody move as just some further observations riffing on the general theme or whether he really intends for it to be taken as support (by means of a reductio) for some specific objection. But if this is intended as part of an objection to (the per-se interpretation of) Roderick’s claims about the alliance between Big Business and the interventionist State, then what exactly is the objection here supposed to be?

Let’s set aside Stephan’s mentions of individuals driving on government roads, or sending children to government schools. Sure they do; but this doesn’t strike me as even remotely compelling, if you pause for even a second to consider matters of degree, and it’s hard to see what purpose mentioning it really serves except as a way to just sort of scatter critique as broadly as possible. Last year, the Department of the Treasury sent me a $600 check, allegedly for the purpose of economic stimulus — just like how they also cut AIG a $170,000,000,000 check last year, also allegedly for the purpose of economic stimulus. But, well, so what? I’d say it’s still pretty accurate to see AIG as having a much closer relationship with bail-out statism than I do.

So let’s set aside the doesn’t-everybody move, and stick to the comments on other Bigs — large-scale, formalized institutions in which control is concentrated in a professionalized hierarchy and an administrative bureaucracy — whether it’s Big Medicine, Big Education, Big Research, Big Labor, or Big Charity. Kinsella points out that the other big institutions are, in general, tangled up with the interventionist state, just as big business is. If left-libertarians are going to lay down some heavy critique on Big Business, shouldn’t they be doing the same on the other Bigs?

Well, sure.

So what’s the problem?

What makes you think that left-libertarians would have some kind of problem critiquing Big Medicine (2, 3, 4), or Big Research, or Big Education (2, 3, 4), or Big Charity (2, 3), or Big Labor (2, 3, 4)?

Sure, public-private jobbery, state regimented, hypertrophic, centralized institutions, political capture, subsidized featherbedding, and unresponsive professionalized bureaucracies are hardly limited to conventional for-profit corporations. They happen all over the place — in big professionalized charities like United Way or the Starvation Army; in big hospitals and corporate adjuncts of the medical industry (insurance corporations, pharma corporations, etc.); in big administration-heavy multiversities; and in top-down, centralized business unions like the UAW, the Teamsters, or SEIU. Just like the Fortune 500, they’re also major beneficiaries of State regimentation, subsidy, and captive audiences; just like the Fortune 500, they’re also major causes of State regimentation, through their lobbying and political influence. And just like with hypertrophic, centralized, top-down corporate commerce, there’s some solid reasons for thinking that their hypertrophic, centralized, top-down not-for-profit operations would be fundamentally unsustainable in a freed market.

But that’s hardly an objection to the left-libertarian critique of big business; it’s a perfectly acceptable complement to it. Left-libertarians — at least, the sort of left-libertarians that Roderick is an example of — aren’t just conventional libertarians who believe you ought to voluntarily give more to charity. The critique of corporate capitalism is just the most high-profile part of a broad critique of the state’s promotion of credentialism, bureaucracy, and top-down centralized control — which is why folks like us generally promote community mutual aid over professionalized charity; grassroots, rank-and-file unionism over AFL-CIO-style union bosses and collective bargaining; unschooling over bureaucratic-liberal public education; etc., etc., etc.

So, yeah, down with Big Charity. I agree. Where’s the problem?

Updated 2012-03-23. I fixed a typographical error and updated some links to articles from Formulations, whose archives have moved to a newer, more secure web home.

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