Capitalism and Charity

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by Jeffrey A. Tucker: The
People on the Move



So I finally
gave in and coughed up a donation to Wikipedia, after long weeks
after being stared at by the mug of Jim Wales. Suddenly I realized
something: this website is very useful to me, and it also performs
a social function.

It needs
money to operate. Who better to step up and do what needs to be
done? So I went for it. It was no trouble at all, and felt good.
Now I have a sense that I'm a partial owner — a stakeholder of
sorts — in this apparatus that I use every day.

And the other
day, I did the same for a small choir that sings great stuff.
And there's a museum in town that's cool so I gave a bit there.

I went over to and gave.

Each time
took only a few seconds.

All these
institutions are important to my life. I want them to thrive.
I benefit, and everyone benefits. Doesn’t it make sense that I
would do something to help make that possible?

I’m under
no illusion that my modest efforts here make the difference between
life and death for these institutions. But you know what? It doesn’t
matter. I’m combining my own efforts with hundreds and thousands
of others, and together we all amount to something. I may not
know these other donors. I don’t have to. We can still work together
to do something wonderful that none of us could ever do separately.

I've been
asking around about what others are doing and it turns out that
many people are in on the act, whatever their financial means.
The Mises Institute's efforts
this year have been more successful than any previous year.
I suspect that many other institutions can say the same.

Now, fifteen
years ago, in the age of mail sacks and sticky stamps, none of
this would have been possible. You had to have money to raise
money, and the money you raised went to raising more money because
everything was such a headache in the world before the web.

Today, a
small donation goes so much further. A bit of web programming
makes the donation interface possible. It takes just a minute
to type in your credit card information. Everyone benefits.

It gets me
wondering: are we beginning to see the emergence of a new culture
of giving, made possible by technology that makes it ever easier
to give small amounts or micro-donations? We’ll know in a few
years when the data come in but I suspect that this is what is

Giving like
this can be habit-forming. The world is filled with miraculous
and wonderful things, mostly online and mostly for free. We use
this stuff every day. It makes the world a better place. Why not
show support in a tangible way?

So many times
in the past I’ve sat at concerts and looked at the back of the
program to see that rich foundations and rich people gave lots
of money to make all this possible. I could never do such a thing.
I could never join the ranks of the great philanthropists. It’s
out of my league.

Today it
is different. Why should philanthropy be monopolized by billionaires?
I can be a philanthropist. Pooling the cooperative generosity
of thousands and millions is actually more effective and certainly
more inspiring.

It's true
that giving this way doesn't make rational sense according to
a neoclassical idea of what constitutes economic rationality.
LRC is free and
it will be there whether I give or not.
The same might be
said of the Mises Institute. If all we cared about were commercial
exchange, I would have every incentive to use the free good and
never pay. There is no harm done in free riding, right?

Mises himself
had a broader view of rationality. He said that all actions are
rational from the point of view of the actor. I'm glad to embrace
that idea; it makes sense to me. I give because I want to support
something I believe in, end of story. Giving in this way is not
strictly a capitalist act if you define capitalism as only commercial
exchange based on contract.

if we see capitalism as the voluntary sector of society characterized
by private property relationships, this kind of micro-giving is
part of that.

So I'm beginning
to wonder now. In the future, will it be possible for artists,
poets, musicians, painters, writers of all sorts, and others to
make a buck through encouraging micro-donations? A few years ago,
I might not have thought so. But if giving in this way becomes
habitual — and it really does feel great — maybe this could happen.

Maybe, just
maybe, technology will help foster a new
culture of donations
that could become an important part of
economic life for everyone. This habit not only makes it possible
for important institutions to survive. The culture of the donation
could end up restructuring how we think of economic life itself.

Try it and
you will see.

31, 2010

Tucker [send him mail]
is editorial vice president of

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