It’s Not the Thought that Counts

We’ve all seen while scrolling through Facebook or our social media of choice the image of a starving child from some third world nation captioned “one like equals one prayer.” The “likes” and “shares,” however, don’t seem to ever culminate in an actual or tangible increase in the child’s wellbeing. What we can see, on the other hand, is which of our friends “share” or “like” these memes. It doesn’t take Mother Teresa to realize that what these social media justice warriors are really trying to convey is the appearance that they “care,” despite the fact that their actual contributions to the problem are more than likely negligible. Why not share a link for donations to the charity of their choice? Why not direct one’s followers to visible efforts to alleviate the problem?

Such a suggestion, would imply that the one who presents the moral plead to help their fellow man actually has a moral obligation to help their fellow man. Even when discussing these ideas with defenders of the welfare state, the discussion is never “what have I done to help?” or “what more could I do?” The talking point always centers on “what should we do?” We, of course, is normally followed by “as members of society,” and by members of society, the implied suggestion is “what should the government force others to do?” By being able to shift one’s own moral obligation onto another by supporting a third party apparatus of violence, one can give the appearance that they care about the problems facing society: usually defined as poverty and oppression.

These are the instances of the idea that it is the “thought” that counts. As long as the state can direct its funds into efforts the particular interested group deems as “humanitarian,” nothing else matters. It doesn’t matter, to the welfare state defender, that poverty has been subsidized by the immediate satisfaction of an urgently felt desire of the poor.  If one tries to attack the welfare state on its merits as actually increasing and incentivizing poverty’s prevalence, they are then labeled as “hateful” or “cold-hearted.” If the “thought” counts, logical thinkers mustn’t get hung up or flustered by such accusations, instead, like Mises, they should ever boldly shine light on the results of any policy rather than its intentions.

Mises in his work brilliantly was able to show that if a state or entity desires to alleviate a certain uneasiness, there are certainly different kinds of means one could achieve to achieve that end. It is the job of the economist to examine these means and to show what the use of certain means would entail in addition to the satisfaction of the end. In the case of welfare and “forced humanitarian” (an oxymoron) aid, these less desired consequences are apparent for all to see. To the naïve, or mystically driven humanitarian, however, it isn’t the result of these actions that matter. It is rather the “thought” that counts. The thought is that someone somewhere is doing something about it, which makes it even easier to pretend like you’re helping when you know that someone is spinning their wheels, intent on “addressing” (not solving) the problem so that you don’t have to.

If “we” as a “society” were really intent on solving the problem of poverty, of addressing who would take care of the poor and the less fortunate, the most successful means of doing so is through the engine of free-market capitalism. The idea is plain and easy enough to understand. When a marketplace produces so much wealth so that so many wants are already satisfied, other less material goals are more likely to come to the forefront. When a person has access to so many means of want-satisfaction at their disposal, they are able to focus their attention at other things not previously accessible to them, namely, donating to charities. I ask the question, who gives more to the less fortunate, a rich person or a poor person? Some would say that the poor actually gives more, due to what the poor has given up is more proportionally impactful in the giver’s life, but this doctrine also falls flat on its face in the fact that it succumbs to the “it’s the thought that counts” error. What really counts, the advocate of such fallacious reasoning implies, is that the giver feels morally superior, while the plight of the less fortunate receiver is not improved as much as he or she would have been had the donation come from a smaller proportion of the richer man’s earnings. They attack the richer man’s donations as more of a “keep the change” phenomenon. Yet, what would actually help the downtrodden is a society where so many more people are willing to say “keep the change” in the first place.

It is obvious, objectively speaking, that the purchasing power in terms of money donations from a richer person giving is greater the ability for a more modest person to donate. Some people resign themselves to the fact that if they had more to give, then they would, because in fact they believe that they care more than the richer person simply saying “keep the change.” But who cares? What has this well-intentioned, meme-liking, feelings philanthropist actually done to improve the condition of those he professes to care so much about?

It’s not the thought that counts. What matters isn’t forcing the more modest givers or the more able givers to pay more money to subsidize another’s moral obligation. What matters is what means allow for more people to donate more capital or “change” to causes that benefit the less fortunate? Since one is not able to, from the position of a god or a deity, change the hearts and wishes, or socially engineer the thoughts of society at large (as much as social justice warriors would have us believe), one must find the way to allow for the satisfaction of those desires to come available naturally, while simultaneously enriching the lives of those considered poor through a freer means of competing in the division of labor.

It is precisely because the rich man’s large sum of extra dollars is not “worth as much to him” that allows for the donation of more and greater funds to other causes. It is because his more important (to him) marginal wants have already been satisfied.

Think from the perspective of a farmer, who has a sack of wheat each to:

  1. Feed his family
  2. Plant for the next year
  3. Feed his animals
  4. Brew into barley
  5. Make a scarecrow and
  6. Attend to the needs of the mentally handicapped beggar on the side of the road.

If a lightning struck this farmer’s barn and burned 5 (or even 3 or 1) of these units of wheat, the farmer would no longer be in a position to care for the needs of the less fortunate beggar. He would redirect the remaining bag(s) to satisfy his other wants. He would lose the means to care for less urgently felt wants first. What is more favorable for the beggar, who we suppose is not participating in the division of labor because he is unable for whatever reason, in terms of his life is a society of farmers who have so many wants already satisfied, that so many bags of wheat are stored up to direct into the satisfaction of humanitarian wants.

The position of real humanitarian giving in a person’s marginal value scale varies from individual to individual. It is still possible, in such a wealthy society, that not every farmer would ever think of the homeless beggar before he say, uses the sixth bag of wheat to use in a bonfire rather than bake bread for the less fortunate outside his gate. This would be evident, in the mind of some self-righteous yet morally lazy progressive that the state must come in and set his own intentions straight. However, this removes reality from the equation. What is most beneficial for the poor or the downtrodden in any society, is to enable to society to become wealthy, and to access wants, including humanitarian wants, that could not be accessed previously due to a lack of productive capability.

Charitable giving cannot come from a society that can’t even feed itself. Charity that comes through mandate and force is also not even charity at all. Any kind of charity that is expropriated through taxation likewise restricts the productive capacity of the market to provide the satisfaction to wants felt among its citizens. Consequently, such a policy that demands a large transfer of payments from the more to the less fortunate takes away from the means of a poor or hard-working enterprising individual to satisfy his or her own wants for themselves. Also, such expropriations and arbitrary direction of resources falls prey to the calculation error. A private charity raises more funds the more people it helps up and out of poverty, where a welfare bureaucracy sees its doles expand the more people they still have to help. The tendency is not to use resources where their needs are most urgently felt, because those urgently felt needs come not from the donors who wish to see their funds put to good use, but from the whims of a singular authority.

So the next time you hear someone make the case that “it’s the thought that counts,” just remind them that it isn’t. If it was the “thought” that counted, one would have to consider which means allow for a greater number of people to satisfy urgently felt needs, and to arrive in a position where they can say “keep the change,” more frequently. If it was the thought that counted, the inevitable conclusion would lead them to free markets, voluntary transactions, capital accumulation, and the growth of wealth. When it comes right down to it, never is it the “thought” that counts. For people who either ignorantly or dishonestly profess such views, it is always the “feelings” that count.