Earning to give is systemic change

One of the most common criticisms of earning to give (e.g. see this article released yesterday), and advocating for charitable donations generally, is that it just makes thing better at the margin, and doesn’t address the “systemic”, “structural” “root cause” issues that really matter.

One response to this we’ve given before is: yes that’s true, but donating is still a good thing to do.

Another response we’ve given before is that if systemic change is the most important cause, donate to organisations working on systemic change. This works so long as you’re not in a job that does a lot to prevent systemic change (e.g. conservative politician, professional strikebreaker) and you don’t think the act of philanthropy itself prevents systemic change (even if donating to systemic change organisations). If you think this all sounds completely implausible, consider the example of Engles who worked as a factory manager in order to fund Marx’s research.

A response we haven’t often given before, however, is just to argue that no, promoting earning to give is a form of important systemic change: imagine how different the world would be if almost everyone regularly donated 10% or more of their income to whichever causes they thought had the biggest impact. It wouldn’t fix everything, but it would make a lot possible.

In a recent post, Scott Alexander points out that if everyone gave 10% of their income it would be $7 trillion each year! 1

Jeffrey Sachs has estimated it would take about $130bn per year of additional aid to end extreme global poverty. 2 Indeed, this is roughly the amount required to simply raise everyone above the $1.25 per day poverty line by transferring cash to them like Give Directly. Wiping out extreme global poverty, and giving about a billion people the chance to get educated and lead healthy, productive lives, would be one of humanity’s greatest achievements, and would constitute “systemic” change of a sorts.

And that would be only 2% of $7 trillion that would be available if everyone gave 10%. So ending global poverty is just for starters.

As Scott says:

If charity got seven trillion dollars a year, the first year would give us enough to solve global poverty, eliminate all treatable diseases, fund research into the untreatable ones for approximately the next forever, educate anybody who needs educating, feed anybody who needs feeding, fund an unparalleled renaissance in the arts, permanently save every rainforest in the world, and have enough left over to launch five or six different manned missions to Mars. That would be the first year. Goodness only knows what would happen in Year 2.