Just as it’s unlikely that someone passing you on the street is the person who can make the best use of the money in your wallet, we should typically think that the moment in which we find ourselves is not the moment at which we can have the most impact…
To do good, most of us look to use our time and money to affect the world around us today. But perhaps that’s all wrong.
If you took $1,000 you were going to donate and instead put it in the stock market — where it grew on average 5% a year — in 100 years you’d have $125,000 to give away instead. And in 200 years you’d have $17 million.
This astonishing fact has driven today’s guest, economics researcher Philip Trammell at Oxford’s Global Priorities Institute, to investigate the case for and against so-called ‘patient philanthropy’ in depth. If the case for patient philanthropy is as strong as Phil believes, many of us should be trying to improve the world in a very different way than we are now.
He points out that on top of being able to dispense vastly more, whenever your trustees decide to use your gift to improve the world, they’ll also be able to rely on the much broader knowledge available to future generations. A donor two hundred years ago couldn’t have known distributing anti-malarial bed nets was a good idea. Not only did bed nets not exist — we didn’t even know about germs, and almost nothing in medicine was justified by science.
What similar leaps will our descendants have made in 200 years, allowing your now vast foundation to benefit more people in even greater ways?
And there’s a third reason to wait as well. What are the odds that we today live at the most critical point in history, when resources happen to have the greatest ability to do good? It’s possible. But the future may be very long, so there has to be a good chance that some moment in the future will be both more pivotal and more malleable than our own.
Of course, there are many objections to this proposal. If you start a foundation you hope will wait around for centuries, might it not be destroyed in a war, revolution, or financial collapse?
Or might it not drift from its original goals, eventually just serving the interest of its distant future trustees, rather than the noble pursuits you originally intended?
Or perhaps it could fail for the reverse reason, by staying true to your original vision — if that vision turns out to be as deeply morally mistaken as the Rhodes’ Scholarships initial charter, which limited it to ‘white Christian men’.
Alternatively, maybe the world will change in the meantime, making your gift useless. At one end, humanity might destroy itself before your trust tries to do anything with the money. Or perhaps everyone in the future will be so fabulously wealthy, or the problems of the world already so overcome, that your philanthropy will no longer be able to do much good.
Are these concerns, all of them legitimate, enough to overcome the case in favour of patient philanthropy? In today’s conversation with researcher Phil Trammell and my 80,000 Hours colleague Howie Lempel, we try to answer that, and also discuss:
- Real attempts at patient philanthropy in history and how they worked out
- Should we have a mixed strategy, where some altruists are patient and others impatient?
- Which causes are most likely to need money now, and which later?
- What is the research frontier in this issue of global prioritisation?
- What does this all mean for what listeners should do differently?
Finally, note that we recorded this podcast before the appearance of COVID-19. And as we discuss, Phil makes the case that patient philanthropists should wait for moments in history when patient philanthropic resources can do the most good. Could the coronavirus crisis be one of those important historical episodes during which Phil would argue that even patient philanthropists should ramp up their spending?
We’ve spoken with him more recently, and he says that this strikes him as unlikely. The virus is certainly doing widespread damage, but most of this damage is expected to accrue in the next few years at most. As a result, this is the sort of crisis that governments and impatient philanthropists are happy to spend on (to the extent that spending can help at all).
On Phil’s view, therefore, patient philanthropists are still best advised to wait i) until they’re rich enough to better address, or fund more substantial preparation for, similar future crises, or, ii) until we face crises with unusually long-lasting impacts, not just unusually severe impacts.
If this is right, COVID-19 just serves as an example of the many temptations to spend in the present that patient philanthropists will have to resist, in order to reap the benefits that can come from waiting to do good.
Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.
Producer: Keiran Harris.
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell.
Transcriptions: Zakee Ulhaq.