The Lottery

I’ve seen a lot of instances of the past few years of lives being changed by funding sites like KickStarter and GoFundMe. We all know the pattern. A person’s story has some element in it that tugs at the heartstrings, or ignites the imagination. The story goes viral on social media. Donations begin pouring in. Before you know it, a life is changed. It’s like winning the lottery.

As we know, lotteries are often bad for the people that win them. The tidal wave of money crashes against the seawall of old habits, behaviors, and self-imposed limitations.  Newfound gains are spent on expensive trifles to treat ourselves. Relatives and friends we haven’t seen in years (or at all) come pouring in, hoping to gain something for their “unwavering support” through the years. Underneath it all, the winner may feel that they don’t deserve this money, or they are too afraid of what an unknown life of riches looks like when put up against a known life of lack. The money is gone, or the money stays, and no one is happier for long.

There’s another, bigger problem with this lottery mentality when it comes to giving. When we give a few dollars to some needy homeless father or to a man walking for miles every day to work because he can’t afford a car, we are quite pleased with ourselves. We’ve helped someone out. We’ve done some good in the world. And then we forget about the millions of other people with the exact same story, or worse, who weren’t lucky enough to be discovered, or charismatic enough to spin a compelling tale of woe.

When a society pays taxes and votes to allow social services, the goal is to ensure that all citizens in hardship get some support. As more of us clamor for lower taxes and less government intrusion, we focus our giving on individuals and our whims, instead of taking the risk that government might waste some money or give some to someone who didn’t deserve it, such as the infamous welfare and food stamp boogeymen waiting to turn your tax dollars into lap dances, cigarettes, and beer. (Of course, we never talk about the real defense companies that turn many more of your tax dollars into failed weapons projects.) We’re not satisfied with the rain falling on the just and the unjust alike. We want to make sure the undeserving get good and soaked, at least until they pick themselves up and meet our standards.

I believe the free market is best for distributing things that have a tangible, transparent, and immediate value. It doesn’t make sense for government to run retail stores, for instance, when the market is perfectly good at setting prices. However, for intangible value, or value that is a long-term return on investment like the interstate system or public education, the government can make a credible case at being the most efficient provider due to its economies of scale and ability to distribute the load across the entire citizenry instead of a limited consumer base.

By all means, give to the causes that speak to your heart.  Just be mindful of this social media fueled lottery mentality that, when combined with our increasing tightfistedness when it comes to government-allocated resources, is causing us to leave too many to fend for themselves.

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