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September 26, 2007

Public Action and Private Charity

Matt writes:

Bill Clinton, at the opening ceremony for his meeting, defined the purpose of the Clinton global initiative as to tackle problems that "government won't solve, or that government alone can't solve." A worthy purpose, indeed, for a charity. And I really think there are things that fit that category. Direct government sponsorship of the arts, for example, is a great way to preserve classic works and make them available to a broad audience. But if you want to encourage new, innovative works of art it makes much more sense to rely on a vigorous philanthropic sector that won't face political pressure to avoid anything that offends the sensibilities of anyone.

That, though, isn't what this event is about. Instead, it's really about political issues: education, poverty alleviation, global public health, and climate change.

This is exactly right. Charity, of course, is good. We like it. It makes us feel virtuous. But just as there are public and private goods (i.e, water and banisters, respectively), and just as there are goods that are better delivered by the public sector and goods that are better delivered by the private sector (national defense and Q-tips), there are causes that are better addressed by the public or private sectors. It makes a lot of sense for the private sector to spearhead limited initiatives that a) address localized, contained problems or b) create models that can be scaled up by government action. So it's great when businesses institute green policies and it's great when individuals and foundations provide funding for drug treatment centers, or maternal health clinics.

But the private sector really can't address global warming, really can't guarantee broad access to health care. In part, it's a question of money: Everyone was very impressed when, at last year's Clinton Global Initiative, Richard Branson pledged $3 billion to fund renewable energy respurce. That's great! And to us mortals, who are used to thinking in sums of a couple hundred, or thousand, it's an almost inconceivable sum. But on the scale of creating new sources of energy, it's actually rather small. Very useful, but small. And it's certainly not a substitute for collective action that caps the total carbon output. The private donations can drive some technology, but they really can't do the job. Only collective action can, and the virtuous momentum of the CGI and various corporate press releases can't be allowed to serve as a substitute for public action.

September 26, 2007 | Permalink


"But on the scale of creating new sources of energy"

How does one exactly create new sources of energy? Methinks that no amount of money can be spent to create a new source of energy. It might be wise for you to spend some time studying up on the laws of thermodynamics.

Posted by: JBJB | Sep 26, 2007 1:40:33 PM

Well, if you jsut translate "problems that government won't solve" as "problems that George Bush's handlers don't want to solve"...

Posted by: paul | Sep 26, 2007 2:02:33 PM

How does one exactly create new sources of energy? Methinks that no amount of money can be spent to create a new source of energy. It might be wise for you to spend some time studying up on the laws of thermodynamics.

I'm no expert but I believe when people talk about new sources of energy, they are talking about new sources of usable energy (which might involve converting potential energy to kinetic energy or heat or something like that; I haven't taken chemistry in a loooong time so if the specifics are way off, forgive me; or it might involve nuclear energy, which converts matter into energy). Of course no new mass-energy can be created (nor can any of it be destroyed), but there's a lot of it out there that we can't use, and I think we're trying to figure out how to use it.

I love science but am terrible at it, so if any sciencier people out there want to correct me please do!

Posted by: Isabel | Sep 26, 2007 7:46:39 PM

Yeah, JBJB's being over-literal. You can discover new sources of usable energy, harness new sources of energy, create devices to harness new sources of energy, etc.. He's literally right in that the only situation in which you would really say that energy is "created" is an atomic reaction. Presumable not what Ezra was talking about.

Posted by: Sam L. | Sep 27, 2007 12:24:25 AM

Ezra, I'm mystified. Why would you disapprove of a well-funded NGO trying out a bunch of stuff, most of which will fail but some of which might serve as a model for future policy? Why would you want to assert stuff as government policy when we're all completely clueless as to what the right policy is in the first place? And why is the only legitimate form of your so-called "collective action" government action?

Posted by: TheRadicalModerate | Sep 27, 2007 12:50:07 AM

It seems like you're saying that private charity is just too small to deal with big problems. That doesn't really seem to be relevant to me on how "good" at something private charity actually is -- in that case, a larger private charity is better than a smaller public program, and a larger public program is better than a smaller private charity.

It seems to me that to say that private charity is bad at something, you have to say that their model is worse, not just that they're smaller (otherwise, if the government is spending $0 on greenhouse gas abatement and a private charity is spending $3 billion, then the private charity is "better" at addressing the issue; the government might have the potential to do more by appropriating more than $3 billion to greenhouse gas abatement. Then again, private citizens have the potential to send in more money to the greenhouse gas abatement charity.

One could make the case that, say, private charitable healthcare would be worse than public health care, even holding scale constant, because a patchwork of private healthcare charities don't have the monopsony purchasing clout to keep pharmaceutical prices down, and a monopoly healthcare charity would also be undesirable because it wouldn't be publicly accountable to elected officials, or that private charitable greenhouse gas abatement is inferior to public policy because the private charity can only focus on "positive" solutions such as funding new technologies, whereas public policy can use a mix of "positive" solutions and "negative" solutions (such as prohibiting excessively inefficient cars).

An argument just based on scale, though, doesn't seem to be sound.

Posted by: Julian Elson | Sep 27, 2007 1:11:58 AM

VERY nice as a compare & contrast presentation.

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