You Can’t Help Everyone

I think concentrated help is better than dispersed help.

I think if you had a thousand dollars that you wanted to give away, giving all of it to one person is better than giving a dollar to each of a thousand people.

First and foremost, giving a dollar to each of a thousand people carries tremendous deadweight costs in terms of your effort. Giving isn’t instantaneous and neither is helping. It takes the same amount of time to give a person a dollar or a thousand dollars, so giving one dollar to each of a thousand people takes a thousand times as long as just giving one person the lump sum.

But beyond that, a dollar just isn’t that impactful to most people. I actually think a dollar helps people less than 1/1000th of $1,000, as counter-intuitive as that seems. But here’s why – if I give you an extra dollar, your life will not change in the slightest. (I’m assuming, of course, that “you” live in a western, first-world country like me. If you live somewhere very different, this statement could be very wrong, but the point I’m making will still stand in the end, you’ll see.) You might barely notice or remember. At best, it would go in a vending machine or stuffed into a spare corner of your car. There’s virtually no problem you could have where one dollar would mark the difference between solving it or not. In econ-speak, there are very few cases on the margin where a lone dollar would change anything. Which means that, for most of those thousand people, I might as well have given them nothing.

But $1,000? That can change someone’s whole month. That can be making rent or not. That can be a wonderful Christmas for some kids that wouldn’t otherwise get one. That can be the medicine someone needs this month. In other words, a thousand bucks can really be a blessing.

So when you concentrate it, you do much more than a thousand times more good, because you’re doing good at all versus probably not.

Now, think about how you can help people. Whatever it is you’re good at contributing that people might need. There’s an impulse of fairness in most of us that calls for us to try to “spread the love” as much as we can. But that impulse can lead us to some bad ends – imagine a village of a hundred starving people. You have just enough food to stave off starvation for one person. You could get out a scalpel and divide that morsel a hundred ways, but then a hundred people would still stave, because 1% of “enough” isn’t enough. Once something falls beneath the “actual help threshold,” then it doesn’t matter how many people receive it.

It doesn’t matter how many people you insufficiently help. It matters how many you actually help.

So when you’re looking to help someone, start by helping one person as much as you can. Get them right again, in whatever way you can. That guy throwing starfish back into the ocean when there were millions on the beach? That makes more sense than moving every starfish a millimeter closer to the water – where they’ll still die.

The impulse of fairness comes from an understandable, if misguided, place. It comes from a desire to not have to make hard decisions. If I only have food for one person, letting everyone starve by splitting it up at least absolves me from making the horrible decision of who to save. Most people couldn’t make that sort of decision and still sleep at night.

But the alternative is a hollow sense of fairness and a starved village.

When you can help, just pick the person closest to you and help. Like anything, you’ll get better at helping the more you do it. That means you’ll get better at putting your help where it’s most needed. But in the short term, getting started there is like getting started at anything at all – just do it. Just start. Someone needs your help, someone nearby. Go for it.

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