Robin Hanson

Robin Hanson sings the praises misers

Effing odd! Hanson writes:

Steven Landsburg is exactly right:

Here’s what I like about Ebenezer Scrooge: His meager lodgings were dark because darkness is cheap, and barely heated because coal is not free. His dinner was gruel, which he prepared himself. Scrooge paid no man to wait on him. Scrooge has been called ungenerous. I say that’s a bum rap. …

In this whole world, there is nobody more generous than the miser — the man who could deplete the world’s resources but chooses not to. The only difference between miserliness and philanthropy is that the philanthropist serves a favored few while the miser *spreads his largess far and wide. …

Put a dollar in the bank and you’ll bid down the interest rate by just enough so someone somewhere can afford an extra dollar’s worth of vacation or home improvement. Put a dollar in your mattress and you’ll drive down prices by just enough so someone somewhere can have an extra dollar’s worth of coffee with his dinner. (more; HT Adrian Kent)

Why are misers so widely criticized, if their gift is distributed unusually equitably, with little chance to receive praise or gratitude in return? Some might suggest this is caused by economic ignorance, but it seems far more likely that misers are criticized exactly because their gifts are equitable.

Humans have had literally millions of years experience begging from one other. Many primates do it, as do foragers. A supplicant appeals to common feelings that one should help associates in need when one is doing well, in the expectation of getting help later when you are in need, and also of sending good signals about your loyalty and ability.

Associates who hint that you should be less miserly and make more overt gifts are not at all hoping that you will spread your gift equitably across the world. They are instead hoping that you will unequally focus most of your gift on them. By criticizing misers you are working to take the gift away from those distant recipients. Ask yourself: are you really more deserving than they? Do you care?

Added 1:30p: Karl Smith says:

The miser is not as generous as the dedicated philanthropist. … [He] is withholding his assessment of the most utility maximizing uses of his money. (HT TGGP)

True, but I’d still guess that the miser does more good than the average rich-nation philanthropist.

I posted the following comment (number 11 or so):

“Well I don’t see the miser’s shine. Misers can be neurotic, anti-social and may live in fear that one day they will be poor again. It is most likely a form of mental illness. It is no life for a man or woman. A proper balance with regards to money and taking care of oneself is best methinks.”