The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Charity

His gaze flicked over my backpack. “You have to put that in the back,” he said. “I don’t know if you have a knife in there.”

If I knew then what I know now, I would never have gotten into that blue Pontiac.

By that time, I’d hitchhiked thousands of miles with hundreds of different drivers, and they were almost universally welcoming and friendly. After all, they were voluntarily — charitably — offering to share their vehicle with a stranger.

But I did not yet understand what the thing we call “charity” really is.

What Is Charity?

What’s the difference between a charitable transaction (like giving a hitchhiker a ride or giving a beggar your spare change) and an ordinary market transaction (such as paying for a bus ride or paying a kid to shine your shoes)?

Charity is an attempt to satisfy your charitable self.

Very often, we depict idealized, “charitable” persons as being totally selfless.

But among the many great revelations in Ludwig von Mises’s economic tome, Human Action, is the point that all actions are, as he put it, motivated by the acting person’s desire to remove his own “uneasiness.”

In this sense, everyone is always seeking his or her own profit, even if it’s purely a psychic one.

A really “charitable” person is someone who finds it more subjectively “profitable” (more joyous, more uplifting, more satisfying) to put some of his energy and wealth toward helping others rather than using it to give himself an extra restaurant meal, a new outfit, or the latest smartphone.