What’s the libertarian lesson of the “ice bucket challenge?” Trust people to direct their charitable donations, even when they might make poor decisions.

Pamela J. Hobart studied philosophy and education at the doctoral level at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and she holds a B.A. magna cum laude in philosophy from Georgia State University. From 2012 to 2014, Pamela served as the K-12 Education Program Officer for the Institute of Humane Studies at George Mason University. Her research interests include virtue ethics, social norms, character education, homeschooling/​unschooling, and the epistemology of reasonable disagreement, and she lives in New York City.

In the summer of 2014, an “ice bucket challenge” went viral, raising awareness – and funding – for the nasty disease ALS. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a degenerative nervous system conditions that paralyzes and then kills its sufferers, and current treatment options are limited. The ice bucket challenge, if you somehow missed it, is a stunt in which the challengee dumps a bucket full of ice water into his or her head, posts the video online, and challenges some friends to do the same. At times it was unclear who was actually making a charitable donation to the ALS Association to accompany their ALS ice bucket challenge video, and who was just drawing attention to the cause (or saving face and generating internet buzz in front of friends). Although it’s hard to verify, apparently the ice bucket challenge can be credited with tens of millions of dollars of donations, including notable celebrity participations and contributions. Of course, social criticism predictably ensued: is this social media stunt actually raising any money or is it just making people feel good? Is ALS a worthy charitable cause, all possibilities considered? Is this particular ALS organization a good and effective steward of its gifts ?

Lurking behind these questions is the perpetual impulse to centralize and to correct, top‐​down. If charitable organizations like the ALS Association are not as effective as we’d like them to be, can’t we re‐​regulate them or downgrade their tax statuses? If individual citizens make bad charitable choices, why don’t we do more to fund causes through taxation and government spending?

Though libertarians vary widely in their justifications for smaller government and visions of it, in general when it comes to charity a libertarian will hold that the government ought to keep its hands out of private citizens’ pockets, even for many ostensibly “charitable” purposes. This is for both moral and practical reasons: individuals deserve to control their own funds peacefully as they so choose, and anyways tend to do a better job of it than would the bloated bureaucratic arms of government. A society committed to economic as well as civil liberties may (depending on the particulars of the situation) justly fund certain public health measures in virtue of their having potentially widespread externalities (e.g. infectious disease control). But most kinds of charities will be undertaken privately, letting a thousand charitable organizations bloom. Indeed, you’ll often hear the libertarian talking point that although we ought to help those who are starving, we do so as a matter of charity, not as a matter of positive political right. This point has no rhetorical teeth with a big‐​government advocate unless the libertarian is willing also to posit that people in a more free society will be largely willing and able to step up, charitably speaking.

A libertarian need not hold that donations to alternative healing organizations are as good as donations to science‐​based ones. This is an extension of the wider observation that libertarians do not commit themselves to the belief that literally every private, voluntary expenditure is morally beyond reproach. You can be a libertarian and think that spending on drugs or prostitutes is wrong, even while believing that these industries should remain legal. So too can a libertarian morally criticize the stingy or ill‐​considered charitable donations of others (and even attempt to convince those others to change their ways) without holding up the coercive redistribution of funds as the solution.

While some of Bill Gates’ charitable donations were certainly supererogatory (going above and beyond the call of duty, morally speaking), it seems that some of them were in fact obligatory (coming as they did from someone of his massive wealth). I follow Kant in maintaining that giving to charity is an “imperfect” duty: one that holds some of the time, with options in how it’s exercised. Bill Gates, for instance, has invested heavily in controversial education‐​related projects, which may or may not ultimately yield big answers to our biggest educational problems here in the U.S.. Gates thinks education is important, believes he has something unique to offer in this realm, and uses his act of charitable giving simultaneously as an act of benign self‐​expression. This is part of why it would have been wrong for the government to enforce upon Bill Gates the same moral duties that he enforced upon himself: those duties ultimately cohere with and deepen Bill Gates’s character and identity when freely offered, rather than being experienced by him as compulsory (indeed, charity compelled is at some point definitionally no “charity” at all).

Far from merely tolerating different kinds and strategies of giving, we should be glad donations take many different forms. Donating to single disease charities may not constitute a maximally effective use of charity dollars (according to someone’s definition of “effective”), but at the same time centralizing health research would present challenges to effectiveness, too. Individual donors differ widely not only in preferred topic (e.g. medical issues, the environment, animals) but also in how they think about charitable discount rates. Some charities are high time preferenced in that they spend all their resources on saving individuals today (as by feeding them, or protecting them from malaria). Other charities are future‐​oriented, spending heavily on research that will bear fruit only years in the future, for people who are not yet born. Relatedly, some charities are “sure things” while some charities gamble on technological progress that may never come.

At the highest level, think of charitable donations as partially a consumption good and partially an investment, with different kinds varying along these axes. Too much charitable consumption (as in food to the hungry) and too little charitable investment (as in research & development) means that some people today will benefit at the expense of the people tomorrow, and vice versa. A free society with a diversified charitable portfolio will not be willing or able to maximize charitable outlays along any one dimension; rather their relative importance is reflected in the donation behaviors of individuals. Rather than causing wasted time and energy and money, a diversified charitable sector hedges against even more waste – while respecting citizens’ rights.

Take by analogy the Dodd‐​Frank financial regulations crafted in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008. These regulations may do a very good job of decreasing the particular kind of risk that led to America’s recent, painful financial system instability. But, in so far as the regulations homogenize banks’ practices, they just open the door for some other kind of systemic risk which remains to be determined. We would anticipate the same kind of problem if charities were more closely regulated, or if their funding came in larger part from the federal government. For instance, public‐​choice‐​related reasons could entail that government officials would tend err on the side of looking for quick results in disease‐​related research and development. This would boost those officials’ chances of re‐​election, at the expense of the long run success of medicinal science (which, currently, overly optimistic and sentimental private donors may support). Keeping charitable activities diverse, multiply‐​funded, and lightly‐​regulated causes this sector to be as flexible, efficient, and responsive as can be reasonably expected.

So, here’s how to think about the ALS ice bucket like a libertarian: As usual, resources are limited, while at least somewhat valuable uses for them are virtually endless. Some of the funds generated the ice bucket challenge were directed away from other charitable purposes, but the stunt was at least partially positive sum in that it attracted an indeterminate amount of new charity dollars (that otherwise would have been spent by their holders in purely self‐​interested ways). Without at least some people voluntarily spending on long‐​term and long‐​shot research, these kinds of projects would likely be underfunded from an expected (eventual) social utility perspective. Even if the ALS Association squandered all of its newfound wealth, that wouldn’t make the contributions wrong – though we would do well to use mild social pressures to direct our fellows towards honest and values‐​guided charitable organizations instead. Right down to the water that people allegedly wrongfully wasted in completing the ice bucket challenge, the costs of charitable gifts are internalized to voluntarily‐​acting individuals while the benefits stand to have wide‐​reaching positive effects. As such, it is imperative that we treat charitable activities as presumptively morally permissible in a free society – even when they aren’t necessarily optimal.