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Slippers and Criticizing Non-Cash Charity

The UK government spends money to buy new slippers for the elderly to try to protect them from slipping and falling.

Giving people free slippers should be voluntary charity rather than taken from tax payers.

But I don’t think it’s a good idea for voluntary charity either.

Why do non-cash charity? The reasonable reason is there are advantages to distributing used items instead of selling them then distributing the sales profits. But in this case they're buying new slippers.

Charities distribute new items, instead of cash, because they know that if they handed the person cash the person would not buy the items being distributed. It’d be easier to hand out cash than slippers, and then people could buy their own slippers (and make a better, more-personalized choice about the size, style, etc). But most of these people would prefer to buy something else other than slippers.

Giving someone something that he values less, instead of something he values more, is an attempt to control his life. It’s paternalism. It’s saying his preferences are wrong and you want to change his life to be more how you think it should be. And it’s not arguing or debating that point, it’s just using the position of power (as the charity with the wealth) to pressure people.

In general, if you want to most help someone according to their values, you give them cash and they buy what they value most highly. Non-cash charities giving out new items are clearly not aiming to maximize how much they help people according to the values of the person receiving the help. They are instead, to some extent, trying to impose their own value systems on the charity recipients.

Charity for slippers and other similar things also creates perverse incentives. It discourages buying slippers. The government will give you new slippers but it won’t give you a Switch, so it encourages you to buy a Switch instead of slippers. And if the next slipper swap is in 3 months, then the government is encouraging you to use your old slippers for 3 months (the exact thing they claim is dangerous) so that you can get free slippers instead of having to pay.

If the government and private charities give enough kinds of specific aid – clothes, food, housing – then they can really encourage some poor people to spend their money “irresponsibly” to get a nice couch, a big TV, etc. The more they spend on the things the government and charities consider important, the less charity they receive, so they are encouraged to get in the habit of buying cigarettes, alcohol and anything else the government would never give them, rather than spending on food and clothes.

PS Here’s some more government involvement with slippers. Some shoe companies put a thin, cheap layer of felt on the bottom of their shoes, which is meant to quickly wear out. Why? Because if the bottom is felt instead of rubber, then it’s a slipper instead of a shoe, which can reduce tariffs from 37.5% to 3%. This is a waste of felt and effort. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/this-is-why-your-converse-sneakers-have-felt-on-the-bottom-6016648/

Elliot Temple on December 20, 2018


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