On the way in to work this morning, I was reading David Schmidtz, my still favorite living philosopher, who wrote in a much less offensive fashion about the same thing:
Suppose you visit Thailand. You want to give to children begging on the street, but your guide says the children were kidnapped from Cambodia and brought to Bangkok to beg. Every evening their captor feeds them if they've collected enough money, and cuts off a finger if they have not. (The threat of torture makes the children desperate, amputations make them look more pathetic, and it's all good for business.) It's as plain as a moral fact can be that these children desperately need your spare change. Yet if your guide is right, then if you distribute your money on the basis of need, you are financing an industry that manufactures need. So, there you are, needing to decide whether to give money to the child in front of you. What does justice have to do with need in that case? Why?
From The Elements of Justice
Do you give to the child? Some person giving to the child will be the person who give enough to cause the captor to go get more kids from Cambodia. Will you be that person? Not sure.
Does giving cause problems? Call it a 5% chance that your gift pushes the captor over the threshold to getting another kid.
Does not giving cause problems? Call it a 5% chance that your lack of giving means the kid doesn't collect enough for the day, and loses another finger.
What is the right thing to do, given you can't actually fix the root problem?
Does the same problem apply to beggars on the street? Every single reasonable economic analysis says it does. More giving creates more beggars, through simple supply and demand. Less social opprobrium also creates more beggars, through the same mechanism. So what should you do?
Those who prefer to solve a problem now, and create larger problems for the future give. Those who prefer to allow suffering now, in order to decrease problems for the future do not give. I am in the second camp, and although it is actually painful for me, I do not give. I prefer a great future, and do not wish to be complicit in the creation of a worse one...even as I hate the suffering of people in the present. On the other hand, I cannot bring myself to be aggressive in my anti-begging positions. And so my policy for the last year or so has been to lie. Were my situation only slightly different, I would follow through on my lies, but as it is...If asked for change, I say I don't carry cash. Does not help them. Does not punish them either. Does not reward their elaborate, practiced lie*, nor their effort spent begging instead of seeking work. And decreases the conflict between them and me, as they stop begging me once they believe I have no money.
* I have been in a position to observe this in Chicago a few times. I used to, when consulting in Chicago, take the "EL" (elevated train, which is, for some lines, and some distance a subway). There was this kid (16-25) who was dressed like a student, who had a habit of being in the red line train stop at Randolph and State. He would stand in front of the ticket machines, searching his pockets for change. And when you came up, he abashedly asked for 65 cents, because he couldn't get his ticket home. On the third day I saw him there (I'm slow), I became convinced that it was a scam...and I'm a softy, so I got actually scammed the first time.