The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Charity

Economic Principles Can Save Your Life

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.

Charity, in that sense, isn’t “self-less.” It’s an attempt to satisfy your charitable self. When you do something out of the “goodness of your heart,” your heart gains a profit of its own.

The Price of a Ride

While hitchhiking, I was seldom picked up by girls or guys looking for physical affection, more often by devoutly religious people who wanted me to hear the good news, and most often by bored or lonely people who just wanted someone to talk to.

Hardly anybody was motivated by an expectation of monetary profit (nobody expects a hitchhiker to have much money). But everyone was still motivated by an expectation of a psychic profit.

And yet, the drivers also had to guess whether they would get into some uneasiness worse than boredom or loneliness by picking me up. What if I planned to rob them at knifepoint?

Each driver only had a minute or two between getting close enough to see me clearly and needing to hit the brakes to give me a ride.

I usually spent those scant seconds pretending I’d spotted a long lost friend in the car, hoisting my weary arm with thumb up, and giving the driver the warmest and most genuine smile I could muster.

But if the driver found any reason at all to worry about the dangers I might pose, then he’d probably consider the potential new uneasiness much higher than his potential gains, and just keep going down the highway in loneliness and safety.

As far as I can tell, all of my drivers either fully believed I was harmless, or confidently believed they could handle any danger I might pose (which seemed to happen a lot in Texas). Perhaps some of them believed that any danger I might pose was negligible compared to the good of helping a stranger.

I hadn’t yet figured out that all my drivers were making these split-second calculations of profit and risk, because I hadn’t yet discovered the economic way of thinking.

Calculating Charity

There I was in Northern Michigan, planning to make it back safe across the border and into the Canadian city of Sault Sainte Marie on sheer human altruism. All along my journey, no one had ever asked me if I had a weapon.

And so when I looked into that blue Pontiac, I did not ask myself this all-important question: Given that this guy is really worried that I might be armed and dangerous, what profit does he expect from picking me up that is, to him, worth the risk of getting stabbed or robbed?

Once I got into that car and he started driving, I tried to ease the tension by getting him talking.

But he kept changing his story about whether or not he was driving all the way to Canada. And he kept negotiating and renegotiating with me over the pittance in gas money he wanted me to pay.

Someone who saw our entire arrangement in terms of its costs wasn't thinking about the usual psychic gains of acting charitably.

I began to feel some uneasiness of my own, and I thought about asking to get out. But then the big black-and-white signs started appearing along the highway:

Prisons Nearby. Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers.

I felt more uneasy than ever, but if I got out now, I could find myself stranded in the prison zone.

Finally, we pulled into the gas station we’d been talking about, and the driver revealed that he was not going to Sault Sainte Marie, but, he said, he would shortly hand me off to a “friend” who was — a friend who happened to be waiting for us behind a truck stop a few hundred feet down the road.

I could see from there that the back of the truck stop was hidden from the highway’s view.

Still puzzled and troubled, I got out of the car with my backpack and went into the gas station to pay the attendant.

When I came out and headed back toward the car, my young driver started rolling away from me, very slowly. He shouted out the window to assure me that his friend would definitely take me into Canada.

He did not explain why he wasn’t going to drive me the last few hundred feet.

That’s when it hit me: this guy was afraid of meeting his “friend.” He must have had some kind of prior arrangement to bring hitchhikers here. He wanted to make sure I’d been delivered, but he didn’t want to be at the meeting itself.

And I realized what I should have known as soon as he expressed concern over hypothetical hidden weapons in my pack. Someone who saw our entire arrangement in terms of its costs could only be picking up hitchhikers for reasons other than the usual psychic gains of acting charitably.

So, what did the driver and his “friend” really want from me? I had no idea. But at last, I had the right question. And I was convinced that the answer wouldn’t be a voluntary transaction.

Suddenly, my expected uneasiness from being stranded in Michigan seemed much smaller than my expected uneasiness from accepting this new ride. So I walked away. I preferred an unplanned night under the stars to whatever eventuality awaited me behind the truck stop.

I hitchhiked again in the morning, and for many more wonderful miles in my youth. I never saw that young man again, and I believe I never again met another driver with criminal intent toward me. But I would have been safer if I’d learned from the beginning the universal laws of human action.

Further Reading

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