At the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly, the President of the European Council of the European Union, Donald Tusk, recently gave an address on the EU’s participation in global efforts, and the future directions in which he believes it should move. In recent decades, Europe has been increasingly involved in numerous international missions, often focusing on immigration, environmental, and search-and-rescue endeavors. According to Tusk, though, Europe has far too small an involvement in worldwide affairs, and must seek a greater presence in them. As he said to the assembly, “More unity and collective action are needed in the struggle against conflict, poverty and famine, terrorism and mass displacement of people, of the kind we see in Venezuela, Syria, Myanmar and many other places”.
In the face of chaos and adversity, Tusk expectantly takes an attitude of advocating bigger and more expansive government influence, which will result in the granting of more money and power to the world’s highest political elites. It is, then, little surprise that, as the topmost EU leader, Tusk is amongst the most ardent supporters of the expansion of Europe’s international control. However, he is far from the only one pushing for international centralization; the regional hegemony of supranational associations like the European Union, the African Union, and the Arab League stand testament to this, as does the worldwide influence of organizations like the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations. Indeed, wherever government agents are able to expand their political authority and privilege, they will, and given the current ideological prevalence of progressivism and egalitarianism, the means by which this expansion is currently taking place is obvious.
However insidious the actual intents of global political leaders, though, some of their nominal goals are quite savory. The United Nations has set 17 objectives for global development that it hopes to achieve by 2030, called Sustainable Development Goals . These include: (1) eliminating poverty, (2) eliminating hunger, (3), providing good health and well-being, (4) providing quality education, (5) achieving gender equality, (6) providing clean water and sanitation, (7) providing affordable and clean energy, (8) creating decent work and sustainable economic growth, (9) building industry, innovation, and infrastructure, (10) reducing general inequalities, (11) creating sustainable cities and communities, (12) being able to produce and consume responsibly, (13) acting to solve climate issues, (14) protecting underwater life, (15) protecting life on land, (16) establishing peace, justice, and strong institutions, and (17) revitalizing global partnerships to achieve these goals. This last goal seems to be what Tusk was alluding to in his statement encouraging “[m]ore unity and collective action”. The understanding is that objectives as ambitious as these require the oversight and facilitation of a monolithic, international organization like the UN, with the ability to centrally plan and orchestrate its operations from the top-down.
The UN seeks to dispense with regular market processes in the pursuance of its goals, instead putting international bureaucrats in charge of its global development program. After all, many allege, the pecuniary interests of economic actors in the free market would not be able to handle these problems; only a central board unaffected by the incentives of money and profit could truly work for the common good. How accurate is that, though? Can a supranational body like the UN actually provide for the basic needs of the world’s worst off, all while saving the environment and creating just political institutions? Will the UN successfully achieve its Sustainable Development Goals? The answer to these questions does not stem in flowery, “we’re all in this together” rhetoric (as is all too common in worldwide efforts such as this), but rather in the comprehension of certain inescapable economic facts.
The act of giving charity should be fundamentally understood as an economic exchange engaged in by individuals for their mutual benefit. People voluntarily give to charity all the time (and without such high taxation and inflation, probably would much more ), because doing so is satisfying to them. As economist Jörg Guido Hülsmann explains, “If Smith gives a five-dollar bill to a beggar, then he thereby demonstrates that he, Smith, prefers that the beggar, rather than Smith himself, own the banknote.” Donors direct their money to causes they are passionate about, and that, as far as they know, successfully achieve their desired ends. Those who donate to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, for instance, tend to care about ending childhood cancer and believe that their donation is making a positive difference towards that goal. Likewise, those who donate to the Mises Institute are interested in furthering the message of Austrian economics and libertarianism. No one ever gives to charities they do not care about, nor do they give to those they suspect of being ineffective, for they would obviously rather direct their money elsewhere.
When the UN uses its funds to subsidize healthcare or education for the poor, it is essentially “buying” a certain model of charity, to which the taxpayers of the UN’s dues-paying states are forced to subscribe. A portion of their earnings is exchanged for the plans, resources, and coordinative means that the UN deems fit to achieve its goals. It is, however, impossible for the UN to rationally allocate humanitarian aid. Once “charity” becomes an activity of the government’s domain, the values and preferences of individual good-Samaritans are dispensed with, and charitable causes are dealt with entirely through coercive means. This means that governmental “charity” is funded regardless of which world issues it seeks to solve, even if taxpayers do not care about (or even are strongly opposed to) certain causes. Indeed, out of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, some of them surely resonate more with some people than with others. There is no intelligible reason why the mission of “protecting underwater life” should be given as much funding and precedence as “eliminating hunger” (and vice-versa). Despite this, the UN still makes a decision on the matter, however wasteful the resulting allocation of resources may be.
By ignoring the wishes of individual good-Samaritans, “charitable” government agencies are bound not only to spend too much on solving the wrong issues, but also to use methods that are ineffective at solving them – a double whammy of wastefulness. Bureaucrats do not own the capital value of the bureaus in which they work, so they have no incentive to cut costs and maximize profit. In fact, since the state receives funding regardless of its performance (and if anything, gets more if it has done an especially insufficient job), the information to assess the successfulness of different investments and expenditures simply does not exist. Consequently, it is a logical impossibility, even for the most well-meaning bureaucrat, to use taxpayer money in an efficient manner. In the case of UN “charity”, this means that out of the myriad different ways there are to solve a particular problem, a completely arbitrary one will be chosen, which may require a vast quantity of resources, only to make little progress.
As a result, all UN projects are governed by pure assumption and guesswork, even when its shoddy and misleading “cost-benefit analyses” are drawn up. The methods that it uses to solve global issues are wildly inefficient, using up billions of dollars of resources on unsuccessful projects, without ever having the information available to adjust to a more efficient expenditure. In trying to reduce poverty, for instance, it may be advantageous to provide the destitute with certain goods for a certain period of time, in order to help them to grow in their skills and savings. This consideration, though, leads to a host of questions: to what degree should the poor be given goods, rather than simply encouraged to work and save?; which goods should be provided?; how many of these goods should be provided?; should all impoverished persons receive the same goods, or should different goods be provided to different individuals?; etc. Private charities on the free market are able to answer these questions based on the empirical facts that they observe, and are flexible in responding to changing conditions. The UN, however, has no way of answering these questions due to its highly centralized position and its separation of charitable giving from individual choice.
To be sure, the UN may be able to take some cues from private charity in determining how to spend its funds, but such charity, as it currently exists, is heavily distorted and hampered due to government interference in the market. It can, thus, only convey very limited information to the UN. Plus, the UN would then be faced with the task of properly applying this information to its own efforts, at which it is likely to be inept, since it is not subject to the pressures of market competition. Its decisions would still be made “in the dark”, even if it used voluntary charity as a rough guide. Funds and resources would be used in a hardly more satisfactory manner.
The blindness of government agencies in making allocative judgments causes their inevitable waste of taxpayer dollars. David Friedman has estimated that the state requires around twice as much money to do things as does the free market (and many studies seem to corroborate this claim), which makes obvious sense, given the unavoidable properties of government expenditures. All cases of governmental “charity” squander precious resources, and by consequence, the needy are helped far less effectively on a dollar-for-dollar basis. The operations of the UN are no exception.
All of this is relevant, of course, only so far as the UN engages in efforts that can actually be considered charitable. Many of its Sustainable Development Goals include cronyist undertones behind their faux compassion – privileging certain groups and companies, while denigrating others. Countries are, for example, called upon to “accelerate the transition to an affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy system by investing in renewable energy resources, prioritizing energy efficient practices, and adopting clean energy technologies and infrastructure”. While such endeavors are done in the name of “saving the environment”, they amount, in reality, to little more than corporate subsidies to the wind, solar, and hydropower industries. As a result, the procurement of energy sources that are more efficient , like fossil fuels, is hindered. This all unfortunately comes at the dime of taxpayers, and in the name of “making the world a better place” .
Admittedly, some of the Sustainable Development Goals may be met by 2030 – but if so, it will be in spite of the UN, not because of it, and whatever progress that is made will not be as extensive as it would have been otherwise. Advancements in the human condition will hardly come close to what the free association of individuals could have accomplished otherwise. After all, such people take their psychic profit and loss into account and adjust their expenditures accordingly, so that ineffective charities and methods of solving problems could be easily phased out. Clearly, with more of their own money in their pockets, they could do a far better job of reducing poverty and providing clean water than the UN ever could. Contra Donald Tusk, “[m]ore unity and collective action” will only impede humanitarian efforts further.