The Gatekeeper’s Dilemma

Imagine that you are a guard at the gate of the Queen’s palace. Outside the gate are two groups of people: the Bezelites and the Qomans. The Queen has given you orders to invite all of the Bezelites into the palace and to keep all of the Qomans out. But there are two problems. First, you cannot immediately tell the difference between the two groups. They are intermingled. And while you can conduct interviews, you have no guaranteed way of telling Bezelites apart from Qomans or vice versa. Second, no matter what you do, some Qomans will try to get in.

What kind of system do you devise?

It seems to me like you have two broad choices. On the one hand, you could create a system that allows all of the Bezelites into the palace; but that system means that at least a few Qomans would also get in. On the other hand, you could create a system that keeps all of the Qomans out; but that system means that at least a few Bezelites would also be kept out. And that means that you have a choice: while you can’t meet the Queen’s requirements exactly, you can either prioritize letting Bezelites in or keeping Qomans out.

And it also seems like that’s a pretty good summary of a lot of the debates about programs that help people in need.

Some people—like me—argue that we should set requirements for assistance as low as possible. To us, it is important that we help everyone who needs help, even if that means that we help some people who do not, or who are not deserving, or whatever. Some people—and I think that charity skeptics tend to fall into this group—argue that we should set requirements higher. To them, it is important that we do not help anyone who doesn’t need it (or doesn’t deserve it, or whatever), even if that means that we don’t help everyone who needs help.

And the only real point that I want to make here is that when we create systems to determine whether people are eligible for help—when we add requirements and proofs to assistance programs—we are making this choice… and we should be honest about that. We are simply never going to create a system that ensures both that everyone who we want to help will receive help and that no one who we do not want to help will receive help. So we have to decide whether we are prioritizing inviting people in or keeping people out.

And, frankly, prioritizing keeping people away from kindness seems coldhearted and cruel.

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