While vacationing in LA, I saw Escobar: Paradise LostNot great, not bad, but I did learn something: drug lord Pablo Escobar was beloved as well as infamous.  His massive charitable giving won him a mass following: About 25,000 people attended his funeral, and his grave continues to attract admirers.  Escobar’s ardent fans don’t deny that he murdered hundreds or thousands.  But they think his philanthropy far outshines whatever he did to earn his riches.  A fascinating unpublished paper, “Robin Hood or Villain: The Social Constructions of Pablo Escobar” explores the tension:

Pablo Escobar was a Colombian drug lord and leader of the Medellín Cartel which at one point controlled as much as 80% of the international cocaine trade. He is famous for waging war against the Colombian government in his campaign to outlaw extradition of criminals to the United State and ordering the assassination of countless individuals, including police officers, journalists, and high ranking officials and politicians. He is also well known for investing large sums of his fortune in charitable public works, including the construction of schools, sports fields and housing developments for the urban poor. While U.S. and Colombian officials have portrayed Escobar as a villain and terrorist who held the entire nation hostage, many people among the Colombian popular class admire him as a generous benefactor, like a Colombian Robin Hood.


Pablo Escobar’s most famous personality traits were his extreme ruthlessness and his great generosity, as attributed to him by his enemies and admirers, respectively. Each of these traits has some evidence to support it. It is unclear exactly how many murders can be attributed to him because he employed numerous sicarios (assassins) to carry out his orders for him and was always careful to avoid anything that would directly link him to the crime. However, he and his associates were probably responsible for hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths, including police officers, journalists, and high-ranking officials and politicians. He also funded social programs and housing projects to benefit the poor, such as Barrio Pablo Escobar as it is called today, a neighborhood he had constructed in Medellín to house the poor living in the city’s dump that still has nearly 13,000 residents. There he is still remembered as a great man and referred to as “Don Pablo”. It was Semana magazine in 1983 that first described him as a “paisa Robin Hood,” praising his charity work.

You could minimize all this as a sign of Colombians’ depravity, but you probably shouldn’t.  Human beings deeply admire philanthropists.  It brings tears to our eyes to see a rich man share his bounty with widows and orphans.  Once the tears start, objectivity ends.  If the philanthropist has feet of clay, we yearn to show him leniency, to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Even if he’s a mass murderer, a strong record of charitable giving makes us want to call him “complex” rather than wicked.  The families of the slain will never love him, but their neighbors will rush to excuse his “excesses.”  And his cheerleaders will hardly be limited to the direct beneficiaries of his largesse: Charity melts the hearts of witnesses as well as recipients.

You could of course object, “Escobar wasn’t really charitable.  The money he handed out was never his in the first place.  He extorted and stole his ‘donations’ from others.”  But my point is about moral psychology, not moral philosophy: Even “fake” charity inspires affection.

So what?  Libertarians often argue that welfare states, like Pablo Escobar, are not really “charitable.”  Whether or not they’re right, the fact remains: Welfare states seem charitable to almost everyone.  School-lunch and old-age programs inspire the same emotions as uncontested charity: Admiration, affection, gratitude.  And these emotions have the Escobarian downside: They melt people’s consciences, leading them to excuse and minimize the most horrible of crimes.

This doesn’t mean we should lament Bill Gates’ philanthropy because it will lead jurors to show leniency on the off-chance that he commits a murder.  For a nice guy like Gates, this is a small downside.  But when organizations that kill people for a living – like crime families or governments – loudly help the needy, we should indeed shudder.  Why?  Because their perceived philanthropy makes it easy for them to get away with murder.  Maybe they’ll use their power over life and death wisely and fairly.  But they probably won’t – especially if they’re surrounded by devoted fans eager to excuse their… shortcomings.