Bryan Caplan  

"Mental Health," Moral Character, and Poverty

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Arnold writes:

Every once in a while, I am asked by somebody what I would do to eliminate poverty in America. The first thing that pops into my head is the topic of mental health.

A while back I blogged on a Showtime documentary where they gave a homeless man $100k, then filmed the effect on his life. As you'd expect, he quickly frittered it away on liquor and fair-weather girlfriends, then fled from the camera crew.

I guess many people would call this guy "mentally ill." But I consider this a smokescreen for the reality: The man was extremely lazy and impulsive, and didn't want to change. The apologists for his behavior call him "mentally ill"; I say he has a weak moral character.

The upshot: When someone asks me what I would do to eliminate poverty in America, the first thing that pops into my head is the need for industry, thrift, and prudence.

P.S. Whether or not you share my Szaszian skepticism about mental illness, Gov. Schweitzer's alleged claim that 50% of prisoners are in jail "because of a mental illness" is either (a) absurd, or (b) has such a low standard for what counts as "mental illness" that the number is meaningless. Of course, if he had just counted Substance Abuse as a mental illness, he could have gotten the number up to 93%, but then the semantic trickery involved would have been too obvious.

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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Eric Wilson writes:

I really think this paragraph of the homeless man, has a lot of meaning behind it, and it deserves a lot of thought to come up with a good explanation. When first approached with the question, how could I help end poverty in America, i like the expirement done with the homeless person, would quickley say give them all enough money to get themseleves on their feet. But you have to look at the thought process of the homeless person, and look at what probably got them homeless in the first place. I could definately see them blowing the money on all the wrong things. So i like the idea of industry and creating jobs and living opportunity for this people. If you give a man a fish you give him food for then, if you teach him how to fish you feed him for eternity. So i think we must create job opportunities and positive living conditions.

Matt writes:

Depends on the substance.

Some drugs, like meth, directly effect the emotional center, by blowing holes in that part of the brain. Nicotine does the same to the cortex to a lesser extant. These drugs are mental illness causers.

Neuroses remain because of strong physical changes to the limbic system.

dWj writes:

Not to be trite, but "mental illness" is a label, and as such is only useful to the extent that it's useful. If "mentally ill" indicates a particular course of treatment that is likely to be more useful to them than it would be to people in similar straits who aren't "mentally ill", by all means, tailor to the circumstances. If it's an emotionally loaded term being used to evoke unwarranted sympathy, I'm less interested.

Al Abbott writes:

Reminds me of the Coasters song: "D W Washburn"

DW Washburn, I heard a sweet voice say, DW Washburn, this is your lucky day.
A hot bowl of soup is waiting, A hot bowl of soup and a shave. ...
--end quote--

Seems DW wasn't much interested in being "saved."

Heather writes:

It seems to me that what you are saying about mental illness is that if someone decides to change their behavior, then they will be able to and things will improve for the person. However, imaging and dissection of brains has shown that the brain of a person with mental illness operates differently than the brain of a healthy person and, in many cases, is missing some parts. This would make it difficult for the person to change themselves. It would be like telling a person with cancer that they should just fix it without any medical help.

Christina writes:

I'm on both sides of this fence. I understand from personal experience that the brain doesn't always work they way its owner would prefer. And drugs go a long way towards exacerbating or mitigating that problem.

And it's because I understand how completely frustrating it is to have a disobediant brain that impedes normal function, I am very skeptical of people who refuse treatment and prefer to live homeless on the street. To me that's evidence of a set of preferences that are outside the norm, not a symptom of mental illness.

So really being homeless is more of a character flaw (extreme hedonism) than mental health crisis.

TGGP writes:

Heather, have you read Caplan's take on the economics of Szasz? He uses the same cancer comparison as you to distinguish preferences from constraints.

Heather writes:

TGGP, I have not read Caplan's take on the economics of Szasz. It sounds like it could be an interesting read.

I think the problem with mental disability is that there is such a range of problems that it is difficult to determine what the constraints are versus the preferences. And in many cases, dealing with the constraints is very expensive, so it is not done.

Donut writes:

About moral weakness, I believe you are correct. Poverty in America can be avoided by individuals through 3 simple actions:

1. Stay in school, get your H.S. diploma.
2. Find and keep a job.
3. Don't have kids unless you are married and over 21 years old.

To achieve these, an individual needs some persistence, some discipline, and some sacrifice. Not a lot, but some.

What is the percentage of people permanently below the poverty line that broke one or more of these simple rules?

If I was a Buffet-style billionaire, I would blow some cash on that simple PSA. And maybe blow a lot of cash getting schools to teach this kind of thing, because some poor kids aren't getting these lessons at home.


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