Bryan Caplan  

Balan and the Deserving Poor

Relieving the Extreme Tension ... Mish Bet Redux...
In last week's debate, David Balan surprisingly endorsed the old-fashioned view that only the "deserving" poor are entitled to taxpayer assistance.  As the debate proceeded, however, he admitted that in the real world, a lot of undeserving poor would receive support as well.  The problem, if I understand his position correctly, is that we don't have the political will to distinguish the two.

I found this a rather cavalier admission.  If the government taxes us to satisfy our obligation to the deserving poor, it seems like a gross breach of trust for the government to turn around help any Tom, Dick, or Harry who happens to have low income.  If a philanthropist gives you money to help war orphans, you've got a moral obligation to look before you hand over his money - to make a good faith effort to check whether the person you want to help is a bona fide war orphan.  The governments' responsibility to taxpayers seems at least as strong.  Isn't it especially outrageous to misuse charitable funds if the donors cannot legally discontinue their support?

I grant that if there's a legal duty to support the deserving poor, it's forgivable for an occasional undeserving recipient to slip through the government's safeguards.  But that's no reason for David to enthusiastically support government programs that blatantly ignore desert.  If I were him, I'd be embarrassed by Medicaid and Obamacare's misuse of taxpayer funds.  In fact, I couldn't in conscience support them.  I'd keep thinking, "It's wrong to turn our backs on the deserving poor, but that's no excuse for forcing taxpayers to support the undeserving poor, too." 

My point: You don't have to be a libertarian to admit that government is treating taxpayers unjustly.  If taxpayers have a legally enforceable obligation to help the deserving poor, taxing them to discharge their obligation is only fair.  But if government taxes the public for the benefit of people they're not obligated to support, even social democrats should start to wonder whether taxation has become theft.

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COMMENTS (11 to date)
aez writes:

Occam's-razor elegant. Thank you.

Philo writes:

These arguments about what we owe each other almost always ignore epistemic considerations. Some moral/political theorist purports to prove that each member of Group W (the well off, or whatever) owes something to each member of Group B (the badly off, or whatever). Then, given that I am a W and you are a B, it follows that I owe you something. But what if I don't know that you are a B? I may even be unaware of your existence. It is somewhat implausible to hold that, nevertheless, I owe you something.

What if there is, from my point of view, a probability of P that you are a B? Does my actual duty to you kick in at some value of P

These topics deserve more attention than they get.

Of course, of Group B is the *deserving* poor, the government is (in practice) doing very little to investigate the desert aspect before handing out benefits. How much *ought it* to do? (Note that such efforts are themselves costly.) And does the government have the right force me, the member of W, to go along with its idea of desert, substituting its judgment for my own?

Les Cargill writes:

(I've been unable to refute the argument I am putting forward here, and would appreciate any help with refuting it).

But is there an argument based on rents that can work here? High-earning people aren't necessarily just of higher social utility. They may well be charging rents - for land, on skills, education, personal networks, the like. Doctors and lawyers can charge high rents because of barriers to entry; sports figures must perform, so they're less about charging rents ( although sports teams are rent-intensive, ironically, most aren't very profitable).

Also, as we approach Arnold Kling's Econ 2.0/"singularity" status - where production no longer depends much if at all on labor - then we will have a very real money-velocity problem. Indeed, it's possible we're seeing the leading edge of this.

mike shupp writes:

I'm not quite convinced that distinguishing the "worthy" recipients of government from the "unworthy" is uniformly easy or even desirable.

Let's suppose for example that in the 1940's an elaborate federal program involving the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard was deployed to protect us from the German armed forces. Most of us would now see this as generally a beneficial thing, for "all Americans." But perhaps in retrospect we should have discriminated between the "deserving" heirs of J.P.Morgan and the "underserving" convicts breaking rocks at Folsom and Sing Sing?

Or suppose on a hot summer day in 1935, both Al Capone and a tailor named Irving Caniff go to the sinks in their respective domiciles and fill a glass with water to cure their thirsts. Should the Chicago Water Board charge Mr Capone and Mr Caniff the same amount? Or should the Water Board impose a stiff surtax on Capone? Should it impose this extra charge once it becomes generally known that Capone is a mobster, or should it wait for Capone's conviction for income tax evasion?

Rememeber, we do so much want to punish the Unworthy! What else can we hope to accomplish with Political Economy?

Philo writes:

That was supposed to read: ". . . at some value of P

Crawdad writes:

I can't believe I was just thinking about this today.

It used to be called charity and it's proper setting was local communities. Some others here are pointing out the difficulties of carrying this out at any higher level of political organization. It's completely impossible at the federal level to possess that kind of knowledge (who's deserving and who's not) - it's a local thing.

In the community I grew up in everyone knew who the "undeserving" folks were - the drinkers, druggies, lay-abouts, etc. Any charitable act towards them was usually predicated on some change in behavior; getting a job or laying off the booze at least temporarily. The two or more parties in the exchange had a personal stake in the action and the ability to withdraw if the other party didn't keep up their end of the bargain. The voluntary nature of the exchange was what defined it. Also, there was no free rider problem, large scale fraud or wasted resources. Somehow, everyone seemed to get at least their basic needs met.

All of that goes out the window when "charity" or so-called welfare is controlled by the state. And I'm not so sure that cost effectiveness, or even the desire to serve the needy is at the heart of state run welfare, much less doing right by taxpayers.


I'm not sure that anyone ever has the moral right to force you to give to B no matter B's circumstances. I've always thought that, to use religious terms, each person is responsible for their own salvation. If I have to force you to help out B, I've yoked you to my will and you get nothing out of it. If I can talk you into it - that's different.

Troy Camplin writes:

If it helps, my wife, a former social worker (and now free market conservative, from that experience), thinks only 10% of the people she worked with could be classified as "the deserving poor." Her friend, also a former social worker (but still a welfare statist), thinks it's only 5%. If you are wondering how he could be more pessimistic and still be w welfare statist, the answer is that he's one of those people who thinks that if there is a single person anywhere who needs the help, the welfare state in all its glory must be put in place. He would socialize medicine for a single person. How do you argue with such a person?

Crawdad writes:


That's a good point. I remember how demonized conservatives were over the whole "welfare queens" issue a couple of decades ago. I didn't think it was fair then and it wouldn't be fair today, but I think it would be the exact same tactic progressives would take now. Never underestimate the desire of politicians and activists to signal their own compassion and moral superiority by forcing others to provide for the poor.

Sometimes I think I live in a different world than progressives on this issue. Maybe it's because of the area I live in, or the people I come into contact with, hell with members of my own family, but your wife's 10% also seems generous to me. My wife sees the undeserving poor everyday in her work as a pharmacist and even reports them to TennCare when there is blatant fraud involved but to no avail. The fact that no governmental social service program has ever included a real fraud enforcement arm or budget is very telling. And of course, there is really nothing to report in most cases but one does wonder why we're paying for the healthcare of "that guy" who seems always able to come up with the cash for cigarettes, beer, lottery tickets, cell phone, etc.

The frustrating part is that the progressive meme concerning "the poor," how to think about them and a citizen's duty toward them has so taken hold that we feel guilty for even allowing the flicker of resentment or anger that naturally arises when we see someone abusing our (state enforced) generosity.

It's funny that in the progressive model justice only seem to go one way. Justice towards the "forgotten man" and woman - the productive members in society - is completely absent.

Yancey Ward writes:

Seriously, how many "deserving" poor are even in the United States?

Troy Camplin writes:

I told my wife and her friend that they should write a book about their experiences. The stories are far worse than anyone realizes. I mean, it was one thing for me to understand theoretically what happens because of welfare, but it's another to hear that I was not just right, but downright generous. They would provide classes on how to interview and what to wear, and even provide money to go buy new interview clothes, and half of the women would show up to interview for a secretary job dressed like a hooker. Strangely, they wouldn't get the job. Of course, they did that to ensure they wouldn't get the job -- they had to put in a certain number of applications each week to continue getting money. You mean nobody is going to hire you at McDonalds if you can only work 2-4pm on weekdays? How strange. Most of the people my wife dealt with made taking advantage of the system their full time job. Imagine what would happen in the economy if that creativity and innovation were used for something other than avoiding work?

Seth C. writes:

Bryan Caplan says that we don’t distinguish between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor because we don’t have the political will to. This is spot on. It is politically unpopular to suggest that people take personal responsibility for their lives. It is politically unpopular to point out that some people live in poverty because of the poor choices they themselves make. It is logical to assume that a well-off society should offer assistance to those who have trouble making ends meet assuming it is through no fault of their own. Let’s take an example of two hypothetical characters:

Joe the trailer park dweller spends a hundred a month on his smokes, is a compulsive gambler, an alcoholic and is unemployed and not seeking a job and has fathered four children, each with a different woman. He’s in debt because of his gambling and missed child support payments, and spends most of his government welfare on cigarettes and booze.

Bob worked in construction management for twenty years, but injured his back in a work-related accident. He has a wife and three kids, and works when his back allows him too. His house was hit by a hurricane a few years back and severely damaged, so he’s had to take out loans to repair it. Bob spends his unemployment checks and government assistance on providing food for his family and trying to pay down his loan. Still, he’s in debt and has trouble making ends meet.

Financially, these two men are in the same boats. Their reasons for being in that boat, however, are drastically different. Joe is in the boat because of his own poor decisions, while Bob is there because he’s had bad luck.

Very few people would deny aid to Bob. The problem with some social welfare proponents in the government is that they take that idea one step too far and say that aid should not be denied to anyone, regardless of why they need it. The officials who blame big banks (and rightfully so) for their carelessness and risky investment decisions are the same officials who will turn around and reward financial stupidity on an individual level by giving taxpayer money to people who will squander it on vice.

Is it always such a clear cut distinction as to why people need financial assistance? No, certainly not; these examples are obviously stereotypical extremes. But to sit back and pretend there is never any difference is unfair to taxpayers who make fiscally responsible decisions, then have their hard earned money taken and given to people who do not even try to support themselves. The government owes it to the taxpayers to exercise at least some discretion when it comes to welfare programs.

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