Bryan Caplan  

Callous Reflections

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Like Jason Brennan, I think that truly "callous" libertarians are few and far between.  But I keep thinking about reasons for the misperception.  I already mentioned two.  Libertarians are relatively unafraid to...
1. Make a distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor.

2. Point out the powerful link between poverty and irresponsible behavior.
But wait, there's more.  Libertarians are also prone to:

3. Emphasize the distinction between relative and absolute poverty - and point out the fact that "the poor" in the First World are rich by world and historic standards.  Libertarians often chuckle about the obesity of the American "poor" - and the percentage with cable t.v.

4. Dwell on the trade-off between helping relatively poor Americans and absolutely poor foreigners.  Hyperactive sympathy for our unsuccessful countrymen is a powerful rationalization for indifference and malevolence toward people from other countries.  Some libertarians therefore take a standard against it.

5. Ask questions like, "If there shouldn't be a legal responsibility to support the parents who gave you life, why should there be a legal responsibility to support complete strangers?"

The reason why people call libertarians "callous," then, is that they're asking awkward questions instead of kowtowing to the people that mainstream intellectuals say they should feel sorry for.  What's the solution?  I don't know, but I'm pretty sure that we should keep asking our awkward questions until we get some decent answers.

P.S. I'm flying to Italy tonight.  You probably won't hear from me again until March 21.  Ciao.

P.P.S. In a reply to my earlier remarks on the deserving/undeserving poor distinction, Matt Zwolinski writes:
But the mere fact that there is a valid moral distinction to be made does not entail that we want our public policies to make it.  It is, after all, difficult to discern between the deserving and the undeserving - maybe especially for governments, but for private charities too.  And any measures we take to diminish the likelihood of false positives - people getting welfare who don't deserve it - will probably increase the likelihood of false negatives - people not getting welfare who should.  Most plausible systems of morality, I should think, will hold the latter consequence to be much more troubling than the former.
That sounds reasonable at first.  But when charity in involuntary, these "false positives" seem much more morally troubling.  As I once wrote in reply to David Balan:
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 (15 to date)
jh writes:
The reason why people call libertarians "callous," then, is that they're asking awkward questions instead of kowtowing to the people that mainstream intellectuals say they should feel sorry for. What's the solution?

One solution would be not care that others think you are callous. But, it's hard to gain political votes or convince others of your opinion if you are viewed as "callous". So, assuming not being called "callous" is a goal, how about...

Make better distinctions between what you think should be law/policy and what you think someone "should" do. Economics avoids "should" a lot. But, labeling someone as "callous" is about "should". It's a judgment based on an idea of how things "should" be.

Instead of going on and on about how citizens shouldn't legally be forced to support others, go on and on about how you do support others through your own private actions and funds. But, of course, do it in a way that you don't from being "callous" to being "look at me and how great I am".

Or, instead of telling "poor" Americans that they aren't really poor because Africans have it much worse, give to Africa - again, out of your own private funds. Or, go to Africa and help build a house for a family.

So much focus on what shouldn't be done comes off as "callous". Talk about what should be done by private individuals and then go do some of those things. Turn out a series of blog posts highlighting private groups who feed an Indian town or educate children in Honduras.

In conclusion, don't let your opinions on what should be legal and illegal spill over to your opinions of what private individuals should do or should not do. I'm against the government stealing my money and giving it to the poor. But, that doesn't mean I think I should keep all my money for myself. While speaking out against taking (taxes), speak out in favor of giving (by private individuals/organizations).

Old Whig writes:

The reason libertarians are viewed as callous are might to a large degree be due to bias amongst social scientist and social psychologists in general. In academia 80 % of social scientists are Liberal and among social psychologists the ratio is 266:1. See NYT article Social Scientist Sees Bias Within.

In the article professor Jonathan Haidt, self proclaimed Liberal, calls his fellow social psychologists out. He has done research on morality in general and his latest is on “Understanding Libertarian Morality: The psychological roots of an individualist morality ideology.

The research and all scales and measurements can be found through link from Reason article The Science of Libertarian Morality

Haidt and his colleagues eventually recognized that their Moral Foundations Questionnaire was blinkered by liberal academic bias by failing to include a sixth moral foundation, Liberty. They developed a liberty scale to probe this moral dimension.

When doing the research he found was that libertarians compared to other groups:

(1) stronger endorsement of individual liberty as their foremost guiding principle and correspondingly weaker endorsement of other moral principles, (2) a relatively cerebral as opposed to emotional intellectual style, and (3) lower interdependence and social relatedness. Most dishearteningly, liberals scored two full standard deviations below libertarians on economic liberty

The reason is as Bryan Caplan points out:


libertarians “score high individualism, low on collectivism, and low on all other traits that involved bonding with, loving, or feeling a sense of common identity with others.”

The bias among social scientists, 80 % of them Liberal, is that they cannot see any other moral value than income equality. They deny the existence of our most important value, Liberty.

Those that value Liberty more than equality will always be seen by Liberals as callous. Research on morality and psychology lacks this dimension. If it had included it both Liberals and libertarians would have been equally caring, but from a different moral perspective.

Old Whig writes:

The reason libertarians are viewed as callous are might to a large degree be due to bias amongst social scientist and social psychologists in general. In academia 80 % of social scientists are Liberal and among social psychologists the ratio is 266:1. See NYT article Social Scientist Sees Bias Within.

In the article professor Jonathan Haidt, self proclaimed Liberal, calls his fellow social psychologists out. He has done research on morality in general and his latest is on “Understanding Libertarian Morality: The psychological roots of an individualist morality ideology.

The research and all scales and measurements can be found through link from Reason article The Science of Libertarian Morality

Haidt and his colleagues eventually recognized that their Moral Foundations Questionnaire was blinkered by liberal academic bias by failing to include a sixth moral foundation, Liberty. They developed a liberty scale to probe this moral dimension.

When doing the research he found was that libertarians compared to liberals have:

(1) stronger endorsement of individual liberty as their foremost guiding principle and correspondingly weaker endorsement of other moral principles, (2) a relatively cerebral as opposed to emotional intellectual style, and (3) lower interdependence and social relatedness.

Most dishearteningly, liberals scored two full standard deviations below libertarians on economic liberty

The reason is as Bryan Caplan points out:


libertarians “score high individualism, low on collectivism, and low on all other traits that involved bonding with, loving, or feeling a sense of common identity with others.”

The bias among social scientists, 80 % of them Liberal, is that they cannot see any other moral value than income equality. They deny the existence of our most important value, Liberty. We are not callous we only have different views on morality.

Evan writes:
The reason why people call libertarians "callous," then, is that they're asking awkward questions instead of kowtowing to the people that mainstream intellectuals say they should feel sorry for. What's the solution? I don't know, but I'm pretty sure that we should keep asking our awkward questions until we get some decent answers.
I think your friend Robin Hanson has the solution to the problem of libertarians being perceived as "callous." Leftism is about "showing you care," not about helping people. Libertarians aren't interested in showing they care, they're interested in solving problems, so they seem callous.

Incidentally, this also explains why some conservatives think libertarians are godless and unpatriotic, conservatives have their own ways of "showing they care" and libertarians aren't much interested in those either.

Methinks writes:

Leftists are expert in redefining words.

For a leftist, the height of compassion is defined as robbing a third party to help those they define as "needy". It is never defined as reaching into their own pockets to effect their desired ends. In fact, when I have repeatedly suggested they reach into their own pockets to help people, they have called me insane.

so, libertarians are not compassionate because they refuse to coerce others and leftists are compassionate for their thuggery.

Brilliant.

Michael writes:

The difference between deserving and undeserving poor in you model is that the deserving poor have some disability that keeps them from creating economic value for others while the undeserving poor have the capability of providing economic value but decide not to exercise it. This assumes that deservedness is some aspect of reality. This is based on the old philosophical debate between free will and determinism. In a deterministic model of the world, deservedness has no place except as a tool that supports the social order. As a result, it is an important social construct without a basis in reality. In other words, for a society to function, people must believe in the notion of deservedness. However, for a scientist this notion is meaningless.

Lori writes:

Surely mixing morality with economics is the business of paleoconservatives, not libertarians. No wonder rightists all look the same to me. It seems the unifying principle behind all the minor variations on conservatism is the rejection of idealism, or the embrace of cynicism if you want to call it that.

What Michael said.

What about the undeserving rich? Or is that, like market failure, theoretically impossible?

Cahal writes:

The undeserving rich (read: finance) cost society far more than the undeserving poor. I find libertarians mostly oblivious to the idea that income can be unearned (e.g. rent seeking), and this is far more objectionable than the small proportion of state handouts that go to the undeserving poor.

Methinks writes:

I can't think of a time when libertarians didn't rail against rent seeking, Cahal. Nor is everyone in the enormous field of "Finance" a rent seeker - at least not in the sense you mean. Rent seeking by the rich and by the less rich is objectionable, full stop. When I say less rich, I have public unions in mind. Now, there's a hell of a rent seeking organization.

Whether someone is deserving or not is an individual judgment. As it's highly subjective, libertarians would like to leave it to the individual to decide to whom he will give his own money.

Surely, private charities also have a hard time differentiating the deserving from the undeserving, but charities do not collect money by force. The people who are giving them money of their own free will are accepting the errors in judgement sure to follow. That's a big difference.

fundamentalist writes:

Socialists think libertarians are callous because socialists believe libertarians stole poor people's money. Socialists are stuck in the medieval mentality that one man cannot get rich except at the expense of another, like a poker game.

But libertarians spend too much time on the defensive. We have every reason to go on the offensive on the issue of poverty. Free markets have lifted hundreds of millions of people from starvation to relative wealth in the past generation. At no time in history has charity done anything close to resembling what free markets have done for the poor. And forced redistribution was tried in the USSR and China and only made everyone poorer.

Socialists are the poster children for hypocrisy. The loudly and endlessly proclaim their feelings for the poor, while denying them the one tool that actually helps the poor.

Alekos writes:

@Cahal

I'd love to see your data on the proportion lost to rent-seeking by the rich vs by the "poor".

In any case, smaller government means fewer opportunities for rent seeking. If you find libertarians "mostly oblivious to the idea that income can be unearned", then you don't know many libertarians (or perhaps they are not libertarians). In fact, libertarians argue against rent seeking all the time: from propping up failing businesses, to occupational licensing, to (agricultural and other) subsidies, etc.

The important issue to recognize here is #2 on Cowen's "Common mistakes of left-wing economists":

2. Evaluating government spending on a program-by-program basis, rather than viewing the budget as a series of integrated accounts. Cross check with the phrase "Social Security," or for use to take many discretionary spending cuts off the table.

The issues of the undeserving rich and the undeserving poor stealing our money are not separable. They are simply two expressions of the underlying problem of large, over-reaching government. You cannot have one without the other.

Ike writes:

Why are libertarians seen as "callous?"

The question answers itself.

"Callous" is a judgement based on an emotional spectrum.

Libertarians make judgments based on the spectrum of reason.

The value judgment leveled against libertarians is based on a scale that we ought rightly ignore, because it cedes the argument that "caring" is more important that absolute results.

chuck martel writes:

Couldn't you consider those that occupy the administrative and policy positions in the government welfare machinery rent-seekers? As well as the recipients they represent? Government social service programs have existed long enough and attained enough size to have created constituencies that rely on them. That is rent-seeking.

Yancey Ward writes:
The undeserving rich (read: finance) cost society far more than the undeserving poor. I find libertarians mostly oblivious to the idea that income can be unearned (e.g. rent seeking), and this is far more objectionable than the small proportion of state handouts that go to the undeserving poor.

Liberatarians aren't oblivious to that idea. The problem I have with liberals and rent-seeking is that liberals always propose to use the rent-seeking power for their own goals. You can point to any real instance of rent-seeking, and when a libertarian proposes to remove that power to grant favor, a liberal comes along and counter-proposes to tax the the proceeds to use on some favored program. If a liberal doesn't like a rent-seeker, then support libertarians in their proposal to limit the power of government to grant that rent in the first place.

David J. Balan writes:

In my debate with Bryan last year, I acknowledged that a moral obligtion to provide health care to the deserving poor depends on it producing a sufficiently large benefit to the deserving poor at sufficiently low cost to everyone else. Bryan is right that the smaller the fraction of the poor that are truly deserving, the harder it will be to satisfy that standard. But this is no different from any other factor that might make the net benefit of providing care for the deserving poor smaller, such as higher cost of care or lower efficacy. The existence of non-deserving poor may or may not be an important issue quantitatively, but it is qualitatively no different from any other such consideration; the mere existence of the undeserving poor does not by itself invalidate my position.

My view is that enough of the poor are deserving enough ("desert" lies along a continuum, it's not a yes/no thing), and that the value of health care to the deserving poor is sufficiently large, that the standard described above is easily met. That doesn't mean that current policy is ideal. If there are good ways to reduce the number of undeserving people who claim benefits, that's great. If there aren't (and like Matt Zwolinski above, I have my doubts), then one has to decide whether the program is worth the candle given that it will involve a certain level of abuse.

I think the real difference between me and Bryan probably lies in how stringently we would define who is deserving. He and I probably differ a lot regarding what can be reasonably expected from people, particularly from people in very difficult circumstances.

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