Bryan Caplan  

Moral Risk-Aversion and the Deserving Poor

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Another passage by Matt Zwolinski on poverty and desert that keeps coming back to me:
[A]ny 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.
This sounds really good.  But no one lives up to this standard unless they're spending someone else's money.  Every time you fail to help a beggar on the grounds that "He'll probably just spend it on alcohol," you're risking a false negative.  And did you take a minute to talk to the beggar to improve the accuracy of your judgment?  <sarcasm>Yea, right.</sarcasm>

You could respond, of course, that we'll all a bunch of sinners, willfully shirking our duties to the overlooked deserving poor.  You might insist that we should worry a lot more about false negatives - and try a lot harder to avoid them - than we do.  But when you really picture what's involved - chatting with every hard-luck case you pass, and giving unless you've got solid evidence that they're not deserving - you need no libertarian sympathies to see the absurdity.

An alternate response is that governments should be morally risk-averse even though individuals aren't.  But it's hard to see why.  If you wouldn't condemn an individual donor for accidentally failing to help the deserving poor, why would you condemn his government for a comparable error rate?

Last point: Suppose you think I'm underrating the moral evil of false negatives.  As I argued earlier, forcing people like me to pay extra taxes to address this evil is still hard to defend:
[I]f you think reasonable people could disagree here, it's an argument against forced charity.  There's always a presumption against initiating the use of force against a peaceful person.  "Any morally reasonable person would agree that I'm forcing you to help the deserving poor" at least arguably overcomes this presumption.  "Who knows whether the people I'm forcing you to help are deserving?" does not.

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
Brian Puj writes:

Do you think that the individual duty changes because we live in a society that has at least some sort of social safety net? I would feel much different about passing someone on the street if we didn't have any sort of welfare system than I do in the current situation.

This makes extrapolation difficult.

Granite26 writes:

Isn't there a net good in there? If I were to spend the required time to determine their deservedness, it would be a net loss because the time I take is not worth the change I would give. Big goverment otoh, aggregates lots of change, so it's more worth the time to be accurate enough.

Reasonable people should agree that there exists a level of confidence that justifies theft. They may disagree about what that level is, or whether the government is reaching it. Does that still fall under your presupposition of inaction?

Giuseppe writes:

I feel you are missing one counter argument that I find more persuasive then any that you put forward. When the government under takes a program it makes a commitment to its citizens that is greater then any analogous commitment a private organization or individual would have who under takes a similar task. For example in the government undertakes to supply healthcare services those services in some sense become a 'right'. By that I mean that individuals will, reasonably, expect the healthcare services to be supplied. The individual should expect it because their government is being paid to supply it through taxes, they should expect it because our system of equal rights, and they also expect it because, in practice, the government supplying the service eliminates the alternatives.

One final reason is that in our legal system has a bias that adds to the moral imperative to over supply services. It is much easier to sue a private company for breach of contract then to sue the government for failing to supply the equivalent service. Similarly where as the individual can't sue the government for services not supplied the government can prosecute individuals for fraud if they 'steal' services.

Given this I am both sympathetic to the argument that the government should over supply the services it offers and generally very opposed to the government offering the services at all.

Evan writes:
[A]ny 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.
Suppose you think I'm underrating the moral evil of false negatives. As I argued earlier, forcing people like me to pay extra taxes to address this evil is still hard to defend:
I think a big reason that the left supports the welfare state more than the right is that right-wing people intuitively think false positives are a far greater moral evil than left-wing people do. That is, leftists tend to think "welfare queens" are merely an annoying and regrettable side-effect of a generally good system, while rightists tend to regard them as an intolerable moral evil whose existence discredits the welfare state. I think even if both sides believed the same facts about how many "welfare queens" there are they would still give the facts extremely different moral weights.

Of course, leftists have since appropriated right-wing anti-"welfare queen" rhetoric to attack fat people and smokers by claiming they place excessive burden on healthcare. But this is obviously a thin excuse for paternalism, rather than their true moral feelings.

frankcross writes:

I think this misses the aggregation point. Having the government do it obviously has much lower transaction costs than having every individual do it, and should be more effective. I could decline to give $5 on the grounds that the marginal effect on life improvement would be minimal but accept paying $5 if others also did so, because the life improvement effect would be significant.

David R. Henderson writes:

@frankcross,
So if we examine your tax return, we should observe 0 for charitable contributions, right?

James Vonder Haar writes:

It's not at all obvious that determining what an indigent person would do with a handout is determining whether he's a member of the deserving poor or undeserving poor. In fact, your example above has nothing to do with whether he's deserving or undeserving. No one even considers interrogating the possible recipient of one's charity by asking whether he had the opportunities to find a good job, whether he has disabilities that prevent it, and so on. What seems to motivate people is whether the individual will use it for alcohol and other drugs, and that's only tangentially related to whether the recipient is deserving. It's tangentially related in the sense that it might be circumstantial evidence in favor of substance abuse being contributing to their poverty, but it is in no way proof of it (particularly since it's pretty obvious that once you find yourself in that situation you've got a much higher incentive to turn to the bottle for comfort).

In fact, what non-misers are attempting to determine when they're trying to figure out if an indigent person will use their contribution for drugs or booze is not trying to figure out whether they deserve their charity. It's whether their charity is likely to do any good or to exacerbate the problem. I submit that this is both a morally superior and descriptively more accurate than a deserving/undeserving test that is bereft of all humanity.

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