Bryan Caplan  

Desert Defended

The KC Bloggers' Forum... Mercantilism Lives...
Matt Zwolinski responds at length to my two earlier posts on poverty and desert.  I'm going to limit myself to his most telling points.

1. Discerning desert is doubly difficult:
It's important to distinguish between two kinds of problem we might have in making it.  The first is a problem in specifying the criteria that are to serve as the basis of the distinction.  The second is a problem in determining when some particular individual meets those criteria.  Bryan's claim that it's relatively easy to make the distinction is based on his belief that the first of these problems isn't all that serious, but he doesn't address the second at all.  Even if we agree that someone is deserving if they had bad parents, and undeserving if they're lazy, it's not easy at all to tell which of these to is the dominant cause of a particular person's poverty.
It's true that I didn't specifically address this.  But several of my proposed criteria are even easier to concretely apply than to abstractly specify.  We can confidently identify hungry children, the severely handicapped, and victims of war and prohibition when we see them.  Figuring out why you're unemployed is moderately harder.  But a few phone calls to former employers and co-workers, with an assurance of anonymity, will normally suffice.

2. Matt isn't convinced that we should hold government to the same standard as individuals:
One reason we might not care much about false negatives as individuals is that we believe there is a safety net in place that will catch anybody we miss.  But if government is that safety net, then government needs to be much more cautious than we do. 
This sounds both plausible and humane.  But it doesn't hold up.  People who live in countries with blatantly missing safety nets still don't indiscriminately give to beggars.  Neither do tourists - even if they're wealthy social democrats.

3. Matt questions the strength of my presumption against tax-supported charity:
Finally, even if it's clearly true that there's a presumption against the use of force, it seems equally clear that the strength of this presumption depends on the severity and kind of force that's being used.  As much as libertarians like to say that "taxation is theft," most of us think (as Tyler Cowen has recently pointed out) that there is a difference between a burglar breaking into your house and taking your TV, and the government increasing the marginal tax rate by 1%.
Taxes are definitely designed to feel less psychologically invasive and unpredictable than random theft.  But shouldn't libertarians deconstruct this difference instead of buying into it?  Most conscripts don't consider themselves slaves.  But libertarians wisely insist otherwise.

Read Matt's whole response.  It's fair and thoughtful.  But it also exemplifies the most objectionable feature of "bleeding-heart libertarianism": Hasty rejection of libertarian premises that even non-libertarians seem to accept.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (6 to date)
Mo writes:

"But a few phone calls to former employers and co-workers, with an assurance of anonymity, will normally suffice."

If disentangling someone's character and work ethic was this easy then lazy workers would rarely get hired when HR does their due diligence. Problem is that even when HR does make calls, lazy people still get hired. maybe a lot of them.

Second, checking references is really time consuming when done right. Someone was checking my references a few months ago and probably spent 3 hours in total checking me out.

Charles R. Williams writes:

Effective charity requires the giver to know the receiver. Charity is most effective within the family where we make distinctions all the time about if we should help and what conditions we should attach.

Moving out from the family, there is the neighborhood and the parish church, local non-profits like the Salvation Army and finally local governments.

The federal and state governments are simply unable to make these distinctions, except maybe in response to catastrophes.

Richard writes:

Conscripts still get paid. Slaves don't. I think that inability to leave a paying job makes someone a serf, not a slave.

David R. Henderson writes:

That's not the key distinction. As Fogel and Engerman pointed out, some slaves were paid.

redbud writes:

Most past employers say ONLY "not eligible for rehire" to prevent liability issues, and isn't the premise behind taxing me to fund poverty programs that the government steals a little from everyone to give to the "desperate" to prevent otherwise-inevitable individual, sequential, and potentially deadly victimizations at the hands of those desperates? Kind of like the theory of insurance? We all pay a little "protection" money to escape worse individual alternatives?

Silas Barta writes:
that there is a difference between a burglar breaking into your house and taking your TV, and the government increasing the marginal tax rate by 1%.

Why, yes there is: the 1% marginal tax rate increase is worse. I would *much* rather my TV be stolen (and it's medium size, flat-screen, but a bit "old").

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top