Bryan Caplan  

The Brother's Keeper Bill

Is This the Cure or the Diseas... Bet on Euro...
Suppose someone proposed a "Brother's Keeper Bill."  According to this BKB, people earning at least double the poverty line would be financially obliged to give 20% of their income to any sibling earning less than the poverty line.

I doubt many people would support this bill.  If you asked them "Why not?," here are some of the reasons they'd be most likely to profess:

1. The atomistic individualist response: "It's not your problem if your sibling is poor."

2. The libertarian response: "Maybe you should help your sibling, but no one should force you."

3. The moral hazard response: "This would give poorer siblings incentives to fail."

4. The donor incentive response: "This would reduce richer siblings' incentives to work."

5. The work ethic response: "Money doesn't grow on trees.  The richer siblings usually earned their extra income with hard work and prudence, and the poorer siblings usually deserve their lower income because they're lazy and impulsive."

6. The meritocratic response: "Richer siblings deserve their higher income because they produced more than their poorer siblings."

7. The Puritanical response: "People shouldn't have to support people if they disapprove of their lifestyle and choices."

8. The evasive response: "Richer siblings should be able to refuse to help their poorer siblings without having to provide an explanation."

9. The debt response: "You don't owe your siblings anything."

You probably know where I'm going with this, but let me be blunt.  Question: If any of these are good arguments against being legally required to financially help your siblings, why aren't they equally good arguments against being legally required to financially help total strangers?

P.S. A Parent's Keeper Bill, requiring the well-off to financially support low-income parents, would probably be almost as unpopular than the Brother's Keeper Bill.  Question for PKB opponents: If you shouldn't be legally obligated to financially help the parents who gave you life, why on earth should you be legally obligated to financially help total strangers?!

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (32 to date)
Steve Cronk writes:

Unfortunately, I think this bill could pass.

Matt writes:

If your intuition that no one would support this bill is right, and if most people in fact more or less believe in progressive taxation and some form of welfare state, then your intuition that the two ideas are conceptually related is likely false.

Your first intuition is also weirdly ahistorical. Most societies pretty much had a brothers' and parents' keeper law in some fairly coercive form. Our modern welfare state expands the circle of mutual aid, and lowers its intensity - perhaps non-optimally - which is why the BKB seems weird: "wait, I'd pay 20% of my income? After tax?" If I lived in a society with *no* obligations to non-siblings I'd be much happier about having stronger obligations to siblings.

N. writes:

Agreed. Especially if ne'er do well siblings could vote for it.

JKB writes:

I see you've found the flaw in their thinking. Without the moral obligation from religious, especially Christianity, teaching, then there is no obligation to your brother, parents and, especially, strangers. But those pushing to use force to impose this obligation are the same who seek to undermine religion, especially Christianity. In the end, they will only have force as their long tradition of religion imposing upon men's hearts will have been purged from society

Christianity, as a late writer has pointed out in words well chosen,* is the only system of socialism which commends it self as having a rational basis, and its founder the most practical teacher of it that the world has ever seen. " The aim of all socialism is the securing of equality in the social condition of mankind, and if equality is to be secured at all it will be secured only by changing the hearts of men, and never by setting to work, in the first instance, upon the conditions." But the present impulse of socialism is not Christian, but rather one willing to put an end to Christianity. And it is a system of machinery, like the kingdom of a tyrant, not of souls, like that of Christ. Now the Christian system did not rest on force at all. It was communistic, but not socialistic, as the word is properly used; for its very essence was the freedom of the individual will. The Ethics of Democracy by F.J. Stimson. Scribner's Magazine (1887)
norm writes:


I doubt many people would support this bill.


Andreas Moser writes:

Your ability to work, to be smart or to earn a lot is not as much something that you have achieved, as it is merely luck. Just as somebody else's inability to do so is bad luck. It's nobody's fault for being born with a disease, or crippled or dumb or in a poor country during a famine.
This is the cruel lottery of life: - If you think that your wealth, your health, your education and your prospects in life are something that you have earned yourself, think again.

Rick Hull writes:

I agree with the other commenters that the proposed bill wouldn't necessarily be doomed. It's an insightful way to frame the problem of poverty, regardless. I really like "The Stranger", linked. Commonsense explanations are quite powerful.

Seth writes:


Because they know who their brother is. They don't know those deserving strangers.

Nathan Smith writes:

Because the total strangers have votes to tell men with guns what to do. It's not about morality, it's about power.

Phil writes:

Madonna. This is really just about punishing Madonna, isn't it?

Eelco Hoogendoorn writes:

Im not quite sure that this bill would be wildly unpopular, but there is no shortage of common sense incentive based reasoning to see why it should be less popular than the typical welfare state arrangement.

To put it in the most general terms; 'poor people' are a much bigger voting block than 'poor people with wealthy siblings'.

If you put the question to the benefactors in question, I suppose the response would be much more sympathetic. Despite the fact that admitting as much would be quite radically politically incorrect; i.e, you'll have a hard time getting anyone to do so in front of a camera, or even in front of themselves, but there would at least be a strain of sympathy there.

RobF writes:

If my brother robs a bank, should I be required to pay for his arrest, trial, and incarceration? It's not my problem. He didn't steal from me. So why should I be compelled to pay for the arrest and incarceration of total strangers who also have not stolen from me?

Even if one asserts that the proper amount of collective welfare activity in a society is zero, there is a pragmatic argument that a brother can externalize the consequences of his brother's failures and misfortunes in a way that an entire society cannot.

David writes:

There are definitely reasons why the arguments that may apply to sibling-to-sibling transfers wouldn't apply to societal transfers. As a means of promoting welfare, intrafamilial transfers simply wouldn't be anywhere near as effective as society wide transfers. The differences in income and consumption between two siblings will on average be drastically smaller than between high- and low-income individuals society wide. It just doesn't make sense as a program, whereas society-wide transfers do. Your parents' keeper idea demonstrates this perfectly. The average person will be nowhere near as able to support their parents as Social Security and Medicare are.

I recognize though that this is a practical argument, whereas your question and its framing had a much more moral flavor to it. In that respect, I'd argue that it's actually more fair to be forced to finance strangers than it is a sibling. After all, the brother's keeper bill is somewhat arbitrary. From a moral and philosophical standpoint, I don't see a difference between a sibling and a total stranger. They're both someone who's not me. Being forced to finance strangers is far more uniform, and as I see it, more fair.

Pandaemoni writes:

I do think people would oppose the Brother's Keeper Bill, as presented, because they would want to avoid the loss of the money. The brother, in that scenario, might favor it, but loss aversion is generally stronger than the affinity for gains.

In general, though, I think social welfare programs differ in a way that suggests a framing problem. When one typically thinks of social welfare, one tends to imagine the likelihood of oneself needing to rely on the social safety net more than one does the paying the taxes needed to sustain it. It also helps that the money, from the standpoint of a recipient comes from a faceless mass of strangers, rather than a known individual.

The question this doesn't answer is whether the social safety net is good or bad. If I oppose the Brother's Keeper Bill, but support social safety nets, that is inconsistent, but perhaps the correction needed is for me to support both. Loss aversion often causes us to make errors. Perhaps one's dislike of the Brother's Keeper Bill is another example of loss aversion skewing one's preferences in an irrational way.

siredge writes:

Talk about disincentive for big families. If someone has 5 lazy brothers (siblings), he loses his entire income.

M. Flood writes:

We pay for social services and welfare for distant strangers so that the poor do not cause trouble. Money sufficient to keep them in television and alcohol keeps them inside and away from the property of the productive. It is by no means a perfect cure (see the work of British physician/essayist Theodore Dalrymple on the rampant low-level criminality of the British underclass) but it maintains a certain level of stability.

People angry about entitlements and what they feel is "owed" to them are far preferable to the same people feeling they have nothing left to lose and being prepared to rob and murder to get the means of survival. The cost of the welfare state may ultimately prove just as ruinous to society as desperate brigands and vagabonds, but it is a slower, more gradual kind of ruin.

Of course, a lack of social services might be just the thing to convince many of the shiftless to work. Unfortunately, once the system is in place it is nearly impossible to remove, especially once we convince ourselves as a society that "benevolence" is a virtue (for why it is not see David Stove's "What's Wrong With Benevolence").

As for the elderly, they vote more than any other age group, so what they want becomes law. The aging baby boomers will only exacerbate the problem.

Arthur_500 writes:

Your arguments and summary question are all logical responses to such a bill. However, humanity is not logical.

This argument is currently being discussed with a Balanced Budget Ammendment. We write a rule that states that the budget must be balanced. However, then there are no limits to government expenses because we simply invoke the rule and raise revenues (taxes) to pay for it. No one is looking at that side of the logic.

I think a great number, if not a large majority, of voters would walk blindly towards the light and vote for your hypothetical bill. After all, taking care of my brother feels good.

there is no logic involved in voter decisions.

N. writes:

> there is no logic involved in voter decisions.

Yes, I think I once read a book where that was the thesis...

Alex Godofsky writes:

This is a strawman in its purest form. By restricting the admissible arguments for one side to those that an average person might make, Bryan is deliberately excluding the ones that would actually refute this thesis.

Eric Falkenstein writes:

Forget about the righteousness of giving, think about taking instead. We feel less guilt about taking from wealthier strangers than taking from wealthier relatives. As income is lognormally distributed, in a democracy redistribution is politically popular.

Pandaemoni writes:

@Eric Falkenstein

I think that is fact I think we prefer to take from strangers than anyone we know personally.

Again, the proper correction may be that we should feel the guilt just as acutely even when taking from strangers or it could be that we shouldn't feel as guilty when taking from family.

It is possible that the "guilt" we feel is really a dread of the social consequence that people we know and are borrowing from impose on us when we live off of others (or that we fear will be imposed at some stage). The loss of social standing and the risk of such social opprobrium is a significant motivator, and is attenuated when living off the public generally (though not completely eliminated).

Diana Weatherby writes:

You are greatly limiting the argument to conservative/libertarians types. The progressives on the other hand would probably not be for this bill either because many believe in "fairness". They would probably argue that the siblings all had similar advantages and or disadvantages. They don't want to help their brother, they want the "wealthy" to help them.

Evan writes:

The leftist argument against such a bill would go something like:

"Class and external circumstances cause poverty. Siblings are usually members of the same social class and have similar circumstances for 18+ years of their lives. This means their incomes would be similar, making this bill useless except to a few outliers."

Don't necessarily agree with it, but that's what they'd say.

I do have to say this bill might be more effective at reducing poverty, because having people you know suffer if you don't work would give them a huge incentive to put pressure on you to work.

David Barry writes:

I agree with the first paragraph of David's comment above (specifically, the BKB would not transfer much wealth). Furthermore, I think that if society decides that it should transfer wealth to people living in poverty, then it would be morally wrong to force only sufficiently well-off siblings to make those transfers. So with that in mind, to answer your question directly...

"If any of these are good arguments against being legally required to financially help your siblings, why aren't they equally good arguments against being legally required to financially help total strangers?"

...I would say that the arguments you list are equally as good, but the arguments in favour of a society-wide tax-transfer system are much stronger than the arguments in favour of the BKB.

Lori writes:

Oh, let the leftists speak for themselves. Your caricature wouldn't pass a turing test.

Anyhoo, Kurt Vonnegut invented a twist on that idea that makes more sense to me, even if it doesn't rise to the level of being a good idea. His idea (in a work of fiction, but I forgot which one) was making sure everyone has relatives, by declaring randomly selected people related, by fiat if necessary. No specific instructions on how people are supposed to treat their relatives...just a guarantee/requirement (depending on how you want to look at it) that everyone will have relatives.

Pierre writes:

British Columbia, Canada, has a Parents Keeper bill. The currently famous case making it's way through the courts is showing that specifics matter. That is, it's easy to agree to a bill like this in the abstract, but when reality intrudes, things get more complicated:

A woman is suing her children for support. She's, of course, using the Parents Keeper law as her basis. The details of the case, however, reveal her to be extremely unsympathetic. She abandoned her children when they were very young, and provided them no support as they grew up. She and her children had been estranged for decades. Their defense is that, due to their circumstances, they owe her nothing.

We'll see now this turns out, but public sympathies are not for the mother.


Brandon Berg writes:

Leftists want to punish people who are more successful than they themselves are, not people who are more successful than their siblings.

Tracy W writes:

I think you miss an important argument - spreading of risk.
All else being equal, would you prefer to buy insurance (eg home, life, etc) from an insurance company that only sold policies to you and your siblings, versus one that sold policies to several million people?
Personally I'd go with the broader-based insurance company for the better risk-spreading, even though all of us siblings live in different countries. The risk of series of unrelated events wiping out our wealth individually is far higher than the risk of a series of unrelated events wiping out a million people.
Obviously, not all else is equal, and in a society where contracts are poorly enforced then relying on your siblings for insurance might be better than buying it from a party without a genetic or emotional interest in your well-being. But I live in a world where I'm reasonably confident in buying insurance from a big company with millions of other policy holders. And to shift back to the question proper - governments have historically often kept their promises of transfer payments.

Andreas Moser: My *ability* to earn an income, and to work, and to learn, is indeed a matter of luck. My wealth and my education are however things that I have earned, unless you redefine the word "earned" as to make it indistinguishable from "luck". And yes, I have thought about this.

Bridget Carnahan writes:

The analogy is flawed in the sense that with siblings you can assume they had equal access to to education, formative experience, and family based networks. Because they started on a level playing field their success or lack of it has to do more with personality and individual choices. In society, the fortunate of birth have a responsibility to assist those who were not so lucky. If that does not happen the incidence of destitution and instability of society increases.

Stefano writes:

I second Bridget's analysis above: to a first approximations, sibling have had a very similar sets of opportunities, so being unsuccessful in life can be with more confidence attributed to laziness. Poor strangers who had less opportunities in life could be more "deserving" than poor siblings.

As for Parent Keeping, I think most people would agree to mandate that by law.

Jon writes:


One counter-argument I think your proposal would face is based on fairness. Not fairness within a group of siblings, but across families.

"It isn't fair that one person with a high income and a poor sibling would have to pay the tax, while another person with similar income but no such sibling would not."

From this point of view, the only way to make the system "fair" would be to tax everyone with a high income and redistribute to everyone with a low income. That sounds a lot like the current system...

RPLong writes:

Prof. Caplan, perhaps the issue would be clearer if the BKB stated that if your sibling is below the poverty line, someone else's sibling would be required to pay your sibling 20% of their income (the "My Brother's Keeper Bill", MBKB).

Everyone has a vested interest in helping his brother at the expense of anyone else's brother.

It's not that redistributionist policies aren't ethical, it's just that they are less ethical than the non-redistributionist option.

That is, of course, assuming that we subscribe to the fundamental tenet that all human beings are to be treated equally under the law. It's also clear that redistributionists reject that tenet.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top